There is a story about a politician who walked on water on day only to see headlines the next proclaiming that he couldn’t swim. Associating this Scots born Canadian with the Confederacy is a page out of the same genre. There is no doubt that Alexander Keith, Jr. was as bad as any legitimate accusation that might be laid at his door. The crime for which he became infamous was a massive insurance swindle that involved blowing up ships – some of them full of immigrants – and he was only discovered because one of his explosions happened prematurely destroying the ship at the dock prior to departure. This all happened in Germany in 1875 and even then guilt may only be implied because he committed suicide to elude capture and punishment.
But the real headline – per the title – is that he was a Confederate spy first as though association with the Confederacy had a causal link with his other faults. The two instances of his association with the Confederacy involve first, the Chesapeake, a steamer seized under a letter of marque in Canadian waters as a war prize. Union forces violated Canadian neutrality in an effort to recapture the ship and nearly brought Great Britain openly into the war on the Southern side as a result. As a British Subject residing in Nova Scotia Keith may have been involved in the affair but he was certainly in violation of no American laws.
The second incident also involves his actions as a British citizen. In 1864 Luke Blackburn – a well-known philanthropist – had gone to Bermuda to help combat an outbreak of yellow fever, something that he was expert in and had founded hospitals along the Mississippi to help fight. The rumor was spread that Blackburn – and those associated with him, including Keith – were exporting soiled linens to the north in an early and crude form of biological warfare. The rumors were unfounded and could not be substantiated and Blackburn eventually returned to the United States where he was active in combating three more outbreaks and was eventually recognized for his work and rewarded when he was elected Governor of Kentucky in 1879.
As we have said earlier Keith was apparently one of the many scoundrels and swindlers that follow like pestilence at the heels of war but you may as well blame Grant’s drunkenness or Sherman’s madness on abolitionism as blame Keith’s crimes on the Confederacy but I guess if it sells books the historical record and the truth have to take second and third place although personally I find it makes the who work suspect.
The dynamite fiend: the chilling tale of a Confederate spy, con artist, and mass murderer New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005 Ann Larabee United States History Civil War, 1861-1865 Underground movements, Spies Biography, Keith, Alexander, b. 1827 Hardcover. First edition and printing. 234 p.: ill.; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. -227) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
The Dynamite Fiend brings to light the stunning story behind one of the most devious criminals of the nineteenth century, Alexander “Sandy” Keith. Beginning his dark career as a Confederate secret agent, Keith helped orchestrate some of the most infamous terrorist plots of the Civil War. In peacetime, dogged by creditors and victims of his frauds, Keith kept on the move, leaving more scams, schemes, and cheated women in his wake.
As his situation became more desperate, his obsession with explosives and violence became more intense, leading to a horrifying plot that he put together while posing as a prosperous American businessman living in Germany. In 1875, one of Keith’s bombs exploded on a dock, killing eighty people and injuring fifty more. The world heralded the deed as the “Crime of the Century” and Keith became the “Dynamite Fiend” and a true mass murderer.