Writer Ruth Jacobs was a woman of many names, but it was as Wilhelmina Stitch, a pen name created in Winnipeg, that she achieved fame in what was a family of overachievers.
Jacobs was the oldest of three children born in Cambridge, England, to a prominent Jewish family. Her grandfather was Hebrew composer Marcus Hast, who spent 40 years as cantor of the Great Synagogue in London. When she was a child, her family moved to London, where they ran a bookstore. She spent her evenings and weekends in the company of authors and scholars who came to talk about issues of the day with her parents.
Jacobs’ future husband was Elisha Arakie Cohen. Born at what is now Yangon, Myanmar in 1877, he was educated in what is now Kolkata, India, and worked as a lawyer in London. In 1906, he came to Winnipeg to take a job with the firm of Daly, Crichton and McClure, led by noted jurist and future judge Thomas Mayne Daly.
Arakie Cohen, he added Cohen to his last name when he moved to London to make it sound more Jewish, soon made a name for himself locally and nationally, arguing high-profile cases, including murder trials.
In 1908, he was made a partner in the firm and later became a lecturer in both law and Jewish history at the University of Manitoba, as well as a rector at the Hebrew Free School.
In 1908, while on an extended visit to London, he met and married 19-year-old Jacobs. It is unclear if the two had known each other prior to his visit. The couple returned to Winnipeg and settled in a house in the 100 block of Polson Avenue in the North End near the Red River. In 1910, they had a son, Ralph.
Around 1911, Jacobs struck up an unusual friendship with scientist Reginald Buller.
Buller was among the first handful of science professors hired by the University of Manitoba, and his name graces the institution’s historic science building.
Though the study of fungus was his trade, Buller had a personal fascination with the paranormal.
After meeting Jacobs, Buller was convinced she had telepathic powers.
He felt she could read his mind and feelings and even know in advance when he was going to get sick. Soon, Jacobs was working for Buller, doing everything from clerical work to editing and critiquing his papers. They also attended social functions together, which must have made society tongues wag.
It was during this time that Jacobs was published under her first pen name. In the Jan. 11, 1913, edition of the Manitoba Free Press, an article by "Sheila Rand" appears in the literary pages extolling Buller’s views, and other contemporary research, in favour of eugenics. For her work, she received a cheque for $1.69.
Historian Gordon Goldsborough, who has extensively researched the "paranormal side" of Buller, discovered among the academic’s private papers a poem, which reads much like a love poem, from Sheila Rand to Buller dated "early 1913." It concludes:
"A very shy song, so hard to write
As pen touches paper the words take flight.
Just four words in the whole refrain:
"I love you dear", and then again
"I love you so", and ever and aye,
My heart repeats this tremulous lay."
Her works 'touched the hearts of innumerable men and women because of the spirit of helpfulness which pervades them, and the charming, joyous personality they reveal. The simple virtues, implanted deep in the human soul, are what they exalt -- courage, kindliness, gratitude, faith, love and loyalty' – the introduction to the first in a number of collections of Jacobs' poems
Buller confided in a letter to a friend the relationship was deep but not sexual. Goldsborough tends to agree, saying: "I believe his assertion that his relationship with Ruth... was strictly platonic, founded in his keen interest in her alleged telepathic abilities."
Jacobs soon began writing book reviews, submitting them to the Winnipeg Telegram under the name Sheila Rand. In 1917, she was hired on as a regular reviewer. She also began publishing poetry and prose in the Telegram under her pen name.
Jacobs was wooed away from the ailing Telegram by the Winnipeg Tribune, and in January 1919, Sheila Rand’s "What to Read... and What Not," debuted. It was a collection of short book reviews, poetry written by herself and others and news tidbits from around the literary world.
While Jacobs’ career was ascending, her husband’s was coming to an end. Elisha, who suffered from a heart condition, died of heart failure in March 1919 at age 42.
It was a shock not only to his family but to the city’s legal and Jewish communities. The Free Press wrote upon his death: "Among all the legal fraternity of Winnipeg none was better known or more highly respected... By sheer hard work and force of character he had attained place that gave promise of a great future."
For Jacobs, her livelihood and her top priority — to give eight-year-old Ralph a quality education — would depend on her writing.
She went to work for T. Eaton Company Ltd., writing copy for newspaper advertisements and catalogue, including a semi-regular rhyming column for Teco, the retailer’s toy division.
The new job did not curtail Jacobs’ other endeavours. In 1922, she was still writing for the Tribune and was the literary editor of Western Home Monthly, a magazine published in Winnipeg and distributed throughout Western Canada. She was also elected second vice-president of the Canadian Authors’ Association, which led to numerous speaking engagements. It was said she put in 15-hour days every day.
Her crowning achievement of 1922, was signing a syndication deal for her short, rhyming prose, which would now appear in more than a dozen North American newspapers. For this new venture, she shed Sheila Rand and chose the pen name Wilhelmina Stitch, a play on the fact she initially called her column the Daily Stitch.
By year’s end, she treated herself to the indulgence of a new house on Mortimer Place that she helped design herself.
The next year was one of great change for Jacobs. Jacobs, likely with her son in tow, decided to move back to London, arriving in October 1923. The reasons for the move aren’t well-documented but likely had to do with her son’s education.
Just four months later, in January 1924, she married Dr. Frank Collie, a Scottish physician living in London. Settled, she soon resumed her writing career as Wilhelmina Stitch under contract with the London Daily Graphic. She wrote rhyming prose, one per day, earning her the nickname "the poem a day lady."
A number of collections of her works were published starting in 1925 with The Fragrant Minute for Every Day. The book’s introduction describes her work as having "touched the hearts of innumerable men and women because of the spirit of helpfulness which pervades them, and the charming, joyous personality they reveal. The simple virtues, implanted deep in the human soul, are what they exalt — courage, kindliness, gratitude, faith, love and loyalty."
The short passages of usually happy thoughts earned Jacobs a large following, and she kept writing one a day for nearly a decade.
This success put Jacobs in great demand as a speaker. She made numerous lecture tours throughout the United Kingdom, and in 1930 made a two-month tour of North America, which brought her to Winnipeg for a few days in November to catch up with friends and speak at Central United Church. The topic was how everyone could write a poem a day, if they wanted.
In 1936, Jacobs was struck by an illness. Dr. Mary Crawford, a close friend of Jacobs from her Winnipeg years, said she received a letter from Jacobs in late February to say her doctor had ordered the cancellation of all upcoming speaking engagements. One week later, on March 6, 1936, Jacobs was dead at the age of 48.
There was little mention of the nature of the illness in local newspaper stories. One wire story noted the final line of her last published poem ended with: "I am tired of the rain, grey skies and murk. I would like to find a brand new trail where life would have a right good start."
Jacobs left an estate worth about $35,000, mostly to her son.
She once wrote that, "My main objective in life for the past 20 years has been to earn by my work enough to give (Ralph) all educational advantages." That she did. Her son graduated from the London School of Economics and London University. Sir William Beveridge, director of the London School of Economics, once described him as "the most distinguished research scholar of his generation."
In 1934, Ralph Arakie, who dropped the Cohen from his last name, took a job as an economics lecturer at Raffles College in Singapore. In their book Beyond Degrees: The Making of the National University of Singapore, Edwin Lee and Tai Yong Tan wrote that Arakie — Jewish, with a swarthy complexion and tendency to be overly chummy with students — did not sit well with his more traditional British ex-pat professors.
The authors the professors made life tough for Arakie and that eventually "conditions had become intolerable" for him and his wife, who returned to England in 1935 to recover from the birth of their first child.
On Oct. 7, 1936, seven months after the death of his mother, Ralph Arakie hanged himself aboard the S.S. Ranpura, a passenger ship en route from Hong Kong to Singapore. He was 26 years old.
With his death came the sad, early end of a Winnipeg family that showed so much promise.
Christian writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.