Historian Frank Mackey’s book The Great Absquatulator reveals the fascinating exploits of 19th-century globe-trotting con artist Alfred Thomas Wood.

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The Great Absquatulator (Baraka Books, 254 pages, $24.95) is a feat of historical sleuthing, dogged archival research and confident storytelling. It adds to the already considerable list of Frank Mackey’s credits as a revolutionary chronicler of the black presence in 19th century Quebec and elsewhere. This time, the former editor of the Montreal Gazette focuses on a particularly fascinating (anti)hero: a certain Alfred Thomas Wood.

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An elusive figure born in Nova Scotia or not, Wood traced a long series of deceptions in Canada, the United States, Europe and Africa, posing as a preacher, an academic, a carpenter, an architect, a collector of political funds. and a doctor, all without legitimate qualifications. His life reads like a precursor to Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can; Mackey scored a hit saving it from oblivion.

“Wood is obviously not a role model,” Mackey, 74, said from his home in Pointe-Claire last week. And yet it is striking to read how widely Wood traveled, crossing borders and crossing continents at a time when such movement was not straightforward. It has landed several times in Quebec, the northeastern and southern United States, Liberia in West Africa, England, Ireland, Wales and Germany. As rapper Aly Ndiaye writes in the book’s foreword: “We cannot help but be impressed by (Wood’s) determination not to be crushed by a battery of racial laws and prejudices.

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Mackey’s account of Wood’s life paints a portrait of a man with an uncommon gift for adaptation and imitation, as evidenced by his success as a preacher and pastor.

“It’s like he had a father or an uncle who was a minister, and he kind of picked up on the gestures of watching,” Mackey said. “He had the boss.”

It’s one thing to claim to have doctorates of any kind. It’s another thing to impersonate a real doctor, as Wood did for a time in Nashville.

“It certainly feels bold to us now,” Mackey said. “But the state of medicine then was not what it is today. If you had some experience managing your own illnesses, you could fake it. He succeeded. Did he really help anyone? Did he heal anyone? I am not sure.”

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In many of his stops, Wood was able to tap into the thriving public speaking circuit. Montrealers flocked to hear him speak at the old Mechanics’ Institute at what is now the corner of St-Jacques and St-Pierre streets. in 1859. (Admission: 25 cents at the door.) His subjects: American abolitionist John Brown, and his own (entirely fabricated) role as a politician in Liberia.

“He was able to hold the attention of a packed house for an hour,” Mackey said. “Anyone who has ever spoken in public knows how difficult it is. But how honest was he? It’s hard to get a fix on him. Did he really believe in black rights, for example, or was it just a way to make money?

In 1859, Montrealers flocked to hear Alfred Thomas Wood speak at the old Mechanics' Institute.
In 1859, Montrealers flocked to hear Alfred Thomas Wood speak at the old Mechanics’ Institute. Photo by Eusebe Sénécal /Baraka Books

No photographs of Wood are known, a situation all the more frustrating that during his stay in Montreal, the great photographer William Notman was active in the city.

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“Notman took photos of several notable black citizens here,” Mackey said. “Wouldn’t he have photographed this guy?” In any case, we see accounts that he was “an intelligent looking man”. I feel like that explains a lot. He is a spectator. And he is well educated. Many women who met him would probably have thought, “What a trap! ”

Wood was helped in large measure by the newspapers – a healthy medium in his day, even if journalistic standards were sometimes lax. A little more fact-checking could have slowed him down considerably, but Wood was able to stay ahead of the game, planting stories positioning himself in remote locations.

“Effectively what he was doing was writing his life,” Mackey said. “He would send something to a newspaper and could point to it and say, ‘Here it is, an account of what I did in such-and-such a place.’ It might not be true at all, but it was there, imprinted.

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Mackey’s longstanding passion for black history is rooted, he said, in “personal and intellectual interest.” Personally, I have an adopted daughter who is black and I now have two black grandsons. These grandchildren were born in this century, and I thought I owed it to them to show that there is a dark past here. I wanted young black Montrealers to realize that there were blacks who had walked the same streets as them. This kind of connection means a lot.

Mackey acknowledges that he encountered resistance to being a white person working in his chosen field.

” It happened. But the basic thing is that I did the research. I’m not trying to pass as black. As writers we can write about things that are not us. Yes, I’m a white man who writes about black history. I am also a French-speaking Quebec writer writing in English. These things, in a way, actually give me the freedom to write things that other people might not write.

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Of the evocative word in the new book’s name, Mackey said, “Several people were suspicious of my choice of title and suggested that I choose another one, or at least add a subtitle. But as I said (to my editor): ‘Look, Colum McCann wrote his novel (2020) and titled it Apeirogon. At least I added a definite article and an adjective. ”

IN ONE LOOK

The Great Absquatulator launches online via Zoom on Wednesday, May 18 at 6:45 p.m. To register, see bit.ly/3ypfoh7

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