O'KEEFE, Betty

Author Tags: Crime, Disaster, History, Religion

Former Vancouver journalist Betty O'Keefe, born in Vancouver on July 1, 1930, and former Vancouver journalist Ian Macdonald, born in Glasgow, Scotland on May 11, 1928, have co-authored:

The Klondike's 'Dear Little Nugget' (Horsdal & Schubart 1996) $12.95

Earthquake--Your Chances, Your Options, Your Future (Cavendish Books, 1996) 0-929050 60-6

The Mulligan Affair: Top Cop on the Take (Heritage, 1997) 1-895811-45-7 : $16.95

The Final Voyage of the Princess Sophia (Heritage, 1998) 1-895811-64-3 : $16.95

The Sommers Scandal: The Felling of Trees and Tree Lords (Heritage, 1999) 1-895811-96-1 : $16.95

Canadian Holy War: A Story of Class, Tongs, Murder and Bigotry (Heritage) 1-894384-11-3 : $17.95

Merchant Prince: The Story of Alexander Duncan McRae (Heritage, 2001) 1-894384-30-X : $16.95

Born to Die: A Cop Killer's Final Message (Heritage, 2003) 1-894384-69-5 : $16.95

Dr. Fred and the Spanish Lady (Heritage, 2004) 1-894384-71-7 : $18.95

Disaster on Mt. Slesse (Caitlin Press, 2006). The story of Western Canada's worst air crash, TCA flight 810 in December, 1956.

Quiet Reformers: The Legacy of Early Victoria's Bishop Edward and Mary Cridge. (Ronsdale, 2010). 978-1-55380-107-8 : $21.95

[BCBW 2010] "Disaster" "Crime" "Racism"

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Dr. Fred and the Spanish Lady: Fighting the Killer Flu
Quiet Reformers: The Legacy of Early Victoria's Bishop Edward and Mary Cridge
The Sommers Scandal: The Felling of Trees and Tree Lords

Merchant Prince: The Story of Alexander Duncan McRae (Heritage $16.95)

Betty O’Keefe’s family roots predate Vancouver’s trolley systems. “My father used to tell me about being a kid in Fairview,” she says. “Whenever they went to visit his uncle in New Westminster, they rode a horse and buggy down Kingsway and took nearly all day to get there.”

At a reunion for Vancouver Sun and Province reporters from the ‘50s and ‘60s, O’Keefe got to chatting with Ian Macdonald. They confided they both wanted to write books. “We just decided why not do it together?”

Seven books later, the writing duo has released Merchant Prince: The Story of Alexander Duncan McRae (Heritage $16.95), an investigative portrait of the Shaughnessy industrialist who lorded over Hycroft Manor between 1909 and 1913.

“Sometimes we argue about which book to do next,” says O’Keefe, “since we often have several ideas at the same time.”

“Ian tends to zero in on crime and corruption and politics, whereas I pay attention to the social history and context. The balance seems to make a good book.”

In 1965 the feisty Macdonald was sent to Ottawa as a reporter for the Vancouver Sun. He later handled media relations for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau from ’74 to ’77. He now divides his time equally between Ottawa and Vancouver.

“The professional historian might be miffed about us invading their turf,” says Macdonald, “but the problem with most Canadian historians is that they tell it dully. It’s been interesting to watch Pierre Berton, who made a bundle telling exciting history, clash with the academics. It’s like two dinosaurs—two massive egos having a battle.”

Macdonald’s current beef is with media coverage for their books, or lack thereof. “We’ve done six books before this one. The Province has never said a thing, and the Vancouver Sun gave us 120 wasted words, one time. I don’t think they owe us anything, but I do think they owe their readers.”

As longtime Vancouverites, Macdonald and O’Keefe have lived through some of the stories they’ve revisited, such as the scandal about Walter Mulligan. In The Mulligan Affair: Top Cop on the Take (Heritage $16.95) they recall the trial of the man who became Vancouver’s Chief of Police in 1947. Mulligan enjoyed a career of bribe-taking and corruption-mongering prior to his sensational 1955 trial. Radio journalist and Vancouver Sun reporter Jack Webster, a friend of Macdonald’s, was a key player in breaking the story. Both he and Macdonald had come to Canada from Glasgow.
“The inquiry had everything reporters wanted: graft, corruption, death, bootleggers, bookies, vice-lords, politicians with a sudden loss of memory, gambling squad cops who could barely remember their names, hookers, and Mulligan’s own black-veiled ‘mystery’ lady.”

Canadian newspapers proclaimed it the news story of the year. Stumbling onto the Mulligan story many years later, O’Keefe and Macdonald realized, “No one’s ever done the Mulligan story! We just dove in,” says O’Keefe.

The pair also had personal ties with The Sommers Scandal: The Felling of Trees and Tree Lords (Heritage $16.95), an account of the events surrounding the career and demise of Forests Minister Robert E. Sommers.

The minister signed a deal in 1953 that had a major impact on the forest industry, and five years later was sent to jail for conspiracy and accepting bribes. The book concludes, “decisions made in the 1950s set the course for the death of logging towns, the corporate concentration, and the crisis of overcutting today.”

Macdonald was a legislative reporter in Victoria during the scandal, which left a major stain on the record of Premier W.A.C. Bennett’s Socreds. O’Keefe spent many years handling corporate communications for a forest and mining company, and knew the ins and outs of the business.

“Our work is a true collaboration,” says O’Keefe, “when there’s something missing, one of us says, ‘I’ll go find that out.’” They read over every word the other writes, and fill in the critical spaces—anything the other person might have overlooked. Macdonald candidly admits, “We have our disagreements, but nobody ever punched anybody.”
At some point, the work does get split up. “Ian tends to cover the political end of things,” O’Keefe laughs, “thank goodness, because I couldn’t stand it!”

The Final Voyage of the Princess Sophia (Heritage $16.95) chronicles the mysterious maritime tragedy that killed 350 people off the Pacific coast—leaving no survivors in 1918.

The story remained untold in book form for over 80 years, overshadowed by the end of WWI and covered up by the CPR
Macdonald and O’Keefe even had trouble convincing their publisher that the Titanic-like disaster was a great story—and now they get more response for that book than any other.

Macdonald and O’Keefe last year published Canadian Holy War: A Story of Class, Tongs, Murder and Bigotry (Heritage $17.95) about the famous Shaughnessy murder of Scottish nursemaid Janet Smith and the racial tension that was ignited in 1924 when the Chinese houseboy stood accused.

They returned to Shaughnessy’s Hycroft mansion for the launch of Merchant Prince, an investigation into the life and times of the building’s first owner.

Born in Glencoe, Ontario in 1874, Alexander Duncan McRae made his money in land speculation in Saskatchewan prior to his arrival in Vancouver in 1907. He invested in fish canning and lumber, joining the war effort overseas in 1915. He was briefly touted as a candidate for premier, became president and financial backer of the short-lived Provincial Party, then was elected federally as a Conservative in 1926. After his defeat in 1930, he was named to the Senate.

Hycroft was the scene of the annual costume ball for Vancouver’s social elite. During World War I it was donated to the federal government as a convalescent home for veterans. McRae retired to Qualicum Beach. Hycroft is now home to the University Women’s Club.

This year O’Keefe and McRae have had some film industry enquiries about their work—and their publisher has negotiated the sale of rights to one of their titles. But the pair resist any embellishment of their tales on the page. As journalists from the old school, they both believe ‘what can’t be proven can’t be printed.’

Merchant Prince 1-894384-30-X; Earthquake 0-929050 60-6; Mulligan 1-895811-45-7;
Sommers 1-895811-96-1; Sophia 1-895811-64-3; Holy War 1-894384-11-3.

[Lisa Kerr / BCBW 2001]

Canadian Holy War (Heritage)

Betty O’Keefe and Ian Macdonald’s book on the social context for the 1920s’ Janet Smith murder in Shaughnessy, Canadian Holy War (Heritage), received minimal credit from The Vancouver Sun when it was used for a major feature article about the case.


The Sommers’ Scandal (Heritage House $16.95)

No deals. No payoffs. No favours. After W.A.C. Bennett and the fledgling Social Credit Party squeaked out a 1952 election victory, the wily Okanagan businessman perched himself and the party on the highest of moral ground.

W.A.C. promised that the conservative, God-fearing Socreds would be different from the defeated Liberals and Tories of the Coalition government.

However, like a logging road carved on steep terrain, high ground has a tendency to shift and crumble in B.C. politics.

Within a year, the province was caught up in scandal that threatened to topple Bennett’s regime and would later send a cabinet minister to jail.

Robert Sommers was a popular Rossland-Trail elementary school principal fond of drink, gambling and blowing trumpet in his band. He’s described by Betty O’Keefe and Ian Macdonald in The Sommers’ Scandal (Heritage House $16.95) as “a dapper schoolteacher from a small Kootenay town. With his sleek black-and-silver cigarette holder clenched between his teeth, sporting a smartly tailored suit, he stood out from his colleagues like Noel Coward at a preachers’ convention.”

Following the Socreds’ surprise victory in 1952, Sommers was itching to join the elite players on the province’s main stage. He convinced the new premier to hand him the powerful Lands, Forests and Mines portfolio —key levers on the province’s economic engines. In return he promised to change his ways.

Four years earlier tycoon E.P. Taylor had been denied a lucrative Forest Management Licence when his B.C. Forest Products company applied for cutting rights. Forest ministry staff worried the eastern-based company would cut and run, creaming the best coastal Douglas Fir. Not one to take no for an answer, Taylor directly lobbied Sommers -- having him for tea in his Toronto mansion.

After moving from Rossland to Victoria, Sommers was cash-strapped. He accepted loans from a small sawmill operator named Wick Gray, who had business ties to a high-powered forest consulting firm owned by Charlie Schultz. Schultz also represented BCFP. Thousands of dollars passed from Schultz to Gray to Sommers and $600 worth of carpet also found its way onto Sommers’ floor boards.

W.A.C. Bennett was in full expansion mode at this time—laying blacktop, rail lines and dams across the hinterlands to cement his support. A new pulp mill and hundreds of jobs from BCFP would provide yet another ribbon-cutting ceremony, another opportunity to flash his famous smile.
BCFP’s request for cutting rights on Vancouver Island got a thumbs up from the premier.

Gordon Gibson, Liberal MLA and millionaire logger sniffed the rumours, blowing the whistle in the legislature in February of 1955. The blustery ‘Bull Of The Woods’ accused the government of fraud.

“I firmly believe that money talks and has talked,” he said.

O’Keefe and MacDonald, both newspaper reporters during this period, have detailed government foot dragging, lawsuits, police investigations, and the subsequent trial. While the government stalled, Gibson, the whistleblower, was unseated in a bitter election battle while Sommers was re-elected.

Sommers blew his remaining shreds of credibility by going on the lam in the United States. Premier Bennett was forced to “isolate Sommers, to cut him off like a diseased limb threatening the solid Socred trunk”. Amid this chaos the premier managed to pull off convincing election wins in 1953 and 1956. Critics credited his Attorney-General Robert Bonner with masterful delaying tactics.

Five years after the allegations of impropriety had surfaced, Sommers and Gray were found guilty of bribery and conspiracy, while BCFP and consultant Charlie Schultz got off unscathed.

“The public was confused again by the decisions. Sommers and Wick Gray were nailed hard while everyone else escaped. If Sommers accepted bribes and Gray paid them, where did the money come from?” ask the authors.

Sommers and Gray spent 28 months behind bars. It was the first time a Commonwealth cabinet minister paid such a price. Sommers’ wife worked at a sawmill to support her family, while her husband learned a new vocation in jail: piano tuner.

Vindicated, Gordon Gibson was re-elected as an MLA in 1960. To this day Robert Sommers contends his innocence, telling the authors that money received from Gray was purely a loan with “no strings attached.”

Since the Sommers case, British Columbians have endured more than their share of political scandal. Three premiers have been forced to step down. Under the weight of accusation and criminal investigation, Glen Clark was the most recent to see his political career ground to dust.

The high road still beckons. 1-895811-96-1

[Mark Forsythe / BCBW WINTER 1999]

The Mulligan Affair, A Cop on the Take (Heritage $16.95)

Vancouver Police Chief Walter Mulligan, a 29 year veteran of the force, was a controversial figure who ruled with an iron fist and had a flair for publicity. In the summer of 1955, thanks to a young journalist from a Toronto based tabloid, Mulligan was accused of taking bribes and being involved in sex scandals. By mid July the Mulligan Inquiry was underway. In The Mulligan Affair, A Cop on the Take (Heritage $16.95), Betty O'Keefe and Ian Macdonald revisit the inquiry and shed new light on VPD corruption. Their book contains candid recollections by Jack Webster and former Attorney-General Robert Bonner.
1 895811 45 7

[BCBW 1997]

The Klondike's “Dear Little Nugget” (Horsdal & Schubart $12.95)

During the gold rush, a feisty newspaper in Dawson City kept everyone amused and informed. Enigmatic publisher Gene Allen had carried his printing press and supplies over the White Pass and down the Yukon River in 1898. The Klondike's “Dear Little Nugget” (Horsdal & Schubart $12.95) by Ian Macdonald and Betty O'Keefe, chronicles The Klondike Nugget, the first paper in town. The Nugget went on to reflect and shape activities in the Klondike.

[BCBW 1997]

Born to Die: A Cop Killer’s Final Message

Having produced books on corrupt Vancouver police chief Walter Mulligan and disgraced Socred cabinet minister Richard Sommers, the diligent duo of Ian Macdonald and Betty O’Keefe have revived the cautionary tale of the handsome, likeable, Sophocles-quoting crook Joe Gordon who was hanged at Oakalla Prison Farm in 1957 for shooting a policeman during a botched robbery. Beaten by his father as a child, Gordon distinguished himself on death row with a haunting plea for parents of the 1950s to love their kids so they wouldn’t end up facing the noose like him. “Prison taught me what I know and I’m teaching others,” he wrote. “The only friends in life I have are criminals. Due process of law brought me into contact with them in the first instance.” Macdonald & O’Keefe’s Born to Die: A Cop Killer’s Final Message (Heritage $16.95) recalls the sensational murder trial of Joe Gordon and his accomplice Jimmy Carey—who didn’t hang—and the unreliable nature of criminal justice during the period. [Earlier, before he could be charged with corruption, police chief Mulligan had fled to California where he became a bus driver.] Jimmy Carey, a stool pigeon, was reprieved. Former newspaper reporters, Macdonald & O’Keefe have their ninth title due this spring, Dr. Fred and the Spanish Lady (Heritage $18.95) about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Born 1-894384-69-5; Spanish 1-894384-71-7

[BCBW Summer 2004]

Dr. Fred and the Spanish Lady: Fighting the Killer Flu
Press Release (2004)

The 1918 flu pandemic killed between 25 and 50 million people around the globe. The “Spanish flu,” or “Spanish Lady,” as it was also known, was thought to be worse than the Black Plague of the Middle Ages. There was no defence against it—no vaccine or wonder drug to combat the fast-moving, vicious strain that filled hospitals and hastily set-up isolation wards. Before it was over, people were dying within hours of showing the first symptoms. No part of Canada or the world escaped. The American death toll was about half a million, more than 10 times that of its losses in World War One. Canadian deaths numbered over 50,000—4,400 in British Columbia. Starting in Quebec City, the Spanish Lady spread steadily west to the Vancouver domain of public health officer Dr. Fred Underhill.

As the flu spread, so did fear of the unknown and the fact that there was no effective treatment. This was in the days before penicillin and sulfa drugs, and aspirin had only recently been on the market. The pandemic of 1918 killed some 8,000 in Ontario, 25,000 to 50,000 in all of Canada and anywhere from 25 to 50 million people around the globe at a time when accurate casualty figures were sketchy. People died within hours of showing the first symptoms, with a 40-per-cent death rate if pneumonia developed. Patients died a pain-wracked death.

Starting in China, the illness devastated much of Asia and Europe, including the armies battling the First World War, before jumping the Atlantic and striking North America. Ironically, infected troops coming home in the fall of 1918 brought it with them. Ships returned to ports in Quebec after many burials at sea of those who died en route. Then servicemen traveled across the country to their hometowns on westbound trains. No part of Canada or the world escaped the “Spanish flu,” or “Spanish Lady” as it also was known, a name derived from the first major newspaper reports about the disease published in Spain. One of the puzzling aspects was that unlike the usual flu, the main victims were not the old and young but rather adults between 20 and 45 and mostly males.

With their proven record of investigative writing, O’Keefe and Macdonald celebrate the public-health achievements of one man, while giving contemporary meaning to an 85-year-old mystery; the flu surprisingly killed not the old and very young, but rather adults between 20 and 45, mostly male.

Dr. Fred documents Dr. Underhill’s yeoman service in dedicating himself the fighting the pandemic, a medical challenge unique in our history. O’Keefe and Macdonald’s book comes a century after Underhill’s appointment as Vancouver’s first medical health officer. In light of recent avian-flu scares and the lingering shadow of SARS, it is an ominous indicator of how vulnerable we remain to new viral diseases. This compelling read will both educate and scare the hell out of you.

Dr. Fred and the Spanish Lady

In conjunction with the release of Betty O’Keefe and Ian Macdonald’s Dr. Fred and the Spanish Lady: Fighting the Killer Flu (Heritage House, $18.95), Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell proclaimed Dr. Frederick Theodore Underhill Month to honour the physician who led Vancouver’s defence against the ravages of the 1918 killer flu pandemic that arrived in Canada via soldiers returning home from Europe. The proclamation pays tribute to Underhill’s public health innovations and leadership during the pandemic that claimed the lives of 700 of Vancouver’s 110,000 people. In the United States, the Spanish flu or ‘Spanish Lady’ killed ten times more people than the number of Americans who died in World War One. With a foreword by Dr. John Blatherwick, chief medical health officer of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, Dr. Fred and the Spanish Lady confers long overdue hero status on the Vancouver-born doctor who was appointed Vancouver’s first medical health officer 100 years ago.


Quiet Reformers: The Legacy of Early Victoria’s Bishop Edward & Mary Cridge

from Joan Givner
Anglican Cleric Edward Cridge arrived in Fort Victoria in 1855 as a chaplain employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Consequently Cridge’s half-century of service to Victoria was largely dwarfed by the shadow of his HBC employer, James Douglas, who became governor of the fledgling colony.

Quiet Reformers: The Legacy of Early Victoria’s Bishop Edward and Mary Cridge, by Ian Macdonald and Betty O’ Keefe, attempts to give Cridge and his dutiful wife Mary their due.

Mary Cridge, besides bearing nine children in twelve years, organized the parsonage school for young women, established a cottage hospital that eventually expanded to become the Royal Jubilee Hospital, and ran an orphanage for the many homeless children whose parents had died or abandoned them.
Quiet Reformers provides the first attempt to elevate Mary Cridge into prominence as an historical figure. She was one of the first influential European females on the west coast.
Besides founding Christ Church, the first Protestant church in the settlement of Victoria, Reverend Cridge steered his flock through many difficult times, including epidemics that claimed the lives of four of his own children. Frustrated gold miners from the mainland were another scourge, threatening to turn Fort Victoria into a wild west town.

Cridge also had to contend with rebuilding his church after it was consumed by a mysterious fire and acrimonious competition from Bishop George Hills.

Whereas Bishop Hills was an arrogant man, who had arrived to oversee the newly formed diocese of Columbia from 1859 to 1892, Cridge was a much-loved and long-admired figure, as later recalled by his neighbour Emily Carr in The Book of Small. As a sometime member of Cridge’s congregation, Carr wrote that Cridge gave the blessing from the pulpit, “just as if he was taking it straight from God and giving it to us.”

As former scribes for Vancouver dailies, Betty O’Keefe, born in Vancouver in 1930, and Ian Macdonald, born in Glasgow in 1928, deserve much credit for ten previous B.C. history titles. As two veteran biographers, they have learned how to spice up the past with diligent research, often gleaned from newspaper articles. This technique accounts for much of the liveliness in Quiet Reformers.

Any account of a thoroughly decent person doing good deeds does not promise a compelling reading experience, but Quiet Reformers succeeds as entertainment due to the inclusion of a running commentary on events from the Colonist, founded by the flamboyant Amor de Cosmos. The editor’s pseudonym (he was born William Alexander Smith) may have indicated love of the world, but he had plenty of contempt for its individual members, especially for James Douglas and his associates. These he called “vain, puffed up, tyrannical, corrupt, short-witted, conceited mummies and numbskulls.”

Edward Cridge, as an ally of Douglas, came in for his share of derision. When Cridge participated in a project to bring poor women and orphans from England to work as domestics in Victoria, and eventually marry and bear children, the Colonist jeered that some of those on the “bride ship” had seen better days.

Cridge and another clergyman were ridiculed for shielding the women from the ribald remarks and laughter of “breeches-wearing bipeds” who greeted the ship. Despite Cridge’s good intentions, many of the women were clearly unprepared for domestic work and gravitated to Victoria’s “bright light” district.

In spite of his worthy endeavours and popularity, Cridge faced much conflict in his life. Cridge disliked the elaborate rituals that made the Church of England resemble the Catholic Church. His doctrinal views diametrically opposed the High Church ideals of Bishop Hills.

Matters came to a head on the day that celebrated Christ Church’s consecration as a cathedral sixteen years after its founding. The celebrations concluded with a sermon by a visiting archdeacon, who advocated the adoption of High Church ritualism. This was too much for Cridge.

Striding forward to announce the final hymn, Cridge cried, “I rise to protest against the views advocated by Archdeacon Reece. They are wrong and I would not again sit quietly and listen to their expression.”

These words were greeted with a shocked silence; then suddenly pandemonium broke out as his parishioners stamped and clapped their approval.

The disagreement between the dean and the bishop smouldered for a year until an ecclesiastical court was convened. It brought eighteen charges against Cridge, including one count of brawling in the church.

Cridge was suspended as dean of Christ Church, and his right to preach as a Church of England minister revoked. The Colonist took Cridge’s side, called it a kangaroo court that presented a “repulsive picture.”

Undeterred, Cridge went ahead with the next Sunday services, showing no sign of his feelings except for a closing hymn with the last line “Defiance to the Gates of Hell.”

Bishop Hills promptly applied for an injunction to remove Cridge from the church, and Supreme Court Chief Judge Matthew Begbie upheld it. A new rector was appointed, and Cridge was forbidden to enter the cathedral.

When the unfortunate new rector assumed his duties, he faced an almost empty church with no sexton, no organist and only two choir members; the congregation remained staunchly behind Cridge, and decided to leave the church with him. Scenes of chaos ensued, recorded with delight by the Colonist. As the church doors opened to admit the new rector, sixty men and boys dashed in to remove the congregation’s possessions.

For days the dismantling continued, with parishioners carrying off Bibles, hymnbooks, stools, cushions and a strip of red carpet in suitcases and baskets.
Cridge left the Church of England for the newly organized Reformed Episcopal Church. His congregation followed as a body, and the construction of a new church began quickly on Humboldt Street, on land donated by James Douglas.

Named the Church of Our Lord by Cridge, it opened on January 16th, 1876, with a woman from the “bride ship” as its first organist. The same year, Cridge was elected missionary bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church.

Bishop Hills returned to England to spend his last years there, and was little remembered in British Columbia.
Bishop Cridge died at the age of 96, having outlived Sir James Douglas, Amor de Cosmos, his wife, and six of his nine children. The Colonist declared his funeral one of the biggest the city had seen. 978-1-55380-099-6

Review by Joan Givner

[BCBW 2010]