TRAGIC AFTERMATH OF A TRAGEDY (August 22/03)

When a monument was erected to Perez Coldwell several years ago, various newspapers chronicled the 1852 boating accident that resulted in the loss of seven lives and lead to coining the now familiar term “six precious souls from Acadia and a man from Gaspereau.”

Almost as if it is an afterthought, the newspaper articles mention the sole survivor of the boating mishap, George Benjamin of Gaspereau. In every account I’ve read of the incident, some of which date back more than 50 years, Benjamin is mentioned in passing, usually as a footnote; other than this mention, he is generally ignored.

But what of George Benjamin? What became of the other man from Gaspereau who survived that terrible day on Minas Basin in the summer of 1852?

There is evidence that George Benjamin’s life changed drastically after the tragedy. This was brought to my attention by Richard Skinner who with a bit of detective work, discovered Benjamin’s fate after the Minas Basin drowning. But some background first.

In a column last June I quoted from W. C. Milner’s Minas Basin history, offering some of the off-colour glimpses the author included in his work. One excerpt mentioned that a man named Benjamin, “who did not possess a very sound mind,” burned down a church in Wolfville around 1878. Benjamin was “taken in charge by his friends,” the account concluded and “sent to the asylum in Halifax.”

As a descendant of the Benjamins, Richard Skinner was curious to know if this was the same man who had survived the Minas Basin accident. He determined first that the Roman Catholic church in Wolfville had been destroyed by an arsonist around the year given by Milner. Judy Forsythe has written a history of the Wolfville Catholic church, an update based on an earlier work by David Young; and this gives the year of the fire as 1875 and names Charles Benjamin as the arsonist. Forsythe and Milner write that Benjamin set fire to the church when a priest refused to approve his marriage, said Benjamin apparently being “of unsound mind” at the time.

All accounts of the Minas Basin tragedy give Benjamin’s first name as George; Forsythe’s history of the Wolfville church gives Benjamin’s first name as Charles. However, they apparently are the same man and two sources confirm this.

The first is the extensive Benjamin family genealogy on file at the Kings County Museum. In the genealogy of Planter grantee Obadiah Benjamin, one of his descendants sired a son, Charles. Quoting from the genealogy, “Charles Thompson Benjamin was the sole survivor of an expedition on Minas Basin on June 7th, 1852, when ‘six precious souls from Acadia and a man from Gaspereau’ were drowned. Charles Thompson is believed to have died at the provincial asylum at Dartmouth.”

The second source is an obituary dated June 6, 1901, from the Berwick Register: “Charles T. Benjamin of Wolfville died at Mount Hope Asylum (in Dartmouth) on Monday of heart failure. He was 72 years of age and had been insane a great many years. He was the only survivor of the Minas Basin tragedy of 1852 when Professor Chipman, Rev. E. D. Very, four students and ‘a man from Gaspereau’ were drowned’.”

Undoubtedly overcome by the terrible accident, Benjamin apparently became unstable. Sadly, eight lives were lost in the 1852 accident on Minas Basin, the final victim being claimed decades later.

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