Edith Nicholson (1884-1977), my husband’s Great Aunt Dede, never married. She told her nieces and nephews and great nieces and great nephews that she lost her Great Love in a hotel fire. The couple wasn’t ‘officially engaged’ but there was ‘an understanding’.
Some believed DeDe, some didn’t.
In 2004, I found 300 Nicholson family letters from the 1908-1913 period in an old trunk – and in a letter dated May 3, 1910, Edith writes of this loss to her mother, Margaret:
Your letter received this am. It was so good to hear your voice over the phone. It was quite natural. Oh, how I wish I could talk over everything with you. It seems terribly hard to think it all for the best, when there are so many that are of no use living on and others that are held in esteem cut off in a moment. One thing, I am very thankful for that he wrote me. No doubt one of the last things that he did. I can’t express my feelings. I never felt so badly in my life. But I suppose there are few who have had so pleasant a one as I have, and trouble comes to all.
So the story was true, after all!
Edith mentions many young men in her letters sent from Montreal where she was working as a teacher back to Richmond where her Mom lived. Edith often uses only initials when talking of her romantic life. Apparently, back then, courting was something to be coy about.
It took me long while to figure out but her Great Love was one Charlie Gagne, bank clerk, from Levis, Quebec. A French Canadian man, most likely. Now, that was a surprise.
It seems Edith and this Charlie had an on-again off-again relationship through 1908-1909.
Gagne is a French Canadian name but from the letters it is clear Charlie spent time around Edith’s group of Richmond Protestants. Perhaps he was a convert from Catholicism. In Montreal, Edith worked as a teacher at French Methodist Institute in Westmount, a school where Catholics, mostly French Canadians, were converted to “the Way.”
The Nicholson’s also left behind a photo album from the 1910 era. I have photographs of Edith on a country outing with a handsome young man. If this is Charlie of the May 3, 1910 letter, he is a slim, with a charming smile and a cocky attitude and he is a great dresser. Edith Nicholson would have accepted no less.
There are a few other mysterious mentions of Charlie, or Charlie G or CG in the 1909-10 letters.
In August 1909, Edith writes her Mom saying she managed to ‘show’ Charlie to her father at a train station, (it sounds like a set up) but her father was cool to her young man.
In September 1909, Edith’s mother Margaret writes her father Norman and says “Charlie has gone to Mexico. So that flirtation is over.”
In October 1909, Edith writes her Mom saying she hasn’t heard from Charlie G and that she has no intention of trying to contact him. “He could still be in Mexico, for all I know.”
In February, 1910, Edith writes that she is taking medicine, for ‘her heart has had a jolt’.
Then there’s NOTHING but that May 3 letter about Charlie’s death. Edith writes that she is looking at his picture in the Montreal Star and that “it does not do him justice.”
So I had bits and pieces of a sad love story, but I had to fill in the blanks. I couldn’t even be sure it was Charlie G. who died in the hotel fire.
One sentence in the May 3 missive was especially enigmatic. “It seems if it had only been an accident, it would be easier to understand.”
So, about 5 years ago, I tripped over to the McGill Library to check out the May 1910 Star.
Amidst the pages and pages of stories of Edward VII’s death, I found a story about a Cornwall fire, the Rossmore House Fire, where a Charlie Gagne, bank clerk from Levis, perished. Proof at last.
Charlie had recently been transferred to the Cornwall branch from the Danville, Quebec branch, which is near Richmond, Edith’s home-base. (The February jolt!)
Only half of Charlie’s body was found at the scene and that was burned beyond recognition. There was only a tie pin to identify him.
The fire had started in a stairwell and, as a boarder who knew the hotel well, Charlie tried to use the stairway to escape the fire, as did a few other boarders, including an entire family.
Most hotel clients had been rescued by fireman at their hotel window, or had frantically jumped to safety.
There was no photograph with this Montreal Gazette newspaper article, though – so I was confused.
Then Google News archives came online and I saw that the Rossmore Fire happened on April 29!
I headed down to Concordia’s Webster Library to check out the January-April reel of the 1910 Montreal Star.
Sure enough, the Cornwall fire was front page news on April 29 as the Star was an afternoon paper.
The next day’s issue had a back of the newspaper follow up article on the fire with a photograph of Charlie Gagne, Levis-born bank teller at the Bank of Montreal.
The photo was of a sober-faced Charlie, but it was without a doubt the man of the family album.
At long last, mystery over.
Then, much later, on Ancestry.ca, I found Charlie’s name on the 1901 Census and his 1910 death certificate that claims he died accidentally in a fire. Charlie, the snappy dresser, was the son of a modiste, a widow, and he had a younger sister. And he was buried as a Roman Catholic!