A “Thomas” Bernier mystery – Part 1

In the previous entry, I discussed how I learned that one of my great granduncles, Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, was a celebrated early 20th-century French-Canadian polar-exploring sea captain. Because I find the story behind that surprise a bit entertaining, I thought I’d share it here.

* * *

In my youth, my mother would often share the story of how she was descended from a family of adventurous sea captains with the last name of Bernier. The following passage from her memoir is characteristic of that story.

[My father’s] forbears lives were unusual and included interesting journeys to far off lands. For the most part their lives as sea captains lent itself to a multitude of happenings…One was an explorer who visited the far reaches of the Bering Sea. Due to his explorations, there is an island named after him, Bernier Island, located in the arctic North, and is recorded in Canadian history books.

In addition to being adventurous, one of these sea captains was apparently quite unethical.

[Grandmother Boisjoly’s] other brother, Thomas, was a scoundrel, a sea captain, and owner of a large fleet of ships. He amassed a fortune by very questionable means… Captain Bernier would commission a vessel for a particular port with a full cargo. If it were heavier or larger than the cargo’s capacity, he would have the ballast removed allowing for extra cargo space. When it reached its destination and a return cargo was not forthcoming, he would send the ship to the next port of call without ballast. This was a very dangerous practice and against all maritime laws. If they encountered a heavy storm, without ballast to act as a stabilizer, the ship would founder and all hands would be lost. Naturally all his vessels were heavily insured!.. Without survivors or a log, who was the wiser?

Did my granduncle “Thomas” ever have to pay for his misdeeds? Apparently so.

Finally, [a ship] that foundered had a witness, his first mate, who was clutching the logbook when rescued. A logbook contains the manifest and all pertinent data such as weight of cargo, destination, etc., of a vessel. The first mate contacted all families of the deceased crew, hired lawyers and sued Captain Bernier. Millions were awarded to the families of those lost at sea by the maritime commission. He lost his master’s papers, and had to dispose of his fleet. This was a terrible dishonor but one he fully deserved. The insurance companies revoked many of their earlier settlements awarded for the loss of his ships.

And did the law catching up with Thomas leave him penniless? Apparently not.

When he died at 72, he was still a multi millionaire, despite losing millions in lawsuits.

What about alone and regretful? Not according to my mom.

During this time [of being sued,] his wife died leaving him a widower at 52. [W]ithin six months, [he] married a very beautiful woman who was about 20 years younger than he. She was the belle of Quebec and in their beautiful mansion they lavishly entertained. They didn’t have children and he died about fifteen years later leaving her his fortune. Years later, Mom and Dad went to visit her. Mom said she was very gracious, entertained them very pleasantly, asked them to stay a few days as her guests, but they declined. It was rumored Madame Bernier was still the richest women in Quebec.

Shocking as it may seem, this story suggests that being unethical in business can sometimes pay well enough to live the good life, even after your business sins are aired in public. But when my mother shared the story of her scoundrel granduncle with us as youngsters, she glossed over whether his fortune survived the lawsuits. In fact, I specifically recall her mentioning how those legal problems precipitated her grandmother’s family losing their maid and members of the family having to get working-class jobs.

Perhaps my mother’s strong Catholic faith dissuaded her from sharing that part of the story so as to not encouraging her impressionable children from being unethical, as this was a quality she greatly admired in my father.

[My husband] Frank was a good man with highly ethical values. He came from an honest hard working Polish family, was a devout Catholic, and extremely intelligent…. Many men would not have been as ethical. He was human and frail like all, but I respected his integrity.

Or perhaps she embellished the post-scandal portion of Thomas’ story to add another measure of specialness to the history of her ancestors, as suggested by other passages from her memoir:

Being natural in my writing seemed the way to go but could I write as I talked? I think not! The use of frequent superlatives is part of the rambling problem.

I have been aware at times of exaggerating the truth a bit, not a deliberate lie, but essentially little different.

But wait! According to my research, her “Grandmother Boisjoly”, a.k.a. Henriette-Émilie Bernier-Boisjoly, did not have a brother named Thomas. There was Alfred, as mentioned in my mother’s memoir:

Her older brother, Alfred Bernier, was a gentle and kindly man, and owner of a fine haberdashery shop.

And there was Joseph-Elzéar, the famous sea captain, as discussed in the previous entry. But no “Thomas”.

* * *

So, was “Thomas” Bernier, unscrupulous sea captain businessman, a creation of my mother’s tendency “exaggerating the truth a bit”? Well, if that were so, there would need to be some kind of truth for her to exaggerate. And inventing a completely new sea captain uncle seems a bit more than merely exaggerating.

So it is possible that one of my mother’s known uncle’s who was a sea captain was also a “scoundrel” who amassed a fortune, was widowed later in life, married a much younger woman shortly thereafter with whom he had no children, and died a multi-millionaire after enjoying many parties in his mansion with his beautiful second-wife? Well, except for some of the finer details in my mother’s story “Thomas”, much of the evidence points to the aforementioned Joseph-Elzéar Bernier. You know. celebrated early 20th-century French-Canadian polar-exploring sea captain. Read on to learn why.

* * *

When researching my mother’s family tree, I was able to find found vital records on genealogy websites that helped me identify almost all of mother’s New World ancestors back to the 1600s. The one major puzzle in that search was a lack of clear evidence that my mother’s grandmother had a brother named Thomas. A French-Canadian burial record for a Thomas Bernier from the 1930s hinted at his possible existence, but none of the witnesses to that record were members of my mother’s Bernier family tree.

At about the same time, I found the evidence discussed in the previous entry that the confirmed that the famous sea captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier was Grandmother Boisjoly’s oldest brother. And later, I ran across Marjolaine Saint-Pierre’s excellent biography of Joseph-Elzéar, reviews of which mentioned it having an extensive discussion of his genealogy and family.

The reviews of Ms. Saint-Pierre’s book that I had read, thankfully, did not exaggerate. It contains a wealth of information about Joseph-Elzéar’s family, backed by references to a plethora of documents and records from the period of their lives. But Ms. Saint-Pierre’s book did initially disappoint me in one way: it contained no mention of Grandmother Boisjoly’s brother “Thomas”. None.

But I was not disappointed for long. Because when the details of Ms. Saint-Pierre’s book merged with my understanding of “Thomas”‘ life, the following thought occurred to me: the ignoble sea captain/scoundrel businessman “Thomas” Bernier per my mother’s memoir was a mistaken reference to the good captain/polar explorer Joseph-Elzéar Bernier. As this entry is already a bit long, I’ll cover that aspect of this story in the next entry.

The Tightwire Guy

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