Steven Cameron keeps community history alive through true crime
Ruby Pratka, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
As any lover of murder mysteries or true crime knows, one of the biggest challenges of solving a case is figuring out who to believe. Difficult even under the most straightforward of circumstances, this becomes even harder when the facts are tangled in a web of lies, half-truths, local legends, political and sectarian spin and more than 150 years of gossip and hearsay.
Steven Cameron, an author and amateur historian in Sainte-Agathe-de-Lotbinière on the South Shore, was well aware of this when he decided to try to solve the 1855 murder of Saint- Sylvestre resident Robert Corrigan. “Whenever there’s the potential for more than one version of events to appear in the Corrigan story, it always does,” he writes in Hill Search, his 2014 book on Corrigan’s death.
The “Corrigan story” has followed Cameron around for most of his life. “I grew up in Montreal, in what was then a bit of a rough area, and every summer, my parents would ship me out to my uncle’s farm near Kinnear’s Mills,” he said. “I used to listen to the old guys telling stories, telling lies, and sometimes there was some truth to what they were saying.”
The tale of Corrigan, who, legend had it, was stoned to death on the Plains of Abraham, stuck with Cameron. “I didn’t believe this story, and I asked the guys who were talking about it, ‘Where did [the murderers] hide? They said, ‘up in the handkerchief,’” Cameron recalled, referring to a nearby hilly patch of land. “That was the driver for me.”
True crime stories, Cameron said, “can’t be told without explaining the context and where these people came from.” Corrigan and his neighbours arrived in the Lotbinière region in the decades preceding the potato famine, leaving an Ireland riven by sectarian strife – but taking some of that strife with them. Corrigan was a “somewhat difficult man,” born into a Catholic family, who converted to Protestantism while still in Ireland for reasons that are unclear, and became the black sheep of his family as a result. As documents from the era unearthed by Cameron attest, he was beaten to death in nebulous circumstances in a brawl over the judging of a sheep fair in 1855. “I have no idea where the ‘stoned to death on the Plains of Abraham’ story came from,” Cameron said. “He might have been hit by one stone.”
Cameron worked for many years in administration for Canada Post, spending much of that time in Halifax and Sept-Îles. He also worked for the Réseau de transport de la Capitale, Quebec City’s public transit network, in the late 1990s. When he retired in 2006, he threw himself into learning about the history of the English-speaking community of the South Shore.
“Immigration to this area started around 1820 – before that, [there were] only the Abenaki people, and they came seasonally,” he said. The Lotbinière region “was nearly empty in 1820, full in 1855, and 70 per cent Irish and Scottish until the late 1800s,” he explained. “People had large families but relatively little land, so their children would have to go elsewhere to find land.” Young English-speaking families filtered out of the Lotbinière region in the late 19th century and settled in the Eastern Townships, in Ontario, in New England and in the midwestern United States.
“Now, you may find a few people with Irish names but a good number of them won’t speak English,” said Cameron. “There are only six or seven [English-speaking families] left. That’s why I’m doing this work, to make sure their stories don’t get lost.”
The book came out of a challenge issued to Cameron by the late historian Marianna O’Gallagher, shortly before her death in 2010. “While I was researching the story, I went to visit Marianna. She had a notebook by her hospital bed and she wrote in it, ‘Steve Cameron promised he would write a book on the Corrigan affair.’ That kind of forced me to write the first book, and then I stumbled on other stories that gave rise to the other books.” Those books include Hill Tales: Still Searching (2015) and Hill Notes: Glimpses of Before (2017).
He is continuing to unearth true crime stories and use them to breathe new life into the history of the English-speaking community of the region, using historical documents and discussions with the distant descendants of victims, suspects and witnesses to move the stories forward, and giving public presentations about his discoveries. “People are intrigued by the violence, but they don’t always understand the wider context,” he said. “I want to make sure the people of these communities understand their history.”