Notorious ‘Dutch Lena’ began career in Guelph

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

We often hear the complaint that Canadian history is dull. I am afraid that I must agree to some extent. Canadian history lacks the intellectual vitality of continental Europe, and the dynamism of the republic to the south. 

We seem to be especially lacking in personalities and characters, compared with the eccentrics who populate the pages of British history, or the bunko artists, opportunists and visionaries who enliven American history.

I am, therefore, invariably delighted when I discover a character in our own history who stands out from the crowd. One of these was a woman who lived in Guelph from about 1874 to 1878, and was known most often as Dutch Lena.

The “Dutch” part of her name was the 19th century corruption of Deutsche, meaning German. When she landed in Guelph, from goodness knows where, she gave her name as Lena Rosas. Pressed for details, Lena hinted at origins in the German nobility, claiming her maiden name was von Schultz.

Lena arrived in Guelph with a daughter three or four years old, and no husband in sight. Later she revealed that she had another daughter and a son, but she never clarified her marital status.

She set up housekeeping in a residence, long since demolished, on Crimea Street just west of Edinburgh. The area was then on the fringe of the city, containing railway yards and the Great Western station, several industries including an oil refinery, a couple of seedy hotels, and perhaps a hundred houses occupied by labourers and railway men. Some of these were boarding houses, catering to a transient and fluctuating workforce.

Lena soon took in a couple of female lodgers. By 1875 her house had acquired a notorious reputation. There were perhaps a half dozen similar establishments in the city during the 1870s, based on police court cases and newspaper reports, but Dutch Lena’s stood out from the pack. She operated openly and flamboyantly. And unlike most proprietors of these establishments, she possessed impeccable manners and breeding that made her an interesting sub-rosa companion to men of the elite class in Guelph.

Lena seems to have become entangled with the authorities only once, in early 1877, when she was convicted in Guelph police court of running a house of ill repute. She paid the fine in cash on the spot and without complaint, and carried on as usual.

A few months later, a very curious incident brought Lena far more publicity than her day in court.

One fine Sunday afternoon in July, a young man named Jacob Martin rented a phaeton and called at Crimea Street to take Lena and one of her lodgers, Minnie Clarkson, for a ride in the country. They headed west to Maryhill, then known as New Germany.

After an hour or so on the road, the trio stopped at Lehman’s Hotel on the Elmira Road for some refreshments. Resuming their journey, Jacob and Lena began smoking cigars. The wind blew some burning ashes into the bustle of Lena’s expensive silk dress, setting it afire.

Terrified, Minnie jumped from the phaeton. Jacob tried to extinguish the flames with his hands, but the breeze created by the moving carriage negated his efforts. He quickly drove ahead to a mud puddle, and Lena jumped out and into the stagnant water, and rolled in it. Jacob followed, dabbing more mud all over Lena.

Thinking the flames extinguished, Lena stood up, but the fire burst out anew. She dropped again into the mud, writhing in agony. Her bellowing screams could be heard by nearby farmers. She believed she was doomed. The only coherent words she uttered concerned the fate of her children.

Eventually, Jacob and Lena put out the fire, as Minnie looked on, wringing her hands and crying. Jacob assisted Lena back into the carriage. Her clothing now consisted of only her corset and boots.

The group retraced their path to Lehman’s Hotel, where Jacob told the improbable story to the proprietor. When they lifted Lena out of the phaeton, she fainted.

While Lehman did what he could to ease Lena’s suffering, Jacob and Minnie returned quickly to Guelph, and returned with Dr. Harkin.

He recommended immediate removal to the Guelph General Hospital. Lena was placed in the back of a wagon for the ride.

At the hospital, the nurses dressed the burns and tried to ease her pain. The burns were most severe on her back, but her legs suffered badly as well. Jacob Martin received treatment as well for one of his hands, which was badly burned.

All the following day the medical men held little hope for her recovery, but Lena pulled through, and soon was back to her old routine.

Her Guelph career soon came to an end. Soon after, probably in early 1878, Lena moved to Toronto, where she led a more flamboyant lifestyle than was possible in Guelph. By the early 1880s she moved on to Winnipeg, which was then in the midst of a great boom, based on the new provincial status for Manitoba and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

As her career advanced, so did her explanation of her origins. When she hit Toronto, she billed herself as a countess and member of the German nobility. In Winnipeg, she became Baroness Von Kunwitz. The Guelph newspapers gleefully reprinted every mention of Lena that could be gleaned from other papers.

By this point in her career, moralist commentators credited Lena with ruining the lives of hundreds of men and women in Guelph, Toronto and Winnipeg, in her relentless pursuit of fortune and luxury, using her devilish guile to lure the innocent into lives of shame and degradation.

In 1884, Lena turned up again briefly in Toronto, and later in Buffalo, seemingly a little low on cash. A fire had destroyed her popular Winnipeg establishment. She took this as a sign to move on to other pastures.

In Buffalo, Lena operated using the name Evelyn Wentworth. Here she met a wealthy commodities broker named Cyrus Vandeventor, and lured him into wedlock. The couple were married quietly in Niagara Falls on Sept. 7, 1884. But Lena had no intention of retiring to a quiet married life.

Before year end, she threatened Vandeventor that she would reveal all the details of her sordid life if he did not make a sizeable payment to her. Instead, he walked out on her.

Lena made good her threats, presenting the story to the Buffalo newspapers, and swearing out a warrant against Vandeventor for desertion.

The hapless husband hired a lawyer to deal with the case in court. The attorney issued a statement that began, “this woman is an adventuress who came from nobody knows where. Mr. Vandeventor was unfortunate enough to get into her power . . . ” He went on to explain that she wanted for nothing during the short, ill-fated marriage.

The story scandalized Buffalo, and provided lurid reading for subscribers of the Herald and the Mercury in Guelph, which continued to take delight in following Lena’s dubious career.

The case never came to a hearing. Vandeventor left town for New York City, then sailed to Europe for a long stay, hoping that all would be nothing more than a bad memory when he returned to Buffalo.

This is the latest report I have encountered of Dutch Lena. At the time of the Buffalo scandal, she must have been close to 40 years of age, if not older.

A career as a courtesan would be more difficult at this age, but according to the Buffalo papers, she retained a youthful beauty to complement her charm and elegance.

I have no idea what became of her after that point.

Her son worked in Toronto in the early 1880s, and her daughters attended expensive private schools in New York City. She seemed determined to give them a good start in life.

I like to think that Dutch Lena, with her natural shrewdness augmented by the increasing wisdom of middle and old age, continued to do well for herself, living as respectably as was possible for one in her position.

Her flamboyant life added a bit of colour and life to our local heritage. I am happy to nominate her to a minor niche in the panoply of Canadian historical figures.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Sept. 6, 2002.

Thorning Revisited