Reading Halifax’s history

Steven Laffoley. Photo: Riley Smith

Steven Laffoley often cuts past the building that houses the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts when he’s out running. In 1917 the building was a school. Coffins were stored there and held the bodies of victims of the Halifax Explosion.
That’s an image that plays out in Laffoley’s novel, The Blue Tattoo, which is set during the Halifax Explosion. “I can’t run through it without having that particular memory,” he says.
This is how the city plays out for Laffoley. He’s headmaster of the Halifax Grammar School and started writing for newspapers, magazines, and radio in the late 1980s. He loves the city’s history, its dark corners and spaces. They often intrigue him enough to start digging for more. He turns the stories he discovers into books, eight so far, including his latest, The Halifax Poor House Fire: A Victorian Tragedy.
“I guess I am natural noir person,” says Laffoley, who came to Halifax as a teenager and immediately loved its natural port-city charm. “I am attracted to the kinds of stories born of that kind of place. It just seemed to suit me. This one was home from the moment I discovered it.”
Hunting Halifax was his “first little love letter to the city” and its past. It’s a work of creative non-fiction about the murder of a sailor in the 1880s, based on the transcripts of an actual murder trial at the time.
“That mystery provided a glimpse of Halifax because you could hear the voices of the tavern keepers, the prostitutes, and the common people,” he says. “I was very attracted to that.”
The Halifax Poor House Fire is about a fire at the South End institution in 1882. The building, located where the IWK Health Centre is now, housed more than 400 people, including those who were poor and had mental and physical illnesses.
Thirty people died on the top floor alone, trapped in a prison-like building with only one staircase. After the fire, an inquest followed.
While he won’t spoil the ending, Laffoley says he learned how the disparity of wealth shaped the way in which poor and mentally ill people were seen at the time. “I think it’s an instructive reminder about the ways in which we try to wrestle with our social problems,” he says.
He also has two books about boxers from Halifax, Pulling No Punches: The Sam Langford Story, and Shadowboxing: The Rise and Fall of George Dixon. He learned about Dixon while researching what was happening in Halifax in 1892. Dixon was the first black champion of any sport, and one of the first athletic superstars whose fame rose with the popularity of newspapers. He was also a civil rights activist and intellectual, whose fall was as spectacular has his rise.
In his stories on Dixon and Langford, he learned about race relations and the experience of the black community in Halifax.
“There is a very deep divide, one that is not talked about, quite frankly,” he says. “You wouldn’t know it walking through portions of the city in the ‘80s that it has one of the largest black populations in the country.”
Beyond race, he sees how the Irish and British experience plays out in Halifax. Think of the rivalries between Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie or St. Pat’s and Queen Elizabeth high schools.
“Those three elements keep playing out in many respects up until relatively recently,” he says. “Now it’s become a much richer multicultural city, but those three initial elements were very strong right up to the turn of the century.” Mike Hamm is the manager of Bookmark II on Spring Garden Road. He read Laffoley’s The Blue Tattoo and says it’s the best book set around the Halifax Explosion he’s read. Hamm says Laffoley personalized the tragedy and he enjoys the three-dimensional characters.
“It’s like the Titanic; you know it’s going to sink,” Hamm says. “He managed to heighten the drama, especially with the train coming to Halifax with medical supplies. It became a page turner, even though you knew the outcome.”
Hamm says he also learned bits of trivia about the explosion. For example, he didn’t know the meaning behind the title, The Blue Tattoo. In the book, Laffoley explained blue tattoos were the markings survivors often got as soot and snow fell on their open wounds. “When I read that I thought, ‘Oh my, it makes complete sense that would have happened,’” Hamm says. “I knew that he was an incredible researcher and that proves the point.” Hamm says he knows readers of Laffoley’s books via the store. Many, like him, are surprised about the historical elements of the city they learn by reading his books. Hamm says he would like Laffoley to write a story about Hangman’s Beach.
He says, too, Laffoley’s strong social media presence often makes readers feel part of his projects long before they are completed.
“He’s been a great source of sidelines of our history we’ve not been introduced to,” Hamm says. “I think he’s developed a very solid base of fans that will follow him anywhere.”
Since he’s moved here, Laffoley says he’s seen the city grow bigger, its population become more diverse. “I hardly recognize my city,” he says.
Still, he searches for those dark corners and spaces, looking for more stories of Halifax’s past. He’s working on a sequel to The Blue Tattoo, which will explore how a city recovers from a catastrophic tragedy. He’s also working a book on the history of beer in Halifax, “just for the research,” he says.
While he says he’d like readers to learn more about the city’s history in his books, and the lessons he continually learns, he wants readers to find pleasure in the stories, too.
“I would like to entertain and a little bit of education is not a bad thing,” he says. “But a great read is always a great reward.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

You have ? free views left this month!
Click HERE to login, or HERE to register.


Related Stories