A world of shadow and light

Amid the tragedy of the SS Atlantic, Lynette Richards discovers the story of a remarkable young sailor who wasn’t at all what they seemed

When artist and self-described history scholar Lynette Richards moved to Terence Bay from Ontario 10 years ago, what she found at the end of her road astounded her. 

It was a little museum and two mass graves, memorializing the SS Atlantic tragedy that happened on April 1, 1873. On that day, the passenger ship hit rocks and sank off the coast of Nova Scotia, killing 535 people.

“I was dumbfounded that the worst shipwreck in Nova Scotian history happened right there at the end of the road, and nobody knew about it except the few descendants of the rescuers that still lived there,” she says.

Richards joined the board of directors of the SS Atlantic Heritage Park museum. As she educated herself about the sinking, a paragraph stood out to her from the April 5, 1873 edition of the Halifax Morning Chronicle: among the dead was a mysterious young woman.

“It was discovered that this person had been among the crew, unbeknownst to anybody, and they are buried in one of the mass graves at the end of the road,” Richards says. “My heart leaped because I recognized the spirit of this person in me, and I was also heartbroken that they were buried anonymously in this last grave. It suddenly felt like a pilgrimage destination, and I knew I needed to tell this story for the world.”

Merging her passion for storytelling with her visual artistry, Richards will publish the historical graphic novel Call Me Bill (Conundrum Press) in September, sharing the story of the sailor who ran away from home in New Jersey. 

Researching the book was a four-year process, including talks with historian Bob Chaulk and lots of online searches. Richards enlisted genealogist Nathaniel Smith to help with the research. Smith found a key article from the Wilmington Morning Star. The woman interviewed in that article recounts a life at sea, saying “I call myself Billy when I put on my pantaloon.”

Other discoveries followed. “Then in the Halifax Chronicle and Morning Chronicle papers … the story unfolded and got more elaborate,” Richards explains. “A sailor from the ship was interviewed and said, ‘I didn’t know Bill was a woman.’ That was a second reference to this person being called Bill.”

As for the illustrations, Richards tapped into her primary passion for stained glass art to make the story come to life through a skillful balance of colours and evocative shadow and shading.

“It represents the human experience of sorrow, joy, and the intermingling of all those things,” she says. “It represents non-binary experiences … When we look directly at the sun, which is pure light, we’re blinded. When we are into darkness, we’re blinded. The only way we experience the world and each other is because of shadow and light, the intermingling of the two. There is such a range between the two binaries; that is where we live, which also applies to gender. To me, the medium that I chose to work in — which is grey tones, shades of grey and water that blurs across lines — symbolizes gender diversity.”

Lynette Richards. Photo: Jim Kimball

For Richards, this book is about life, not death, with parallel stories: the fates of Bill and the SS Atlantic.

“It’s about the experience of the people who launched into the cold dark night, risked their own lives to save people who were in trouble, brought them into their own homes, and gave them everything they had,” she says. “It’s just such a generosity because that is what people do, so I wanted to talk about the rescuers and the villagers. A lot of the descendants of those very same people still live in the villages at the end of our road, and because the story has been forgotten, they feel neglected and lost generations later. There is generational trauma from the experience of having 500 dead bodies washed up on our shore, so I wanted to tell the story for them; to bring it back to life.”

And she could relate to Bill.

“Being gender nonconforming as a lesbian, we came out over and over,” she says. “It’s never a one-shot deal, and it takes a ton of courage. Young adults especially go through torment. I wanted to make sure this book was about courage and encouraging them to live fully, exactly-embody who they want to be. They have to have a lot of courage and imagine everything is possible. Some things will be scary, feel insurmountable and terrifying, but through courage, they can take steps into that territory and try on different parts of different identities and see what feels right and what resonates.”

With the 150th anniversary of the SS Atlantic tragedy looming in 2023, Richards hopes this book will inspire people to educate themselves.

“I hope they learn about the heroic response of local Nova Scotians to this cataclysmic catastrophe out in the ocean,” she says. “That should be better known by Nova Scotians, Canadians, and the whole world. It was a ship that went from Liverpool to New York. It had a lot of immigrants from Sweden and all over the place. I want people to be generous with each other. Hopefully, they can empathize through reading that story and recognize that we’re all in this together. We need to look kindly on each other.”

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