Bill “Billy” Jamieson & his beloved dog Rameses at home
[Photo: William Jamieson Tribal Art]
Bill Jamieson was a Toronto legend – a tribal art dealer obsessed with illuminating the darkest parts of our collective human history; a man so generous of spirit he would give a stranger the shirt off his back; a person so passionate about people that he was beloved by EVERYONE.
On July 3, 2011, his 57th birthday, Billy [as he was known to friends] passed away suddenly in his home/museum, with his beloved Dachsund, Rameses by his side.
What is not important about this story is Billy’s death – it is his LIFE. Billy was a dear friend and neighbour of my husband Yung and myself. And we learned a lot from him, as did all who had the honour of meeting him.
Let’s step inside the life of a man who embodied DisC’s motto “What Makes You Different, Makes You Cool”….
The Making of A Personal Museum Curator
As one of Billy’s best friends, Sheldon Jafine charmingly puts it “Billy was not big on formal education”. Billy struggled in school and dropped out at 14 years of age, not being able to conform to the masses. He went on to work in sales and eventually started his own roofing & waterproofing business. But Billy was restless, he was an eccentric guy, with a freewheeling rockstar mentality – life was for living and he longed for more adventure. He sold his business and headed to South America on a spiritual quest.
He was befriended by tribal shamen in the jungles of Ecuador & Peru, where he drank the hallucinogenic herbal remedy ayahuasca, to expand his consciousness. He later said of the experience “I became interested in everything, I wanted to know everything.” [As someone who knew Billy, I can attest to this – Billy’s thirst for knowledge was boundless]. The tribal traditions of South America, including the ritualistic shrinking of the heads of slain enemies fascinated Billy…and would become a big part of his legend…
In 1999, Billy bought the contents of the Niagara Falls Museum in Niagara, Ontario, Canada. It was a dusty, musty, spooky old curiosity shop specializing in natural wonders, and Billy loved it. He thought it was the coolest place and he wanted to catalog, research & live with its treasures.
[Poster from the Niagara Falls Museum archives]
As the story goes, Billy had borrowed the money for the downpayment on the museum from friends and, as such, his plan was to sell some of the contents of the museum to pay his friends back. Amongst the collection of stuffed multi-headed animals, Buffalo Bill Cody’s saddles, a trove of prehistoric fish and the skeleton of a 40-foot humpback whale, were 9 Egyptian mummies and Billy wondered if the mummies might not be a major find….and a potential financial windfall….
Return of The Mummy
Well, after some research by Billy and Royal Ontario Museum Egyptologist Gayle Gibson, it was discovered that one of those dusty old mummies in the collection turned out to be the very famous Pharaoh, Ramesses I. [Yes, THAT Ramesses I]. Billy had unwittingly and single handedly caused one of the biggest uproars in modern archaeology, as Ramesses had been missing since the mid 1800’s. The mummy was consequently sold [at an undisclosed, but handsome sum] to a museum in Atlanta and then repatriated to Egypt, where it now has its own museum in Luxor. Billy’s legend was born.
A Recipe for Shrinking Heads & Growing The Coolest Museum
As I’ve mentioned, Billy was fascinated by tribal cultures and their impact on our modern human societies. His specialty was cannibalism and human torture. I know that sounds macabre, and it is, but Billy explained these things in ethnographic terms and took the horror out of it – it really became a lesson on how modern peoples’ cultures have come to be. [Now I will say that it wasn’t without a bit of trepidation that Yung and I first toured his loft/museum-we wanted to know exactly why our downstairs neighbour had dug into the foundations of our building, he cryptically saying something about creating “a romantic dungeon”]. But as Billy gave us a grand tour of his little house of horrors, we went from reticent to excited and spellbound. From his home’s blood red walls and heavy maroon velvet draperies, the glass cabinets full of oddities, to the winding 2-story art deco staircase leading to his “romantic dungeon” Billy’s home was part lair, part theatre of the strange. And it was magic…
You see, Billy was a storyteller of the greatest order. He captivated his audience with the stories of tribal warriors and their trophies – which brings us to the shrunken heads – Billy had one of the largest collections of shrunken heads in the world, including a rare white man who Billy always called “the poor guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The shrunken heads, while a very small part of his collection, were the big show stoppers – everyone from school children on field trips, to captains of industry, to rockstars, were allowed to hold them and learn about how they were made. Billy called this “the recipe for shrinking heads” and even had tshirts made with the recipe on the back [you can see them all over Toronto, on the backs of Billy’s friends & fans] to explain the process. Billy & his treasures fascinated everyone, and maybe it was because Billy was fascinated, genuinely fascinated, by everyone.
[Billy & his pal, Motley Crue rocker Nikki Sixx]
Lessons in Humanity
Yes, Billy was one of a kind – a true bon vivant and eccentric. And he was the nicest person I’ve ever met. When you talked to Billy you felt like you were the only person in the world – he was that rare person who was present and engaged. And Billy had not only the most eclectic collection of Things, but of friends you’ve ever seen – lawyers and doctors; transvestites and rockstars; lost boys and girls of ill repute; museum curators and Hell’s Angels – they were all welcome in Billy’s world because Billy saw the good in every one. That was my big lesson from Billy – to see the good in everyone – because seeing the good leads to a life of mystery, adventure and joy.
The Legend Lives On
I write about Bill Jamieson for a couple of reasons – first: he touched Yung and I in a way that only the most rare of humans could, we basked in his light for a time and we were honoured to do so and we wanted to bear witness to that; and second: we wanted others to know Billy and learn from his life – he was the embodiment of Different Is Cool – he marched to his own wild and magical drumbeat, never letting anyone dissuade him from his passions. And we wish that each of us may do the same with the generosity of spirit and genuine joie de vivre that Billy had.
[Photo: Billy, his fiancée & partner, Jessica Phillips & Yung in Billy & Jessica’s home/museum]
We miss our friend Billy, but what I know for sure is this: in life, Billy looked after the dead – and I know for sure that they are now returning the favour to one of the kindest, gentlest, most eccentric and coolest people who ever walked the earth.
Rest In Peace, Billy. Thanks for the lessons & the memories.
Billy is survived by his son, Jordan; his beautiful fiancée & partner, Jessica Phillips; his mother, Barbara Halligan and his beloved sidekick, Rameses. We thank them for sharing Billy with us.
Billy & Jessica’s Halloween parties were the stuff of legend…here’s a l’il peek:
For more information on Billy, and his collections, please visit Jamieson Tribal Art.