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The great deceiver: Remarkable con artist from Montreal's past lives on in new book

Historian Frank Mackey’s book The Great Absquatulator reveals the fascinating exploits of 19th-century globe-trotting con artist Alfred Thomas Wood.

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The Great Absquatulator (Baraka Books, 254 pages, $24.95) is a feat of historical sleuthing, dogged archive-digging and sure-handed storytelling. It adds to Frank Mackey’s already considerable list of credits as a groundbreaking chronicler of the Black presence in 19th-century Quebec and elsewhere. This time, the former Montreal Gazette editor focuses on an especially fascinating (anti)hero: one Alfred Thomas Wood.

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An elusive figure who may or may not have been born in Nova Scotia, Wood carved a long trail of deception in Canada, the U.S., Europe and Africa, posing variously as a preacher, an academic, a carpenter, an architect, a political fundraiser and a medical doctor, all with no legitimate qualifications. His life reads like a precursor of the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me if You Can; Mackey has pulled off a coup in rescuing him from oblivion.    

“Wood is obviously not a role model,” said Mackey, 74, from his home in Pointe-Claire last week. And yet it’s striking to read just how well travelled Wood was, crossing borders and hopping continents at a time when such movement was no simple matter. He alighted at various times in Quebec, the northeast and southern U.S., Liberia in West Africa, England, Ireland, Wales and Germany. As rapper Aly Ndiaye writes in the book’s foreword: “We cannot but be impressed by (Wood’s) determination not to be crushed by a battery of laws and racial prejudice.”  

Mackey’s telling of Wood’s life paints a picture of a man with an uncommon gift for adaptation and mimicry, as shown in his success as a preacher and pastor.

“It’s like he had a father or an uncle who was a minister, and he just sort of picked up the gestures from observation,” Mackey said. “He had the patter.”

It’s one thing to claim to have doctorates of various kinds. It’s something else to pass as an actual physician, as Wood did for a time in Nashville.

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“That certainly looks audacious to us now,” Mackey said. “But the state of medicine then was not what it is today. If you had a bit of experience dealing with your own illnesses, you could fake it. He pulled it off. Did he actually help anybody? Did he cure anybody? I’m not sure.”

In many of his stops, Wood was able to plug into the thriving public lecture circuit. Montrealers flocked to hear him speak at the old Mechanics’ Institute at what is now the corner of St-Jacques and St-Pierre Sts. in 1859. (Admission: 25 cents at the door.) His subjects: American abolitionist John Brown, and his own (entirely fabricated) role as a politician in Liberia.

“He was able to hold the attention of a full house for an hour,” Mackey said. “Anyone who has ever done public speaking knows how hard that is. But how honest was he being? It’s hard to get a fix on him. Did he really believe in Black rights, for example, or was that just a way of making a buck?”

In 1859, Montrealers flocked to hear Alfred Thomas Wood speak at the old Mechanics’ Institute.
In 1859, Montrealers flocked to hear Alfred Thomas Wood speak at the old Mechanics’ Institute. Photo by Eusèbe Sénécal /Baraka Books

No photograph of Wood is known to exist — a situation all the more frustrating given that during the time he was in Montreal, the great photographer William Notman was active in the city.

“Notman took pictures of several Black citizens of note here,” Mackey said. “Wouldn’t he have photographed this guy? At any rate, we see accounts that he was ‘a smart-looking man.’ I have a feeling that that explains a lot. He’s a looker. And he’s well educated. A lot of women who met him would probably have thought, ‘What a catch!’ ”

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Wood was aided in no small measure by newspapers — a medium in great health in his day, even if journalistic standards were sometimes lax. A bit more fact-checking might have slowed him down considerably, but Wood was able to stay a step ahead, planting stories positing himself in far-flung locales.

“In effect, what he was doing was writing his life,” Mackey said. “He’d send something off to a newspaper and be able to point to it and say, ‘There it is, a record of what I did in such-and-such a place.’ It may not have been true at all, but there it was, in print.”

Mackey’s long-standing passion for Black history is rooted, he said, in “personal and intellectual interest. Personal in that I have an adopted daughter who is Black, and I now have two Black grandsons. Those grandchildren were born in this century, and I thought I owed it to them to show that there is a Black past here. I wanted young Black Montrealers to realize that there were Black people who had walked the same streets they walk. That kind of connection means a lot.”

Mackey acknowledges that he has met with resistance around being a white person working in his chosen field.

“That has happened. But the basic thing is, I’ve done the research. I’m not trying to pass as Black. As writers, we can write about things that are not us. Yes, I’m a white man writing about Black history. I’m also a writer in French Quebec writing in English. These things, in a way, actually give me a freedom to write things others might not.”

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Of the evocative word in the name of the new book, Mackey said: “Several people were leery of my choice of title and suggested I choose another one, or at least add a subtitle. But as I told (my publisher): ‘Look, Colum McCann wrote his (2020) novel and titled it Apeirogon. At least I threw in a definite article and an adjective.’ ”

AT A GLANCE

The Great Absquatulator has its online launch via Zoom Wednesday, May 18 at 6:45 p.m. To register, see bit.ly/3ypfoh7

ianmcgillis2@gmail.com

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