Midway through a career that saw him in and out of employment as the chief law enforcement officer in the little town of Pictou, Nova Scotia, Peter Owen Carroll, known to one and all as “Peachie”, caught the gold fever bug and headed off to the Klondike. He quit his job as Pictou’s police chief, left his wife and children, and spent most of 1898 and 1899 on the west coast, between Vancouver and Atlin, which was the closest he ever got to Dawson City.
This wanderlust was not unusual for Peachie. While he spent much of his life based in Pictou he roamed quite widely through the Maritimes, using almost any excuse to hit the road in pursuit of a criminal. During much of his career he worked at more than one job at a time, combining the activities of police chief, bounty hunter and private detective in a time when the remuneration for the municipal job was less than stirling.
Monica Graham sums up Peaches life in her introduction:
“He was a sailor, a small town constable, a writer, a fisherman, a keen observer, a bounty hunter, an athlete, a leader, a lover, a prospector, a dreamer, a fireman, a mean and dirty fighter, a ghost hunter, a horseman, an innkeeper, a railway guard, a fine country gentleman, a strike buster and a legend in his own time. Whether sinner or saint, Peter Owen Carroll is best remembered as a police detective.
“That’s how he would have liked it.”
Carroll was a big man, as attested by his surviving uniforms, Born in 1860, he had worked his way through half that list of accomplishments (had been to seas and had mined in Colorado) by 1884, when he became Pictou’s police chief. When he began, the province of Nova Scotia had no serious criminal code to speak of and Pictou was a thriving international port. Graham describes Carroll’s original duties as being “basically those of glorified night watchman and a bar bouncer.”
Carroll enjoyed more complicated challenges than that, and the scope of the job seemed to expand with the scope of his ambition. Sidelines as a bounty hunter, private detective and liquor inspector brought in more money but also allowed him to travel and do more interesting things.
By all accounts he was pretty good at most of what he did though Graham did find that he had exaggerated his feats and left out some shadier escapades in his 1923 self-published autobiography.
His gold rush adventures, which cover chapters 11, 12 and 13, about 30 pages in the book, show us a man who could not quite manage to leave his life Outside behind him. He was peripherally involved with a murder investigation near Glenora and posted articles about his adventures back to the Pictou Advocate. When it looked like his party was going to winter in Teslin, Peachie headed south and spent the winter working, first on the White Pass railway construction out of Skagway, and then as a labourer in New Westminster.
The next year he appears to have had some issues with his travelling companions and split with them over his decision to look into the little gold rush near Atlin, where he was unsuccessful in several staking rushes, He ended his northern sojourn working for the salmon fleet out of Steveston.
Back in Pictou, he returned to various jobs in law enforcement, but he later returned to the west to work as a policeman in Nelson, BC, for a time.
As successful as he generally was in his detective work, Peachie seems to have made a hash of his first marriage. He was seldom around and never seemed to consult his wife, Rowena, on any of his adventures. He was taken by surprise, it seems, to discover that she had been seeking comfort with another man, and even more so when she packed up her things and their eldest daughter, and left for California along with her lover. Oddly enough, the great detective never did manage to track them down or, at least, never admitted to it.
His second wife was Margaret, a woman half his age, whom he had known since she was six. She set her cap for him and got him, and it seems that their marriage was every bit the partnership that his first one had not been. They lived for a time in Springhill, but returned to Pictou and eventually he retired there. In his later years he suffered from both respiratory and degenerative bone diseases, ailments which had probably begun to bother him in the Klondike in 1899.
Graham’s account of Peachie’s life is enlivened with tales of a number of his more famous cases, times when he proved himself to be clever as well as adventurous: murders, thefts, and even the case of a haunted house.
A good portion of this book was written while Graham was writer-in-residence at Berton House in 2008. She had finished the book by the time I visited her in Pictou that summer, and it was published last spring.