Twin Islands, tucked against Cortes Island’s southeast shore, has been a haven for a fascinating cast of characters that runs the gamut from spies and movie stars to Queen Elizabeth II. But it’s the obscure Nixon family who take top marks for intrigue. I hoped to solve the riddle of two mysterious deaths in this family for my current book, Sheltering in the Backrush, A History of Twin Islands—but what I found instead were more questions.
Reverend Harpur Nixon, an Anglo-Irish gentleman, moved to Twin Islands in 1912. He was leaving a fraught marriage and needed a place with moorage for his small yacht. Twin’s moat-like insularity, the beauty of its mountain views, arbutus groves, nesting eagles, and patches of arable land proved ideal. Reverend Nixon was soon followed by his 23-year-old son James, who had recently married a 48-year-old widow. James and Margaret Nixon were an unconventional couple by the standards of any day, and Twin was a buffer against the world.
Photographs taken by James Nixon chronicle their honeymoon idyll. When posing together, the pair gaze fondly into each other’s eyes. In one, James pours tea for Margaret from a tiny pot before a lace-covered table; in another, he smiles at his bride, his arm clasped about her shoulders. But Margaret takes centre stage in most of these photos, gazing lovingly into the camera, her face invariably turned to the right to hide a disfiguring scar.
Margaret told friends on Cortes that she had been a medical missionary in India before marrying James. Her first husband had died of a fever, and she had inhaled a parasite that remained alive in her nasal passages. It was a surgeon’s failed attempt to remove it that left her cheek scarred. Margaret was living on borrowed time. But for now, she and James revelled in fishing, hunting, and farming, all of it captured on film. Margaret donned a different outfit for each pose. Lounging around home, she wears pearls, high collars, and lampshade hats draped in lace. For chores, she appears in long skirts and sweaters; scattering grain for chickens from a Swift’s lard pail; flourishing one hand toward butchered pigs; standing with her rifle beside a deer carcass.
Their time on Twin was short. In 1915 Margaret’s health deteriorated and they moved in with James’s mother on Denman Island. Alone now, Reverend Nixon settled into his bunk aboard his yacht one evening to enjoy a pipe before bed. Just as he lit a match to it, an explosion erupted in his face. Nixon swaddled his bleeding jaw in a towel and motored across to Cortes for help, scribbling a note saying there must have been a blasting cap in his tobacco. But on searching his yacht some days later, police found his intact pipe—and a broken portal pierced by a shot from a high-calibre rifle.
Nixon speculated the shooter must have been a pit-lamper (using lantern light to blind a deer), who mistook his flaring match for an animal’s eyes. He insisted police drop their investigation and, as there were no further clues, they accepted his theory. In a bizarre twist, when news of Nixon’s injury hit the news, an Irish acquaintance told reporters Nixon’s father had survived a similar accident decades before when he was shot by Irish rebels.
After a month in a Vancouver hospital, subsisting on a liquid diet, Nixon begged his doctor to attempt reconstructive surgery. The doctor feared Nixon was too weak and, as predicted, he died on the operating table. But that’s not where the puzzles associated with this family end.
Two years after Reverend Nixon’s death, friends on Cortes got news his daughter-in-law Margaret also died on the operating table in a final attempt to clear her nasal passages. I hoped Margaret’s death certificate would shed light on how a parasite claimed her life, but I couldn’t find it. I broadened my search, scanning reams of death records, and there it was, obscured by a slight change to her first name. But I was in for a shock: Margaret’s cause of death was syphilis.
According to a medical historian, damage to nasal passages can be a symptom of this disease. We’ll never know how Margaret contracted syphilis, a venereal disease, though it’s likely to have been through her first husband. Her second husband James somehow escaped it, allowing him to marry again, and live into old age.
The stories of these Twin Islanders—plus many more who followed—fully deliver on the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.