People: Scots of Windsor's Past
Colonel Arthur Rankin (1816-1893)
"There are not many men in Canada better known for his somewhat Quixotic eccentricities than Arthur Rankin."
~ Montreal Gazette [7 October 1861]
Many members of the Rankin family emigrated from the ancestral home in Ayrshire to Northern Ireland during the Plantation of Ulster in the early seventeenth century; among these were the paternal ancestors of Arthur Rankin. George Rankin left Ireland for Quebec sometime in the early nineteenth century and settled in Montreal, where he met his wife, Mary Stuart, the daughter of Scottish immigrants. When Arthur was fifteen, the family relocated to Amherstburg, Upper Canada, in 1831, where George worked as a teacher.
Rankin was restless as a youth. When his family relocated from Lower to Upper Canada, he seized the opportunity to run away and be a cabin boy on a New York- City-Liverpool packet boat. While his family cultivated new roots in Upper Canada, Arthur lived the life of a sailor, finally returning home in 1835. He apprenticed with his brother, Charles Stuart, to be a surveyor, and took up practice in the Windsor area.
However, Rankin's taste for adventure had not been satisfied by his years at sea. In November 1836, he fought a duel on Belle Isle with a Detroit lawyer to settle a quarrel they had had over a woman in a bar in Sandwich. While there is no record as to whether Rankin had offended the woman or was defending her, he shot the lawyer in the groin and was subsequently arrested. Detroit authorities released him after the wound healed.
Several months later, Rankin moved to Toronto to pursue a career with the militia, where he received a commission as an ensign for the 2nd Queen's Light Infantry. Daring escapades soon followed: in August 1837, while he was returning to his unit after a leave to visit his family at Sandwich, the steamer on which he was traveling stopped in Toledo, where two American bounty hunters boarded with a fugitive slave from Kentucky they had picked up in Canada. Rankin, who had inherited a distaste for slavery from his uncle, the noted Canadian abolitionist Charles Stuart, confronted the Americans, arguing that they had no right to seize a man from Canadian soil. Debating was to no avail, so Rankin hatched another plan, finding allies with three other passengers, an Englishman and two Americans, and two black crew members. When the steamer pulled into Cleveland harbour, the crewman jumped ship and obtained two pistols from a friend who worked near the docks. Hamilton writer David Beasley gives a colourful account of the action in McKee Rankin and the Heydey of the American Theater:
"Rankin took the pistols, waited for the prisoner and his two guards to disembark, and advanced with a knife to cut the cord that bound the slave's hands. One of the guards grabbed Rankin by the arm, and drawing a small dagger, threatened him with instant death. But Rankin put one of his pistols at the guard's head and declared he would blow his brains out if he did not immediately drop his dirk. Although the guard dropped his weapon, he also called upon his friend to run to a magistrate for a warrant. Before the second guard could flee, Rankin knocked him down with a blow to the chin. One of Rankin's party had picked up the dirk and cut the prisoner loose while the others kept the crowd from pressing too closely upon them. Rankin, with a cocked pistol in each hand, rushed through the crowd and threatened to shoot anyone who dared to interfere with them. They ran as hard as they could ... to an adjoining wharf, where a steamer bound for Detroit was taking in wood. The people on board had seen all that had occurred, and they refused to allow the fugitives to come aboard, fearful of consequences. Rankin, followed by the Englishman, the slave, and the barber, jumped into a small boar belonging to a schooner, and pulled across the river in the midst of the threats of the people on board the schooner to shoot them." 1
Following a series of daring escapes, Rankin eventually brought the slave, whose name was David Miller, to Toronto by way of Fort Erie, where he found work as a bricklayer fir "liberal wages."
A year after this adventure, Rankin was transferred to the 2nds Battalion of Provincial Volunteer Militia, and in early February 1838 helped to recapture Pelee Island from the Patriots in the Upper Canada Rebellion. Rankin was then stationed at Sandwich, where things remained quiet until the following winter.
On 4 December, 1838, at 2:00 A.M., the American Patriots crossed the Detroit River into Canada by steamboat. They attacked Windsor - a tiny community with only three hundred residents and twenty militiamen - set fire to the British barracks, burned the steamer Thames along with several houses, and killed four militiamen before positioning themselves at the Baby farm. The captain of the Sandwich battalion, however, had taken ill, leaving Rankin in charge of the barracks.
When Rankin heard news of the attack, he mustered a company of sixty men in Sandwich and marched to Windsor, arriving at roughly 7:00 A.M. Under his leadership, the company pushed the invaders out of the Baby farm and pursued them through the town. After Rankin captured the Patriot flag, the enemy returned to the steamer and released the eighteen prisoners they had taken before retreating back across the river. When Colonel John Prince arrived with the regulars around 9:30 A.M., the Americans had already been routed. But although Rankin had done the fighting, Prince won the laurels. Prince's glory-hogging sowed the seeds of a bitter rivalry that would last decades.
After the Queen's Light disbanded in 1843, the adventurer had to find another way to support himself. When the local Ojibway chief expressed his desire to meet the British monarch, his tribe having served the Crown during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Rankin got an idea. Having always been attracted to theatrics, he contacted George Catlin, an American painter who specialized in portraits of Native peoples, to pitch his idea. Rankin and Catlin then brought nine residents from the Ojibway reserve settlement along the St. Clair River to Egyptian Hall in London, where they put on a "Wild West" show. Night after night the performance sold out, becoming so popular that Queen Victoria requested it be played for her private audience at Windsor Castle. His coffers swollen, Rankin left the troupe after several months of touring to return home to his family, his wife having given birth to their second son while he was away.
Rankin's return to Sandwich rekindled his quarrel with Colonel John Prince. He began attacking the colonel in editorials for the Sandwich Canadian Emigrant and Western District General Advertiser, and found himself slapped with a libel suit. Although the jury found Rankin not guilty, he thought it might be best to slip away again. He and his brother-in-law, Alexander McKee, he obtained their surveying licenses and went out west to Lake Superior in 1846 with Rankin's brother Charles, a long-established surveyor. The team discovered a small fortune's worth of copper deposits in the Bruce Mines, and Rankin sold his interests the next year to the Montreal Mining Company for an enormous sum £30,000.
With adventuring out of his system and his pockets brimming with money, Rankin returned to Sandwich to settle into the political life. He and his wife of eight years, Mary McKee, their seven-year-old son George Cameron, and their four-year-old boy Arthur McKee moved into the W. R. Wood residence on the riverfront Lot 68 between Sandwich and Windsor in 1848. But Colonel John Prince was so powerful in Essex that Rankin was compelled to run for the 1851 election to the Legislative Assembly in Kent. Forsaking his former Tory views, he stood as a Reformer; most Reformers, however, didn't buy his conversion, and he lost to George Brown. By the next election (1854), Rankin was ready to challenge Prince in Essex, but the colonel withdrew at the last moment in favour of his son. Rankin's support of separate Catholic schools swung the French Catholic vote his way, and his parliamentary career was launched.
Rankin and Prince finally confronted one another in the 1856 election for the Western divisional seat in the Legislative Council, and Rankin's campaigning strategy proved to voters that to him, politics was personal. He ignored the issues and hurled what the Windsor Herald termed "abuse of the lowest description" at Prince; suck vitriolic attacks backfired, and Prince was elected by a large majority. Rankin, however, did not take the lesson to heart: later that year, a name-calling dispute with Attorney General John A. MacDonald almost ended in a duel. Although the men settled the matter peacefully, Rankin soon became embroiled in more serious scandals. In 1857 he became involved in the conflict between Isaac Buchanan and Samuel Zimmerman for control of the newly-proposed southwestern railway line. Rankin lobbied for the charter, bribed Buchanan, and made a deal with Zimmerman to get a quarter of the profits if his company won the construction charter. When he disclosed this arrangement to an investigating committee, he exposed himself to corruption charges. The Toronto Globe blasted the seedy "Rankin Job" and called for his expulsion from the legislature. Tainted by this scandal, Rankin was defeated in the general election of 1857 by Amherstburg businessman John McLeod. Although his supporters did not take the defeat lightly, a humiliated Rankin returned to the one activity in which he had always succeeded: surveying.
In 1861 he returned to Essex to regain his parliamentary seat. But before the session opened, he embarked upon another bizarre international adventure: In July of that year he volunteered to raise a lancer regiment to serve in the Union army in the American Civil War. After discussing the issue with President Lincoln, he was commissioned with a warrant to raise the regiment, with the understanding that most of the men would be Canadians. Canadians, however, were aghast that a militia colonel - he had been promoted commander of the 9th Military District in 1856 - and a Member of Parliament would serve in the American army, and, moreover, would recruit Canadians for enlistment in a foreign army. In October Rankin was arrested in Toronto for breaching the Foreign Enlistment Act, and although he was never convicted, he was forced to resign his American commission. His lancer regiment never saw action and was disbanded in 1862.
Rankin, however, still maintained considerable public support in Essex, and he maintained his seat in parliament until the federal election of 1867. Despite his antics, he provided an eloquent voice speaking in favour of Canadian nationhood during the confederation debates. The time had come "to commence the establishment of a nationality for ourselves," or face American assimilation, he claimed, perhaps using his own recent experience as evidence. He may have hoped to be a delegate in the pre-Confederation conferences, but his past indiscretions caused the government leadership to reject him in favour of more reliable men.
Back in Windsor, Rankin enjoyed a quiet retirement with near-celebrity status. He was seventy-seven when he passed away in 1893.
McKee was born in Sandwich in 1844 while his father's Ojibway show was touring Great Britain. The great-grandson of Alexander McKee, an Irish immigrant, and Tecumapease, older sister of the great chief Tecumseh, McKee Rankin was proud of his mixed heritage. He was sent to Upper Canada College in Toronto to get a classical education, but while he was there he became infatuated with the theatre.
Having inherited his father's penchant for showmanship, McKee spent his first summer home from the school playing with his friends in a minstrel band called the Nightingales. Painted in black-face, McKee acted as the end man, dancing, strumming, and singing. At fifteen, he made his stage debut as a monk in Upper Canada College's production of "The Robber of the Rhine." He was smitten.
After finishing school in 1860, McKee ran away to New York City and performed in the Bowery. His father, however, came to the city and dragged him home after a performance of MacBeth, in which he played the second witch. His mother was hugely disapproving of a theatrical career, and his father got him a position with the civil service in Quebec. McKee hated the drudgery of such work, but continued with it to appease his parents. When he applied for a clerkship in Windsor, however, future Ontario Premier John Sanfield MacDonald encouraged him to follow his heart: "I don't approve of a young man of your parts becoming a mere official machine," he said.
But McKee's mother would not be swayed. So at eighteen, McKee got a lieutenancy in the 1st Michigan Regiment in the Union army under Colonel Broadhead, a family friend. Before McKee arrived, however, Broadhead was killed and the regiment decimated in the Second Battle of Bull Run. Seemingly suicidal, McKee tried to get a second commission, prompting his mother to finally give in to her son's passion.
McKee spent the next fifty years building an illustrious stage career. In 1863, he left for Chicago, and spent the rest of the decade traveling theatres throughout the United States and Canada. Between 1870 and 1875, he was the leading man at New York City's famous Union Square Theatre. Two years later he debuted on Broadway as Alexander McGee in The Danites, and followed the show in his first world tour. In the 1880s, he created a famous repertory theatre in San Francisco, establishing himself as one of the most important character actors in the last half of the nineteenth century.
McKee earned a reputation as a great stage manager and teacher. In his youth, he was known as the best performer on Broadway, and in his maturity he was known as a great character actor. As a writer, he transformed American playwriting, employing realism with strong characters in complex situations, especially in the Westerns he wrote in the 1870s. He also dabbled in sensational melodramas and folksy comedies, writing in a style that gave expression to the drama of real life.
Critics, too, raved about him. The critic for the Los Angeles Times, for example, wrote in 1912 that he "has always seemed to me to be in the ranks of genius ... the genius of McKee Rankin, tremendously virile, though full of years, and electric with the dramatic spark which should belong only to early youth, lit the play like the flame of a touch in a dark place." 2
But McKee's passion for theatre often brought him into conflict with the commercial attitudes of theatre managers, and his fortunes. In his later years, McKee was known more for his obesity, his debts, and his alcoholism (he had taken to the habit of downing two full bottles of champagne before breakfast) than for his acting or writing abilities. Amy Leslie, the famous critic for the Chicago News, lamented that "there is no man so picturesque today, no man so brilliant and probably no man of such startling genius who will leave so little to commend him to posterity." 3
For a complete examination of McKee Rankin's contribution to American theatre, consult Beasley, David, McKee Rankin and the Heydey of the American Theater, Wilfrid Laurier University Press: Waterloo, Ont., 2002, available at the Central branch of the Windsor Public Library, call no. 931.1, Genealogy Reference.
In December 1869, McKee Rankin married stage actress Kitty Blanchard. Their daughter, Phyllis Rankin, (literally) followed her parents onto the stage, making her debut at the age of ten in Stormbeaten. She began to carve out her acting career as a teenager in the 1890s and performed in leading roles on Broadway. In 1896 she married fellow actor Henry Davenport; of their three children, two pursued stage careers. Their oldest, Arthur, acted in films in the 1920s. His son, Arthur Rankin Jr., also had a passion for entertainment, but he took a different approach to the industry.
In the early 1960s, Arthur Rankin, Jr., formed a partnership with Jules Bass to produce and co-direct cartoons and stop-motion animated features. Over the next forty years, Rankin/Bass Productions went on to produce twelve feature films, thirteen animated series, and over forty animated television specials, including specials for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas. Many of the dozen beloved Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, such as 1964's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with Burl Ives, 1969's Frosty the Snowman with Jimmy Durante, and 1970's Santa Claus is Comin' to Town with Fred Astaire, are still broadcasted annually during the holiday season. 1977's The Hobbit and 1982's The Last Unicorn were two of Rankin/Bass's most successful films, and their animated cartoon series, Thundercats, ran for five years between 1985 and 1990.