Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Dynamite Fiend

The Chilling Story of Alexander Keith Jr., Nova Scotian Spy, Con-Artist and International Terrorist

Alexander Keith is an icon in Nova Scotia, his name celebrated whenever someone knocks back a beer with the picture of a red stag on it. The brewery he founded in 1820 is still standing, and Haligonians celebrate his birthdate by leaving empties at his grave.

There is, however, another Alexander Keith, a nephew nicknamed Sandy who took a different route to wealth and influence. He began as a clerk in his uncle's brewery and used the position to launch an extravagant lifestyle financed by forgery and embezzlement.

When the American Civil War brought to Halifax "a literal mountain of gold," Sandy set himself up as a broker for Southern blockade-runners, but was not satisfied with simple war-profiteering. The turbulent times made it possible to engage in swindles with few consequences, and allowed him to pocket money for shipments that he never honoured, the goods as diverse as pork, cotton, and a pair of locomotives.

His corrupt dealings brought him into contact with others as unsavoury as himself, including Confederate agents plotting to spread yellow fever in the Northern states. One of his business partners was conspiring with John Wilkes Boothe.

As the war wound down, Sandy fled Halifax with a small fortune and went to ground in Germany. When his money finally ran out, he concocted a desperate plan -- to blow up a passenger liner crossing the Atlantic and collect on a bogus insurance claim -- but what actually happened was a bizarre tragedy of errors. The time-bomb he constructed blew up prematurely on the docks at Bremerhaven, killing 81 people and injuring many more.

His head, which was preserved in a jar, vanished during an Allied bombing raid during WWII.

Author's Approach

The Dynamite Fiend is a work of "narrative nonfiction" fueled by much original research, the key document being a Pinkerton report discovered by the author in the Bremen State Archives. It unravelled the web of aliases and cover stories that Sandy had woven around him.

The author states that one of her goals is to "offset blindly romantic portraits of the past." She certainly does this in her unflattering portrayal of Halifax as "a town almost Southern in its hatred and ill will toward the Union."

But she is wrong, I think, when she describes Nova Scotia as a "hostile colony." Although its people fought on both sides of the Civil War, they had close ties with New England and predominantly sided with the North. Thomas Raddall in his history of Halifax says that "not less than ten thousand Nova Scotians had fought in the blue ranks of the North."

Overall, a gripping and wide-ranging but also unsettling read.