By all accounts, Charles Alexander was a good man. Born in Scotland, he arrived wearily in Montreal in July of 1840, after a particularly perilous voyage across the Atlantic. Having lost everything in the grounding of his vessel just off the coast of Newfoundland, the twenty-four year old Alexander took a good three years to get himself and his family established in this city. Through much hard work and some good fortune in his confection business, he went on to become a popular municipal councillor as well as, somewhat later, a member of the Legislative Assembly of this province.
Charles Alexander was also very active in social issues, struggling for the rights of the unfortunate in at least a half – dozen charitable institutions in the Montreal of his day. He was, in short, a kind and generous man who, on more than one occasion, tried to bridge the linguistic and religious divides present in this city during the late Victorian, early Edwardian period.
I came to know of him through my daily visit to the Webster Library of Concordia University. There, I follow my hobby of pursuing century old newspapers in order to learn more about life in Montreal in the early 1900’s. For several hours, I will examine microfilmed copies of these same papers looking for stories which might be of interest to my local family history society.
One day, while viewing journals from November of 1905, I stumbled upon a news item about Mr. Alexander. It was, in fact, a report about his death which had taken place under tragic circumstances only the night before. It seems that the old man (he was 89 at the time) had fallen from a relatively low-silled window on the second storey of his Mackay Street residence. He was found, unconscious, on the plot of grass in front of his home by a couple of late night passers-by. The distinguished and much – loved Montrealer was carried back into his house where he died a couple of hours afterwards. His funeral took place a day or two later from the now demolished Emmanuel Congregational Church which was located only a few blocks from his home.
Given the importance of the man, the newspapers of the period followed with abundant stories about his life and death, all of which I read with great interest. However, for one reason or another, the account of his death intrigued me even more than that of his life, and I frustratingly wondered why that was so. Then, with an awful and sudden amazement, I deftly realized that the events surrounding his demise (his home, the low-silled window, his fall to the yard below) were all located within the space now occupied by the very library building in which I was conducting my research. Indeed, after an even closer inspection of the Montreal Street directory for the year 1905, I was also able to determine that the untoward event that lead to his death took place remarkably close to where I was seated in front of my microfilm reader.
For a few moments, I sat benumbed and pondered my peculiar finding. When I thought it through, however, I came to appreciate that, of course, we all walk in an expanse in which many others have already journeyed. There is hardly a space in this city (or any metropolis, for that matter) that hasn’t already experienced the defining drama that is life. Being an aficionado of local history, my daily stroll through Montreal’s city centre is a constant encounter with our eclectic past. From the public square upon which the infamous and bloody Gavazzi Riot took place in 1853 to the now-recycled building in which, in March of 1875, the first indoor ice hockey game was ever played, our civic ancestors left their mark upon this town and its space. From that simple fact, there is no avoidance.
Having depleted my transient interest in a clearly existential fancy, I leave my post in the university library for another day. Before l go, however, Information about Mr. Charles Alexander and his home are entered into my ever-growing data base of more or less useful information. That done, I remove my microfilm and carefully classify it away in its appropriate drawer for my next visit. Then, with lap-top in hand, I leave the edifice and set out to a nearby Chapter’s Bookstore. It will serve as a good diversion from my odd yet harmless preoccupation with ‘spatial awareness’, as I call it.
The book shop, only a few blocks away, takes all of five minutes to reach. Once inside, I quickly seek out, as is my custom, the history shelves, aspiring to find some new curiosity to append to my day. However, despite the change in venue, I unexpectedly discern that I have not totally eluded the friendly spirit that is Mr. Alexander. Astounded, I flinch but for a second when I abruptly realize that it was here, within the confines of this very space, that once stood Emmanuel Congregational Church, the very religious temple from which Charles Alexander was buried in 1905.