One of the great aspects of collecting inspiration for my writing, is the opportunity to interview historical experts for The Wellspring Podcast. Recently, I had the pleasure of discussing the War of 1812 and General Isaac Brock with historical author, Tom Taylor and museum curator, Monica Effenberger. It was a delightful conversation, at Lynde House Museum, packed with historical insights and delectable anecdotes. Enjoy!
Please enjoy this Wellspring Podcast episode of Part 1: The War of 1812 with Historical Author Tom Taylor & Lynde House Museum Curator, Monica Effenberger.
[Continue below to The Wellspring Podcast transcript.]
Hello! You’re listening to The Wellspring Podcast, dedicated to quenching your thirst for bygone days. I’m Gwen Tuinman, an author digging into the past for details that form the bedrock of my novels and short stories. This very special episode was recorded at Lynde House Museum in Whitby, Ontario where I was joined by Tom Taylor, historical fiction author and War of 1812 aficionado.
Tom has had a varied career. He’s been a television host and producer, a long time entrepreneur and director, a company president, and now an award winning writer. In another century, he graduated from York University in history, and as a younger man he served in the 7th Toronto Artillery Regiment. He is the author of such novels as Brock’s Agent, Brock’s Railroad, Brock’s Traitor, and Brock’s Assassin. Also joining us was Monica Effenberger, Curator of Lynde House Museum.
Lynde House Museum was the perfect backdrop to our discussion of the War of 1812. As we’ll hear from Tom and Monica, the Lynde family often hosted General Isaac Brock, and played an important role in the War of 1812.
I opened our discussion by first asking Tom how he made the leap from historian to historical fiction writer.
TOM: That’s a good question. You know historians interpret history. There is no truth in that sense. We all interpret, whether on a societal level, historians interpret what they read and what they see and what they understand. And on a personal level–you know the old story, if we all saw an accident happen, we’d all have our own view. We’d speak the truth for us, the best we could. So, historians like to purport to tell the truth. This is our […] history […]—the history as if it’s the truth.
But it’s really kind of a lie in a way because it’s an interpretation as much as anything else. So, I’ve said to you before, I like to call historical fiction a lie that tells the truth because what I do now is I tell a story about the war of 1812, but I try to capture the spirit of the thing and not just the fact. And often I raise this example about Isaac Brock. And so here’s the difference between history and historical fiction.
Brock was in Canada approximately 10 to12 years. He died unfortunately on October 13th at about 5, 6 maybe 7 in the morning at the battle of Queenston Heights in 1812. This book (Brock’s Agent) culminates with that great battle. So history records he was in Canada all that time and he never had in affair. There’s no documentation of him ever having affair with anyone. But we know he had lots of female friends. And I mean, here he is—he’s a good-looking guy, he loved parties, he loved to dance. The night before his death, in fact, he had a party at his home in Niagara-on-the-Lake which was Newark at the time. He cut the party short because there was a report of something fishy going on down the river at Queenston. So in my novel, in Brock’s Agent, Brock has a sleepover. And I don’t—I’m Canadian. We’re sort of British (laughter). You know it’s silly, my mom was alive at the time, but I was reading this thing and as a writer I was thinking, “Geez my mom is going to read this thing.”(laughter) I better… he’ll have a sleepover and I’ll let the reader decide what happened right. I’m not telling about it.
But I was on stage with a professor from Brock. We were at Fort York, maybe a hundred people in the audience. And he said, “Well, this book! He has Brock as—” I think he called him a philanderer. There’s one scene. I mean come on. “And there’s no evidence of this ever happening.” So I asked the moderator, “Can I say something?” I already had my say and then he was speaking about his book and why Brock charged up Queenston Heights. It wasn’t too bad but actually. But he was a history professor so there had to be written evidence. I’ve always maintain Brock was a gentleman. He’s not going to tell tales about who he’s sleeping with or not. It would be unthinkable for him to do that. So, this guy sits down after trashing my book.
The moderator wanted controversy, so I stood up and said, “Okay, he’s 43 years old when he died, so he was in his thirties—a great time. At that time he was head of the province, known as president of the executive. So, I mean he’s Major General Isaac Brock to us, but often people referred to him back then as the president. Loves parties, good looking guy. How many in here think that Isaac Brock was celibate for his entire for his 10 or 12 years in the Canadas? Put up your hand. Okay nobody put up their hands. “I said, “How many of you think he might’ve had an affair?” Everybody put up their hand. Everybody! So I looked at this guy and I said, “Now, that’s the difference between historical fiction and history.”
Look, all the facts in here, the historical facts, are accurate: dates of the battle, the time he died. They’re not quite sure the exact time he died. He’s wearing a brigadier’s jacket, not his Major General’s jacket. That’s in the novel. I mean it’s about 4 in the morning when he gets woken. It’s dark in his room. He just reaches and grabs a jacket. It’s a brigadier’s jacket. He gets on his horse, ridest to Queenston Heights along the Niagara Parkway. I don’t know if you’ve driven down. It’s quite beautiful down there. So if you imagine Isaac, tdla tdla, off he goes.
This professor, just to end this little story—afterwards there was another guy on the panel as well, an archeologist who was doing digs at the fort. So we were asked to stay after work to sign books and talk to people. This guy got off and he stormed out of the room and I’ve never heard from him again or seen him again anywhere. His books are out there. But he was quite upset I think to be kind of shown up by this lower life historical fiction guy. (laughter)
But the problem with history is, if the bunch of us ran across the street in a pouring rain and if it wasn’t documented that by the time we got there, we were wet—well history wouldn’t record that any of the raindrops hit us. They’d assume we manage to dodge every raindrop. I mean, there’s certain things in history that are silly, and to a graduate of York, being a guy who was kind of cantankerous little bit as a student, you know, I was always looking for where history didn’t work as much as where it worked.
I respect what they do. It’s not easy. It’s a lot of work. I have an 1812 newspaper from Alexandria in the states and I was researching the cost to retrieve a slave, and I was told that it was originally 5 bucks. If you look in the history books, they’ll tell you five bucks. Some were 10. Well there’s one for 20 in there. Then Gwen and I found one on the front page for a hundred dollars to retrieve a slave. So, there was a lot of wide breadth. So I respect that historians take a lot of time to get this right. By the same token, theirs is an interpretation of the past, and so is mine. Not every view of the past is a historical one. So I would put it to you briefly, that there’s no history in the Toronto Star because every view of the past is not a historical one.
So I’ll give you a quick example. Brock rode that distance between Newark and Queen Heights a thousand time. Do we care? No we know, we care about one time. The morning of October 13th 1812. That’s what we care about it. Now the press probably reported every time. General Brock’s on the move. Every morning, all his movements were tracked unless he was keeping them secret and the press would report on what he’s up to you. General Brock is moving to York. Because he was at Fort York a great deal.
Even in your own life, maybe as young women, you went to many dances, met different men. Ninety-nine percent of them didn’t matter, but there was that one guy you met that one time at the dance or at a dinner with your parents or somewhere. And that’s when you fell in love and that’s an important historical time for you. So history works on a societal level and it works on a personal level. The same principles laid down by, you know Kierkegaard and Hegel and all those great philosophers. If they don’t work on a personal level there not going to work on a personal level, they aren’t going to work on a societal level. They got to work on both.
So to get back to my long-winded answer to your question, (laughter) why I moved from one or how I did it, well that’s how I did it. I wanted to write about a Canadian hero and I knew he had to be fictional bcause I wasn’t writing about Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzke. I wanted to write about a historical hero. The Americans have lots of them and the British have James Bond and all those guys. Why can’t we have a hero? We had great guys.
GWEN: I think that’s kind of a nice segway to ask if there is a section of the book that you’d like to share with us.
TOM: I can do that. Just to give you a sense of voice, there’s actually two little sections. So, this is from the second novel. This is the one I’ve been referring to. The first one was Brock’s Agent and that’s the introduction to young Jonathan Westlake, the hero—Upper Canada’s first secret agent in the War of 1812. He is in great adventures in this one. So, Niagara Falls, 1812. “Luther Johnson ran for is life… (Listen to the complete reading on the podcast recording at 11:02 minutes.)
So this is like the old Dashiell Hammed, phrase when you introduce a gun in act one, by act three, gotta go off. So we’ve introduce Niagara Falls in act one and then in act three, well, I’ll leave it to you to decide what’s going to happen.
Over my shoulder is kind of a special place in the world of 1812 because this is the hotel that the British retreated through and soldiers ransack the place. But before they got there, the officers had crossed the Don River, and you know, destroyed the bridge. And the Americans, it wasn’t so easy. I mean the Bloor Viaduct wasn’t there, you know, no bridge across and if you try to cross well the British are on this side taking pot shots at you while you’re in the water, right. So they kind of stopped at the Don River, deserting the populous of Toronto and leaving them for the militia. There were two great bars at the time, two great hotels. One was the Jordan Hotel in Toronto, in York, which was known to have unsavory characters around there. Maybe American spies, maybe….you know…people who weren’t American spies but weren’t full out British Patriots either. So the Jordan was kind of mixed. The Lynde House, as far as I could understand or what I read, was always British, was always supportive of the British and made money from the British. They worked with the British and the British worked with the Lynde House. So I can’t read you too much of it because it’s right at the end of the story, but I will say that you’ll recognize this because you just went on the tour. So this is the British Army retreating to the Lynde House. “The the two story Lynde House and Tavern loomed ahead … (Listen to the complete reading on the podcast recording at 16:53 minutes.)
So what men did was to get out of fighting was they just said they were sick. “I can’t do it. I’m sick today. I can’t go.” The British didn’t look too favorably on that. And it wasn’t just militia men who did that. Regular soldiers did that in line of battle. “Well gosh, not feeling well. Can’t go today. Sorry guys.” So there could be reprimands, but one thing I would tell you is Brock’s Railroad is a story about freedom and, in terms of the time, the colored company— a group of 36 to 38 , formerly slaves, escapes slaves fought beside the British at the bottle of Queenston Heights on the edge of the 41st British regiment. There’s not a single report of them coming down with stomach flu on the day of the battle. They all went to fight. They all performed admirably and they had really good reason. If they lost where were they going? Back home.
GWEN: So Tom, you gave us some really nice broad brush strokes of the War of 1812 and some of the things that were happening, even just that experience of what would have happened if the men tried to cross the Don River. The risks there. So that kind of takes my mind to you, Monica. I wanted to ask if you could give us a clear picture of what the Lynde family role was, what Jabez was doing and what the place of the house was in that history in the War of 1812.
MONICA: As Tom has mentioned, the house was a tavern and an inn, so soldiers came through at the War of 1812 really. And they came here for somewhere to sleep and often times that meant they were sleeping on the floor because there wasn’t always room enough for everyone to sleep in the house. And sometimes, they even brought their wives and their families with them and they also came for refreshments, for something to eat something to drink on their way to go out elsewhere. So it was a pretty important place during the War of 1812—for that kind of spot to stop on their way to other places in the war. And also along with that Jabez Lynde also kept government supplies in case officers like General Brock came to the house to get something that they would have needed for battle. Sometimes it ment there would be a doctor there to take care of wounded soldiers throughout the war, so definitely an important place.
TOM: Yes, that’s a good point. When you stand in that house, you’re standing where General Brock stood. I mean he went through that house. Not just Major General Sheaffe. There’s Drummond. If you’re an 1812’er, you know who Drummond is. You know who all these characters are. So our history isn’t some oh it happened way back then. No, it’s right there.
GWEN: Monica, are there other stories connected to the house about that particular event that Tom wrote about in Brock’s Agent where General Sheaffe was retreating?
MONICA: Yes there was. So that was one of the instances where we did have soldiers coming into the house to get wounded medical treatment from Dr. Lee and Powell who are the ones giving the treatment. So a lot of wounded came. But like Tom mentions in the book, there was a lot of ransacking at that point in the house because there wasn’t really any officers with them. So they didn’t have that person in power saying okay we can’t just go and ransack people’s property. And it even went a little bit further with actually a gold necklace being stolen from Mrs. Lynde while she was sleeping. So it was stolen right off her neck.
TOM: Think about how shabby Sheaffe controlled his troops. The officers get there. I believe they stayed overnight I think Sheaffe slept in there and then they moved on and don’t leave an officer behind to keep control. They just say let the soldiers do what they will. Recently his great great grandaughter has come back to Canada to try and rebuild his reputation because he’s not looked upon as a very great character for stuff like that. I mean not that he did bad things, but he just neglected to do some good things that would have been very easy for him to do.
GWEN: I think I read too that some of the retreating soldiers took big hogsheads of whiskey or rum.
TOM: Probably whiskey.
GWEN: And there was a great overcoat taken and he sought compensation for that.
MONICA: Yes. So there was 18 gallons at this point the Lyndes had in their possession and they were actually told by doctors Lee and Powell to keep it for further wounded coming from York. But with the military men, they came and they just drank it all so there wasn’t any left for the wounded. And he did seek compensation. He estimated his damages at about 83 pounds and he had to write a number of letters to the government just to get compensated for that loss and in the end he only got about 68 pounds of it back in about 1816.
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Join us for Part Two of The War of 1812 with Historical Author Tom Taylor & Lynde House Museum Curator, Monica Effenberger on The Wellspring Podcast. Tom will share anecdotes about General Isaac Brock’s dashing exploits on and off the battlefield. And Monica share the story of how Brock stole a young girl’s heart.
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