Imagine a place in the wilderness, close to the Arctic Circle, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, at the end of the 19th century. A place of no roads, no cars, no trains, no telephone, no telegraph. Accessible only by water, for just a few months a year, or by paths over mountains so steep that horses couldn’t make it. And then imagine tens of thousands of people arriving in this place within a matter of months.
This is the setting for the Klondike Gold Rush series, published by Dundurn Press, as well as my story, Sore Feet and Gold Dust, in Thirteen.
Given that background, you would think I would have a plethora of scenes of historical murder and mayhem to write about in the books.
You would be wrong.
Because what all those miners and dance hall owners, prostitutes and pimps, bartenders and adventurers, and businessmen (respectable and shady) found when they at long last arrived in the promised land, was the long arm of the law waiting for them, in the form of the North West Mounted Police (precursors of the RCMP).
The border between Canada and the U.S. was at that time still in dispute. The Canadian government had established a police presence in order to strengthen their claim before all those gold seekers and their hangers-on began flooding into the territory. Prostitution and gambling were illegal in all parts of Canada, but the NWMP recognized, wisely in my opinion, that some things were going to happen whether they were legal or not, and the police would be better having some control. Thus prostitution was practiced openly and dance halls all had a gambling room.
Police oversight was strict and they could, and did, close down any business stepping over the line. However, there were things the Mounties didn’t bend on – the use of ‘vile language’ was an offence, and Sunday closing was strictly observed. People were jailed for chopping wood for their own homes on a Sunday. Firearms were strictly banned. Every person coming into the Territory was required to have a year’s supply of goods with them: a lesson learned during the winter of 1897-98 when the town nearly starved. Not only did all those adventure-and-gold seekers have to climb the Chilkoot Pass they had to do it about 30 or 40 times to get all their gear up. Tougher people than me I can tell you.
In 1898, the year of the height of the Gold Rush, when the town of Dawson had a population of 40,000, there was not one murder in town. Not one. Reports I have read say that people were comfortable leaving their doors unlocked and their possessions out in the open. In contrast to the nearby town of Skagway, Alaska, where gangsters such as Soapy Smith ruled and crime and corruption were rampant. Soapy himself was killed in a shootout on the Skagway boardwalk in July 1898.
In Dawson, a town where a one minute dance with a dance hall girl cost a dollar, a bottle of champagne could set you back 40 bucks, and successful miners were known to drop a thousand, ten thousand dollars (all in 1898 funds!) in a night in the casino, a constable in the NWMP earned $1.25 a day (roughly the rate for a labourer in the Outside). Yet the police were largely incorruptible.
In order to create a mystery novel, I had to jettison the sterling record of the NWMP and create a murder. In the second book in the series, Gold Fever, there are two. And, despite one of the main characters in the series being a NWMP officer, the Mounties will prove unable to solve the crime and it will be left to my protagonist, dance hall owner and woman with a past, Fiona MacGillivray, to do so.
Sometimes you just can’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.