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The Mysterious Death of a Fisherman on the Grand Cascapedia River

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“Such a beautiful country is not an accident. God must have created this wonderful wilderness, where all is happiness, all is peace.”
--Fishing on the Grand Cascapedia by Edmund W. Davis (1904)

A gun shot was fired on the morning of June 19, 1908. The sound must have disturbed the tranquil stillness of a morning on the Cascapedia River. Within moments, the lifeless body of Edmund W. Davis lay slumped in a large oak rocking chair on the front porch of Red Camp. This tragedy ended the life of one of the infamous salmon anglers of the world famous Grand Cascapedia River.
Davis fishing.

Mr. Davis was a salmon fisherman who had been coming to the Cascapedia River for 13 years. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1853. He was the grandson of Perry Davis, inventor of the Painkiller medication. The Davis Painkiller was described as a "vegetable elixir" and was widely regarded as a wonder drug. The concoction was created in 1840 and is believed to be the first nationally advertised remedy specifically for pain resulting from many disorders. Its ingredients, mainly opiates and ethyl alcohol, were entirely natural. Since it was a registered trade brand name, there was no legal requirement to make its ingredients public on the bottle. This elixir was widely used for treating a wide variety of illnesses, including colds, coughs and intestinal problems. It was also used externally on sprains, cuts and frostbite. It became a common item in many households, and numerous other companies soon produced similar products. Another occurrence which greatly increased the Davis fortune was that it was used during the Civil War to treat not only the soldier’s injuries but the army’s horses as well.

Therefore the “Painkiller” enabled Edmund’s grandfather to accumulate a great fortune; and permitted Edmund to lead a privileged life. He attended Harvard University for two years and later became involved in the family business. At the young age of 27, he inherited a share in his family’s fortune which made it easier for him to enjoy his real interests. His love for hunting and fishing took up much of his time and he enjoyed the social aspect that these sports brought to his life. In 1880 he married Maria Hunter Steuart, a young woman from a wealthy and socially prominent Virginia family. Together they had two sons, Horace, who died in infancy and Edmund Steuart, who grew up to share his father’s interest in hunting and fishing.

Steuart Davis.In the 1880’s, fishing on Canadian rivers was becoming a well established sport that required money and connections to acquire the rights for the privilege to fish. The Quebec government felt that by leasing the river’s fishing rights to the highest bidders they would be making money as well as passing on the responsibility of managing the rivers to the leasers. It also meant that American and Canadian fishermen would become guardians of the river, willing to spend what it would take to safeguard their investment. The competition to gain the rights of a salmon river was becoming a sport in itself and the Grand Cascapedia offered the best chance of landing a specimen of 50 pounds or more. From 1878 to 1883 the fishing rights of the best waters on Cascapedia were successively held by the Governors General of Canada; the Marques of Lorne, Lord Lansdowne and Lord Stanley of the Stanley Cup fame. In 1883 the government once again put the rights of the river up for lease and a group of American anglers offered the highest bid. The government took it willingly and established a precedent that allowed American anglers the liberties to enjoy salmon fishing on a Canadian river.

After his marriage, Davis met R.G. Dun, the founder of what we know today as Dun and Bradstreet. Mr. Dun had been coming to the Cascapedia River since 1873 and had established a friendly relationship with Joshua Woodman, owner of an inn on the Cascapedia River called Woodman House. Dun returned year after year and brought with him many of his rich and influential friends including Chester Arthur who later became President of the United States. In time he received permission to build himself a small fishing camp on the Woodman property, along the river called Red Camp. Dun knew that Davis enjoyed salmon fishing and so he invited Davis to the Grand Cascapedia River to enjoy the Cascapedia experience. Davis soon became captivated with the possibility of catching one of the giant Atlantic salmon that the Cascapedia was producing. In one of his writings he refers to this wish; “should Dame Fortune be kind and bring the scale down to the fifty pound notch my ambition in life will have been fulfilled and my happiness complete.”

davis and guide, William Harrison, 1895.Davis returned to the river year after year. Since he was financially wealthy, he was able to come without the constraints of having to work for a living. He enjoyed the company of Dun and fellow anglers. Soon he began to seek out opportunities to establish rights of his own on the river. He also brought his wife and son to the river as they shared his love of the sport despite the rugged setting in the Gaspesian woods. Both successfully each caught a 46 pound salmon, but it was Davis himself that brought in the biggest catch. In 1900, Davis was fishing in Woodman’s Pool and after a short fight caught a 51 pound salmon which he described as the River Goddess. His dream of catching his big salmon had been realized and he was able to photograph the event and the fish for historical record. There is also an entry in his log book the following year of his catching another 51 pounder. The two fifty plus Cascapedia Giants made him a much talked about fisherman and I am sure that his accomplishments reflected well on him within his social entourage. He had successfully landed not one but two of the trophies that other anglers could only dream of catching. There is even a possibility that he may have caught a third one, according to another entry in an earlier logbook. If so, it would make him the only angler to have ever caught three Grand Cascapedia Giants weighing over 50 pounds.

When Dun died in 1900, Davis was able to acquire the rights to his Red Camp. At last he had a place of his own on what was becoming a much sought after salmon destination. He then approached the local land owners along the river to buy their properties so as to gain more fishing rights along the river. These actions caused a controversial situation within the small fishing community but Davis was aggressive and was able to secure additional pools along the river. In 1904 he wrote and published his book, Salmon Fishing on the Grand Cascapedia. This book was privately published for family and friends and in it he explained such things as salmon behaviour, fly patterns, and of course his capture of the River Goddess. To this day, it remains a part of his legacy on the Cascapedia

Yes indeed the river was a place of happiness for Davis, but what happened on that fatal day of June 19, 1908. The mystery surrounding his death is still questioned a hundred years later. What made that gun explode on that fateful morning? Who pulled the trigger? Was it an accident as some have claimed? Was Davis cleaning his gun when it backfired? Was he alone when it happened, or was his son Steuart with him? Did Steuart try and stop him or was he involved in a mercy killing?

Maria Davis.According to some of the local folklore, the employees had heard an argument in the camp the night before. Who was arguing? Some say that Davis was going through a separation from his wife Maria at the time. Others say that it was Steuart that most likely killed him, possibly to collect his inheritance? Was there the possibility that Davis, who seemingly led a privileged life, choose to end his days by committing suicide? The only clues that have been found that would suggest suicide, was that just before coming to the Cascapedia that year, he had been to Egypt. On his return trip, he happened to be on the same ship with Robert Patterson who also shared fishing rights on the Cascapedia. In a letter that Patterson had written to another colleague on the river, he stated that Davis was a very sick man and that he possibly had Brights disease, which is a disease of the kidneys. Davis had also resigned from the Cascapedia Club earlier that year which was not in keeping with his interest on the river. We do know that he did return to the river only weeks after returning from Egypt and he was accompanied by his wife and son. He even fished from his choice pools and landed a 30 pound salmon. The last entry in his log book was made on June 16. He had caught his last fish, a 16 pounder on Harrison Pool. A major twist to the story is that just months before his death he published another privately printed book called Woodcock Shooting. In it he wrote; “Is not the instant killing a more merciful end than that of starvation or through the misery of old age? Shooting, in my opinion, is the least cruel and quickest way of ending a life. It was said that Davis had a fascination with guns and had been heard saying that someday he would possibly take his own life.

Davis’ body was removed from Red Camp the next day and taken back to Rhode Island. Since no crime had been reported nor any evidence collected it was reported that Davis had been shot accidentally. The story that was told along the river was that he had accidentally shot himself in the head while preparing to go crow hunting. Most of the local story tellers say that his body had been found in the large rocking chair on the veranda of Red Camp overlooking the river with the rifle on his lap.

Red Camp on the Cascapedia.So what did happen on that morning in early June to one of the best fisherman ever to have fished the magnificent waters of the Cascapedia? Maybe he found himself at a place in his life where he knew that he was facing a greater challenge than even he could deal with and he refused to die the painful death of Brights disease. He had surely heard Dun talk about his old friend Chester Arthur who had succumbed to the death sentence of Brights Disease in 1886. How ironic that the grandson of the inventor of the Painkiller medication, that was supposed to be a “cure to all that ails men”, was not able to use it to cure himself. Maybe he knew too much about the pain and suffering of the fatal disease and decided to take his own life by the means he had claimed to be the quickest and the least cruel method of dying. Here on the Cascapedia, in his favourite place, overlooking the river that he so loved, he probably felt he had control over the situation of his failing health and was at peace with his decision. As he pulled the trigger he may have looked out on the river and repeated to himself, here where all is happiness, all is peace.

There is an old saying that dead men tell no tales, therefore we can only speculate what happened to Edmund W. Davis. It is most likely that he will continue to be the topic of conversation and the mystery of his death will continue to fascinate us. The rocking chair where his body was said to be found after the shooting, can be found at the Cascapedia River Museum and remains a constant reminder of his link to the heritage of this river.

Mary Robertson
Cascapedia River Museum
December 2007