On July 11, 1886, four men left Victoria, B.C., on a mission to penetrate the little known valley of the Yukon and spread the word of God. Within months, one of them would be dead at the hands of a madman.
Born in Ghent, Belgium, Dec. 27, 1939, Charles John Seghers was ordained deacon on August 9, 1862 and in that year transferred to the American College at Louvain, Belgium. Although frail and in poor health, Seghers hoped to work in Jesuit missions in the American west. He was appointed to the position of the Bishop of Vancouver Island in March of 1873. In 1877, he began a 14-month trip to the interior of Alaska during which time he had contact with native groups along the Yukon River and near the Bering Sea. Upon his return to Victoria in 1878, he was appointed the archbishop of the diocese of Oregon City, Oregon, where he remained until he was returned to Vancouver Island in 1885.
Seghers was eager to resume his missionary efforts in the northern interior. Soon after returning to Victoria, he selected Jesuit priests Louis-Aloysius Robaut and Pascal Tosi to accompany him on his journey, along with a lay worker for the church, Frank Fuller, an itinerant labourer who had worked in various northwestern Jesuit missions. Several colleagues, including Tosi, protested against Seghers’ choice of Fuller, who was showing signs of mental instability.
On July 11, 1886, the four men left Victoria to penetrate the Yukon valley. At Juneau, Antoine Provost, a French Canadian, agreed to accompany the missionary party as cook and guide. On July 26, the missionaries, assisted in carrying their supplies by fifty Chilkat packers, arrived at the summit of the Chilkoot pass.
At the headwaters of the Yukon, a curious event occurred. Provost, who had proved an admirable cook and amiable traveling companion, disappeared without explanation while they were camped at Lindeman Lake. Two days of searching for the man revealed no clue to explain his disappearance.
This was the first in a series of circumstances that would doom the bishop to tragedy. Frank Fuller, who did not like Provost, and who refused to help him prepare the meals, displayed increasingly alarming behaviour as the men moved farther into the heart of the Yukon. Father Tosi watched the paranoid and erratic actions of Fuller, and implored his spiritual leader to dismiss the man from the party. The archbishop disagreed, and a strain gradually developed in the relationship between Seghers and Tosi.
From the beginning of the boat journey, the party was plagued by tension and disharmony. Fuller was an unsuitable travel companion; his unstable personality was a threat to the party almost from the beginning. The bishop, a man whose spirit and energy exceeded his frail condition, was unable to keep up with the physical demands of the travel. But he clung tenaciously to the idea of keeping Fuller in the traveling party, despite the pleading of the more robust and practical Father Tosi.
Finally, on Sept. 7, they reached the tiny mining community of Fort Nelson at the mouth of the Stewart River, where Seghers encountered an old acquaintance, the trader, Arthur Harper. The party gathered their strength and discussed their plans. Father Robaut could no longer tolerate Fuller’s company. Tosi, continued, unsuccessfully, to plead with the bishop to rid them of Fuller.
The rift between Seghers and his priests widened. Tosi became impertinent, and took offence at every word or action. Despite being a good cook, he refused to prepare meals for the party. A strong man with an immense vitality and a strong constitution, Father Tosi was impatient with his physically weaker superior.
Harper told the priests that Anglican missionaries had some contact and success with the Indigenous people from Fort Reliance down to Fort Yukon. Fearing that they might be affected by the “taint of Protestantism,” Harper convinced Seghers that it was not too late to settle amongst the First Nations and drive out the Protestant influence.
The bishop decided to split the party: he would continue to travel down the Yukon with Fuller; Tosi and Robaut would remain at the mouth of the Stewart, teaching the trader’s children to read and write and giving instruction in French to the miners, but rarely making contact with the First Nations.
The memory of the priests’ sojourn at Fort Nelson was retold by the miners who wintered there a decade later during the gold rush. Their characters became imbedded in the stories later written by a young Jack London.
The Bishop and his dubious companion continued down the river, first by boat, then later by dog sled. They reached the mouth of the Tanana River Oct. 24. From there, they were accompanied by several First Nation guides. The bishop decided to push on to Nulato, 320 kilometres farther down the Yukon River.
After several days’ travel, they arrived at a deserted village only 50 kilometres from their destination. Seghers consulted his native guides about the best way to proceed. Fuller took exception to this. Seghers’ guides told him that Fuller was grumbling about the bishop’s reliance upon them, even though they were familiar with the country.
Yet again, the bishop waved aside the complaints, and decided to push on in the morning.
As evident from the bishop’s diary entries, Fuller’s behaviour had become increasingly demented and menacing:
Oct. 21: Fuller accuses the bishop of trying to ruin him.
Nov. 12: Fuller accuses the bishop of refusing to teach him Russian.
Nov. 24: Fuller accuses the bishop of wishing him dead
The bishop’s last entry noted that Fuller, in his raving, said a trader had predicted that the bishop would give him a bad name.
Finally, on the morning of the 28th of November, filled with hallucinations and overcome by paranoia, Fuller raised the bishop’s own 44 caliber Winchester, and killed him with a single shot to the head. The natives immediately took Fuller prisoner and disarmed him, and transported him to the nearest trading post.
Fuller was taken to St. Michael, at the mouth of the Yukon River, where he was arrested and taken to Sitka by a revenue officer in the summer of 1887. There, he stood trial, and was found guilty of manslaughter.
After serving eight and a half years in prison, Fuller was released and moved to Portland, Oregon, where he was later killed in a violent quarrel with a neighbour.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere