Fam­ily stalked by ‘An­gel of Death and de­mon of fire’

Within three years, An­nie McNi­col lost her hus­band, three sons and four grand­chil­dren, claimed by war, calamity and dis­ease

Waterloo Region Record - - Front Page - JEFF OUT­HIT Water­loo Re­gion Record jouthit@there­cord.com Twit­ter: @OuthitRecord

CAM­BRIDGE — The McNi­col fam­ily surely had high hopes, leav­ing Scot­land for faraway On­tario.

The fam­ily im­mi­grated to Galt and Guelph by 1912, bring­ing three gen­er­a­tions to start new lives. Two years later the First World War erupted.

Tailor Alexan­der McNi­col set­tled his grow­ing fam­ily in Guelph. When Canada went to war he vol­un­teered to fight against Ger­many.

One month af­ter reach­ing the West­ern Front, he at­tacked the en­emy June 13, 1916, at Mount Sor­rel in Bel­gium.

Troops at­tacked the en­emy in the dark, on a rare night­time as­sault, to re­cover ground lost to a Ger­man as­sault. McNi­col was shot in both legs. His arm was frac­tured.

Sent to Eng­land, he sur­vived one more week un­til his wounds be­came in­fected. He died June 21, 1916, at a hos­pi­tal in Lon­don. He was 30.

Alexan­der was sur­vived by his wife, Alice, and four young chil­dren. He never saw his in­fant daugh­ter. Af­ter she was wid­owed, Alice moved her fam­ily to Galt (now Cam­bridge) to be closer to rel­a­tives.

Three months later, James McNi­col crawled out of a trench at 6:24 a.m. to at­tack the Ger­man front line at the Somme bat­tle­field in France. He was in the first wave of Cana­dian sol­diers, aim­ing for the ru­ins of Courcelette.

James was Alexan­der’s brother. Be­fore vol­un­teer­ing, he checked train cars for a liv­ing. He was a cheer­ful, sin­gle man who played in his bat­tal­ion’s band.

At Courcelette, in­fantry com­rades ad­vanced un­der shrap­nel and bul­lets. They inched for­ward on their bel­lies, us­ing corpses as cover af­ter the en­emy caught them in the open in no man’s land.

James died there, killed in ac­tion Sept. 15, 1916. He was 22 and has no known grave.

The of­fi­cial tele­gram reached his Galt home three weeks later.

“I knew there was some­thing wrong,” his mother, An­nie Kay McNi­col, said. She hadn’t re­ceived a let­ter from James in three weeks.

An­nie be­came the mother of two sons killed in the Great War, three months apart.

An­nie McNi­col’s hus­band, Alexan­der, fell ill with can­cer shortly af­ter the war claimed their sons Alexan­der and James. The fa­ther of seven was a car­pen­ter who helped lead his ex­tended fam­ily to Canada.

Alexan­der was sick for three months. Then his heart failed sud­denly. He died Feb. 19, 1917, at the age of 61.

Alice McNi­col put her four chil­dren to bed in their brick cot­tage on Stan­ley Street in Galt. At 8:30 p.m. she left them alone in the house to visit her sis­ter-in-law around the cor­ner.

It was April 4, 1917. Alice had been wid­owed less than a year af­ter her hus­band, Alexan­der, died of his war wounds in Eng­land.

By 9:30 p.m. the cot­tage was on fire. A neigh­bour­ing girl found her way into the smoke-filled kitchen.

“Kid­dies, are you in there?” she called out to bed­rooms. No­body an­swered. Flames spread to the kitchen, forc­ing her out.

A pass­ing sol­dier at­tempted an­other res­cue, div­ing head­first through a front win­dow. The ceil­ing caved in. He was driven back and could do no more.

All four McNi­col chil­dren burned to death. Alexan­der was six. Alice was four. David was two. Nel­lie was an in­fant.

Alice rushed back home when she heard. By­standers re­strained her from rac­ing into the in­ferno. She was taken to hos­pi­tal, over­come with shock.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed the cot­tage was a poorly built fire trap. Flames con­sumed it in min­utes, then spread next door to an­other cot­tage also dam­aged. The fire was blamed on de­fec­tive wiring or coal in the stove.

Fire­fight­ers found the charred re­mains of the older chil­dren in their beds. The baby’s bones were found in the ru­ined cel­lar be­neath the bed­room.

“While we place no blame on the mother of the de­ceased, we strongly urge par­ents not to leave small chil­dren alone in their homes,” an in­quest jury ruled.

Shar­ing one white cof­fin, the chil­dren were buried with their grand­fa­ther, Alexan­der, claimed by heart fail­ure six weeks ear­lier.

The Kitch­ener News Record lamented “the neme­sis which has seen to dog the foot­steps of this fam­ily ...”

“Their mother had borne up well un­der the ter­ri­ble strain of her war loss, and was bravely mak­ing a home for them in the lit­tle cot­tage pur­chased af­ter her hus­band’s death, when the An­gel of Death and the de­mon of fire claimed not only the lit­tle house but the fam­ily.”

By the fall of 1918 an in­fluenza strain was strik­ing down young and old, killing dozens in Galt and mil­lions around the world.

The Span­ish flu pan­demic led pan­icked cities to close churches, schools, the­atres and pool halls. News­pa­pers screamed that its sting was worse than Ger­man bul­lets.

David McNi­col, 21, brother to Alexan­der and James and un­cle to four McNi­col chil­dren, fell ill with in­fluenza and died Oct. 22, 1918, in Galt.

An­nie Kay McNi­col, 62, was al­ready sick in hos­pi­tal with in­fluenza when her son David died. The Galt Daily re­porter wrote that “the hand of sor­row has been heav­ily laid upon her.”

She died the next day, Oct. 23, 1918.

To­day a fad­ing, moss-cov­ered tomb­stone in Cam­bridge’s Mount View Ceme­tery car­ries nine McNi­col names. Be­neath the names of four dead chil­dren it de­clares: “Thy will be done.”


On the left, An­nie Kay McNi­col with her sur­viv­ing daugh­ters An­nie, Mary and Eliz­a­beth. An­nie Kay lost her hus­band, three sons and four grand­kids be­fore she died of in­fluenza in 1918.


On the right, car­pen­ter Alexan­der McNi­col led his ex­tended fam­ily to On­tario from Scot­land just be­fore the First World War. He would die of can­cer a few years af­ter em­i­grat­ing.

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