Here's a February Entry From James Powell's Blog:


The Last Drop

11 February 1869

~ James Powell

Thomas D’Arcy McGee, the much revered Canadian statesman, nationalist, poet, and orator, died by an assassin’s bullet on 7 April 1868 as he was entering his boarding house on Sparks Street. Immediately, suspicion fell on the Fenian Brotherhood, a secretive group of Irish extremists founded in the United States mid-19th century, but with cells and sympathizers in major Canadian cities, including Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa. At that time, waves of poor, Irish immigrants were flooding North America each year to escape the potato famine, poverty, and British neglect and misrule in Ireland. Bringing anti-British sentiments with them, most settled in the major U.S. northeastern cities. Between 1866 and 1870, armed groups of Fenians, many battle-hardened from service in the U.S. Army during the American Civil War (1861-65), launched a series of raids into Ontario and Quebec from the United States in an attempt to hold the country hostage and force Britain to free Ireland. In one of the worst of these incursions, some 1,300 Fenian soldiers led by a former U.S. Civil War colonel captured Fort Erie in southern Ontario in June 1866 before being forced to retreat back to the United States.

McGee, an Irish radical himself during his younger days, had provoked the wrath of Irish extremists when he became their most outspoken critic. Being a senior member of the Canadian government, McGee was seen as a traitor to the Irish cause, a sell-out to British interests. What probably hurt the most was that McGee ridiculed the Fenians, calling them deluded and foolish. He also poked holes in Irish nationalist shibboleths, arguing that Canada under the British Crown was a far better place for Irish immigrants to settle than republican United States. Instead of discrimination and exploitation, Irish Catholics would find acceptance and equality. In Canada, Irish settlers were becoming prosperous landowners, and were well represented in the professions and business.

After McGee’s assassination, Ottawa police swooped down on known Fenian sympathizers, arresting several and held them for questioning. But a sandy-haired, whiskered man named Patrick James Whelan quickly became a subject of interest, and was charged by Detective Edward O’Neill with McGee’s murder. Police searched Whelan’s room in a nearby hotel and found copies of the Irish American, a Fenian newspaper, that had supported the invasion of Canada. Also discovered were Whelan’s membership cards and badges for radical Irish societies, and, most incriminating of all, a Smith & Wesson revolver. Power residue suggested that it had been fired within the previous two days. Later, evidence emerged that Whelan had been stalking McGee, twice going to his boarding house in the days preceding the murder. He had also watched McGee from the House of Commons visitors’ gallery on the night he died. In an odd encounter, Whelan had shown up at McGee’s Montreal home late at night the previous New Year’s Day. When McGee’s half-brother opened the door, Whelan, using an assumed name, had warned the family that their house was about to be fire bombed. Fortunately, nothing happened.

The ensuing trial was a sensation, pitting two of Canada’s top legal minds. Ironically, for the prosecution was James O’Reilly, an Irish, Catholic, Queen’s Counsel from Kingston, who excluded all Catholics from the jury on the grounds that they might be prejudiced in favour of Whelan. For the defence was John Hillyard Cameron, grandmaster of the Orange Order, a rabidly Protestant, Loyalist society. He took the job of defending Whelan on principle, and for the money; his considerable fees were paid for by funds raised by Irish Catholics who feared hasty justice.

There was general agreement that both attorneys were in top form. The defence counsel proved that six weeks before McGee’s murder a maid at the hotel where Whelan had been staying had accidentally discharged his revolver when she found it in his bed. But this did not explain the powder residue which experts testified was no more than two days old. More successfully, Cameron rubbished the supposed eye-witness testimony of Jean-Baptiste Lacroix who didn’t show up at the police station until two weeks after the assassination. Lacroix said he saw a small, whiskered man follow McGee down Sparks Street to McGee’s boarding house. But in reality, Whelan was a big man, taller than McGee. He also said McGee had been wearing a black hat whereas the hat had actually been white. The defence also presented witnesses who cast doubt on Lacroix’s reliability, and said that he had only come forward for the reward money—$10,000, a considerable sum in those days. Harder to shake was testimony that Whelan had repeatedly threatened to kill McGee, and that Whelan’s New Year’s Day visit to McGee home was an aborted assassination attempt. Even more damning was testimony by Gaelic-speaking Detective Andrew Cullen who, when planted in a nearby cell to Whelan’s in the Ottawa jail, overheard him say to a fellow prisoner “I shot the fellow…I shot him like a dog.”

Following six days of testimony, and superlative closing addresses by the two attorneys, the jury found Whelan guilty of murdering Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Whelan was sentenced to hang by the neck until he was dead. Defence counsel appealed on the grounds that the judge had incorrectly ruled that Whelan couldn’t challenge potential jurymen for cause until after he had exhausted his 30 peremptory (i.e. without cause) challenges. The appeal failed. Two days before his date with the hangman, Whelan reiterated his innocence. He told his wife that it was better to hang than to be an informer. Whelan also said that he knew who shot McGee because he had been there.

After sleeping soundly for six hours, Whelan was roused at about 5.00am on 11 February 1869. After Mass in the prison’s chapel, he had some breakfast. Despite a driving snowstorm, people started to arrive at the prison at 9.00 to get a good view of the gallows. By 10.30, a rowdy throng of some 8,000 people were crowded into the streets in front of the jail. The Globe newspaper was shocked that many respectable women were in the crowd, along with hundreds of boys and girls. At 11.00, the sheriff appeared with Whelan on the balcony, with three priests in surplices. The bound Whelan looked “pale and excited” with beads of sweat on his forehead. After repeating the Pater Noster, Whelan moved to the railing to address the crowd. He begged pardon for any offences he might have committed and forgave all parties who had injured him. His last words were “God save Ireland and God save my soul.” He then stepped back over the drop.

At 11.15, the executioner drew a white bag over Whelan’s head and adjusted the rope. He then opened the trap door, and Whelan dropped to his death. It was not an easy one. Many in the crowd clapped as Whelan kicked his heels in the air before expiring. It was the last public hanging in Canada.

Many have subsequently questioned Whelan’s guilt and the fairness of his trial. Anti-Fenian feelings were running high in Canada at the time, and McGee had been a popular politician. The evidence, while compelling, was largely circumstantial; the only eyewitness was unreliable. Jailhouse confessions also have a dubious record of veracity. Moreover, while there were no complaints about how the trial was handled, even by Irish nationalist papers, it was flawed by today’s standards. Sir John A. Macdonald, the Attorney General as well as Premier, sat beside the judge during Whelan’s trial. While his presence didn’t raise negative comment at the time, it would be seen as prejudicial today. As well, the judge, William Richards, who presided over the trial had been appointed to the Court of Appeal by the time defence counsel launched an appeal. As a consequence, he sat on the court that listened to the appeal of his own ruling—a clear conflict of interest. He also sat on the bench when a subsequent appeal was made. In both cases, he made the deciding vote. However, the breach in court procedure regarding the selection of a jury by the defence was highly technical, and it’s hard to see how it might have affected the course of the trial.

Modern-day ballistic tests were conducted in 1973 on Whelan’s Smith & Wesson revolver and the bullet that killed McGee. However, owning to corrosion, it was impossible to conclusively say that the bullet had been fired from McGee’s gun. It would, of course, have be impossible for the tests to determine that it was Whelan’s hand that had held the gun.

Whelan was likely a Fenian, and he certainly held a grudge against McGee. His own words prior to his execution placed him at the scene of the crime. But there is no hard evidence that he was the triggerman.

The fascinating story of Whelan’s innocence or guilt is the subject of a play Blood on the Moon, a one-man production written and performed by Pierre Breau. The play premiered in 1999 in Ottawa in the same building that once was the court house where Whelan’s trial was held and adjacent to the prison where Whelan was hanged.

Sources:

CBC, 2009. “Shadows on Sparks Street,” Ideas with Paul Kennedy.

Slattery, T.P., 1968. The Assassination of D’Arcy McGee, Doubleday Canada Ltd. Toronto.

Scott, C., 2014. “Patrick Whelan,” Ottawa Stories, The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Sleeping Dog Theatre, 2004, Blood on the Moon.

The Globe, 1869. “Execution of Whelan: Closing Scenes and the Agony of Death. A Short Speech and No Confession,” 12 February.

The Montreal Gazette, 1973. “Ballistic Experts Not Sure on Gun that Killed McGee,” 19 October.

Wilson, David. A., 2011. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 2, The Extreme Moderate, 1857-1868, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston.

Image: Library and archives Canada, #3194915.

Advertisements

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

And One More February Entry from James Powell's Blog:



Lady Aberdeen’s Historical Fancy Dress Ball

 

17 February 1896


~ James Powell

 

These days, dressing up in fancy costumes is mostly confined to Halloween parties and fantasy conventions such as Comic Con, where super heroes and fairy princesses abound. But back in the latter part of the nineteenth century, costume parties were very fashionable, especially among the upper and middle classes in Britain and North America. Popularized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, dress-up balls were quickly adopted by high society. People delighted in wearing fantastic costumes as long as there was some ostensible historical or literary theme to provide social cover; one couldn’t just have fun. Balls hosted by socialites or aristocrats were widely covered by newspapers and magazines just as today’s tabloids report on celebrity events. The names of the invited, the costumes they wore, and the evening’s entertainments were often front page news even in the most serious broadsheet.

For the sexually repressed and sober-minded Victorians, being able to dress up provided relief from convention’s restrictions, as well as scope for self-expression. A lady, whose normal clothing consisted of a floor-length dress with multitudinous petticoats and long sleeves, could provocatively display her ankles, or wear a diaphanous silk gown, as long as she was portraying a peasant girl or some exotic Oriental princess. Instead of a severe chignon, she might wear her hair loose on her shoulders, a style suggestive of the bedroom, without fear of social opprobrium. For a gentleman, the fancy dress ball allowed him to become the peacock. For an evening, a man could put aside his black frock coat in favour of brightly coloured satins, ruffs, and lace, and transform himself into an Elizabethan courtier, a Stuart cavalier, or a Georgian dandy.

While many rented their outfits from professional costumiers, others spent small fortunes having their costumes specially made following extensive historical research. No higher accolade could be received than to be called historically accurate. Even better would be to wear actual period clothing handed down through the generations, or to buckle on an ancestral sword.

In February 1876, Canada’s Governor General, the Earl of Dufferin, and his wife hosted a historical fancy dress ball at Rideau Hall. Lord Dufferin appeared as James V of Scotland, while Lady Dufferin came as Mary of Guise, James V’s wife. The event, which was widely covered by journalists in North America and Britain, put Ottawa, and for that matter Canada, on the social map of the world. No longer could the city be considered a rough, shanty-town in some distant, frigid land. The ball was effectively Ottawa’s “coming out” party.

The Dufferin ball was the talk of the town for a generation. However, by all accounts, it was eclipsed by an even more spectacular ball hosted by a later governor general and his wife, Lord and Lady Aberdeen. Lady Aberdeen, born Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks, was the prime mover behind the event. A considerable personality in her own right, she had strong social views, founding the Victorian Order of Nurses. She was also a proto-feminist, establishing the Canadian branch of the National Council of Women whose mission was to advance women through education and encouragement. She also loved historical pageants and fancy dress. The Aberdeens hosted three major fancy dress balls during the late 1890s, held respectively in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

The first of the three was held in the Senate Chamber in the old Centre Block on Parliament Hill on Monday, 17 February 1896. Its theme was outstanding episodes in Canadian history. It was no accident that the contributions of French Canadians were highlighted. The late nineteenth century was a time of major religious and linguistic divisions in Canada. The decision of the Manitoba government in 1890 to eliminate Catholic public school education, and to make English the sole language of instruction in publicly-funded schools brought these divisions into the open, and threatened the unity of the country. After a number of court decisions, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, Canada’s highest appellant court, ruled in 1895 that the Dominion government had the power to force the province to fund French-language, Catholic schools. This ruling split the weak, vacillating Conservative government of Sir Mackenzie Bowell, some of whose members were anti-Catholic and anti-French. The progressive Lord and Lady Aberdeen, who were very conscious of the prevailing religious and linguistic undercurrents, wanted to underscore and honour the richness of French Canadian history, thereby helping to education English Canadians about the role played by their Francophone co-citizens in the discovery and development of Canada.

Approximately 1,300 invitations to the ball were sent out in early February, but planning for the event started much earlier. Lady Aberdeen and eight society women (the wives of judges and members of parliament) each took responsibility for enlisting their friends and acquaintances to participate in nine historical groups of twenty or so members. Each group dressed in period costumes, with individuals representing historical figures, such as Jacques Cartier, or supporting characters such as peasants, trappers, and aboriginal peoples. The theme for each group was chosen with the help of Dr John Bourinot, the clerk of the House of Commons, the author of a number of books on Canadian history. In chronological order, the groups included: i) the Voyage of the Norsemen to North America, circa 986-1015; ii) the Discovery of the Continent by Jean Cabot,1497; iii) the Discovery of Canada by Jacques Cartier, 1534-36; iv) the Foundation of Port Royal (Annapolis) and the Settlement of Acadia, 1604-1677; v) the Foundation of Montreal and the Settlement of the Surrounding District, 1641-1670; vi) Days of Settlement and Exploration from Tracy to Frontenac, 1665-98; vii) the Days of Montcalm and Wolfe and the Conquest of Canada, 1754-60; viii) from the Fall of Port Royal (Annapolis) to the Second Taking of Louisbourg, including the Expatriation of the Acadians,1710-58; and, finally, ix) the Coming of the United Empire Loyalists, 1775-92.

The ball was almost cancelled before the formal invitations went out owing to the death in late January of Prince Henry of Battenberg who was married to Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter. Court protocol called for six weeks of public mourning, meaning no court entertainments. Notwithstanding this, the Aberdeens went ahead with their plans. As a nod to protocol, the governor general and his wife did not dress up for the ball. Instead, Lady Aberdeen wore formal court dress with ostrich feathers and veil while her husband wore his official Windsor uniform.

Prior to the big day, the historical groups practiced the period dances they were asked to perform, as well as a number of special poses, or attitudes, that illustrated their particular subject. A dress rehearsal was held two days before the actual ball. Some groups hired dance instructors to help them with their steps as some of the dances were quite intricate. For example, the group portraying Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada performed a quadrille, while the participants in the “Days of Montcalm and Wolfe” danced a faranole. Other dances included a gavotte, a bourrée, and a pavane. For the expatriation of the Acadians, young girls danced around a maypole; there was little reference to the Acadians’ expulsion despite the title of the theme, though perhaps a direct reference to that unpleasantness would not have been well received given the circumstances.

To keep down the personal expenses of guests, Lady Aberdeen invited two costumiers from Montreal to come to Ottawa to help outfit her invitees. People could rent their outfits for the night for $5 to $10 dollars (roughly $100-200 in today’s money). In preparation for the ball, the Senate chamber was closed for two days prior to the big event to permit workmen to lay a temporary pine dance floor at a cost of $25,000, equivalent to at least a half million dollars today, the tab for which was picked up by the Dominion government. This exorbitant cost was later the source of criticism, as was the allegation that labourers worked through the Sabbath to complete the floor in time for the ball.

In addition to the dance floor, bunting and decorations were also installed in the Senate chamber. Each pillar was draped with blue silk banners, topped with a crown. On one side of the vice-regal throne the armorial shields of the governors of New France were installed along with the white royal standard of France decorated with golden fleur-de-lys. On the other side were placed the shields of English governors and Union flags. The escutcheons of Great Britain and Canada were also displayed. One of the galleries overlooking the Senate chamber was set aside for the orchestra, while the Parliamentary rotunda was converted into buffet-style dining room.

The ball began at 9pm, guests having previously arrived on Parliament Hill on sleighs, their invitations checked at the door by policemen. Most of the guests were initially confined to the upstairs Senate galleries to watch the performances of the nine historical groups who began their routines after the arrival of the Governor General and Lady Aberdeen, along with the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, and Supreme Court Judges. After each historical groups had performed its dances, their members were formally presented to the vice regal couple. The Aberdeens marked their appreciation for the dancers’ efforts by giving each participant a silver brooch or a scarf pin carrying their family motto, Fortuna sequitur. At about 11pm, the roughly 240 participants in the nine historical groups and the vice-regal party left the dance floor to take refreshments in the Parliamentary rotunda. With the floor cleared, the other guests who had been watching from the upstairs galleries were allowed onto the dance floor. Dancing continued until 5am.

Just before the vice-regal party and the nine groups of historical performers left the Senate chamber, the performers who had played parts of First Nations’ people in the earlier historical groups rushed to the centre of the room war-whooping in a stereotypical display of “the savage Indian.” The impromptu group was led by Hayter Reed, the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. Hayter, who was dressed in a full-length, Plains feather headdress, was supposed to represent the sixteenth-century, Iroquois leader Donnacona, who travelled to France with Jacques Cartier. Ostensibly speaking in Cree, with his words “interpreted” by another individual representing the Algonquin chief Tessouat, Hayter spoke of the Indians’ love for the “great chief,” and passed Aberdeen a peace pipe. It was not evident that anybody minded or was even aware of the cultural insensitivity and historical inaccuracy of the portrayal of Canada’s first inhabitants.

The ball was deemed a great success. Toronto’s Globe newspaper said “the brilliant spectacle was beyond comparison.” The Aberdeens could take comfort watching “Montcalm” and “Wolfe” dancing on the same floor. Their efforts at bringing together English and French in harmony was achieved at least for one night, the nation’s linguistic and religious divisions temporarily forgotten.

Sources:

Bourinot, J. G. 1896. Historical Fancy Dress Ball held in the Senate Chamber, Ottawa, John Derie & Sons Publishers.

Buchart, Amber, 2012. In the Spotlight: An Unofficial History of Fancy Dress, 26 October.

Canadian Museum of History, 2015. Dressing Up Canada.

Cooper, Cynthia, 1997. Magnificent Entertainments: Fancy Dress Balls of Canada’s Governors General, 1876-1898, Goose Lane Editions and Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The Globe, 1896. “Vice-Regal Ball, The Brilliant Affair, The Talk of the City,” 19 February.

————, 1896. “Vice-Regal Ball: Senate Chamber Thronged with Youth and Beauty,” 19 February.

————, 1896. “The Commons Bar,” 13 April.

Image: The Aberdeens’ Fancy Dress Ball in the Senate Chambers, Ottawa, Ontario, 1896, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3384402, Samuel J. Jarvis Fonds, C-010108.

Advertisements

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.