‘The Haweaters’ brings 19th century Tehkummah murder to historical fiction

Author Vanessa Farnsworth is a descendant of the Bryan family that saw great tragedy in Tehkummah.

TEHKUMMAH – The historical novel ‘The Haweaters,’ that hit bookstores last week, brings to life a real-life double murder that rocked the burgeoning community of Tehkummah in the summer of 1877.

Hot on the heels of the re-release of ‘Murders and Mysteries of Manitoulin Island’ this summer, a chapter of which features the tragic tale of a deadly dispute between neighbours the Bryans and the Amers, comes ‘The Haweaters’ by Vanessa Farnsworth, a BC-based journalist. Ms. Farnsworth is also a direct descendent of William Bryan, one of two members of the Bryan family who were murdered almost a century and a half ago. 

“I don’t know what I was expecting to find when I started researching this story,” Ms. Farnsworth says. “I knew my ancestors had been murdered on Manitoulin Island and I had a general idea of the circumstances surrounding those murders. I guess I was surprised to discover that my family weren’t innocent victims of what happened to them. They played a large role in bringing about their own fate.”

The inspiration for the novel came from the 112th edition of the ‘Through the Years’ series published by Jack McQuarrie’s Manitoulin Printing in February of 1993 in which the murder was featured. That edition was given to Ms. Farnsworth by her grandmother who had been asked to review an early draft of the story by the story’s author, the late George Skippen of Sheguiandah, to ensure that nothing in it caused any offence. It didn’t.

“My grandmother was a very pragmatic person,” the author continues. “She wouldn’t have seen her great-grandfather’s murder as something that should be hidden in the shadows. Of course, it probably helped that the version of the story that appeared in ‘Through the Years’ left out many of the more salacious details.”

Mr. Skippen, as it happens, was Ms. Farnsworth’s grandmother’s cousin and it wasn’t until that edition of ‘Through the Years’ was given to the family that the author learned of the untimely death of her ancestors.

About five years ago Ms. Farnsworth’s work began in earnest. As the murder occurred two years before The Manitoulin Expositor was first published in 1879, historical data was harder to come by. With the help of a grant, Ms. Farnsworth tracked down trial records and the subsequent appeals, poured through the Michael’s Bay Historical Society, Little Schoolhouse and Museum archives and books by Tehkummah author Derek Russell and eventually was able to imagine a picture of these families in that time on Manitoulin Island.

She also saw the survey maps of that era and located the Bryan and Amer properties.

“It was an eerie, strange experience to stand at the place your family was murdered,” she admits.

As there were a number of “blank spots” in the historical data, Ms. Farnsworth said she decided to make the work a piece of historical fiction and give life to the personalities. 

The trial records paint a particularly interesting picture of the people involved. “It’s fairly clear that everyone was lying to some degree,” Ms. Farnsworth notes. And while there were definite pro and anti-George Amer camps, who with his son Laban was tried for the murder of William and Charles Bryan. There was nobody there to say one thing—good, bad or otherwise—to the character of Ms. Farnsworth’s ancestor William Bryan.

“There were a lot of scores to settle during this trial,” she adds.

Each of the 10 chapters is told from a different side of the story spanning the course of roughly 24 hours, Ms. Farnsworth explains.

‘The Haweaters’ is published by Winnipeg’s Signature Editions and is available at The Expositor’s bookstore, Print Shop Books.