FRASSE DE PLAINVAL, LOUIS (also known as Louis Nathal), soldier, police chief, singer, actor, and impresario; b. 1841 or 1842 in Ardennes, France; d. 2 Jan. 1890 in New York City.
Nothing definite is known about the family, education, or early career of Louis Frasse de Plainval, but he seems to have been well born and to have had some military training before he arrived in Canada. The title of “Vicomte” appears to have been bestowed on him posthumously.
Knowledge of Plainval’s Canadian career begins with his enlistment on 27 May 1870 as a sergeant in Captain Jacques-O. La Branche’s company of the 2nd battalion, Quebec Rifles, recruited as part of the military expedition to the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg) under Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley*; from July to December 1870 Plainval served as colour sergeant of this unit. In August 1870 he arrived in the new province of Manitoba and quickly made a reputation for himself in concerts and theatricals as well as in military affairs. Plainval was married at the time he enlisted; his wife, May Susee Van Nostrand, joined him at Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) in February 1871 and shortly after opened a private boarding-house in St Boniface, Man. He was officially discharged from the militia on 1 May 1871 and received a land grant in Manitoba.
Before his discharge Plainval had become involved in the establishment of the Manitoba provincial police force and in June 1871 he was appointed assistant chief. He was promoted to chief of police on 5 Aug. 1872 after the first chief, Captain Frank Villiers, had been dismissed for “great irregularities not satisfactorily explained.” As chief, Plainval served most conspicuously in directing the attempt to quell riots during the dominion election of September 1872 which led to the destruction of poll books and the wrecking of the offices and printing presses of both the Weekly Manitoban (Winnipeg) and Le Métis (St Boniface). The leader of the mob, Francis Evans Cornish*, later the first mayor of Winnipeg, abused Plainval at the height of the violence as “a toad-eating Communist who ought to be banished.” These alleged communist sympathies seem unlikely in the light of reports that one of Plainval’s brothers had lost his life in April 1871 fighting communist insurgents at Versailles.
In March 1873 the Manitoba government reduced the provincial police from 15 to 7 men as an economy measure, and Plainval resigned in protest on 1 April. Before this time he is said to have submitted a plan to Sir John A. Macdonald* for a mounted constabulary force for service in the North-West Territories, a prototype of what became the North-West Mounted Police.
Immediately after his resignation Plainval left Manitoba in mysterious haste. He hired two horses and a cutter to travel to Pointe-de-Chêne (Sainte-Anne-des-Chênes, Man.), but drove instead directly to the United States border. Monetary difficulties and fears of a capias were rumoured as reasons for his departure to meet his wife in St Paul, Minn.
For the next seven years Plainval’s activities and whereabouts remain unknown, but it seems likely he began a theatrical career in the United States. Bearing the new name of Louis Nathal, he staged a brief but triumphant return to Manitoba in 1880. From 4 to 23 October the Nathal Comic Opera Company performed at Winnipeg’s City Hall Theatre, where Louis and his leading lady, Louise Lester, starred in The chimes of Normandy, Lecocq’s Giroflé-girofla, von Suppe’s opera Fatimitza, a Gilbert and Sullivan double bill of Cox and box and H.M.S. Pinafore, and Offenbach’s La grande-duchesse de Gérolstein. The company was warmly received. Lieutenant Governor Joseph-Édouard Cauchon attended some performances, and benefits were given to Nathal and Miss Lester. On 18 October Andrew Graham Ballenden Bannatyne read a eulogistic address after the final curtain call and presented Plainval with a handsome gold watch. On 22 October Miss Lester was given a beautiful pair of moccasins filled with gold coins, a presentation “evidently as gratifying to the audience as the recipient.”
After this triumph Plainval is not known to have returned to Canada. He lived principally in New York devoting his talents to the adaptation of French plays to the American stage, the most successful being Monbars, The suspect, and A prisoner for life. He died in the French Hospital at New York on 2 Jan. 1890, from the prevailing “grippe.”
PAC, RG 9, II, B4, 16: f.20. PAM, RG 2, A1, 11 March, 5 Aug. 1872. Manitoba Daily Free Press, 6–25 Oct. 1880. Manitoba Gazette (Winnipeg), 2 April 1873. Le Métis (Saint-Boniface, Man.), 15 juin 1871. New York Times, 4 Jan. 1890. Weekly Manitoban (Winnipeg), 11 Feb., 17 June 1871; 21 Sept. 1872. Alexander Begg, History of the North-West (3v., Toronto, 1894–95), II: 161. Frances EbbsCanavan, “He planned the R.N.W.M.P.,” Maclean’s (Toronto), 47 (1934), no.6: 50–51.