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Blog: The Writers' Study

© Richard Calver

We’re Jeanette Taylor and Annette Yourk of The Scribes, writers, instructors, mentors and editors. We’ll share our weekly thoughts, dialogues, favourite books and films, and quandaries about writing nonfiction. We’ll walk each other through our own writing challenges, and post insights our students share in our classes. Jeanette will also post BC coast history tales, tantalizing bits she discovered post-publication. Read more…

The Mysterious Deaths of Harpur and Margaret Nixon of Twin Islands, BC

Reverend Harpur Colville Nixon, a well-to-do Anglo-Irish gentleman, bought Twin Islands, BC in 1912 or 1913. He and his wife had a farm on Denman Island so this new place was purchased as a haven for himself and his second eldest son James–who was just 23 when he married a 48-year-old widow named Margaret (Street) Butler in Vancouver in 1912. The newlyweds were a sociable couple who made friends with the Mansons of nearby Cortes Island, who preserved most of what’s known about these intriguing people.

Reverend Harpur Nixon, left, with Nicol Manson. His son James, butchering a cod, is watched on his right by his wife Margaret, Anna Manson and John Manson (seated). Photo courtesy Museum at Campbell River 19,267.

Margaret was an Englishwoman who had trained as a nurse as a young woman, before going to India as a medical missionary. She married in Bombay in 1896 and may have had two children, but both her children and husband died of “a fever”, as she told the Mansons. In 1910 she immigrated to Vancouver, BC, where she met James, perhaps while he was studying for his Master Mariner’s ticket, following his father’s passion for sailing. Margaret was a grieving widow, with the scars of a failed surgery on her left cheek, where doctors had attempted to remove a burrowing parasite from her nasal passage.

Margaret Nixon gazes up at her husband James as they pose in this Manson family photograph. Photo courtesy Museum at Campbell River 5917.

Harpur Nixon was a witness at James’ and Margaret’s wedding and thereafter the couple settled into the one room cabin of a former settler on Twin Islands, while they awaited completion of a five-room bungalow. Both houses were on a sloping meadow with a brook that flows into the narrow channel that joins the Twins at low tide. James was a keen photographer and his pictures capture their delight in each other and their enthusiasm for homesteading. They hunted, fished, raised chickens and pigs and made their own sausages. But their stay was cut short in 1915, when Margaret’s health began to fail, and they returned to James’ family’s farm on Denman Island.

Sometimes the Results of Deeper Research Just Raises More Questions

Harpur continued to stay on Twin Islands after James and Margaret left, living aboard his yacht—which is where he was one evening in July 1915 when a blast exploded in his face, severing part of his lower jaw. He swaddled his jaw in a towel and motored across to John and Margaret Manson’s farm on south Cortes Island, where he climbed the steep bank to their home. John had already gone to bed for the night when Margaret answered the door to find Harpur, with a blood-stained towel pressed against his jaw. John Manson took him to a hospital in Powell River, careful not to over rev the boat’s engine, as Harpur required. From there he was transferred to Vancouver.

Close up of Harpur Nixon, with Nicol Manson, from Museum at Campbell River photo 19,267.

At first, Harpur told doctors he thought he must have inadvertently put a blasting cap in his pipe. When he lit it, the pipe had exploded. But shortly before his death–about a month later–he  changed his statement to say perhaps a hunter was pit lamping and confused the light in the portal of his boat for the eyes of a deer. Whatever the case, Harpur was adamant that no investigation should ensue and the cause of his death remains a mystery.

Shortly after Harpur Nixon’s death it was revealed that his father, also an Anglican minister, had been injured in a similar way in Ireland. His father was leaving church on his Donegal estate in 1858, when a masked man stopped his carriage and shot Nixon senior in the jaw. At first it was rumoured that one of his sons was guilty, but later it was said to be the work of Irish rebels. “It is gratifying to announce that the Rev. Mr. Nixon is going on favourably, notwithstanding the dangerous nature of the wound inflicted upon him by his cowardly assailants,” announced The Times of Dublin.

One of many pictures James took of Margaret during their honeymoon on Twin Islands. Museum at Campbell River photo 5442.

Two years later Margaret Nixon was hospitalized in Vancouver. The Mansons understood she died while doctors attempted to remove the parasite from her nasal passage, as it approached her brain. But her death certificate tells a different story. Margaret died of syphilis. Perhaps this is what took the lives of her first husband and the children she was thought to have had too? The symptoms she suffered, including the degradation of her face, and the impact on her brain, are typical of syphilis.

James is said to have enlisted in the navy for war service overseas at some point during these years, though he was at Margaret’s side when she died in 1917. He married for a second time, in the Bahamas, and by 1921, he and his second wife Gracie were living in South Vancouver, where he worked as a mechanic. Both lived into their senior years, neither of them suffering the disease that took Margaret’s life.