“Beardmore” revisited: Jens Bloch’s dark Norwegian past

In my 2018 book Beardmore, which investigates the Viking relics hoax that scandalized the Royal Ontario Museum, I lay out the most likely case for the source of Norse weapons that itinerant prospector James Edward (Eddy) Dodd said he discovered on a mining claim east of Lake Nipigon in the early 1930s. Dodd had been a tenant of a Norwegian immigrant, James Hansen, renting a home at 31 Machar in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), Ontario. Before Dodd moved in, Hansen, a building contractor and property owner, had lived at 31 Machar. At some point in the late 1920s, Hansen fell in with another Norwegian immigrant, Jens (John) Bloch, who arrived in Canada around 1923. Bloch lived with Hansen and worked for him. Hansen asserted that when Bloch needed money in the spring of 1928, Hansen agreed to guarantee a loan that Bloch took out from the Imperial Bank. If Bloch failed to meet the payment schedule, the bank would charge Hansen’s account. In an undocumented private side arrangement, to secure the loan, Bloch left with Hansen a set of Norse relics he had brought from Norway, which was illegal under Norway’s laws regarding cultural materials. Jens Bloch’s late father, Andreas Bloch, was a well-known illustrator in Norway, who produced many scenes of Viking life and was known to own Norse relics. Hansen, who was a bit of a pack-rat collector, agreed to the collateral arrangment. Bloch defaulted on the loan and skipped town, moving first to Winnipeg and then to Vancouver, where he died in 1936. Hansen kept the relics, storing them in the basement of 31 Machar. Then Dodd moved in to 31 Machar, found the relics in the basement, took them to his mining claim near Beardmore, and started telling a story that he had discovered them while blasting a trench.

In January 1938, G.R.F. Prowse, a school principal in Winnipeg with a reputation as an amateur scholar of early Atlantic exploration, shared some unpleasant intelligence with Charles Trick Currrelly, director of the ROM’s anthropology division, who had bought the relics from Dodd and insisted on their authenticity. Prowse had a Danish friend in Winnipeg, Knut (or Knud) Scheel, and Scheel had just told him that Bloch “knew Dodd.” This connection made it possible Dodd had acquired the relics (or some of the relics) directly from Bloch, perhaps while Bloch was working at Port Arthur’s Mariaggi Hotel, where Dodd was known to drink. Further, Bloch was “a very crooked gambler, came on here [Winnipeg] when it was too hot for him in Port Arthur and had to skip from here to Vancouver where he died.”

The allegation of gambling debts certainly added to the lore of this scandal when I published. After Beardmore came out, I heard from a Norwegian archaeologist, Frans-Arne H. Stylegar, who shared with me some extraordinary additional information about Jens Bloch. He attached an undated historical newspaper article and explained to me that when Bloch left Norway in 1923, he was “just out of prison for insurance fraud and suspected arson. Two years before this, he tried to fake his own death in a much published automobile ‘accident’, and then spent a couple of months wandering about in the mountains, breaking into cabins and houses, before crossing the border to Sweden and then to Denmark, from where he was deported back to Norway and taken care of by the police.” I almost laughed out loud when I learned that Bloch had tried to fake his death. As I reveal in Beardmore, one of Currelly’s key “witnesses” to Dodd’s discovery, the former game warden John Drew Jacob, faked his death in a “drowning” in Eva Lake in the spring of 1940.

It seems remarkable that despite the considerable interest the Beardmore scandal has enjoyed internationally since the late 1930s, it took until late 2018 for the details of Bloch’s notorious behaviour before arriving in Canada to emerge. But the scandal never fails to amaze me with its many twists and turns, which I had already copiously documented in my book. The new information has raised a fresh question for me that I continue to puzzle over: Did members of the Scandinavian community in Port Arthur, who fiercely defended the “discovery” of Norse relics at Beardmore and savaged the reputation of James Hansen, have any inkling of Bloch’s more than shady past in the old country? If anyone should have known, it was Carl Sorensen, the Norwegian consul in Port Arthur and neighbouring Fort William. Sorensen initially defended the discovery story and publicly disparaged Hansen, but in the summer of 1939 he was persuaded by the hoax’s amateur sleuth, school teacher O.C. (Teddy) Elliott, that Hansen had been telling the truth all along and that Dodd had put one over on the ROM. In February 1941, Sorensen killed himself. We will never know if (or when) Sorensen learned that Bloch had committed a crime spree in Norway before arriving in Port Arthur.

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