When we left Dr Fifer's faithful assistant, Ah Chung, he was being questioned in his San Francisco medicine shop by a police officer about the death of a mysterious woman in Dr Fifer's home.
The police officer untied a small package, unwrapping a partly charred human skull.
“These are the remains found in the ashes of Dr Fifer’s house. The skull is of an adult female. Can you tell me about a third person, a woman, who may have lived with you and Dr Fifer in the house?”
There had been talk at headquarters; they suspected a lurid ménage à trois with a gory ending. “Did the doctor, or you, or you both, have relations with a woman who finally met with foul play, perhaps with a dose or two of aconite, strychnine, or arsenic?”
The officer held out the partly burned skull. Ah Chung took the cranium fondly with both hands and looked at the relic.
“I can explain everything, Inspector. Before the doctor moved to the British Possessions he had a flourishing medical practice here in San Francisco. Among his office paraphernalia he kept a mounted human skeleton to which he used to refer in his medical and surgical practice. When he had to leave abruptly, there was not enough room, and he left behind the skeleton and its extremities. The skull, however, fit into the satchel and went along to Yale. The doctor was preoccupied with the science of phrenology, and he used to practise on the skull, which, as you can see, has markings and some very unusual prominences on the forehead and the sides, the parietal aspect. When I left the house in Yale I overlooked the skull, which, I assure you, is part of the skeleton belonging to the doctor’s office. I recognize some of the bumps to which he used to refer in his work. I swear that neither the doctor nor I was involved in secret affairs. Doctor Fifer was a serious-minded man. He was married in San Francisco, but his wife became Mrs Margaret O’Nedhill and no longer seems to live here. It’s a sad story.”
The explanation seemed to satisfy the police officer and he left. The unexpected visit from British Columbia had stirred up fond old memories in Ah Chung, and he looked at the old medicine bowl standing among other precious things. He felt guilty not having been able to locate Fifer’s family. The visitor had helped him make up his mind—he would take a journey, a sort of private pilgrimage, to Yale, the place where he had received so much and left behind still more. The bowl must return to its proper place, the sanctum of Fifer’s remains.
Travel had become quite comfortable during the 30 years since Ah Chung’s departure. Instead of hard sooty benches on river steamers, the cars of the Canadian Pacific Railway offered clean, cushioned seats; the journey by rail lasted hours instead of days by stern-wheeler.
Getting off at Yale, he hardly recognized the town. The familiar faces of years ago were gone. Fifer’s house was no more; a fire had razed the entire town. The only building that caught his eye, as though spared by providence, was the little Church of St. John the Divine.
At the cemetery, Ah Chung searched in vain for Fifer’s grave. He learned that during the recent railroad mania the little graveyard had been in the line of the surveyed track. In the name of progress, a quick solution was called for. Since no one objected, the tomb enshrining the remains of his beloved master had fallen victim to the construction frenzy.
In helpless horror the faithful servant stood by the place of his friend’s interment as train after train rumbled over the final resting place of the good doctor, who lay buried under these rails in inexorable finality. His plan to deposit the precious vessel was foundered; the cold steel, nailed to the tarry ties, forever precluded his hope of completing the mission. In desperation Ah Chung looked for a person to whom he could entrust the token of remembrance of his revered mentor.
He encountered only churlish construction crews, rowdies, drunk and dishevelled, roaming the muddy Front Street. Not one of Fifer’s old friends was to be found, not a soul who even remembered the name of Dr Fifer; he met only strangers.
With heavy heart he decided to return to California, hopes of accomplishing his pilgrimage dashed. The bowl had become even more precious now. He resolved to take it back with him.
He boarded the train destined for Port Moody, the west coast terminal, and alighted at the village of Agassiz, a stop situated near the mouth of the Harrison River. There he ferried across the Fraser River and at the hamlet of Rosedale hired a coach to Washington Territory. The road, Whatcom Trail, led a circuitous route along the base of Sumas Mountain, following the edge of a large swamp, known as Sumas Lake, where swarms of mosquitoes made life miserable for both human and beast.
Two minds in accord
At last he arrived at the small border settlement of Huntingdon, on the Canadian side of the 49th parallel. He was about to cross into the United States, the country of his home and family. It was a moving occasion, as he walked past the customs office, newly established; there would be no return to this country of Canada. No longer able to hold back his feelings, the dashed hopes of his mission, and remembering the tragic end of his friend and the desecration of his tomb, he lost control. Tears streamed down his cheeks.
The kind-hearted customs officer, appointed by Governor Douglas, had seen many Celestials passing through on their way, carrying with them their relatives’ remains for interment in their homeland. He noted the grief of this well-dressed, respectable oriental gentleman who reverently was bearing the cup of obvious sorrows. He gently approached him consolingly and asked, “Can I be of help to you? Does the urn contain the ashes of your deceased loved ones?”
Ah Chung, after the bedlam, humiliation, and unfriendliness of Yale, had found no one with whom he could share his feelings. He was yearning for kindness and consideration, and the geniality of the mild-faced customs official opened his heart.
“Thank you, sir. What I carry is not a cinerary urn,” he began, and gave an account of the object in his possession, describing his disappointing journey to Yale and the profanation of Fifer’s resting place.
The young customs man’s ears were pricked by the name of the town of Yale. Inkling that the two had something in common, he invited him into his office.
“I am Thomas Fraser Yorke. My father, Thomas Yorke senior, operated a hotel at Yale and later was in charge of the Spuzzum ferry. My mother told me the story of my birth; I was slow in arriving, and they had to call for the American doctor to help with my entry into the world. I was the first immigrant child born in the Fraser Valley, on Trafalgar Day, October 21, 1858.”
It was a moving encounter; settling the question of custody over the precious relic did not take the two men long.
Dr Fifer’s bowl became Thomas Yorke’s legacy. On his deathbed Yorke bequeathed the relic to his wife until the day when a place for permanent safekeeping would be found.
That day came half a century later, on Sunday, 10 June 1945, at Huntingdon, the very border crossing where Ah Chung had entrusted the chalice to the keep of customs officer Yorke. Dr Fifer’s medicine bowl changed hands during an informal tea party. Officially, on 10 August 1945, Mrs Thomas Fraser Yorke, at the age of 86, presented the medicine bowl to the city archivist of Vancouver, Major James Skitt Matthews.
Since the time when Dr Fifer used his plain mortar to prepare his medicines, and despite the relic’s humbling befoulment, Ah Chung’s pursuit had redeemed the vessel. The priceless vase, now symbol of a holy grail, had reached its final repository.
The skull, serving the doctor as a tool in the recognition of human conditions, one-time portentous corpus delicti in the hands of the police, was irrelevant and disposed of in a seemly manner. Dr Fifer’s medicine bowl, the veritable relic and font of miraculous placebo effect, found a home in the City Museum in Vancouver, where it remains to this day.
The saga speaks in praise of an unsung hero, a knight, a crusader, be his name Lancelot, Percival, Lohengrin, or Ah Chung. Many are the forms of the grail—it shines to those worthy of its spiritual value. The quest for its discovery and the toil to preserve the relic shines as a tribute to the history of medicine, the country’s many cultures, and to faithfulness.
There are some who envision the story coming full circle by the return of the medicine bowl to the Yale Museum where, next to the location of Dr Fifer’s office, the vessel would occupy a more meaningful place and enhance the town’s historic significance.
Gerd A. Asche, MD
Dr Asche is a family physician who has lived, along with his wife Dr Ursula Asche-Quint, in Hope for the past 50 years. He is also an air pilot and performs medical examinations for fitness of air pilots and air traffic controllers. His special interest is medical history of the Victorian era; he is currently writing a biography of Dr Maximilian William Fifer, his predecessor in the area during the Fraser River Gold Rush, 150 years ago.
Part 1 of “The Vessel” appeared in the December 2004 issue of the BCMJ.
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