Saturday, December 11, 1875 dawned crisp, clear and cold on the quay at Bremerhaven, Germany, on the North Sea. The Mosel prepared to depart on the Bremen-Southampton-New York run. The passengers were largely aboard but friends, family and well wishers crowded the docks while stevedores scrambled to load the last of the cargo. As they winched a heavy barrel aboard, it slipped the hook and tumbled onto the dock, a not uncommon occurrence in a port that handled tens of thousands of tonnes of cargo annually.
But the consequences were unprecedented. The barrel contained a new explosive, dynamite (invented in 1867). It exploded. They heard the blast 100 kilometres away in Hamburg. The hole in the cobblestone quay was almost two metres deep and slightly more than two metres wide. The blast killed 81 people and injured about 50 more. The barrel, insured as a valuable shipment of diamonds, actually contained a time bomb set to explode at sea.
An American businessman, widely known to be gregarious and generous, William King Thomas was subsequently found in his cabin, having shot himself twice in the head. A suicide note implied guilt: “What I have seen today I cannot stand.” Thompson had expected an insurance windfall while the diamonds remained safely hidden in Germany, but his scam had become mass murder.
William King Thomas, the “Dynamite Fiend,” was a scoundrel, a man who never met a scam he didn’t like. The events of December 1875 were the culmination of a career of crime, the crescendo of a life of villainy, of lies layered upon lies. They were the final act in a life that began in quiet respectability and ended in mass murder. A man that was born a scion of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the Maritimes. At birth in 1827, his name had been Alexander Keith. He began his working life in his uncle’s brewery in Halifax.
Known widely as Sandy, he was the son of Alexander Keith’s younger, and less successful brother, John. This did nothing to prevent Sandy from undertaking the first deception of his life. He began signing his name “Alexander Keith, Jr.” and in court documents he identified himself as “Alexander Keith the Younger.”
With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Halifax became a hotbed for smugglers, blockade runners and war profiteers. Keith was in his element. He profitably provisioned and even owned and operated blockade runners. Unofficially he came to be known as the “Confederate Consul,” a title he relished.
At the same time, he ruthlessly exploited his business partners. He conned three men into independently investing in two locomotives to be shipped to the Confederacy. When they were impounded in Philadelphia, he told each separately that their investment was lost and pocketed over $50,000.
On another occasion, a blockade runner he co-owned with Patrick Martin, disappeared with Martin aboard. Keith collected $100,000 in insurance money, deigning to give not a penny to Martin’s wife and daughter. Whether or not Keith bombed the Marie Victoria, is open to debate. Regardless, it is clear that after that incident Keith became much enamoured with the possibilities presented by marine insurance swindles.
The inclination towards bombs can also not be confirmed but circumstantial evidence speaks volumes. Early on Friday, August 14, 1857 the Merchant’s Powder Magazine in Halifax mysteriously exploded. The last person to have had access to the magazine, indeed the only person to have free access to the magazine, was its most frequent customer, Sandy Keith, acting as his uncle’s agent. Haligonian society refused to entertain that the perpetrator was one of their own and Keith remained above overt suspicion.
During the Civil War, Keith was further connected to murder and mayhem. While embezzling, swindling and possibly murdering his partners and investors, he was also heavily involved with Confederate agents intent on wreaking mayhem in the north while using British North America as a base. During this period, Keith dabbled in bio-terrorism. Bedding from yellow fever patients in Bermuda was smuggled to Halifax and then distributed throughout the Union. Yellow fever spreads through mosquitoes, not infected surfaces, so the attempt failed. But it reveals a great deal about Sandy Keith’s mindset and fascination with covert mayhem and destruction.
In the closing month’s of the Civil War, Keith’s bunco schemes caught up to him. He fleeced a series of Halifax banks (cashing false bills of lading) and fled to Boston and then New York City. With him he took the equivalent of millions in today’s dollars, and a naive chambermaid from the Halifax Hotel. He abandoned her in New York and took flight for the frontier—first St Louis, then Highland, Illinois on the Missouri border. This sojourn offered only time for a liaison with and marriage to Cecelia Paris before the groom was sought out by another intrepid creditor.
Determined to flee for the final time, the couple took flight for Europe. Calling themselves William King Thompson and Cecilia Thompson, they landed in Dresden in January 1866 with at least $45,000. Wealthy, lavish entertainers, and affable, the Thompsons were soon moving in the highest circles of the substantial American expatriate community, their closest friends the American consul at Leipzig John Steuart and his wife. Five years later, they were down to a mere $5,000 and Thompson’s mind turned again to marine insurance fraud.
And so it was that Sandy Keith found himself on the quay at Bremerhaven on that bright December morning in 1875, expecting an insurance windfall in a fortnight that would restore his fortunes. Instead, as a result of a longshoreman’s careless mistake, he found himself the perpetrator of “the crime of the century” according to The Times of London. He earned the everlasting sobriquet “the dynamite fiend.”
Over a century later, Sandy Keith remains an enigma that inspires continued interest. In 2005 American scholar Ann Larabee published The Dynamite Fiend, a biography of Keith. The Inventor, an operatic interpretation of the tale with music by Bramwell Tovey and libretto by John Murrell, premiered at the Calgary Opera in January 2011.