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Fake news, 1899: a wedding and a coffin on Kootenay Lake

The following story is completely fabricated. The names and circumstances were made up but passed off as genuine. It says something — though am I not sure exactly what — about the dissemination of tall tales by newspapers in the late 19th century.

August Methfessel illustration from the San Francisco Call, June 25, 1899

In June 1899 (and for the several months afterward), papers around the world carried the fantastic, tragic, and grotesque tale of Maud (or Maude) Cranston, “the belle of Spokane” with “lovers by the score.”

She was living somewhere on Kootenay Lake while being courted by two men: the “rich and unromantic” R.A. Carson (or James A. Carson) and James Carter, who was “poor, but in all respects a stripling to engage a maiden’s fancy.” (Stripling means young man.) Maud was initially engaged to Carter, but broke it off and instead agreed to wed Carson.

“You shall not marry him,” the crestfallen Carter declared when he learned of her new betrothal. Living or dead, he told her, he would always stand between them.

Nevertheless, June 12 was chosen as the wedding date. But the previous evening, a ferocious storm arose and the Kootenay River swelled and flooded its banks. Carter, who was starting on a trip, thought “It is an ill omen. They will never marry.”

The next day, however, all was sunny and calm. At noon the wedding guests began to assemble at the home Carson built or bought for his bride. But the minister, Rev. Potts, was nowhere to be seen. Minutes turned to hours, with the bride weeping in her mother’s arms.

Maud’s mood was worsened by her superstitious belief that the delayed wedding portended poorly for her marriage. She recalled what Carter told her when she ended their engagement.

So the wedding party decided that neither flood nor tide nor missing minister should stand in the couple’s way. It was decided that they and their relatives should take a sternwheeler down to Bonners Ferry and be married there. A day or two later, they set out.

The boat took them past Rev. Potts’ ranch, which was discovered to underwater following the storm. The minister himself was calling for help from the roof of his home, which was submerged up to the eaves. A rowboat was dispatched to rescue Potts, who pledged that as soon as he could dry off, he would marry the couple.

August Methfessel illustration from the San Francisco Call, June 25, 1899

While Potts tried to make himself presentable by borrowing clothes from Capt. Newman, the steamer stopped at Rice’s Landing and two passengers came aboard with a bulldog and a pine coffin containing the body of a friend who drowned in the river the day before. The ship’s limited cargo space made it difficult to hide the coffin from the wedding party. Finally it was placed upon two beer kegs with the bulldog standing guard next to it. The passengers then circled the bride and groom to keep the coffin out of sight.

Rev. Potts took his position and the ceremony began. He got as far as “speak now or forever hold your peace” when a terrible crash was heard. The captain’s dog and the bulldog were fighting and managed to upset the casket. As it hit the deck, the lid fell open and the corpse rolled out.

Maud saw the dead man’s faced and shrieked. It was James Carter.

She threw herself into Carson’s arms: “You see, he will keep his oath. He will come between us even in death.” She fainted. A week later she was back in her cottage, Carson at her bedside. She was alive, but dead to the world.

August Methfessel illustration from the San Francisco Call, June 25, 1899


Of course, none of this ever happened. But just to be sure, I double checked: no marriage registration exists for a Maud Cranston in BC or Idaho in 1899. (Although a Maud Mary Ann Cranston died at Newton in 1958, age 79. Cranston was her married name.)

No death registration exists for a James Carter. I can find no mention of Cranston, Carter, or Carson before or after these events supposedly took place. There was no such place as Rice Landing, no such people as Rev. Potts or Capt. Newman — although in a nice touch, one version concludes: “Capt. Newman vouches for the truth of every word of the story.”

The ship they were on was described in some papers as the Klondyke and the Kokanee in others. The Klondyke didn’t exist. The Kokanee did, but it didn’t go to Bonners Ferry. There was high water in June 1899, but I doubt it was severe enough to have trapped a man on his roof.

Most versions acknowledged the story seemed too outrageous to believe, and prefaced it with phrases like “worthy … of the imagination of a Poe” and “circumstances seldom paralleled in fiction” and “reads like a piece of Western newspaper fiction, as, perhaps it is.”

The accounts contradicted each other. In addition to the discrepancy over the name of the ship, some said the voyage was on the Columbia River and stopped at “Racine Landing” or “Rios Landing.”

In one version, after spotting James Carter’s body and fainting, Maude “speedily rose superior to the shock, and called upon the minister to finish the ceremony, declaring that neither ghosts nor drowned men should stand in the way of her becoming Mrs. Carson.”

The story first appeared in the Seattle Post Intelligencer on June 14, 1899, as a special dispatch from Spokane. A different version printed two days later on the front page of the New York Journal and Advertiser carried a Vancouver dateline. When published in the San Francisco Call on June 25, many new details were added. The story had also been illustrated with sketches by local artist August Methfessel.

In the ensuing months, the story was reprinted across North America, as well as in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and New Zealand. Some of these were identical to the earlier versions, others were rewrites, and some introduced still more new details. The story also appeared in at least two West Kootenay newspapers — The Ledge and the Sandon Paystreak — without any comment on its veracity.

I have a hard time comprehending who made the story up and how it spread. A rich tradition of grand-scale newspaper hoaxes existed in the 19th century (some the work of Edgar Allen Poe himself) in addition to more run-of-the-mill fibbing. So it would be amusing, but not extraordinary, to reveal this story as the work of someone’s imagination.

But how did multiple versions exist, attributed to different newspapers? None specifically stated where the information came from, other than the fictional Capt. Newman. Who was the original author? Did some papers believe they had been scooped and invent further details? Or did a common source pass the story off as legitimate? If so, who?

Interestingly, this story appeared the same month that four Denver newspapers reported on plans by the Chinese government to tear down part of the Great Wall of China and use the rock to build roads. Papers around the US reprinted the story, but it turned out to be a hoax cooked up by some reporters over drinks on a slow news day. (While plausible, this explanation only emerged in 1939, from a less-than-credible source — which claimed, incorrectly, that the hoax was responsible for the Boxer Rebellion.)

Could the wedding and coffin have been another story cooked up in a press club bar? If so, why did they use Kootenay Lake as the setting? I’ll offer one suspect, although there’s not much evidence to support it.

Edward D. Cowen, proprietor of the Slocan Pioneer in 1897, is believed to have been the author of a greatly exaggerated account of Eli Carpenter’s tightrope walk at Slocan City, published in the Chicago Chronicle in 1898. He also worked for the Seattle Press and San Francisco Call during that decade, so at least he had newsroom contacts in those cities, although I’m not exactly sure whose payroll he was on as of June 1899.

I’ve posted some of the original stories below.

Anaconda (Montana) Standard, June 15, 1899

The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Ireland), July 25, 1899

Oamaru (New Zealand) Mail, Sept. 21, 1899

Windsor Star, June 20, 1899

San Francisco Call, June 25, 1899

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