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Unlocking the Dark Secrets of Victoria

With just one week to go before Victoria celebrates its sesquicentennial birthday, we unwrap some of the city’s lesser-known dark secrets. - Design: Grant McKenzie / Photos: Danielle Pope & Thinkstock
With just one week to go before Victoria celebrates its sesquicentennial birthday, we unwrap some of the city’s lesser-known dark secrets.
— image credit: Design: Grant McKenzie / Photos: Danielle Pope & Thinkstock

With one week to go before Victoria celebrates its sesquicentennial birthday, we thought it the perfect time to unwrap some of the city’s lesser-known secrets.

Schoolyard racism
The Chinese Imperial School on Fisgard Street was opened more than 100 years ago, in part because of the racism children were facing while attending Victoria public schools. Under the New Immigration Act of 1900, Chinese children were forced to pay a $100 head tax unless they could prove they had attended public school in B.C. for at least one year. Parents of white children were unhappy with this, however, and “lodged a petition to the school board, requesting that the Chinese children be put in a separate school because they were unclean, untidy, depraved and ill-mannered, and had a demoralizing influence on the white children,” according to sources of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. Soon after, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association raised money from Chinese communities across Canada to create the new school in August of 1909.

Banish the lepers
When city officials were on a mission to root out small pox in 1891, they discovered five Chinese men living with leprosy in Victoria. Instead of treating them, however, the city banished them to D’Arcy Island, across from Island View Beach. According to Ross Crockford’s book Victoria: the Unknown City, over the next 35 years dozens of people were sent to the island, almost all of them Chinese. No visitors were allowed and supplies were shipped over every three months, including food, tools, opium and coffins. In 1924, survivors were moved to a proper medical facility on Bentinck Island. Still, more than a dozen graves remain on D’Arcy today, which is now a marine park.

Escorted through time
Plenty of dark secrets lurk behind the bricks of Bastion Square, according to research done by the Maritime Museum of B.C. Revenue-poor hotels like the Burnes House, owned by businessman Tommy Burnes, allowed women and their clients to rent rooms by the hour, which became especially popular with local politicians and legal dignitaries. Elite brothels were rampant in Victoria at the time, including one rumoured to be accessed through the Union Club, a gentlemen-only establishment, then located at Courtney and Douglas. A special underground tunnel ran beneath Douglas, secretly connecting the club to a bawdy house, likely so men could go unnoticed. Meanwhile, less inconspicuous, elegant houses offered entertainment to some of Victoria’s wealthiest upper class. Clients could make an appointment at one such house, then be boated up the Gorge Waterway to a mansion referred to as “Carroll’s Castle.” Guests enjoyed plush parlors, ladies, piano music and samples of opium until the house burned to the ground in 1923. Learn more about Bastion Square here.

Jailhouse haunts
Bastion Square housed Victoria’s first jail in Helmcken Alley in the early 1800s. Back then, Victoria’s law enforcement worked hard policing gambling, womanizing and fighting — sometimes even drunk driving, where a person’s horse could be confiscated for the night, according to research done by the Maritime Museum. More serious criminals would serve time in the Bastion Square Jail. While the building is gone, the memory of its 11 hangings lives on. Bodies left uncollected were buried beneath the ground, but when the prison was demolished in 1885, the ground was excavated to make way for a court house. Some bodies were not found during this excavation and are still beneath the foundation of the courthouse, leaving many to claim they still hear the rattling of chains.

Death in city council
City alderman Henry Forman may have worked hard for Victoria City Hall, but he’s better known for his unfortunate murder in 1874 when his drunken son-in-law shot the James Bay politician in the chest. Thomas Schooley invested his riches in a mine venture in Hope and, assumed rich, married Forman’s daughter, tells Victoria ghost historian John Adams. Yet, when the venture turned out to be worthless, Schooley became a drunk. One evening, when the family was in the living room, Schooley burst in drunk and shot his father-in-law. Schooley was tried and hung as one of the 11 executions held in the Bastion Square jail yard.

Secrets of the church
While it’s no secret that churches are full of mystery, how many know that the bottom of Christ Church Cathedral on Burdett Avenue houses cubbyholes filled with dead people? A columbarium, named after St. Columba, fills the basement of the cathedral where people can pay to store their ashes (or those of a loved one), provided they meet the Anglican requirement. A statue of St. Michael watches over the 1,800 “niches,” and seating for about 50 mourners offers a silent retreat, along with spots to leave flowers or potted plants. Don’t think that’s the only spot you can check out for your post-life real-estate, however — the Church of St. John the Divine offers a smaller, but cozy Anglican columbarium. And, if you’re on the Catholic side, or lucky enough to be a bishop aiming for the hereafter, you might find yourself in one of three burial tombs in St. Andrew’s Cathedral, safely tucked away in a basement level with no pesky public access.

A grave situation
Pioneer Square offers a quiet spot for downtown lunch-goers, but this historic graveyard-turned-city-park has long stirred controversy. While the City of Victoria is still evaluating its new maintenance project, the square has a sordid history for upkeep. The graveyard was deactivated as a burial site in 1873 and turned into a city park around 1908. Yet, in 1909, when Victoria undertook its first attempt at “maintaining” the park — which involved removing dozens of stone markers and installing new structures — the parks manager at the time resigned after an onslaught of community (and perhaps ghostly) anger. More than 1,300 bodies are actually buried in the square, including an unaccounted number of illegal burials from when immigrants could not be buried alongside the white community. Over 50 haunting grave markers remain in a little shed behind the parks office.

That’s no rock
Beacon Hill is the site of an ancient aboriginal cemetery, but Victoria city workers made an embarrassing mistake in August of 1986, when parks department staff mistook Songhees First Nations cairns for rock piles and cleared them off the south slope to make way for mowing. According to Grant Keddie, curator of archaeology at the Royal B. C. Museum and author of Songhees Pictorial: A History of the Songhees People as Seen by Outsiders, Coast Salish ancestors constructed the cairns entirely by hand, with boulders weighing up to one tonne each — completed cairns measured from one to 10 metres across, and up to two metres high. At least twenty-three burial cairns would have been standing on the hill when James Douglas arrived in 1843 to establish Fort Victoria. While many original cairns remain, most are not visible due to bush or shrub growth. Keddie directed the replacement of each stone after the city’s disastrous mistake.

Songhees massacre
Over 4,000 spectators watched a massacre take place in Rock Bay over an entire day in May of 1859, when half a dozen First Nations bands battled out a dispute. Seven people were killed and countless people were wounded when members of Songhees, Haida, Bella Bella, Cowichan and other nations fought in a day-long shoot out that was later deemed the Battle of Rock Bay, according to Keddie’s book.

An explosive grudge
When Hudson’s Bay Company officer Roderick Finlayson discovered a group of aboriginals had stolen minor items from Fort Victoria in the 1840s, he ordered the items returned or he would blow up the house of the Songhees Nations chief. The items did not return, so Finlayson sent word that a cannon would be discharged and advised the chief to vacate his house, according to historian Adams, who reveals more historical tales at DiscoverThePast.com. Sure enough, the cannon bastion located near what is now Nautical Nellies was set off, and the chief’s house along Westsong Way was demolished.

Highway of opportunity
That important highway out to Swartz Bay wasn’t created until 1960 when the ferry terminal opened. The highway was rammed through the Tsawout reserve without any compensation to the First Nations that occupied the land. So in 1975, they started to allow billboards on their land to generate advertising dollars. Rates tick in at $1,050 per month for a south-facing sign, and $1,250 for a north-facing sign.

Short cut to death
It was raining hard the night of Sept. 22, 1899, when 44-year-old Agnes Bing missed her bus home. Bing decided to walk the distance from her job at Pilgrim Bakery in Market Square to her house on Russell Street in Vic West. But, perhaps because of the rain or because the store had stayed open late, she decided to take a shortcut across the railway tracks where the Johnson Street Bridge now exists. As Adams tells, she would never arrive home. Her husband called police, who found her the next morning near the tracks of the rail yard. She was naked, and had been completely disemboweled, with her stomach split open and her innards pulled out. No one was ever caught for Bing’s murder, but because of its similarity to the Jack-the-Ripper-style killings in London 10 years earlier, many wondered if the murderer had made a tour through Victoria. This likely remains Victoria’s most upsetting unsolved murder, though the city now accounts for even more devastating killings, like that of 24-year-old realtor Lindsay Buziak who was stabbed to death while showing a Saanich home, or 14-year-old Reena Virk who was murdered under Craigflower Bridge by a gang of her female classmates, or that of 18-year-old Kimberly Proctor who was raped and killed on the Galloping Goose by two male classmates.

Another kind of monster
Victorians are used to stories of Cadborosaurus, the monster of Cadboro Bay, and some have even heard of Sis-i-utl, a huge double-headed snake that Cowichan Nations believes lives in Shawnigan Lake. So that could be why Island residents bought into the rumour that “Gill man” was living in Thetis Lake when, in 1972, two boys claimed to have been chased from the lake by a beast that sounded as though it came straight out of Creature from the Black Lagoon. The claims prompted news articles, subsequent sightings, even an investigation by the RCMP, but the mysterious lizard-man could never be confirmed, nor fully denied.

Bank heists and poetry
Writing can make you crazy, but author Stephen Reid upped the ante on June 9, 1999, when a two-week binge on booze and heroin saw him walk into the Royal Bank in Cook Street, brandishing a shotgun, and walk out with $92,924. He jumped into a car and raced away, and even had a shoot-out with police as they chased him through Beacon Hill Park, according to Crockford’s book. He was arrested hours later, passed out in a James Bay apartment. Reid had been a former gang member, but many thought he’d reformed when he met Victoria poet Susan Musgrave and settled down to raise a family. He’s serving an 18-year jail term.

Drug-friendly city
Marijuana may be the city’s drug of choice now, but up until 1865, opium was largely unregulated on Vancouver Island — and Victoria was considered to be the largest opium-refining centre outside Asia. Then in 1865, Dr. John S. Helmcken, a member of the Vancouver Island Legislature, introduced a motion to set a license fee of $100 on opium sellers. According to Dr. David Lai’s book, Chinatowns: Towns Within Cities in Canada, there were six opium factories operating in Victoria in 1884. By 1887, however, there were 13 opium factories in Chinatown. Thanks to one “heavily sedated” caucasian woman who had enjoyed her opium and was noticed by W. L. Mackenzie King, deputy minister of labor at the time, his report “The Need for the Suppression of the Opium traffic in Canada” eventually led to Canada’s ban on opium in 1908. M

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