Friday, 19 July 2019

My Confederate Uncle’s $40,000 Mistake

A friend back in the USA recently sent me a stack of Civil War magazines, as he knows I am a fan (in fact, it was the biggest topic of study during my University days). I grabbed the first one on the pile last night and read it cover-to-cover. While I enjoyed the whole issue, the best came near the end when there was a passing mention of one of my ancestors!

The article was ‘Swindling Sociopath’ by Bob Gordon, about a man named Alexander ‘Sandy’ Keith. Keith was Scottish born, but came of age in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When the Civil War broke out, Keith set himself up as a key ‘Confederate Sympathizer’ in the port. In reality, the man was a swindler and fraudster with a nasty habit of insuring ships and then plotting their destruction at sea! He would survive the war, but committed suicide in 1875 after one of his plots went awry, and a barrel of dynamite meant to blow up a ship, exploded in the port of Bremerhaven, Germany killing 60 people.

Back in 1864, my great-great-uncle, Norman Walker, (brother of my direct ancestor Maj. John Stewart Walker) who served as the Confederate agent in Bermuda came to Halifax with his family to escape an outbreak of yellow fever. While there, Keith convinced Norman to invest $40,000 in a shipment of barreled pork to smuggle into the Confederacy. Keith took the money, but never bought the pork, and doesn’t seem to have made any attempt to do so. Anyway, he soon slipped into the USA, and went beyond Norman’s reach. 

The article doesn’t give any more details of the story, and perhaps that is where it ended. I’ve certainly never heard the story before, but I do have a copy of the hard-to-obtain diary of Norman Walker’s wife, and it does put the family in Halifax at the time – and it’s not surprising that such a story might not be mentioned! I'd love to know where the author discovered those details.

How great is that though? Picking up a magazine at random and learning a little piece of your own family history?


  1. That's pretty cool! I mean I think ever family has at least one person you don't want to lend money to. Hahahah

  2. This made me laugh as I am Scottish and my dad is called Sandy Keith!

  3. Tales of ancient family malfeasance and mishaps are always so much more fun than finding out that your ancestors lived quiet and blameless lives.