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.

assassin-whelan

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.

mcgee

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.

 

 

Advertisements

JFK and the Myths We Need Now

Myths matter. They are important in all societies. They help create, define, and preserve the values and institutions we deem important. They provide structure and stability. Myths present themselves in many forms and sometimes as people who were once politicians but somehow became much, much more. The Americans are quite good at myth-making. Abraham Lincoln became a myth; his deeds and character recalled in hushed, reverent tones as a model for citizenship and a reflection of all that is good about an entire people. The most recent of American politician-myth is President John F. Kennedy. His youth, looks, vigour, promise, and the degree to which he inspired hope and optimism, coupled with the Shakespearean tragedy of his bloody and public death, rendered his elevation from man to myth almost inevitable. That transition is instructive and important for us today.

jfk-myth

The public murder of a man who represented so much to so many, and by such a puny little assassin, was incomprehensible and overwhelming. People who had never met or even seen him wept as if a family member had passed away. I’m old enough to recall arriving home from Grade Two to find my mother weeping before the television. It was the first time I had ever seen her cry. French president Charles De Galle said, “I am stunned. They are crying all over France. It is as if he were a Frenchman, a member of their own family.” In London, famed actor Sir Laurence Olivier interrupted a performance and had the audience stand as the orchestra played the American national anthem. Other Londoners stood in the multi-coloured glow of Piccadilly Circus neon and openly sobbed.

Canada declared November 23 to 29 an official period of mourning. Polish churches were crowded on its national day of mourning, and the Nicaraguan government declared a week of mourning. Flags were dropped to half-staff in Ottawa and other world capitals, including Moscow. In the United States and around the globe, airports, schools, streets, libraries, public squares, and more were renamed after him. In the Canadian Yukon, a 14,000-foot snow-peaked mountain became Mount Kennedy.

Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, was shattered by the murder of her husband, killed just inches from her side, but at the moment of the unspeakable violence, she understood what would happen and what she wanted to shape. She took charge. She arranged for the state funeral to reflect Lincoln’s. She insisted on an eternal flame at his grave and that he be buried at Arlington National Cemetery just across the Potomac River from Washington which, since the Civil War, had become a revered burial place for veterans. She chose a hilltop location overlooking the city that the president had actually visited and declared a fine spot to be placed at rest.

From a popular play addressing the legend of King Arthur, she coined the name Camelot – that mystical place of missed opportunity, to describe her husband’s thousand-day presidency. Kennedy’s brother Robert also moved quickly. He ordered files to be removed from the White House and Oval Office and Cabinet Room tape recordings were taken and squirreled away. The myth could only grow properly if the legacy was carefully sculpted.

The myth grew quickly. Kennedy transcended politics and entered popular culture. A movie based on his Second World War military exploits had already been made. In March 1960, Senator Kennedy had met the former British intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond adventure novels. A year later, Life Magazine listed Fleming’s From Russia with Love as among the president’s favourite books. The endorsement led Fleming’s American publisher to push the previously underperforming titles and to Sean Connery taking the British rogue to the big screen. The favour was returned when a character in The Spy Who Loved Me said, “We need some more Jack Kennedy…They ought to hand the world over to young people who haven’t got the idea of war stuck in their subconscious.”

Kennedy had created the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. In the summer of 1963, DC Comics had written a story based on Kennedy asking for Superman’s help to urge Americans to take better care of themselves through diet and exercise. The project was shelved after the assassination but Kennedy’s successor, President Johnson, leant his support and so the comic book was published in July 1964. Its cover showed a ghostly JFK towering over the Capitol Building and Superman in mid-flight, glancing sadly back, one mythical hero in awe of another.

myth-makingCBR.com

The Beatles second album was released on the day Kennedy died. Three months later, they arrived for their first American tour and 50,000 kids screamed their welcome at the newly named JFK airport. While Elvis had offered sex and daring, the Beatles offered love and fun. On a subsequent tour, in September, they toured Dallas. They smiled nervously and waved from an open limousine as they passed through Dealey Plaza, the very spot where Kennedy had been killed. Many of those trying to understand the band’s unprecedented popularity claimed that their songs and wit personified the same youthful enthusiasm as the Kennedy promise. They renewed that promise while providing a welcome tonic to America’s grief. The Beatles, it was argued, allowed the black bunting to be removed and the country to smile again.

John F. Kennedy was an imperfect man and an imperfect president but the perfect stuff of myth. His assassination tore time. For millions of people, the assassination was an irreparable rending that forever split before and after. The violence in Dallas was visited not just upon the man but also on the very idea that everything was possible and all problems solvable. For in the final analysis, Kennedy’s gift was not his programs and policies, but himself. His most important contribution was the courageous, audacious determination that idealism is not naïve, hope is not foolish, hardship and challenge is incentive, and that community can extend beyond one’s family, city, or even country. His violent death, like Lincoln’s, challenged those ideas and asked if they were worth preserving, celebrating, and fighting for.

So let’s ask the question. Are those ideas of clear-eyed idealism, unifying confidence, hope, and ambition, and the notion of a broader, deeper community, worth the fight? If so, let us embrace the myths, whether they be people like Kennedy or, in Canada, the myth of the rich, giving, but untameable land, and ask what they say about those ideas and about us. Then, let’s pick our fight. In these foreboding days of Trump, Brexit, and racist, intolerant notions disguised as political programs among leadership aspirants in France and Canada, the fight has never been more urgent. And so, more than 50 years after his death, perhaps we need John F. Kennedy more than ever. 

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. There is more on JFK and his relationship with Canada in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available  in bookstores and online through Amazon and Chapters https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/cold-fire-kennedys-northern-front/9780345808936-item.html

 

What If It Had Rained in Dallas or Diefenbaker Forgot About the Tree?

What If It Had Rained in Dallas or Diefenbaker Forgot About the Tree?

Anniversary journalism is lazy but inevitable. We were bombarded with the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination stories and more than once I turned away from the horrible film clip of a man being murdered. I thought it fascinating that through the mourning porn, few stopped to consider Kennedy’s impact on Canada – and it was enormous. More fun, I thought, would be to play the “what if” counter-factual game of historical inquiry and ponder the effects on Canada not of his life but if he had lived.

After all, Kennedy’s living past November 1963 could have happened if one of two things had changed. First, if it had rained in Dallas that day then his limousine would have had its roof in place and Lee Harvey Oswald (or whoever) may not have found his target. Second, on a 1961 visit to Ottawa Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had insisted on Kennedy planting a ceremonial tree at the Governor General’s residence.  While shovelling dirt he had seriously reinjured his already weak back and so was fitted for a stiff brace. He was wearing it that day in Dallas and after the first shot it had kept him erect and a sitting duck for the second and deadly shot.

So what if it had rained in Dallas or Diefenbaker had forgotten about the tree?

JFK and Dief

                 President Kennedy and Prime Minister Diefenbaker in Ottawa

JFK was a careless philanderer. He consorted with prostitutes, movie stars, and even a mobster’s girlfriend. He was once asked what he wanted for his birthday and he pointed to a young Hollywood starlet in a magazine. Guess who was with him a few days later?

In August, 1963, the F.B.I. told Attorney General Robert Kennedy that his brother was having an affair with East German communist spy Ellen Rometsch. This was different. This was serious. She was quickly deported on an Air Force plane. Days before Kennedy left for Dallas, the Senate Rules Committee was preparing to subpoena Rometsch in its investigation of Bobby Baker who was suspected of having shady financial dealings with Senators and of arranging many of the president’s dalliances.

The sex-spy scandal could have shattered Kennedy’s presidency. There would have been significant ramifications for the increasingly left-leaning Canada if the uproar and possible impeachment had led to the election of the Republican’s 1964 presidential candidate, the extreme right-wing Barry Goldwater.

But what if Kennedy was re-elected? He and Diefenbaker hated each other. The president knew and liked Liberal leader Lester Pearson and so his government helped defeat Diefenbaker in the April, 1963 election. Kennedy then ordered a resumption of positive Canadian-American interaction. The vastly improved personal relations between leaders could have earned major dividends for Canada.

Pearson had campaigned on a promise to surrender to Kennedy’s pressure and house American nuclear missiles in Canada. In the subsequent months, though, Kennedy worked to end nuclear proliferation and signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He was sending signals to the Soviet Union with hopes to create what would later be called détente. It is likely that Pearson would have reacted to the changing Cold War policies and tenor and revisited his long-held views on disarmament and used his relationship with Kennedy to get the weapons of mass destruction back out of Canada.

Kennedy invited Pearson to his home and asked for advice on Vietnam. When told he should get out, Kennedy laughed and said that any fool knew that but the question was how. After the 1964 election, Kennedy would probably have withdrawn the American military ‘advisors’ he had dispatched and there would have been no Americanized Vietnam war.

Without the Vietnam War, tensions caused by Canada’s opposition to it would not have existed. Eighty Canadians who went to the U.S. to serve would not have died. Tens of thousands of American draft dodgers would not have crossed the border. Without Vietnam, African Americans and Canadian women and youth fighting for change would not have had the link that helped unite and strengthen their movements. The young, for instance, would probably have initiated their cultural rebellion but without much of its anti-war inspired, revolutionary anger. Vancouver’s Gastown, Toronto’s Yorkville and conversations at dinner tables across the country would have been different.

After eight years of Kennedy’s growing liberal consensus, and without the war tearing America’s social fabric, the ‘silent majority’ that helped elect Richard Nixon may not have evolved. No Nixon would have meant no anti-American wave caused by Nixon’s 10% tax on Canadian trade and by his Vietnam policies. No anti-American wave could have tempered the uptick in Canadian patriotism – our negative nationalism.  No Nixon would have meant no Watergate so we might not still be suffering its sad legacy of wrathful, prying journalism and popular political cynicism.

John F. Kennedy was America’s first celebrity president. He taught all future leaders – Trudeau, Clinton, Obama and Trudeau again – the efficacy of image and television. He was a flawed man but a transformational leader with a positive vision and the courage and intellect to pursue it. Had he lived and dodged scandal, Canada would have been different then and different now.