The 19th century Fraser Gold Rush attracted many gold hungry miners from California and the Pacific Northwest to Cariboo country in the colony of British Columbia. Comic artist Sarah Leavitt visited the area in 2007 and came across a brochure about Agnes McVee, an inn owner at 108 Mile House, located one hundred and eight miles north of Lillooet, mile zero of the much-traveled gold rush trail. Although Leavitt could not find any official records of Agnes McVee, legend has it that she was a murderess who, along with her husband and son-in-law, killed some 50 people. The comic artist claims that as she read about Agnes, she “felt surrounded by cold darkness, though the day was hot and sunny.” Leavitt had nightmares about Agnes and imagined the terror of her victims. Then Leavitt found herself researching 108 Mile House, filling sketch books with Agnes and reimagining her life and the source of her iniquity. The result is the hauntingly dark Agnes, Murderess, from the woman’s impoverished childhood on an isolated island in Scotland to her life as an innkeeper in a lawless land.
The first two thirds of the graphic novel is about Agnes’s life prior to her arrival at 108 Mile House. The book has the pace and makings of a 19th century gothic novel. Agnes has an upper class mother from London who dies when Agnes is a young child. Much to her family’s dismay, the mother married a common sailor from Scotland who took his pregnant wife to his childhood home and then sailed away. His mother, Gormul, houses his wife and daughter in a ramshackle croft. In the closest village, the people believe that Gormul is a witch with an evil eye, and they pay her any way they can to keep her away. Gormul teaches Agnes how to chop the heads off chickens as a young child, and Agnes like her grandmother is attracted to anything shiny, including knives. Her grandmother is a terrifying force, haunting Agnes throughout her life.
Although a chilling character, Agnes is refreshingly complex and eschews the feminine frontier stereotypes. She is neither the kind-hearted sex worker nor the virtuous wife. Agnes is her own person, an entrepreneur who decides her own destiny. She only chooses to travel and partner with a man because it is safer and easier, and she makes this clear to her voyage companion. Agnes is most content when she is alone. In fact, it is the prospect of solitude and the absence of ghosts in the new world that draw Agnes to British Columbia’s interior, but it is her weakness for gold and the reign of lawlessness that give rise to most of her crimes. Unforgiving and prone to lashing out, Agnes is emotionally immature and devoid of compassion.
Leavitt uses slightly naive, high contrast black and white drawings with occasional touches of grey to tell Agnes’s story. The starkness of the images inspires creepiness and leaves the reader with a sense of foreboding. Agnes’s stern disposition comes through in the panels. She is often frowning or on the verge of anger. The best panels and the most detailed are those depicting British Columbia’s rugged interior and landscapes.
Many years of research went into Agnes, Murderess. Leavitt convincingly captures the atmosphere of the gold rush in her portrayal of the miners who frequent the inn and the sex workers Agnes employs there. The comic artist also gives a plausible set of circumstances for how Agnes may have become a killer, from her upbringing in deprivation and isolation at the hand of a mean-spirited grandmother to living among ruthless and calculating goldminers. However, the best part of this story is the rich character of Agnes herself, and her single-minded independence. But rest assured, she is the type of person to be kept at a great distance. She is unpredictable and frightening, and that is the point.