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Fake news, 1890: The $10,000 wedding proposal

Here’s another weird story that illustrates how newspapers of the late 19th century (and perhaps long before and after) just made stuff up. It comes with the nice bonus of introducing us to a forgotten BC character.

A previous tall tale described here involved a wedding and a coffin on Kootenay Lake in 1899 — a story someone invented and someone else elaborated on, with both passing it off as the unvarnished truth.

The following also involves a wedding, but at least had a grain of truth to it. It begins with something that appeared in dozens of North American newspapers between January and March 1890:

A Pacific coast paper has this item: “A school teacher at Kootenay, BC, recently saw a personal [ad] in an Eastern paper soliciting correspondence, etc. He took a flyer and received in return a check for $250 to come to Minneapolis and get a bride. The day of the marriage he will also get a bank book covering a deposit of $10,000 subject to his order.”

($10,000 US in 1890 was the equivalent of something like $369,000 Cdn today. And it was nearly 200 times a rural teacher’s monthly salary.)

Kootenay was a post office northeast of Fort Steele, renamed Wildhorse in 1895, but I figured this item more likely referred to the region than that specific place.

The Ottawa (Kansas) Daily Republic of Jan. 9, 1890 elaborated on the story, identifying the teacher as John Entress, “one of those progressive pedagogues who subscribes for a daily paper and reads it.” Their over-the-top version continued:

One night as he was toasting his toes at the stove devouring the contents of the mighty civilizer of the world, he saw a personal in it, soliciting correspondence with a view to marriage.
Visions of beauty, maternity and pater familias rose like castles in the air, soothing him to sleep. Next morning he hastily scrawled a few burning words, dropped the letter into a mail box on his way to school and forgot all about the circumstances.
About six weeks after, as he was planning how to make a $50 salary pay $70 of expenses, the postman brought a sweet scented missive, in which was a bank draft for $250 payable to John Entress, and an invitation for him to go to Minneapolis during the Christmas holidays to see the sender. He went, he saw, he conquered.
On May 1, he will lead to the hymenial altar Miss Jessie Broadus, and on that eventful evening will receive a bank book from her guardian, covering a deposit of $10,000 subject to his order. Meantime, there is a vacancy in the Kootenay public school.

But this was the only paper to identify the parties. I checked but could not find any record of this wedding in Minnesota or anywhere else. What’s more, I could find no record of a John Entress in BC or a Jessie Broadus in Minnesota.

Puzzled, I looked further and discovered the original source of this story was the Kootenay Star of Revelstoke, which placed the incident at Donald, an important railway point between Golden and Revelstoke at the time.

Most 1889 editions of the Kootenay Star are lost. But according to the New Westminster Daily British Columbian of Dec. 18, 1889:

The Kootenay Star says the school teacher at Donald played in great luck lately. Somebody wrote in his name to a lady advertising for “correspondence and what it may come to.” The consequence was that he received a letter and a cheque for $250 on the National Bank of Minneapolis, and an invitation to “come at once and get married and receive $10,000 on his wedding day.” The teacher is thinking over the matter.

The same squib appeared five days later in the San Francisco Chronicle, and shortly thereafter in the Los Angeles Times, Victoria Daily Times and New York Sun. From thereon, the version I quoted at the beginning started showing up everywhere.

But here’s the curious thing: the teacher at Donald at the time was not John Entress. Nor did a John Entress teach anywhere in BC that year. The Ottawa Daily Republic (or whatever paper they cribbed) simply made up the names to suit the story! The rest was also fabricated and readers were none the wiser.

The Kootenay Star suggested someone played a practical joke on the teacher by replying to the classified ad and signing his name. The teacher, I am guessing, paid it no further attention, unaware that a fractured version of the story was making the rounds in newspapers across North America.

The teacher in question was actually William Siveright, and we know a little bit about him.

He was a New Brunswick native, born in 1849 to a family of educators. His father taught in Northumberland and Gloucester counties for more than 30 years and his older brother John was the former principal of a high school in Nova Scotia and former secretary of the Bathhurst school board.

William taught at Newcastle (now part of Miramichi) before coming west in 1886 and securing a teaching position at Beaver Point, on Salt Spring Island. He was described in the Victoria Daily Times as “an experienced teacher” who would “give satisfaction.”

He stayed two years, teaching a class of about two dozen pupils, and during that time addressed a conference in Victoria on the “Natural Method of Teaching Grammar.”

“He thought the child should not begin the subject until he could grasp the idea of abstraction,” the Daily Times reported. “The teacher should at the outset avoid the use of text books and treat the subject orally.”

In the summer of 1888, Siveright took a job at Rocky Point school in Port Moody, but it appears he resigned before classes began (or that might have been a typo in the annual public schools report).

The railway town of Donald is seen in the 1890s, around the time that William Siveright taught there. (Detail of City of Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: SGN 216)

The school at Donald opened in 1887 under the care of teacher James Sutherland, who left after one year for a job in Comox and was replaced by Sarah McLean, formerly of Kamloops. She taught a class of 38 pupils, only slightly more than half of whom showed up on any given day.

While Sutherland taught in temporary quarters, a new schoolhouse was announced for Donald in 1888, though I don’t know if it was actually built. McLean also departed after one year for a school at North Thompson. (Teachers in one-room schools in BC tended to be itinerant, seldom staying more than a year or two.)

That opened the door for Siveright.

The Vancouver Daily World reported in July 1889 that he was chosen over several other applicants and “has had considerable experience as a teacher in this province, and holds several complimentary testimonials from the trustees of the schools of which he was teacher.”

A later issue called him an “excellent teacher” who will “undoubtedly teach the young Donaldites how to shoot after the most approved manner.”

Soon after the school year began, Donald hosted provincial education superintendent S.D. Pope as part of an inspection tour. “The people of this thriving town are justly proud of their school and giving the teacher every encouragement in their power,” the Victoria Daily Colonist reported.

Like his predecessor, Sivewright was paid $60 per month. But under his watch, enrollment dropped from 38 to 34 and daily attendance fell from 20 to 15.

Who was the joker responsible for replying to the personal ad on his behalf? One of his students? A trustee? We can only wonder.

On Christmas Eve, right about the time the prank was starting to show up in the newspapers, Sivewright arrived in Vancouver, where his presence earned a two-line mention in the Daily World. If he was en route to Minneapolis to meet his pen pal, he was heading the wrong way.

That said, if Sivewright gave any serious consideration to the marriage proposal, maybe this is a sign of it: in February 1890, he resigned as Donald’s teacher. No explanation was offered, but there was indeed now a “vacancy in the Kootenay public school.”

School board secretary Thomas Evans took out an ad dated Feb. 15, seeking a new teacher, but Sivewright continued to be paid until the end of the month, so presumably he stayed on until the arrival of his replacement, Wesley A. Blair.

Vancouver Daily World, Feb. 17, 1890

What happened next? There are a few possibilities:

• Sivewright went to Minnesota, but discovered the marriage proposal was a scam.

• Sivewright went to Minnesota, but he and his bride-to-be didn’t hit it off, despite the cash inducement.

• Sivewright laughed off the marriage-proposal-by-mail and it had nothing to do with his mid-year exit.

This much we know for sure: even if he went, there were no wedding bells.

By 1891, Sivewright was teaching in Vernon. He stayed a couple of years before heading to Coldstream to take charge of a new school there. On his last day in Vernon, his students presented him with an accordion, a pair of slippers, a “pen-wiper,” an inkstand, and a doll as tokens of their esteem.

While he was a popular and much-praised teacher, Sivewright had ambitions to go into politics like his brother John, who in 1892 was elected to the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly.

William was recognized “as quite a talker,” but perhaps something of a blowhard. The Fairview Advance of July 25, 1894 noted that when he gave a speech announcing his intention to run for parliament, the crowd’s reaction was “amusement.”

He said it ill became him, as a provincial official, to take any part in BC politics, but his aspirations were of a higher nature — to represent his fellow Canadian citizens at Ottawa. He ended up by calling for three cheers for himself and the crowd yelled wildly.

Yet when the next federal election rolled around in 1896, Sivewright’s name wasn’t on any ballot. I don’t know if he sought a nomination and lost or simply changed his mind. He never indicated which party he favoured.

The following year he said he intended to run provincially in East Yale, his earlier comments notwithstanding. The Kamloops Inland Sentinel, which clearly got an earful from him, said he was “always ready to give his views, which are worth having on education … He is certainly a fluent speaker.” But in the BC election of 1898, Sivewright was not a candidate in Yale East.

Sivewright taught at Short’s Point in 1896-97, at what is now Fintry on Okanagan Lake, southwest of Vernon. When a post office opened in February 1898 at Bruce’s Landing, between Short’s Point and Ewing Landing, he served as postmaster. But he resigned that September after securing a new teaching position at Blue Springs school in Lumby.

In 1897, when he passed through Vancouver en route to a teachers’ convention, the Daily World described him as “one of the most popular teachers in the Okanagan valley,” and said his friends were glad to seem him “in robust health, full of energy and satisfied that he is resident in the future great mining camp of the world.”

But his health soon failed him, perhaps due in part to the sudden death of his brother John, whom he clearly admired. John was serving his second term in the New Brunswick legislature when he passed away in early 1898.

On the 1901 census, William Sivewright shows up as a teacher in Armstrong. It would be his final assignment. That fall, he was admitted to hospital in Kamloops and then transferred to the Old Men’s Home, where he died on Nov. 21, 1901, age 52. I haven’t learned the cause of death.

He was buried in the Old Men’s Provincial Cemetery in an unmarked grave. A brief obituary in the Inland Sentinel said he was “well known throughout the Okanagan valley” for his years as a teacher.

He never married.

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George Manson
George Manson
Sep 14, 2021

Thanks for the research. Great to read.


Colleen O'Reilly
Colleen O'Reilly
Sep 14, 2021

What a great story thank you.

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