Tragic figure’s family rewrites history following death

On a cold Friday in December 1898, a charming 19-year-old dance hall girl took her own life. Myrtle Brocee had been sick with flu and fever. For three weeks she had been convalescing, but she was expected back at the dance hall on Monday.

On a cold Friday in December 1898, a charming 19-year-old dance hall girl took her own life.

Myrtle Brocee had been sick with flu and fever. For three weeks she had been convalescing, but she was expected back at the dance hall on Monday.

Myrtle did not make it back to work.

Late at night, in her own apartment in Dawson City, Yukon, Myrtle shot herself in the head using a .32-calibre Smith and Wesson pistol.

After her death rumours of Myrtle’s vice and virtue spread like wildfire through the Klondike capital.

Myrtle came to the Klondike during the gold rush with her sister, Florence, and the women made a name for themselves dancing at the Tivoli.

The sisters were born on a farm in Ontario and worked their way though Chicago and Victoria before landing in Dawson City.

“Both women apparently traded on their respectability, but Myrtle had a weakness for men and alcohol,” wrote Lael Morgan in Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush.

Myrtle may have been looking for a husband, but found only men who were looking to love her and leave her.

“It is evident to anyone watching the case from first to last that the girl earnestly desired to quit the theatre; that she hated the business; that she hoped marriage would intervene and rescue her from the life she was leading…,” according to an editorial in the Klondike Nugget that ran after her death.

“Instead of wealth which was to relieve her from following a distasteful business she found hardship; instead of honourable suitors she found tempters.”

Florence wanted a respectable burial for her sister, and so she set about making sure her sister was remembered as a virtuous woman.

And, apparently, she had most of Dawson on her side.

During a coroner’s inquest into the death, a number of miners vouched for Myrtle’s virtue.

“She had been living with Harry Woolrich, one of the most famous of the Klondike gamblers, and it was, indeed in his room that she took her life, but Woolrich testified with a straight face that his bed companion was a virgin,” wrote Pierre Burton in Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush.

A dozen other men claimed a similar relationship with Myrtle – that though they had shared a bed with her, she remained virtuous to the end.

“The remarkable instance of mass chivalry on the part of the leaders of the demi-monde inspired the entire community, and when Myrtle Brocee, her honour preserved, went to her rest, it was in a coffin with silver-plated handles and a silken interior of blue and white, and with half of Dawson weeping quietly at the graveside,” wrote Burton.

Florence also hired a lawyer to protect her sister. She wanted to ensure that Myrtle was found temporarily insane when she committed suicide.

Despite Florence’s attempt to keep her sister’s good name, rumours about the death appeared in newspapers on the West Coast.

In January 1899, the Daily Colonist reported that Myrtle committed suicide after being jilted by the man she loved.

“Wealthy Klondiker whom she loved preferred her sister, hence the tragedy,” according to the Colonist.

And a San Francisco newspaper ran a screaming headline that declared Myrtle was murdered.

“There are several circumstances connected with her death that caused suspicion, and the police were watching suspected persons,” reported the San Francisco Call on January 15, 1899.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

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