A “Thomas” Bernier mystery – Part 2

In the first installment on this story, I introduced you to the story of my great granduncle “sea captain scoundrel”, “Thomas” Bernier. Per my mother’s memoir, “Thomas” amassed a sizable fortune using unscrupulous maritime practices, enough so to enjoy a life of luxury for over a decade after being successfully sued for some of those practices. I also mentioned how independent vital records and biographical accounts do not support the existence of such a “Thomas” Bernier in my mother’s family tree. Finally, I mentioned that the evidence strongly suggests that the “sea captain scoundrel” discussed in my mother’s memoir was actually the celebrated French-Canadian polar exploring sea-captain, Joseph-Elzéar Bernier. In this entry, I present details about “Thomas” and Joseph-Elzéar Bernier that support that claim.

* * *

First, Marjolaine Saint-Pierre’s biography of Joseph-Elzéar, hereafter referred to as J.E. Bernier: Champion, corroborates that my maternal great grandmother, Marie-Henriette-Emilie Bernier-Boisjoly, only had one brother who was a sea captain: the good Joseph-Elzéar. Second, there are several corresponding similarities between my supposed great granduncle “Thomas” per my mother’s memoir and Joseph-Elzéar per J.E. Bernier: Champion, as shown in here with the relevant pages of the latter indicated in bracketed italics:

  1. Thomas’ first wife died when he was 52. Joseph-Elzéar was widowed by the death of his first wife in 1917, which puts him at age 65. [264]
  2. Thomas remarried about six months after his first wife died. Joseph-Elzéar remarried in 1919, about two years after being widowed. [349]
  3. Thomas’ second wife was “a very beautiful woman … about 20 years younger” than him. Joseph-Elzéar’s second wife was about 30 years younger but was “not a very pretty woman”. [267, 349]
  4. Thomas and his second wife lived in a “beautiful mansion”. Joseph-Elzéar and his second wife lived in a “pleasingly proportion[ed]” house, “Villa Bernier”, that resembled a “great museum” after he extensively remodeled and decorated it, and which was located on a large “choice property” overlooking the Saint Laurence River across from the city of Quebec. [268-270]
  5. Thomas and his second wife “lavishly entertained” visitors at their home. Joseph-Elzéar appears to have had many visitors at Villa Bernier, including “people who wanted to believe that the man familiarly known as the ‘North Pole man’ was immortal” during his retirement. [300]. Also, Captain Elzéar had other comforts in his retirement that his good fortune could afford, such as owning and being chauffeured in a limousine, having a chalet built on a resort lake in northern Quebec for summer retreats, and vacationing yearly in Vancouver or on pleasure cruises to tropical island locales. [301]
  6. Thomas and his second wife were childless. Joseph-Elzéar’s only biological child, a son born early in his marriage to his second wife, died at childbirth. [270-271]
  7. Thomas died about fifteen years after remarrying. Joseph-Elzéar died “a little shy of his 83rd birthday” on in late 1934, about sixteen years after remarrying. [303]
  8. Thomas left his widow a “fortune”. Joseph-Elzéar left his second wife an estate of “$30,00 in cash, as well as assets of $42,000”, Canadian. [304]
  9. “It was rumored [Thomas’s widow] was still the richest women in Quebec” several years after he died. After Joseph-Elzéar died, his widow lived comfortably in Villa Bernier until her death over two decades later. Upon her death, her nieces inherited her property and belongings, including the valuable land the Villa Bernier sat on. [308]

Except for some acceptable differences in the reported ages of “Thomas” versus Joseph-Elzéar and those of their respective second wives, the only material difference between these sea captains per these accounts is the relative size of their respective fortunes. Adjusted for inflation, the cash Joseph-Elzéar left his widow would be worth about $500,000 Canadian today (about the same amount in US dollars). The land where Joseph-Elzéar’s museum-like house once stood, one of several properties he owned, was sold for $358,000 Canadian [308] in 1991, or about $1.2 million Canadian adjusted for inflation. Given that my mother grew up in a budget-challenged working-class family during the Great Depression, it is understandable that her perception and memory of her granduncle Bernier’s fortune would be exaggerated. With that perspective, the similarity of the accounts of “Thomas” and Joseph-Elzéar strongly suggest that my mother was unknowningly referring to her polar-exploring sea captain granduncle Joseph-Elzéar when sharing tales of her Grandmother Boisjoly’s sea captain/businessman/scoundrel brother “Thomas”.

Why do I say “unknowningly”? First, my mother’s memoir also identifies a Bernier sea captain relative of her grandmother who was a famous polar explorer, but it does not identify him by name, nor that he was her one of Grandmother Boisjoly’s brothers.

As a young girl, I was exposed to many stories of forbears by Grandmother Boisjoly, Dad, and Mom. Grandmother had many of these incidents in a little green book which was later lost but its fascination are recorded in memory to this day… Also included in her little green book were many other tidbits of information regarding other distant relatives. 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.

Second, while Mom was mistaken about the existence of a “Bernier Island” in the Arctic, Joseph-Elzéar did erect a plaque on Melville Island when laying claim to that region during his polar exploits. And a bay in the Arctic is named after him. And he was discussed in books and articles on Canadian history that were published long before my mother wrote her memoir in the 1990s.

Third, given how proud my mother was about her Bernier heritage, I can assure you that I would have learned of this famous Bernier relation long before stumbling across evidence. I guarantee it.

* * *

So why didn’t my mother not know the name of her famous sea-captaining granduncle? Perhaps Joseph-Elzéar Bernier hadn’t been recognized for his polar exploring exploits during his life. Or perhaps the public recognition for his accomplishments wasn’t realized until after his only sister could have shared such details with her adoring and inquisitive granddaughter, with whom she lived for the last decade or so of her life. Alas, neither of these cases is true. According to J.E. Bernier: Champion (page 296), Joseph-Elzéar received the following honors for his Arctic exploits while still very much alive:

  • Member of Explorer’s club of New York and it’s president in 1909.
  • Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London, receiving its “coveted ‘Sir George Back Award’ in 1925.
  • Fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute of London.
  • Member of the Royal Explorer’s Society of London.
  • Fellow of the American Geographical Society.
  • Vice-president of the Arctic Club of New York.
  • Member of the Royal Geographical Society of Madrid.
  • Founding member of the Societé académique d’histoire internationale de Paris.
  • Member of the Societé de geographie de Québec, receiving two of medals, including the Médaille d/or de grand mérite, in 1925.
  • Honorary member of the Royal Empire Society of Quebec.
  • Honorary member of the Arctic Society of Canada.
  • Recognized by Leith Nautical College and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, both of Edinburgh.
  • Recipient of King George V’s Imperial Service Medal in 1927.

Some of Captain Bernier’s medals that he received during his career. [Photo Lynn Fournier, Collection of the Musée du Québec (Musée Bernier), courtesy of J.E. Bernier: Champion, page 295]

And to top it off, Pope Pius XI honored him by making him a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in 1933 (J.E. Bernier: Champion page 297), a good five years before his sister, my mother’s Grandmother Boisjoly, passed away. To a devoted Catholic like my mother, such an honor bestowed on a granduncle would surely have earned an indelible place in her memory if she had learned of it. Instead, her recorded memories about her grandmother’s sea captain brother tell a tale of an unscrupulous businessman who skirted justice enough to live a life of comfort and luxury to his dying days. Which doesn’t sound at all like a candidate for a great honor from the Holy See.

Captain Bernier, Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. [Photo from the archives of Carol and Louis Terrien, courtesy of J.E. Bernier: Champion, page 298]

Which leaves me wondering: Why didn’t my mother know about her granduncle Joseph-Elzéar’s accomplishments and honors? Grandmother Boisjoly apparently had been proud enough to write in her “little green book” that one of her relatives was a polar-exploring sea captain at some point in her life. And given the timing of their respective lives, my mother had plenty of chances to hear about Joseph-Elzéar directly from his only living sister. But for some reason, Grandmother Boisjoly apparently failed to share this aspect of her successful sea captain brother’s life with my mother when sharing the many stories of her Bernier relatives. If so, why?

But also, if my mother’s memory of her Bernier sea captain granduncle was of such an unscrupulous character, is there any truth to those claims relevant to Joseph-Elzéar? Does anything in his life at all resemble the heinous accusations passed down in the memoir of one of his relatives?

Given the length of this entry, I’ll leave a treatment of those questions for the next installment of this “Thomas” Bernier mystery.

The Tightwire Guy.

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