DRAMA AT ABELLS CAPE


by Adele Townshend

This story is reproduced here with the permission of Adele Townshend,
who is contactable through her son Peter Townshend

The original can be found in 'The Island Magazine' Number Six, Spring-Summer 1979
ISSN 0384-8175 published by Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation.


This old fellow was in Fortune Church and he went to sleep and the minister was preaching about Cain killing Abel. He woke up. "You're wrong, sir," he said. "It was Pat Pearce. I can show you the exact spot." - Lloyd Davidson (age 82)

Abells Cape, situated on the south side of the Fortune River, has seen more than its share of adventure, and tragedy. Captain Kidd is said to have buried his treasure in its high sandstone cliff, a wounded man made his death-bed will there, ghosts haunt its dark woods, and famous actors claimed it as their summer haven long ago. The appearance of the Cape has changed little over the centuries. Dense spruce forest still crowds to the edge of the cliff, spreads around an old sundial erected to American actor Charles P. Flockton, and down over the whole Cape, screening the cottages of the present owners.

Tragedy: Pearce and Abell

Today, the Cape and the name Abell stand as grim reminders of a dark period in our Island history when the early settlers were held in the grip of a feudal-like land system. Abell, an agent for an English landlord, was the principal character in a drama enacted in the fall of 1819. But the seeds of the tragedy had been planted half a century earlier.

For twenty years after 1745, possession of the Island had alternated between the English and the French, but it was finally ceded to Great Britain in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris. Now the first undertaking was to find British settlers.

The problem was referred to the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations, who had the Island surveyed by Captain Holland. He divided it into sixty-seven lots of 20,000 acres each. Sixty-four of these lots were then drawn for by ballot in July, 1767, by persons who claimed remuneration from the Crown for military or other service. In return for their grants, the new landowners (or proprietors, as they were called), agreed, among other things, to settle their lots within ten years in the proportion of one person for every two hundred acres and to pay quit rents to the Crown to be used to provide the settlers with courts, roads, schools, and government administration. The agreement also stipulated that, if one-third of the lot was not settled within four years, the whole would be forfeited.

Most of the proprietors failed to grasp the purpose behind the agreement or, if they did, were indifferent to it. In any case, few of them sent out settlers. The voice of those who governed on the Island proved helpless against the powerful, influential lobby of the proprietors in England, who managed to thwart every effort at land reform. And not four years, but one hundred passed before the proprietors were forced to give up possession of the lots.

One of the original proprietors in 1767 was Viscount George Townshend, a British army officer who had assumed command and negotiated the French capitulation after General Wolfe was wounded at the fall of Quebec in 1759. He drew Lot 56, an area bounded by Little Pond and Grand River on the south, Lot 55 on the west, Lot 42 on the north, and Lot 43 to the east. Viscount Townshend made little, if any, attempt to send out settlers to his property. After his death, the lot passed to his son, James.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the agent for the Townshend Lot 56 was Edward Abell. He lived in a cottage on the Cape, which was in Lot 43, and also built Red House as a sort of country residence on a tract of 500 acres in Lot 56. Abell was well-to-do by the standards of his day, being a farmer and shipping merchant as well as land agent.

Abell was not a popular man among the people of Lot 56. Captain Frederick Marryat, an English sailor and novelist who met Abell on the Island in 1811, wrote in his book, Frank Mildmay, or the Naval Officer: "This fellow called himself the steward, and from all I could see of him during our three week's stay, he appeared to be rascal enough for the stewardship of any nobleman's estate in England." This opinion is echoed by the late Harry Burke of Fortune, in a taped conversation recorded several years ago: 'I guess he was a good enough man for the people he was working for, but he was a cruel son-of-a-gun." Documents among the Island Supreme Court records substantiate the opinions of these men. Abell applied for so many summonses and foreclosures against the tenants in distress that he sometimes found it difficult to get a Justice of the Peace to act for him. Both Nicholas Falla and John McKie, whose names appear in early Bay Fortune Church records, refused to act for Abell, Falla saying on one occasion, "It is unpleasant business."

Mrs. Abell, apparently, was a mate for her husband. Indeed, Fortune historian J.C. Underhay, called her "a veritable virago." She was, he said, "a selfish and unscrupulous woman who goaded him [Abell] on to acts of harshness and injustice." The Supreme Court records tell of one trial (Mary Blake versus Susannah Abell) during the course of which she was forced to deny that she had "scratched Mary's face or neck or used any violence."

These, then, were the overseers of Lot 56 in the year 1811 when Patrick Pearce first viewed the Cape from the deck of the British man-of-war, Aeolus, as it sailed into Fortune River. Captain Marryat's book, previously referred to, states that seventeen Irish families on their way to new homes in America became stranded when their ship was disabled off Halifax. Lord James Townshend, Captain of the Aeolus, who was in Halifax at the time, obtained permission from the authorities to use his ship to transport these immigrants to his estate on Prince Edward Island, where land would be provided at one shilling rent per acre. The bewildered Irishmen, including Patrick Pearce, a young man of twenty-two, readily agreed to this solution to their problem, little knowing that the "one shilling per acre" would be the cause of much misery and tragedy. Any tenant on the Island at the time could have told them!

The Captain and crew of the ship made their headquarters on the Cape for three weeks. The immigrants chose their land, signed the leases, and, assisted by the ship's crew, cut trees and constructed crude cabins from the round logs.

Patrick Pearce chose one hundred acres in the Red House area, the land now owned by Mrs. Marjorie Stead. Like other tenants on Lot 56, his lease would have contained a clause stipulating that the annual rents be paid in pounds sterling. Moreover,

if it shall happen that the said Yearly Rents or any part thereof shall be in arrear or unpaid for the space of Two Months next after the same should be paid as aforesaid, that then and from thenceforth it shall and may be lawful to and for the said Right Honorable Lord James Townshend, his Heirs, Executors, Administrators or Assigns, either to sue or distrain for the same or into and upon the said demised Premises or any part thereof in the name of the whole, to re-enter and the same to have again, retain, re-possess and enjoy as in his or their first and former Estate.... *

*Lease in the name of Archibald Steel for his son Angus Steel, Lot 56, signed 13 September 1825

Although the rent charged does not seem high, the contract was severe in that it required the tenant to pay in sterling, a currency in short supply on the Island at the time. It also demanded that the tenant pay the quit rent which was, in fact, a form of land tax, the responsibility of the proprietor, not the tenant. No doubt Patrick Pearce, like the other tenants, complained about his predicament, but there is nothing to show he was ever involved with the law. He apparently farmed reasonably well and was able to pay his yearly rents, for he escaped eviction.

There was no redress for the tenants of Lot 56 from the oppression of Edward Abell. They were obliged to submit to his harsh injustice in silence. However, in August of 1819, one man was goaded beyond endurance.

There are several versions of the story. In an article about Bay Fortune published in Past and Present of Prince Edward Island (c. 1906), J.C. Underhay put much of the blame on Mrs. Abell. She coveted, he said, a beautiful black carriage horse owned by Pat Pearce. Upon failing to induce Pearce to sell the animal, she prevailed upon her husband to demand immediate payment of the rent. Some of the money offered by Pearce was in local currency, and this was refused by Abell. The events which followed are vividly recorded in the Prince Edward Island Register of September 8,1819:

Pearce immediately went among his neighbours and changed the money into Spanish coin, except some small change amounting to about two shillings and six pence. When this second tender was made it appears Abell had proceeded with his bailiff to Pearce's house, distrained and taken possession of a horse which was tethered in the field. After the exchange of the small sum had been adjusted, Abell exacted six shillings more from Pearce for quit rent. Pearce again went to one of his neighbours and obtained two three shillings and four penny pieces, which were tendered but refused, and the horse retained. Abell then seated himself on some timber close to Pearce's house and sent his bailiff to some person living in the settlement to witness his proceedings; and the bailiff, upon his return, heard a loud altercation between Abell and Pearce, and saw the latter enter his house and take down a musket and fixed bayonet which he placed upon the floor, and then taking off his jacket, took up his gun and proceeded to the spot where Abell was seated and made a lunge which pierced Abell's arm, and immediately making a second charge the bayonet passed through the back part of the thigh into the intestines. He was then seized by the bailiff, who wrested the gun from him and held him fast, while Abell crawled to the house. The bailiff (who is also a servant to Abell) was sent for to attend his master and Pearce absconded.

Abell made his will on August 26, 1819, two days after he was stabbed. He left to his "dear beloved wife" all "houses, land, stock in trade, stocks, livestock, farming utensils, books, bonds, vessel, household goods, ready money, debts, jewellery, plate, and wearing apparel...." He died two days later. On September 7, 1819, a reward of £ 20 sterling was offered for the capture of Patrick Pearce. A notice in the Prince Edward Island Gazette of February 2, 1820, stated that the money would be given

for the apprehension of the said PATRICK PIERCE [sic], and lodging him in the Goal of Charlottetown-Town, the said Reward to [be] paid on conviction of the Offender. And all His Majesty's Justices of the Peace, Constables, and other Persons are enjoined to use their utmost vigilance in apprehending the said PATRICK PIERCE. And all Masters of Vessels and other Persons leaving this Island are warned to be particularly careful to keep a watchful eye that the said PIERCE is not suffered to make his escape on board of any Boat or Vessel....

Pearce was described as about 30 years old, five feet six inches tall, with fair complexion and dark eyes and hair.

Pearce was never captured. The £20 sterling reward was a large amount of money in the Island colony in 1819. It would have paid a tenant's rent for four years, but to betray one of their own and side with the landlord and his oppressive agent would have branded a man a traitor. It was one thing, however, for Pearce's neighbours to forego the £20; there are stories told that show many were also ready to walk the second mile with him, at great risk to themselves.

The late George Leard, Souris historian, was told in 1956 by George E. Saville, one-time Member of the Legislature for Fifth Kings, that Pearce hid in the woods all winter. Part of the time he was supported by Joseph Brown of Cape Spry, with whom he had served as a soldier. He escaped in the spring on a vessel from the nearby port of Annandale.

Harry Burke, in the taped conversation referred to earlier, had another version of Pearce's escape:

He was hid by the people around here. There was a search, but the sheriff was lenient. My great grandparents hid him in the basement for the winter. In the spring, American vessels used to come in here. That old Nicholas Falla, he was a sea captain. He decided to take Pat They put him on board one night.

According to William (Tommy) Banks of Annandale, Pearce hid first on the Burke farm and then at John Black's at Cape Spry. In the spring, he swam across Blackett's Creek and stayed the night in the attic of George Banks' home at Annandale. Early next morning, the two young Banks girls, Mary and Elizabeth, dressed him in their mother's clothes and rowed him out to a vessel anchored in Grand River.

After that, Pearce simply disappeared. As Harry Burke said, "No one ever heard of him after."

Tragicomedy: Coghlan and Flockton

For a time, the Cape was abandoned. The cottage was haunted, so they said. Only the bold and tempted walked the cliffs in search of Captain Kidd's buried gold. It was nearly a century later that an English actor and playwright, Charles Coghlan, and his wife and daughter came from the States seeking, not treasure, but the "peace and beauty" advertised in a railway pamphlet of 1886. C.H. Dingwell of Fortune, in his reminiscences written for the Guardian (February 13, 1924), tells of meeting the actor in Souris and taking him to Fortune River to fish trout. Coghlan fell in love with the countryside and, after hearing the stories about the Abell murder, rented the old farmhouse on the Cape. It was the golden age of North American theatre, and many of Coghlan's friends - including Charles Kent, Charles Stevenson, and Glendinning - came to spend their summers at Fortune. With their arrival, the curtain opened again - this time on tragicomedy.

The late Harry Burke, once a coachman for Coghlan, remembered the actor well:

The Cape changed hands many times. Finally, an actor by the name of Charles Coghlan come here. He wrote a play in that old house, "The Lion and the Mouse." It was a good play. I seen it in Boston. His daughter, Gertrude, played in it.

But anyway, he got into trouble and lost his money. He was married already, but he was over in Paris and got drunk and married another woman. They had him up for bigamy. The story was his first wife went into court and testified she was never married to him. He got clear but he lost his money.

A story which appeared in an Island newspaper in 1894 gives further details of the romantic confusion surrounding the unfortunate actor: "Charles Coghlan... has defaulted in putting in no answer to the complaint in the divorce proceedings brought against him by Kuehue Beveridge, the sculptress, otherwise known as Mrs. Coghlan Number 2.... It will not be a year until October since the two were married." If the newspaper seems a bit bewildered by the goings-on, one can only guess at the comments of the Fortune residents of the time.

But Coghlan, the irrepressible, the flamboyant, the friend of the Prince of Wales, was only one of many colourful figures who crossed the stage. In 1894, Charles P. Flockton, an American actor, purchased the Cape from William Conohan and brought his C.P. Flockton Comedy Company to the Island. Included in this group were the Reginald Carringtons and the Harry Warwicks who later made their permanent homes at Fortune. (In her youth, Elsa Warwick was a model for Charles Dana Gibson's famous Gibson girl pictures.)

Since 1917 the Cape has been owned by the Harry Duchemin family. The old house once inhabited by Coghlan and Flockton still stands as the centre core of one of the cottages there. A kitchen, porch, sunporch, and veranda have been added, but the front door overlooking the Fortune River is the original.

Two memorials mark the era of the actors' colony at Fortune. One is a stone in Bay Fortune United Church Cemetery, with the terse wording: "Cuthbert Cooper/actor/Flockton's friend/died /Nov. 17, 1905." "Coopie," as Reginald Carrington called him in his unpublished autobiography, "Thespians in Arcady," was a retired actor, too fond of drink, who was found frozen in the snow after a storm.

The other is a sundial. C.P. Flockton owned the Cape until his death while acting in a play in San Francisco. His desire was to be buried in Fortune. His ashes were brought to the Island and placed, with appropriate ceremony, at the Point of the Cape, where they rest under a monument erected by David Belasco, Mrs. Leslie Carter, and other friends.

The wording on the sundial, "The passing hand marks another hour of absence," is fitting tribute to the actors.

The Cape itself, with its red sandstone cliff and cover of tough spruce forest, is an enduring monument to the early settlers who suffered under an unjust land system.

Sources

Most of the material for the Pearce-Abell story was given to me by the late George Leard in 1962 when I was working on a one-act play based on the murder. He was a very generous and helpful historian. I also made use of a taped conversation Harry Baglole had with the late Harry Burke some years ago. Lloyd Davidson and Floyd MacKenzie, both of Fortune, were very helpful, as was William (Tommy) Banks of Annandale. Lloyd was born in the old cottage on the Cape in 1897. His father was skipper of Flockton's schooner, the Stroller. Floyd is a descendant of the Nicholas Falla mentioned in Pearce's escape. Mrs. Lucy Davidson kindly loaned the old picture of the Cape cottage for use in The Island Magazine. Other sources are Past and Present of Prince Edward Island (D.A. MacKinnon and A.B. Warburton, c. 1906); Captain Marryat's novel, Frank Mildmay, or the Naval Officer; and various Island newspapers. The Prince Edward Island Register (September 3, 1819) account of the Abell murder was taken from A.B. Warburton's A History of Prince Edward Island (1923).

I found several interesting articles on the Fortune actors' colony in the Leard Files at the Prince Edward Island Archives, including Chapter III of Reginald Carrington's (stage name) unpublished autobiography, "Thespians in Arcady." Unfortunately, Chapter III is all that remains. Floyd MacKenzie tells me that Mrs. (Short) Carrington burned the rest because, as she said, it recorded all his earlier romances.

I was a child, the actor Harry Warwick and his wife frequently had dinner at our house when they came to Souris to shop. Mr. Warwick was a fine gentleman and much respected by my parents. His wife was a prima donna type constantly demanding attention, preferably male, much to my mother's annoyance.(Adele Townshend)