Updated: Sep 3
Around 1995, Nelson’s Heritage Inn renamed its basement lounge Taffy Jack’s. This was an interesting choice, for while Taffy Jack was a real figure from Nelson’s past, he was an obscure one.
In the bar’s logo, he appeared as a barrel-chested rugby player, alongside his dog:
In truth, Taffy Jack — also and perhaps better known as Candy Jack — was a candy maker and street peddler with a slightly unsavory and unhygienic reputation. As a sportsman, he was mainly interested in fishing. He did have dogs, however.
Despite the posthumous prominence he was accorded, no one has ever written about him in detail and only a few glimpses survive of his life in Nelson.
“Candy Jack, who, wearing an apron used to sell candy from a tray which he carried about town, and to all open air gatherings, was a familiar figure in Nelson from relatively early days,” said his obituary in the Daily News.
A note in the Touchstones Nelson archives quotes Arthur Foster: “Taffy Jack used to sell pink and white taffy on the street. He had a metal tray shaped to fit his waist, and a strap over his shoulder.”
Dr. C.E. Bradshaw recalled in a memoir published in Nelson Historical-Pictorial (1982):
Taffy Jack … made and peddled pink and white pull taffy. At recess time he could be found around the schools and his white apron and candy tray along with his black hat and dog, were commonplace on Baker Street. He would cut off the tops of the bags and pinch the bottom of the bag so one never really received more than a nickel’s worth of candy.
Taffy Jack reportedly appears at bottom left in this photo, perhaps the single most oft-reproduced image of Nelson, taken by Allan Lean of Queen Studio around 1900.
In an alternate view, taken a few moments earlier or later, Jack has his head turned.
Thank goodness Dr. Bradshaw provided Jack’s given name in his memoir, otherwise I might still be trying to figure it out.
Taffy Jack was born John Alexander Carmichael in Halifax in 1862 to James and Anne (Killy) Carmichael. His father was a carpenter. The 1871 census finds John, 9, living with his parents and brother Robert, 6. Another brother, James, was born soon after. On the 1881 census, John is shown as 18, Robert 15, and James 8.
In 1885, John was a private with the Halifax Battalion, which was sent to the Prairies to fight in the North-West Rebellion. I haven’t found any further details of this period of his life and don’t know where or when he learned his candymaking trade but afterward he headed further west and south.
On Jan. 28, 1890, at age 27, he married Albina (or Albine) Walther, 22, in Los Angeles. She was a native of either East Flanders, Belgium; Holland; or Germany, depending on the source. It’s not known how long Albina had been in the US, nor how the couple met, but they soon moved to Washington state.
They had two sons, both born in Seattle: James Carl in 1890 and John Thomas in 1892. The 1890 and 1892 Seattle civic directories listed John A. Carmichael as a laborer, living in the rear of 1806 6th St.
While pregnant with her second son, Albina took ill. On April 26, 1892, a little more than a month after giving birth to John Jr., she died at Grace Hospital in Seattle. She was 24.
The death record, curiously, listed the cause as “exhaustion” and said she had been ailing for six months. But her obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer blamed her death on consumption, i.e. tuberculosis, and said she had been suffering for two months. She was buried at Greenwood cemetery — a burial site that closed in 1907 so the land could be converted to building lots. I don’t know where the burials went.
Afterward, for reasons unclear, the boys were separated. James was sent to Halifax to live with his paternal grandparents while John went to California, where a Cuthbert family adopted him.
John Sr., meanwhile, moved to Vancouver, where he was first mentioned by nickname in the Vancouver Daily News Advertiser of May 9, 1896, although only to say that he was leaving town.
The many customers of Taffy Jack will be sorry to hear that he has sold out his entire business and will probably not be seen again as usual for at least several months, during which he may leave Vancouver for other fields of labor. If Jack’s successor always makes as delicious taffy as Jack did he will no doubt receive a liberal patronage.
He was back in the news that October when, on a drunken spree, he entered the Oyster Bay restaurant and threw sugar bowls and bottles at the cook’s head. He was twice ordered out only to return. After being shown the door a third time, he waited outside for the cook and then attacked him. He was arrested, pled guilty, and was fined $10.
He was a lot more sociable when sober. The following April he was reported feeding animals at an Easter celebration at Stanley Park.
The youngsters seemed to enjoy the day immensely and the bears, the delight of the children’s hearts, gave up their usual mode of locomotion and stood up on their hind feet to beg for the delectables provided by Taffy Jack.
According to a much later account in the Vancouver Province of Nov. 22, 1969, “Taffy Jack … hung and sold taffy on nails pounded in a log in Stanley Park.”
The 1898 voters list (seen below) listed John Carmichael as a candymaker residing at 24 West Hastings in Vancouver while the 1899-1900 civic directory had him as a candyman with a “house on rail road track near Hastings W.” If he was any relation to the other Carmichaels listed, I’m not aware of it.
He must have gone to Nelson sometime in the next year or so in order to be captured in the Queen Studio photo, but by 1901 he was in Grand Forks. On the census that year, he gave his occupation as candymaker.
The following year, he was brought to court for unlawful fishing. He pleaded not guilty but was convicted and fined $15 or 30 days in jail in default.
Soon after he was again charged with assault and illegally fishing in Smelter Lake. The Evening Sun of April 2, 1902 referred to him for the first time as Candy Jack and suggested public opinion was on his side.
While the smelter company may have the law on its side, through a few privileged clubmen, in view of the munificent grants secured by the company from the city, its course in this matter has the color of base ingratitude and extreme selfishness.
The paper said the case raised “several important local questions,” such as whether the smelter company was violating the law in maintaining a dam without a fish ladder and allowing its slag into the river.
However, Taffy was convicted and given the option of a $5 fine or five days in the provincial lockup. He took the jail time.
Later in the year, Taffy landed a 10-pound speckled trout near the First Street bridge that measured 24 inches long. He also won a season-long fishing tournament. In fact, he took first prize (a $10 steel jointed rod) for a fish weighing seven pounds, one ounce, and second prize (a $3 reel rod), for a fish that weighed nearly five pounds.
“Some doubt has been expressed as to the genuineness of the catch that carried off the first prize,” the Evening Sun of Sept. 16, 1902 reported, “but ‘Candy Jack’ has four witnesses that the fish was actually caught within a short distance of Grand Forks.”
A few weeks later, Taffy buttressed his reputation by catching another fish that weighed eight pounds, 11 ounces.
After that, there is an six-year gap in Taffy’s life that I can’t account for. He isn’t listed in the civic directories for Nelson or Grand Forks from 1902-05.
When he reappears in 1908, he’s back in court in Grand Forks, but this time suing a man named Snavely for assaulting him and shooting one of his dogs. Taffy acted as his own lawyer and testified that he was in his house talking to a friend when he heard his dogs barking and chickens and geese making noise, and then a gunshot.
He ran outside to see Snavely with a gun.
“You will pay for shooting my dog!” Taffy cried.
Snavely replied: “I’ll pay for shooting five or six of your dogs!”
Taffy said when he went to his dog’s aid, Snavely attacked him from behind, hitting him in the back of the neck and knocking him down. He said Snavely kicked him and threatened to kill him, and might have done so had a neighbour not come along.
Under cross-examination, Taffy said he’d known Snavely about six years, and that they had run-ins before, but denied that his dogs had ever killed any of Snavely’s chickens or geese.
A witness corroborated Taffy’s testimony but Snavely told the court he was defending his birds from Taffy’s dogs and that afterward he was defending himself, for he thought Taffy was going to hit him.
The judge found Snavely guilty and fined him $10 and costs or 30 days in jail. He also delivered a “severe lecture” to both men to keep the peace.
It may have worked for a while, but in 1910, Taffy was back before a judge in Grand Forks, having “caused the authorities considerable trouble” on account of drunkenness. But the specific charge he faced was selling candy without a license. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail to be served in Nelson.
He appears to have stayed in Nelson after his release, for the following year he received a 60-day sentence there for causing a disturbance while drunk. He was also mentioned in the Nelson police daybook for June 5, 1911: “Arrested John Carmichael alias Candy Jack at 1 a.m. for drunk and disorderly in alley at back of Grand Central Hotel.” However, he’s nowhere to be seen on the 1911 census.
The 1913 and 1914 Nelson civic directories list him as a peddler residing at the rear of 520 Lake St., which was probably a brothel, since that was the red light district.
Taffy wasn’t listed in the 1915 Nelson directory, but we know he was still around. An entry from that year in the police day book says “A. Irving complained about Candy Jack’s gote [sic]. I seen Candy Jack and he will git [sic] rid of him today.”
In 1917, he donated 10 pounds of chocolate to the Canadian Red Cross Society — perhaps inspired by the fact that his son James, although American by birth, enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces at Lillooet on Jan. 12, 1916.
It’s not clear when James came west. He was living with his grandparents in Halifax on the 1901 census, but I can’t find him on the 1911 census. When he enlisted, he described his occupation as telephone lineman and gave his father as next-of-kin.
James served in France with the 102nd Battalion (Comox-Atlin) and was awarded the Military Medal for actions in 1917 when through “great bravery and signal initiative … he captured three prisoners and machine gun single handed and throughout the operations displayed great courage and initiative.”
He suffered a couple of injuries, though, including a gunshot wound to the chest and was finally discharged for medical reasons in 1918, having risen to the rank of sergeant.
Card from James Carmichael’s military file, listing John Carmichael, aka Taffy Jack, as his next-of-kin.
Years later, Taffy’s obituary erroneously reported James had been killed in the war.
In the next sign we have of Taffy in Nelson, he was in trouble with the law again. From the Daily News, May 13, 1919:
ARGUMENT AND FIGHT END IN POLICE COURT
An argument which ended in a fight between John Carmichael, known as Taffy Jack, and George Beaumont on Vernon street, culminated in the appearance of the men before the judge on the charge of disturbing the peace.
It was stated that John Barleycorn was the cause of the scrap, the disputants having imported two quarts of rye whiskey each from a vendor in Vancouver. Before the fight was well under way, however, the police interfered and hailed the couple before the magistrate, who imposed on them a fine of $35 each and costs or one month in jail. They were allowed 10 days time in which to pay the fine.
The final sighting of Taffy in Nelson comes from the police day book of April 30 or May 1, 1920 (seen below) when officer Alex Stewart recorded a confrontation between Taffy and then-mayor J.A. McDonald: “Candy Jack insulted the mayor on the street. If I could have found him I would have brok [sic] his neck. The mayor did not whant [sic] him locked up.”
Taffy’s obituary explained why he eventually left Nelson:
He lived in a frame shack in the rear of the old Grand hotel, precursor of the New Grand, and almost lost his life when the shack burned one night after he had gone to bed. He barely escaped being trapped and all his effects were burned.
Shortly after that, Candy Jack moved to Penticton and many Nelsonites passing through Penticton on the train have seen him at the station platform.
I haven’t been able to find a news story about the fire, but the move to Penticton happened in the early 1920s. He was definitely there by 1923, when when he got in trouble as a courtroom spectator.
A police officer was giving evidence in a liquor case when Taffy called him a “stool pigeon.” Although the judge apparently didn’t hear the remark, the chief of police was in the room and had Taffy ejected. When he tried to return later, he was arrested and charged with “attempting to interfere with a witness while giving evidence.”
The Penticton Herald published an editorial headed “Poor Old Candy Jack,” suggesting that he should receive “a little lecture and nothing more.”
Some citizens are inclined to look upon officers who induce men to sell them whisky in much the same way, but it is decidedly out of place to mention the matter openly in a court of justice … Would not all ends have been better served by telling Carmichael to keep quiet or leave the courtroom? Then if he persisted in interruptions, he could be removed and kept outside … After all he is probably a more or less harmless character, and these grave charges for a simple and unpremeditated expression of honest opinion, howbeit in the wrong place, won’t do any of us any good.
However, I don’t know the outcome of the case.
A couple of other nice accounts exist of Taffy’s time in Penticton. Sonni Bone interviewed Ethel Bradburn for the Thirty-Fourth Report of the Okanagan Historical Society (1970). She recalled Candy Jack as “a big man with a little mustache, there he would be outside the Empress Theatre, his candy tray strapped around his neck.”
In his tray were slabs of pin and white rock candy, which he would break into delectable, mouth-size pieces with a little steel mallet. In his own mouth was the inevitable wad of tobacco which he chewed mercilessly, its juices streaming down his mustache, and he spitting it to the right, to the left.
“But it tasted good, whether there was tobacco juice on it or not,” Mrs. Bradburn remembers.
The Empress Theatre in Penticton, now the Lloyd Gallery, was a Taffy Jack haunt.
Betty Funke also wrote a memoir for the Victoria Daily Colonist of Sept. 7, 1975, in which she recalled Candy Jack alternating between Main Street and the railway station in Penticton, peddling his tray of pink fudge, which had a “strange soapy taste.”
Rumor had it that he kept the fudge under his bed at night where it collected fluff. We were not allowed to have it but we used to lie awake at nights trying to think of a way to get enough money to buy some …
Around 1930, Taffy wrote to Nelson mayor J.P. Morgan asking for help in getting an old age pension. The mayor, whom Taffy obviously thought more highly of than his predecessor J.A. McDonald, made out his papers.
On Dec. 13, 1932, John Carmichael, aka Taffy Jack, aka Candy Jack, was found dead in his shack in Penticton, age 70 or 71. He was buried in Lakeview Cemetery in a grave that went unmarked until about 10 years ago, when grandson Tom Carmichael had the stone below created.
Taffy’s son James married Elsie Cory in Lillooet in 1935 and had five children. He was a liquor vendor in the Bridge River Valley and had a 100-acre ranch outside Lillooet. He died in Vancouver in 1970, age 79. James’ brother John died in Alameda, Calif., east of San Francisco, in 1985, age 93.
The brothers kept in touch over the years despite their early separation. At one point John had to attest to James’ age his so that he could collect social security in the United States; he couldn’t prove he was born in Seattle, as neither had a birth certificate.
James’ son Tom, who lives in Oliver, says his father and grandfather were estranged, so he never learned much about his grandfather. He did know of Taffy Jack’s nickname and that he had been a candy seller in Penticton, but was unaware that he lived in Nelson or Grand Forks — even though Tom himself spent time in those places while working for Inland Natural Gas. He had never seen a picture of his grandfather.
In the 1960s, Tom tried to track down relatives in Halifax, but with only limited success, as three different Carmichael families came to Nova Scotia around the same time and it wasn’t clear who was connected to who.
“I ended up with a family that knew a fair amount,” he says. “I got taken around to meet people. I met two old women with a family bible that had my dad recorded in it. That was as far as I could get.” He wasn’t aware then that his grandfather had any siblings.
Tom has a letter from the funeral home director sent to his father when his grandfather died, enclosing 35 cents found in his grandfather’s pockets. Although his father signed his grandfather’s death registration, Tom doubts that his father came to Penticton to look after the estate.
Tom was also under the impression his grandfather died in Oliver, not Penticton. The death registration and obituary suggest otherwise, but don’t give a specific address.
Doris Bradshaw resurrected Taffy Jack in her Nelson Daily News column of June 27, 1956, but her informant or informants got things wrong when it came to his real name, address, and family. Perhaps they were thinking of someone else.
Taffy Jack … used to wander Nelson streets long ago, a tray hung by a rope around his neck, peddling taffy. His name, I understand, was McLeod and he made his home somewhere in the 1000 block on Front Street with his brothers and sister.
I am told he made the dandiest pink creamy toffee you could wish to sink your tooth into. He had a huge hook by his back door on which he hung his toffee for pulling. He was well-liked by youngsters because any who happened along got a piece or two “free for nothing.” When his old house was torn down the family moved to the house at the corner of Anderson and Nelson Avenue.
Taffy Jack’s name and visage were also plucked from obscurity in the mid-1990s for the new Heritage Inn venue. Unfortunately, the unsavory bits of Taffy’s personality seemed to have cursed it. As Ryan Martin recalled on the Shambhala Music Festival blog:
[M]y father and brother created Taffy Jack’s Cabaret … It was seemingly a museum of turn-of-the-century photos and sports memorabilia from the area. Much of the content was either donated by locals or dug up in our museum archives … This place became renown for drunken speaker-dancing and Trail-Castlegar-Nelson parking lot brawls … I wasn’t proud of what it had become. You simply could not say the words ‘Taffy Jack’s’ without someone proclaiming how much they hated it there.
Taffy Jack’s became the much more popular and successful Spiritbar in 2007 while the Heritage Inn itself reverted to the Hume Hotel in 2005.
— With thanks to Tom Carmichael and Brenton Raby
Updated on March 24, 2020 with details of the 1919 scrap between Taffy and George Beaumont. Updated on March 31, 2020 to correct that Taffy’s grandson, not his son, had his grave marker created and to add other details from Tom Carmichael. Updated on Oct. 16, 2021 to add the bit about Taffy’s 1923 courtroom outburst. Updated on April 18, 2022 to add more about Taffy’s 1890s hijinks in Vancouver, the 1908 trial versus Snively in Grand Forks, and the items from the Nelson police ledgers unearthed by Brenton Raby. Updated on Sept. 19, 2022 to correct the date of Albina Carmichael’s death and add more info about the circumstances. Updated on May 27, 2023 to add the Doris Bradshaw column.