If only they could talk…
2 February 2016
— American Civil War, books' stories, Dr. Joseph Alexander Fife
Often when I pick up a book I find myself wishing it could tell its story to me. What could it tell me of its owners over the years? What had it seen of history from its place on the bookshelf, desk or table top? If only books could talk…
So, I decided to play a little game for this episode of Peroosnik. I pulled from a box a heavy tome, pretty battered up but still intact: Macaulay’s History of England, Philadelphia, E. H. Butler, 1861. I opened it and looked at the owner’s name. Immediately, I knew it was one of a lot of books I had bought from Mrs. Fife, the last of her family here, widow of the last owner/manager of the Fife Hardware, one of Kenora’s best known landmarks and longest running family-owned businesses. She was clearing out her house prior to moving east. This Joseph must have been a relative of her late husband.
I’ve known the Fifes for most of my life. My father and uncle had another of those old established family businesses – electrical appliances – and the saying around town used to be, “If you can’t get it at Fife’s, try Campbell Brothers,” or vice versa. Several times I had spoken with Mrs Fife about her genealogical research because it was an interest we both shared. I always understood that the Fifes were Scottish-Canadian for some reason. Yet here was one in the American Navy! Who was he?
Next to this book was another, Macaulay’s Essays, Boston, Phillips, Sampson & Co., 1859, equally battered with several items acting as bookmarks at various intervals. It, too, had a signature on its front free endpaper.
Pasted onto the first several blank pages are several religious poems, and one lengthy one entitled Canada, which stirred my curiosity some more. Is this someone yearning for his homeland, or is he intrigued by the prospect of visiting/emigrating? I can understand someone wanting to leave a war-torn country, and wanting to come to Canada, but why would a Canadian leave to become embroiled in someone else’s civil war? Oh I know it’s been done by many. But why?
Since the two books were of a period, Dr. Fife was obviously in the US when he got them, and one indicated that he was in the US Navy, I decided to see if I could find out any more about him. There is a lot of available material on those who served during the Civil War. If he was in the USN in 1864ish, then he might he have been seeing some battle action.
All I was able to find was a brief mention. The Register of the Commissioned, Warrant, and Volunteer Officers of the Navy of the United States including Officers of the Marine Corps, and Others for 1862 and 1863 both show Dr. J. A. Fife serving as the Acting Assistant Surgeon on the Schooner F. A. Ward.
I tried looking for him in New York and found that he was still there in 1865, studying medicine at Bellevue Hospital Medical College. Joseph Fife’s thesis on iodine has been digitised and is available to read, if you are curious (click the link). His signature on the cover page closely matches the 1864 one above. Along with it is the answer to one of my questions: Joseph A. Fife (is) of Canada. The paper is handwritten and a testament to the penmanship of the day.
Had I only realised it, another clue to Joseph’s past lay in that poem on Canada, pasted into Macaulay’s Essays. The prize of ten dollars was awarded to its author, Rev. B. Longley, at “the late convocation of Victoria University”.
When I searched for Dr. J. A. Fife in Canada, I came across mention of him in relation to his son, Col. Ashton Thomas Fife, the founder of the Fife Hardware Co. back here in Kenora. In an online biography of that man written by James Retson, I discovered that the Colonel was born in the Peterborough area of Ontario. This led me to a history of Peterborough in which a biography of the Doctor appeared.
Joseph was the son of Thomas Fife, who was the son of John Fife and Agnes Hutchinson, 1820 immigrants from Kincardine in the Kingdom of Fife, Scotland. The Fifes homesteaded in Otonabee, near Peterborough. Joseph was born on lot 26, concession 5 in 1838. His uncle, by the way, was David Fife, the man after whom the Red Fife wheat variety is named.
In 1860, Joseph Fife entered Victoria College of Medicine in Cobourg, Ontario. Victoria University? Perhaps that poem was read at his own convocation?
1863 and Fife had moved to Washington DC in hopes of gaining a position in the navy, but the history does not elaborate on the reason the youth craved such experience, or why, as a British subject, he wouldn’t seek it in the British Navy. He immediately obtained a commission as Assistant Surgeon in the US Navy. As a member of Admiral Dahlgren’s fleet in the South Atlantic Squadron, he was present at the bombardment of Charleston and spent two years on blockade duty during the American Civil War.
Perhaps the answer can be found in the mention that in politics, Fife was Reform. I would need to delve deeper than I have to determine precisely what that meant in that day in Canada. It may have meant that he had strong anti-slavery convictions. Britain had already banned slavery by this time. Perhaps fighting for the Union side against slavery gave him an opportunity to act upon his ideals. Maybe it was just that the USA was closer to home. Maybe he felt he could put his training to better use in a war-torn country. Perhaps it was all those things.
I also found an article the doctor wrote for the Canadian Lancet in 1877 (Vol. 9, p.225, also available to read online) in which he describes his treatment of, and the 14 year-old patient’s recovery from, a gunshot wound to the head.
Fife was practicing medicine through the 1890s. He died in 1902, after which his widow came to Kenora, according to Retson. Perhaps that’s how his books ended up here. Bill Fife, the late husband of the lady who sold me these volumes, was a great-nephew of the Colonel, and probably inherited the books as well as the business. And so, they have taken a long journey from a bookshop in New York or Washington, perhaps, over the waves to help the good doctor while away the hours of tedious blockade duty off the coast of Civil War South Carolina, back to grace the shelves of his home and consume his off duty hours to the day he died, then by train to the booming frontier town of Rat Portage (soon to be renamed Kenora). Now, after over a century of living on the bookshelves of Kenora Fifes, they wait for another owner to treasure and learn from their contents, and to wonder, “If only they could talk, what stories would these books tell?”