Railroader had a wife at each end of each train run

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.

“A girl in every port” is an old cliche that has plagued sailors since the days of Jason and his Argonauts.

In the 19th century, a similar reputation attached itself to railroaders, whose train assignments routinely carried them from one town to a distant one.

This is the story of one railroader who took his amorous endeavours well beyond the bounds of flirtation. He decided that nothing less than a wife at each end of his runs would do.

His neighbours regarded Bill Milne as a quiet, unassuming man. A British immigrant, he was of slight stature, fair haired, and generally good humoured. In March 1877, in his early 20s, he married Mary Ann Rowan at Georgetown, and a short time later moved to Maryborough Township to live with and work for his wife’s stepfather, George Cooper of Maryborough.

The Cooper farm was at the hamlet of Riverbank, on Con. 16, Lot 18 there, and a short distance from the village of Arthur. Young Bill soon found employment as a brakeman with the Toronto, Grey and Bruce (TG&B ) Railway, which passed through Arthur. By the time the TG&B was taken over by the Canadian Pacific, Bill had been promoted to fireman, and frequently signed on for freight runs to Toronto and back.

Due to the nature of his work assignments, Bill began staying overnight at the long-vanished hamlet of Carleton, near the corner of Davenport and Old Weston Roads, in late 1884. He took lodgings at a boarding house run by a Mrs. O’Brien. It was only a few minutes walk from the then new Canadian Pacific yards and shops at West Toronto Junction, where his train assignments began and ended. Bill returned to his wife at Riverbank whenever he was able.

One day in early June 1885, Anna Frances Gillett, the vivacious 19-year-old daughter of the foreman of the CPR West Toronto shops, was visiting Mrs. O’Brien. As she was getting ready to leave, young Franny noted some dirt on her coat. Bill ran upstairs and returned with a clothes brush. Flirtatious Franny thanked him with a quick kiss on the cheek. Instantly, Bill was smitten.

With time on his hands in West Toronto, and his wife several hours away by train, Bill began spending more and more time with Franny, taking long walks through the neighbourhood. Mrs. O’Brien told her that Bill was married, but Franny didn’t believe her. Besides, he swore up and down that he was single.

By June of 1885, gossip began to swirl around Carleton and West Toronto to the effect that Franny Gillett was soon to be married. No one seemed to know much about her tight-lipped swain, other than that he was a railroader and appeared to be at least 10 years older than she was.

Friends with connections to the railway told Franny that there were rumours that Bill already had been married. As with the cautionary remarks from Mrs. O’Brien, she put it all down as humbug, inspired by jealousy.

On July 20, 1885, Franny and Bill boarded a train, and later that day were married at Lewiston, New York. The next day they went to nearby Niagara Falls, where Franny had an uncle. She had a notion that they would spend a brief but romantic honeymoon in Niagara Falls, staying at her uncle’s house, but the uncle sensed that something was amiss with the whole business, and would not let them stay with him.

The newlyweds holed up in a hotel, but the honeymoon didn’t last long. Following the wedding ceremony, Bill’s easy going charm had vanished. Bill had become testy when the uncle turned them away, and by the next morning the domestic ambiance had worsened, then exploded when Bill told Fran to polish his boots. She refused. Bill struck her hard across the face and stalked out.

Fran now realized that the affair had been a colossal mistake from the beginning. She gathered up her belongings and immediately headed for the station and the next train back to Toronto. Finally picking up on the stories about Bill and Mrs. O’Brien’s warnings she had previously dismissed as bunk, Fran sought out some of Bill’s co-workers as soon as she got back to Toronto. Soon she knew all about Mary Ann and the homestead in Maryborough.

Finally aware of the whole story, and feeling a little foolish, Franny Gillett went to the police, who swore out a warrant for the arrest of Bill Milne.

Bill’s version of the story was that he had left Franny in Niagara Falls so that he could return home to Toronto and prepare a home for them. He resumed his railway work, but on his first run to Toronto he learned of the warrant – the West Toronto shops were abuzz with the story. Mrs. O’Brien told him the police were looking for him, and ordered him out of her house. He made no attempt whatever to contact Franny.

After that, Bill did not sign on for any more runs to West Toronto Junction. During the last days of July and into August he stayed close to his Riverbank home and to Mary Ann, who was blissfully unaware of Mrs. Milne No. 2. Bill, it seems, hoped the whole sorry affair would quietly blow over.

For several weeks nothing happened, and Bill began to breathe easier. Then, on Aug. 17, 1885, almost four weeks after his second marriage, there was a knock on the door of the Milne’s Riverbank residence. Mary Ann answered. Two men identified themselves as York County Constable Richard Coe and Wellington County Constable Munson.

Coe had just been to see Maurice Halley, the Justice of the Peace at Arthur. He renewed the warrant for Milne’s arrest. Bill offered no resistance, and to Mary Ann’s utter astonishment, denied nothing.

The constables led him away, and Constable Coe escorted him to Toronto. There he saw Franny for the first time since he ended the honeymoon by striding out of the hotel room after slapping her face. She identified him as her lost husband. Milne spent that night, and the succeeding ones, in the Don Jail in Toronto.

The preliminary hearing convened in Toronto on Aug. 22 before three magistrates. Franny sat on one side of the courtroom, surrounded by her friends. Bill sat alone with his lawyer. Occasionally they glared at one another. He pleaded not guilty to the charge of bigamy.

When called to testify, Franny Gillett couldn’t hide her nervousness and embarrassment at the situation, but she gave her testimony clearly. She denied that she had pressured Milne into marrying her, as Bill was now alleging.

The prosecution produced Bill’s two marriage certificates, to Mary Ann and to Franny. Satisfied with the evidence, the magistrates bound him over for trial on a charge of bigamy, and refused him bail in the meantime. Realizing the hopelessness of his situation, Bill admitted the first marriage.

Bill’s escapade earned him a residency in a small room at public expense. More interesting than his time in the hoosegow, though, is the effect of the two wives in the case. The historical record is silent, alas, on this point.

The nature of railroad employment made it easy for railroaders to behave as Bill did. No doubt there were examples of railroad employees who successfully maintained two households, each unaware of the other, at the ends of their assigned train runs. Because wife No. 2 came from a railroading family and was acquainted with some of his co-workers, Bill’s chances of successfully maintaining two wives were rather slim. He was bound to be found out, and sooner rather than later.

More common were the railroaders who simply abandoned one family and moved elsewhere and later took another wife. The skills they had were readily transferable from one railway to another. Railways seldom checked references. And it was easy to sign on under an assumed name. Abandoned wives rarely had the means to pursue a deserting spouse.

Bill Milne is not a unique figure in our local history. His case is known to us only because the second marriage broke down immediately, and because the case received wide publicity across the province.

The sorry and tragic affair is a further reminder that infidelity and marital difficulties are not occurrences that have become common only in our own time.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 16, 2001.

Thorning Revisited