Sarah Leavitt's comic imagines the life of Agnes McVee, fabled 19th-century serial killer
Sarah Leavitt's new graphic novel, Agnes, Murderess, is inspired by the legend of Agnus McVee, a 19th century roadhouse owner in B.C. The legend, which hasn't been substantiated by historians, suggests that McVee murdered several gold miners and sex workers who stayed at her inn.
Leavitt's comic imagines Agnes being raised by her evil grandmother in Scotland, making her way to London and then to B.C., leaving a trail of bodies along the way.
Agnes, Murderess is a finalist for the 2020 Doug Wright Award for best Canadian comic.
Leavitt talked to CBC Books how she wrote Agnes, Murderess.
Discovering the story of Agnes
"We were visiting friends in the Cariboo. There is a historical site near there called 108 Mile House. They reconstructed a bunch of buildings that used to be on that site. One of the buildings was a roadhouse. During the gold rush, there used to be roadhouses on various stops along the gold rush trail. I was there looking at all the touristy information and there was a little photocopied piece of double-sided paper. It's called The Murder Mystery at 108 Mile Hotel and it's this grisly violent story.
It was very chilling and I had a number of nightmares where Agnes was just standing there looking at me.
"It was a beautiful sunny day when my friends and I sat down to read this pamphlet. It was about this woman who had killed more than 50 men to steal their gold. She also had sex workers at her roadhouse and killed them. It was very chilling and I had a number of nightmares where Agnes was just standing there looking at me. I thought about it a lot and I drew a lot of pictures of her. It started me on a road of many years of researching, writing and drawing it."
Horror and history
"What originally captivated me about it was just the sheer violence and the horror of it. I got interested in that time in history and what was happening in Scotland where Agnes first lived, what was happening in London with the invention of photography and passionate women's friendships in the 1800s — all of the different stories of people who came to B.C. I was also looking into what relationships were like between white people and Indigenous people and the different things people did to get to the gold fields. These different characters came into my world as I was reading and writing. There are so many layers to British Columbia's history that I did not know about."
Empathy for the villain
"I'm surprised by the fact that I feel affection for Agnes, but also think of her as a person who caused harm. I did have a soft spot for her, even though she's not a good person. At one point she's a little bit more benign, but she's never kind or loving. I was surprised by how I felt about her.
I'm surprised by the fact that I both feel affection for Agnes, but also think of her as a person who caused harm.
"I spent a lot of time with the character and do feel empathy and compassion for her, but I kept thinking, 'I don't want this to be an excuse for her behaviour. I don't want it to reveal that she was crazy all along.' I was exploring questions like, are people born evil? If you have this heritage, does that mean that you're forced to turn out evil? Is it because of bad things that happen to you or is it choices that you make? I feel like in her case, it's a bit of a combination."
Sarah Leavitt's comments have been edited for length and clarity.