Canada’s Only Assassination and Last Public Hanging

Patrick Whelan lived his life at the intersection of politics and passion. He was born around 1840, just outside of Dublin, Ireland. When only 14 years of age, Whelan did as most young Irish people did at the time and left school to pursue a trade. He found work as a tailor in Dublin and eventually completed his apprenticeship. Times were tough. They would get tougher.

Ireland was still suffering from a blight on the potato crops that, beginning in 1845, had led to wide-spread famine, dislocations, and nearly two million people leaving the country for Canada and the United States. The decade’s long economic and humanitarian crisis led to political upheaval. A group of Irish nationalists called the Young Irish sought to use peaceful, democratic means to win back Irish independence that had been lost to Great Britain in 1800. By the time Whelan arrived in Dublin, the group had failed to advance their agenda. Those frustrated by a lack of progress created a more radical group called the Fenian Brotherhood. Named after ancient Irish warriors called the Fianna Eirionn, the Fenians sought independence through revolution.

Whelan moved to England and again found work as a tailor. In 1865, the year of a violent but futile Fenian uprising, Whelan followed so many of his countrymen and fled economic hardship and political upheavals for a better life in Canada. He arrived in Quebec City and took up his trade with Mr. Vallin. He enjoyed horses, dancing, and drinking. He contributed to his new city in early 1866 by joining Montreal’s Volunteer Cavalry.

Irish political troubles crossed the Atlantic with the Irish immigrants. The American Civil War (1861-1865) saw a number of Irish-American regiments fight bravely. With the war’s end, Fenian leaders worked to use the military experience of the soldiers to their advantage. Approximately 10,000 men pledged allegiance to the Fenian cause and supported the idea that they would invade and capture the British North American colonies. (British North American at that time consisted of Canada – Ontario and Quebec. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland) Britain would be asked to trade Canada and the Maritime colonies for Irish independence. The 1866 Fenian border crossing in New Brunswick was a minor nuisance but there was a battle in June near Ridgetown, north of Lake Erie, near Niagara Falls. The Fenian Americans quickly withdrew.

Whelan’s cavalry unit was not involved in the Fenian raids but his sympathies were betrayed when he was arrested for trying to persuade a British soldier to join the Fenians. He was released when only the solicited soldier could testify about the conversation. At the time of the Fenian Raids, Whelan was reported to have been in Buffalo, the center of American Fenian activity. He then worked as a tailor in Hamilton before moving to Montreal. It was there that he was married to a woman about thirty years older than himself. He became involved with an Irish nationalist group called the St. Patrick’s Society. In the fall of 1867, he and his wife moved to Ottawa where he worked for tailor Peter Eagleson, a well-known supporter of the Fenian cause.

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Whelan (Photo: CBC)

An important gentleman opposed to that cause was Thomas D’Arcy McGee. McGee had been born in Ireland, emigrated to Boston at age 17 and was the co-editor of a journal advocating Irish nationalism. Young Ireland leaders asked McGee to return to Ireland and write about the movement. He was among those who, in 1848, tried to spark a revolution to establish an independent Irish republic. The effort’s failure took him back to the United States and then, in 1857, to Montreal. Months later, the journalist, poet, author,  and gifted public speaker was elected to the Canadian legislature.

By 1864, McGee was an influential member of the Canadian cabinet and in the Confederation meetings in Charlottetown and Quebec City that led to Canada’s creation in July 1867. He had also changed his political views and was now writing and speaking against Irish nationalism and the Fenians. By 1868, his close friend Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was considering him a possible successor but many Irish Canadians saw him as a traitor.

On April 7, 1868, McGee’s late evening House of Commons speech about Canada’s promise was met with rousing applause. The House adjourned just after two o’clock in the morning. McGee walked across the Parliament Hill lawn and then the two blocks to his Sparks Street rooming house, enjoying the unusually mild evening illuminated by a stunning full moon. He was reaching for his key when an assassin crept behind him and fired a .32 calibre bullet through the back of his head. He died instantly.

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McGee (Photo: CBC)

Within an hour, Police Detective Edward O’Neill was on the case. The House of Commons doorkeeper told him to arrest the “sandy whiskered tailor” at Eagleson’s tailor shop. O’Neill knew the Irish community well and so he knew the man in question was Whelan. Whelan’s rooms at Michael Starr’s Hotel were searched and found to contain a great many Irish nationalist and Fenian publications. Police found several copies of the Irish American and several blank membership cards to Irish nationalist groups, which suggested that he was involved in distributing literature and soliciting memberships. Police also found Whelan’s Smith & Wesson, .32-calibre revolver. One bullet had recently been re-loaded and there was fresh powder on the muzzle. Whelan was arrested for the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

Based on the suspicion that the murder was a Fenian conspiracy, forty others believed to have been involved were also arrested. They included Whelan’s boss, his landlord, a number of his friends, and even prominent Fenians in Toronto and Montreal.

Whelan’s trial began in September. He appeared resplendent in a green suit and white vest. The courthouse was packed with reporters and Prime Minister Macdonald sat at the table with the crown’s lawyers. Testimony revealed that Whelan had been seen outside McGee’s boarding house twice in the days before the murder. He had been seen looking anxious and jittery on Parliament Hill on the night before and, with his pistol in his pocket, in the House of Commons gallery watching McGee’s final speech. It was stated that Whelan had spoken many times about wanting to kill McGee. A man who was incarcerated in the jail cell across from Whelan, testified that Whelan had confessed to feeling remorse about having shot McGee. Another gentleman testified that he had seen the murder take place and, while his testimony was confused in places, he was sure Whelan was the assassin.

The defense poked holes in the eye-witness testimony and much of that presented by others, but the evidence was clearly stacked against the accused. Whelan took the stand on the trial’s final day. Dressed all in black, he said that he was not a Fenian and had great admiration for McGee. He concluded, “Now I am held to be a black assassin. And my blood runs cold. But I am innocent. I never took that man’s blood.”

After several hours of deliberation, the jury found Thomas James Whelan guilty of the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. The conviction was appealed to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Ontario but to no avail. It was appealed again and, in January 1869, the Ontario Court of Appeal rejected it again. There was nothing left but for Whelan to face the sentence the court had announced. He would be hanged.

Whelan languished in cell number 4 in Ottawa’s Carleton County Jail for ten months, awaiting the hangman’s noose. On the day before he was scheduled to die, he composed a three-page letter to Sir John A. Macdonald. As he had in court, he claimed to be a loyal British subject, to have never been a Fenian, and that he had not shot McGee. The letter went unanswered.

Whelan enjoyed his last meal on the morning of February 11, 1869. The gallows were ready. Whelan’s hands were lashed behind his back and he was slowly led up the wooden steps. A hushed crowd of 5,000 watched intently. Whelan’s last words, uttered a moment before a hood was lowered over his head: “I am innocent.” It would be Canada’s last public hanging and the only assassination of a Canadian politician.

The pistol that killed McGee is now on display in Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of History. Ottawa’s Carleton County Jail has become a hostel where people spend the night and hear of ghost stories including that of Whalen’s ghost, reportedly seen in his old cell, writing his letter to Macdonald. In August 2002, descendants of Whelan’s family came to the spot near the hostel where Whelan was buried. They proclaimed his innocence. A priest said a short prayer. A mound of earth was scooped into a box and taken to Montreal where it was interred next to Whelan’s widow, at Cote des Neiges cemetery. In the same cemetery, rests the remains of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

 

This column is the second that I have been invited to contribute to the Canadian Encyclopdia. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others.

 

 

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