Sometimes, as a way to re-envision the lived reality of the people we write about, I play a little game. I imagine who I would cast as certain historical characters if parts of my research were being made into a film (or, knowing Canadian history, a Heritage Minute). I often do this at a much faster pace with any novels I’m reading, particularly with what I term the ‘brainless fluff,’ which is always necessary for a decent vacation.
I have very distinct memories while writing my PhD of mentally “casting” a certain Northern Irish actor* as a soldier from the 10th (Irish) Division at Gallipoli, writing in his journal about watching nearly naked ANZACs** swimming in the Aegean Sea. Another well-known Belfast-born actor-director became the face of Fred Crawford as my thesis came together. A few years ago, I was having a really rough time trying to imagine the scope of Peter Aylen’s violent operations with the Shiners along the Ottawa River in the 1830s until my brain rewired itself to make him an Irish-Canadian Littlefinger. Frances Anne Turner, the wife of Ogle Gowan, one of Canada’s most notorious Orangemen, and the lover*** of James Gowan, future knight, judge, law-code author, and her own husband’s first cousin, was already extremely interesting to me given the letters between herself and James that are at the Archives of Ontario. But, I could hear her even more clearly in my mind once I had matched up her voice with that of Polly Walker in her Enchanted April role.
My current casting conundrum is with the pair I am increasingly referring to as The Brothers Douglas: James, one of the founders of the Beauport Asylum outside of Québec, and his younger brother, George, who was the medical superintendent of the quarantine hospital on Grosse Île. Both men oversaw their respective institutions at the time of Black ’47.
James seems to have had a life straight out of a Hollywood screenplay. Born in Scotland, he trained as a physician in Edinburgh before heading to India in the early 1820s. On the way, he sailed past St. Helena where an exiled Napoleon was imprisoned and was later presented with a lock of Bonaparte’s hair from the former emperor’s postmortem. Returning from India soon after, he set up a medical practice on the Mosquito Coast, promptly contracted yellow fever, recovered in Massachusetts, and then settled in New York State. His time in the USA was also fairly brief, as James had to flee across the border to Canada by sleigh in the dead of a winter’s night to avoid arrest for performing medical dissections on corpses. These illegal autopsies allegedly included the body of a recently-deceased town elder from Utica, NY, that was recognized by a passer-by looking in Douglas’ front window.
Despite that slightly unexpected arrival in Canada, James swiftly became one of the leading surgeons in Québec, was named head of the city’s Marine and Emigrant Hospital in 1837, and co-founded the Asile Beauport in 1845 with Drs. Joseph Morrin and Charles-Jacques Frémont. Praised as a ground-breaking surgeon, but also castigated as a tyrannical authoritarian, James Douglas faced an official government investigation in the early 1850s regarding the appalling state of the Marine and Emigrant Hospital. This resulted in him dedicating the majority of his professional time to his Beauport patients, although he also spent many months abroad every year in the Mediterranean. During one trip along the Nile, he was offered the gift of a hippopotamus by a grateful patient whose life he had saved. He turned down the Nilpferd, but he did abscond with many Egyptian mummies as “souvenirs.” Some of these were later kept on display at the front of his property to deter would-be robbers. There is even a rumour that one of them was, in fact, the mummified remains of Rameses I.
James Douglas was, with no hyperbole, a bit of a legend in the Canadas. His desire for better treatment for the mentally ill led to the creation of the first official asylum in Lower Canada, one that practiced occupational and ‘moral’ therapy. That said, he was also something of a scoundrel. The photographs of him near the end of his life make him look like Walt Whitman or Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan – and so I have some thinking to do in order to “cast” my own avatar for a younger, more energized version of the famous physician.
As for George Douglas, he was what we might now call a “front-line worker” during the cholera epidemics of the 1830s and also the typhus fevers ravaging refugees from the Great Irish Famine in the 1840s and early 1850s. As the medical superintendent at Grosse Île, he bore witness to unbelievable suffering, and had to distill those horrors into page after page of official government reports, tracking how the tiny quarantine island managed hundreds of thousands of suffering arrivals from Ireland. George had arrived in Canada from New York State just a few days after his elder brother had fled because of those pesky grave-robbing accusations, and received his medical licence in Québec in 1827, practicing alongside James for several years. He became superintendent of the Gaspé quarantine station in 1832, at the height of that year’s staggering cholera epidemic, and then became the head of the hospital on Grosse Île four years later in 1836. To say that this facility was overwhelmed in 1847 is a gross understatement: the hospital originally had only 50 beds, which George had increased to 200 in the spring of 1847, but over 100,000 Irish refugees arrived that summer.
George Douglas did not have the same brushes with celebrity or notoriety that his brother enjoyed/endured. The 1850s were a fraught decade, culminating in rocky relations with his assistant superintendent, Dr. Anthony von Iffland. Sick and depressed after the death of his second wife, George learned in the spring of 1864 that he would soon be replaced at Grosse Île by von Iffland. Rather than have that happen, he committed suicide at his house on the Île aux Ruaux, downriver from Grosse Île. He was highly respected, both during his lifetime and in the histories that have been written of Grosse Île, particularly those dealing with the Famine era and his efforts to fight cholera, but his life ended on a very tragic note.
These two Scotsmen – the Brothers Douglas – are integral to the stories and lived experiences that make up a great deal of our research. The dream, of course, would be to find a stash of letters from George to James (or vice versa) discussing their Irish patients during the Famine years, perhaps including some stories of people sent straight to Beauport from Grosse Île. Because they loom so large over our Lower Canadian case-study institutions, I want to have a vibrant sense of each man that belies the sepia qualities of official photographs from the 1860s and 1870s. So, I’m playing my “casting game” with them. Please understand, this is not to trivialize them in any way – just the opposite, in fact. I want to make them feel more real to me because they are so important to the project.
But I’m finding it very difficult to settle on any definitive choice.
* No, not Jamie Dornan – I am more old school than that.
** I leave it to you to guess who I cast there.
*** It is unclear from their letters if their romantic relationship was ever consummated sexually. Gowan’s entry in the DCB is fairly emphatic that it was, though I’m not sure what evidence Desmond Brown used to feel so confident about that. Personally, I think that Frances triple-underlining her demand that James to write to her every day in one of their many correspondences should carry a lot of weight in a certain direction. He also never married until after her death in 1852. On the other hand, desires are not the same as realistic opportunities and the physical distance between Brockville and Toronto in the 1840s was immense. Sadly, this relationship’s final status falls into the realm of the ultimately unknowable.