Penniless prizefight promoter, King of the Klondike, war hero and international spy — the story of Joseph Whiteside Boyle truly is stranger than fiction.
Boyle was born in Toronto in 1867, to a father who bred and trained racehorses but did not want his young son following in his footsteps.
Spurned and seeking adventure at age 17, Boyle left home to sail the Far East for three years leaving his family with nothing more than a note reading: “I’ve gone to sea. Don’t worry about me, Joe.”
On the high seas he’s credited with using a knife to save the life of a shipmate being menaced by a shark.
Years of rambling later, Boyle and his travelling partner, prizefighter Frank Slavin, turned up to seek their fortunes in the Klondike in 1897. The pair showed up with a small amount of money — some say 25 cents, others say $25.
It’s rumoured they worked as bouncers at Klondike gambling halls.
After watching other stampeders work their fingers to the bone panning for gold, Boyle decided there must be a better way — something faster and larger.
So he set to work amassing tracts of land along the Klondike’s gold-bearing creeks and, in 1904, he formed the Canadian Klondike Mining Company.
A few years later, Boyle had massive dredging equipment pulling the yellow metal from the land. He also dabbled in timber, water, electric power and Canada’s pastime, hockey.
In 1905, Boyle led the Dawson City Nuggets on their extraordinary charge for the Stanley Cup against the Ottawa Silver Seven.
Although the fledgling team lost 26-2 — the most lopsided defeat in the history of the cup — Boyle and his team went down in Canadian hockey history.
When the First World War began in 1914, he shifted his attention from the gold fields to the battlefields. Boyle wanted to do his part in the war but at 47 was too old to fight on the frontlines, so he formed and financed a machine gun unit of 50 willing men from Dawson.
The company, known as the Boyle Battery, was shipped to England where it joined the Eaton Motor Machine Gun Brigade, which suffered heavy loses in France.
Later, every officer and 24 of the men were decorated for gallantry, and Boyle earned a honorary spot in the Canadian Militia.
The MacBride Museum is fortunate to possess photographs and insignia from Boyle’s unit in its collection. But that’s not where Boyle’s story ends. He went on to live at least two more lives and become hailed as the Saviour of Romania.
In 1917, he was sent to Russia and Romania to sort out the countries’ jumbled transportation systems. There, he’s credited with easing the movement of more than 500 tonnes of supplies into Romania, and saving the Romanians and the Russian Army from starvation.
He’s also credited with brokering the first Peace Treaty of the First World War between the two countries.
He was hailed as a national hero in Romania after rescuing the country’s crown jewels, saving 50 aristocrats and government officials from a Bolshevik attack and organizing post-war relief efforts. He was also a close confidant and rumoured lover of Queen Marie of Romania.
Boyle died and was buried in England in 1923. His gravestone was engraved with the words: “A man with the heart of a Viking and the simple faith of a child.”
Throughout the 1930s, British newspapers reported that a Woman in Black, rumoured to be Queen Marie, placed flowers on his grave each year. After 1938, when Queen Marie died, the figure was seen no more.
Fifty years later, Boyle’s body was repatriated to Woodstock, Ontario.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.