"Anguish And Laudanum" - The Tale Of Mrs. Wilmer

By Norman K Archer


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One would have to be blessed with a remarkably fertile imagination to walk down Wharf Street today and conjure up the waterfront of the Gold Rush days. The crude whitewashed cabins of the Hudson's Bay Company personnel were torn down to make way for the hastily constructed warehouses of tradesmen, and the streets were nothing more than muddy tracks that nosed their way through the conglomeration of every imaginable kind of structure that made up the burgeoning settlement. Some tradesmen put rough-hewn boardwalks in front of their premises so people did not have to wade through the mud. Alfred Waddington ("Good Old Waddy") put wooden blocks down his alley so horses on their way to Morley's Soda Water factory could at least get some kind of foothold. But these concessions were not universal. There were no streetlights, no sewers, no sanitation and no running water. Most tradesmen lived on their business premises and raised their families in the squalor of a single backroom.

Now imagine that scene and see among the higgledy-piggledy confusion of commercial establishments, A. J. Langley & Company, Druggists, with James Moore as its lone pharmacist. "Jem" Moore was a quiet Englishman who, in 1859, married the widow of a prosperous German merchant named Dewig. After her first husband's death and her subsequent marriage to James Moore, she let it be known that her name now was "Mrs. Dewig-Moore." Some people mistakenly addressed James as "Dewig-Moore," an error they quickly learned never to repeat.

Moore was an extremely diligent and careful druggist. His prices were high, but people felt they received what they paid for. His business flourished and his fortune rapidly increased, so when this was added to his wife's large inheritance, he became one of the most prosperous men in Victoria. He had no need to live on his business premises and built himself a very comfortable home some distance away. He was a kind man and his generosity and compassion for the sick was legendary. One particularly foul night near Christmas 1861, Moore was about to lock up his store before battling his way home, against biting wind and torrential rain, when a bedraggled figure stumbled over the threshold. He could see in the dim light of his flickering candle that she was well-dressed, cultured and fine looking, but on this night she was clearly in deep distress as she asked him for "two bits' worth of laudanum."

Moore was concerned and asked her why she needed laudanum.

"Toothache!" was her curt reply.

"Then you don't need as much as that! A few drops on some cotton wool is all you need. Here, I'll put some on your tooth. Which one?"

The woman blazed. "I need two bits' worth I tell you! All my teeth are aching!"

Moore was not happy with this situation and suspected she had suicide in mind. But he also knew if he didn't sell it to her, someone else would.

"I will sell you the poison if you promise me that you will be careful with it."

"I promise," said the woman as she snatched the bottle from Moore's hand, threw the money on the counter and dashed out into the dark, wet, bitterly cold night.

Moore closed the shutters, placed the candle into a tin lantern he could use to light his way home, locked the door and waded through the mud and filth as the rain beat down and the wind howled. His direction took him up Yates Street as far as Government Street. As he rounded the corner, he tripped and almost fell over a bundle of clothes lying on the street. He lowered his lantern and the bundle moved. He recognized the upturned face as his most recent customer. He shook her and she moaned, "Go away and let me die in peace!"

"Why do you think you're going to die?" asked Moore.

"Because I have just taken a large dose of laudanum. I bought it just now from Langley's."

"No you haven't! I am the druggist who served you. All I gave you was paregoric and some ipecac to make you vomit."

At that moment, the ipecac did its job. It took all of Moore's persuasive powers to convince the woman that she was not about to die and he took her home with him.

Most people considered Mrs. Dewig-Moore a silly woman, but when it came to showing kindness to anyone in need, she was at her best. The poor, soaked visitor was fed, given a hot bath and a comfortable bed and next morning told her hosts that her name was Wilmer and that she was married, but revealed nothing of her situation. She just wanted to go home.

The Wilmers left town shortly after, and it was a remarkably changed Mrs. Wilmer that presented herself at Mrs. Dewing-Moore's front door over a year later. She said how grateful she was for the kindness she had received and felt she should explain her behaviour on that dark December night. The Wilmers were happily married, but at times, the husband would go on a drinking binge and would turn into a vicious brute. That is what happened that evening near Christmas when she ran out of the house determined to kill herself. When she arrived home after her night with the Moores, her husband was heartbroken and in his remorse, swore never to drink again. He had kept his vow and the two had left to look for gold in the Cariboo. Wilmer had struck a rich seam and was soon able to return to Victoria and purchase a comfortable home on North Park Street. Mrs. Wilmer compelled the reluctant Mrs. Dewig-Moore to accept a large nugget as a token of appreciation. Then Mrs. Wilmer divulged one more secret - a baby was on the way. The expectant mother was radiant. The two women hugged, parted and would never meet again.

A few weeks after this reunion, a report appeared in the British Colonist about the tragic death of a young mother and her small baby. The woman had woken up in the night feeling very ill. She aroused her husband to go for the doctor. Ever careful for his beloved wife's security, he left quickly, locked the door of his North Park Street home, promising to be back soon. On the way, he met up with some Cariboo friends who persuaded him to join them for a drink. It was several days later that he recovered from his binge, staggered home, unlocked the door and was greeted by silence. The baby had died. The mother had collapsed near the bed, unable to make it as far as a window to get help. Her hands were battered and bruised by the constant pounding on the floorboards in a vain attempt to attract attention. She had died just hours before. Neighbours said they had heard screams but thought they had come from the street. Wilmer was inconsolable in his grief. The clergyman wept as the coffin was lowered into the Quadra Street Cemetery grave.

The Gold Rush era was cruel.

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