The West Block Fire

11 February 1897

When people think of a fire on Parliament Hill, their thoughts likely go to the huge conflagration that destroyed the Centre Block in February 1916. To this day, the cause of that blaze remains unknown; a Royal Commission that investigated it did not come to a conclusion. Some people were convinced, and many still are, that it was an act of war-time German sabotage. Others believed that it was caused by careless smoking in the reading room.

Incredibly, however, the Centre Block fire wasn’t the first major blaze on Parliament Hill. Nineteen years earlier, the West Block, then being used as offices for the federal civil service, was almost consumed by fire.

West Block Fire, 11 February 1897, Library and Archives Canada, c-017502

At approximately 4:15 pm on Thursday, 11 February 1897, when most civil servants had already left for the day, a fire was detected in a small tower room used for storage close to an elevator in the attic storey. An elevator operator tried to extinguish it using a hand-held Babcock fire extinguisher. At the same time, three other men pulled out a fire hose that was installed in the corridor, but when they turned it on the stream of water barely extended three feet owing to low water pressure. Another Babcock extinguisher was brought into play, again without much impact. By this time, the fire was well established in the floor and wall.

At 4:35pm, an alarm was sent in the Central Station of the Ottawa Fire Department located off of Elgin Street. Within minutes, the horse-drawn hose reels arrived and were hooked up to hydrants. Meanwhile, the fire burst through the West Block’s wooden roof about 40 feet south of the Mackenzie Tower. An extension ladder was run up against the western wall of the building where a fireman tried to send a stream of water through an attic window. Unfortunately, only a meager stream came out of the big hose. The city’s low water pressure, made worse by several hoses running from the same Wellington Street water main, was responsible. Flames began to shoot out of a skylight located above the elevator shaft as the fire worked its way southward down the corridor.

In desperation, Fire Chief Young called out the steam-driven fire engines which used coal to heat a boiler to provide water pressure. The Union was stationed at the corner of O’Connor and Wellington Streets, while the Conqueror hooked up to the hydrant located on Parliament Hill at the nearest corner of the West Block. Both engines experienced what a journalist called “exasperating delays” to get water onto the fire. It took the Union almost thirty minutes to get its hose, which extended through the main entrance and up the stairs to the attic, into action owing to valve problems and other malfunctions. Meanwhile, the Conqueror, after failing to get sufficient water from hydrants on the Hill, possibly due to ice, had to be moved to a hydrant at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets. A third fire engine from the E.B. Eddy Company was also brought in to help but to no effect as firemen discovered that its hoses were of a different calibre from that used by the city and couldn’t be coupled to city mains.

Through the evening, fire roared through the upper attic story of the building, fuelled by tinder-dry timbers, a warren of wooden panelled offices and piles of paper—government documents, briefing notes, and memoranda. Flames tore through the roof to the south-west of the Mackenzie Tower and then moved eastward reaching the middle of the Wellington Street side of the building, feeding on flammable materials found in a photographic studio and later in the draughting room of the Marine and Fisheries Department.

By 9:00pm, the whole top storey of the western wing of the building was gone. Shortly afterwards, the top storey of the eastern wing was ablaze. Two hours later, the northern and eastern wings were roofless.

Thousands of spectators, including the Governor General, Lord Aberdeen, and his wife, the Countess of Aberdeen, watched in horror despite the bitter cold; the temperature that evening had dropped to -18 degrees Celsius. It was quite a spectacle. The West Block’s turrets and chimneys were highlighted by the flames with the Mackenzie Tower rearing above the chaos.

While firemen battled the blaze, an army of civil servants and Dominion police worked frantically to empty offices of their documents and other valuables. Even if not immediately threatened with fire, offices on the lower floors were inundated by the water being hosed onto the attic level above. Sleighs of all sorts were pressed into service to evacuate things to the safety of the Langevin Block on the other side of Wellington Street. In the Department of Public Works alone, the Minister and his officials managed to save several tons of books and papers. In the Customs Department, rubber sheets requisitioned from Militia stores were used to protect precious books and papers from water damage.

At 11:00pm, at the height of the fire, Ottawa’s mayor called Montreal for emergency back-up. A detachment of fifteen men from the Montreal Fire Department, equipped with a fire engine and two hose reels answered the call. They immediately set off for Ottawa by train, arriving at 3:00am the next morning. But by this time, the worst was over. The fire had been largely subdued, leaving only glowing embers and smoke.

The next day, Ottawa residents could see for themselves the extent of the damage. Virtually the entire building had lost its top attic floor. The only part of the West Block that was spared was the new wing north of the Mackenzie Tower. This wing, being of more modern construction than the rest of the building, had a metal roof.

The fire continued to smolder despite the deluge of water that had been sprayed onto the building. One fire engine, the Conqueror, was kept pumping water onto the West Block through Friday. However, by 3:00pm, it had to cease operations, having exhausted its stock of hard Welsh coal used to fire its boiler. A switch to ordinary bituminous coal proved unsuccessful in maintaining sufficient pressure to drive the water the long distance from the hydrant at Sparks and O’Connor Streets to the top of the West Block on Wellington Street. The fire revived. An alarm was sounded bringing Chief Young, who had just returned to the station for supper, back on the scene along with another hose reel and two ladder trucks. It wasn’t until 8:00pm that the West Block fire was finally subdued by Ottawa firemen after almost 30 hours of continuous gruelling work in sub-zero temperatures.

The clean-up afterwards was also demanding. Owing to the cold temperatures, hoses were buried under as much as a foot of ice. Even if uncovered, the hoses were frozen stiff, requiring them to be thawed out before being moved. The concrete floor immediately under the attic level was also buried deep in debris.

Even before the fire was out, Cabinet met to discuss rebuilding and to find temporary quarters for affected departments. Only the offices of two departments, Inland Revenue and Railways and Canals remained usable. Space was found in the Nagle building opposite the main entrance to Parliament on Wellington Street for Public Works, Trade and Commerce, Customs and the Public Works departments. The Marine and Fisheries Department moved to offices in the Slater Building on Sparks Street. With more than a foot of water sloshing about in the basement of the West Block where the Dominion Archives were kept, it was imperative to move irreplaceable documents to safety in the Langevin Block. A unit of the Governor General’s Foot Guards stood guard while the papers were transferred.

Amazingly, there were few injuries in the disaster. A fireman suffered a seriously cut finger when a glass skylight fell on him. Another man was hit on the head by a piece of slate thrown from the top of the building during the clean-up; his injury, while painful, was not serious. There were some close calls, however. Four firemen who were fighting the fire in the attic felt the wooden floor beneath them begin to give way. They rushed to a ladder at the window. The first three men made it to safety but the fourth, Harry Walters from the Central Fire Station, had just reached the window when the floor disappeared from under him. He was saved from by William Thompson who managed to grab him.

The official report of the disaster didn’t reach a conclusion about the cause of the fire, though newspaper reports speculated on the possibility of a carelessly discarded cigar or cigarette. Later, a consensus opinion blamed the fire on a “heating apparatus.”

The report did conclude that a doorway cut into a fire wall to permit movement from one office to another helped to spread the blaze. As well, valuable time in fighting the fire was lost owing to firemen being unfamiliar with the layout of office rooms and being unwilling to accept direction from departmental officials. Overall, the report found that officials and workmen had exerted themselves “to the utmost” to prevent the fire from spreading and to save valuable papers and documents. “Nothing which could be done was left undone.”

The cost of the blaze was approximately $200,000. This amount did not, however, include the loss of valuable papers and documents. As the West Block was not insured, the government had to bear the entire cost of reconstruction. The Premier, Wilfrid Laurier, immediately requested a “Governor General’s warrant” to raise $25,000 to cover the initial costs associated with the fire, including the rental of new office accommodations for displaced government offices. The warrant was approved General Alexander Montgomery Moore, Commander of Canada’s Militia, who was acting as the Administrator of Canada on behalf of Lord Aberdeen.

Work on re-building commenced quickly. As a stop gap, a temporary roof, 29,000 square feet in size, was erected at a cost of $4,500. This was later replaced by a fire-proof roof covered with copper. Work also began on the clean-up, the re-building of new offices and the re-furbishing of those offices that managed to survive the blaze but were water damaged. Labourers were paid $1.00 to $1.25 per day. Carpenters and painters received $2.00 per day.

Call for tenders for repairs to West Block, Ottawa Journal, 9 August, 1897.

Rebuilding became highly political. The Conservative opposition accused the government of featherbedding and hiring only Hull workers in order to curry favour with Hull voters ahead a forthcoming federal by-election in Wright Country which encompassed Hull.  The Liberal candidate, Mr. Louis Napoléon Champagne, was unapologetic saying Hull wasn’t the only city that had obtained patronage as other places got their share of federal business. He added that the Liberals were prepared to do it again “to those who are really friends of Mr. Laurier.” Champagne won the contest. The day after the by-election, 50 of the 313 workers on the West Block were dismissed, with further dismissals expected in order to reduce the size of the work force to what was appropriate.

Repairs were sufficiently advanced within a year to permit public servants to re-occupy their offices. But work on the West Block was not completed until 1899, more than two years after the fire.

The West Block fire led to considerable reflection on the size of the Ottawa Fire Department and its equipment, and the extent of the fire hazard posed by public buildings, particularly those on Parliament Hill. The Citizen opined that Ottawa was “comparatively helpless in the presence of a major conflagration.” The “noble government structures,” which cost $5-6 million to build, were the “crowing beauty of the Capital of the Dominion.” Yet, the buildings, constructed using wooden beams and partitions and filled with irreplaceable records, papers and documents, were fire traps. The newspaper contended that should fire break out in either the Central Block or the East Block, “the result would be equally bad” as what had just occurred.

It added that the House of Commons was particularly at risk since the Centre Block was built on a higher elevation that the West or East Blocks which meant that water pressure would be even more of a problem. The Library of Parliament was “the most serious case of anxiety,” as it held more than $1 million in books, and contained no dividing walls. Given these risks, the newspaper was appalled that smoking was permitted and argued that smoking should be banned in all public buildings.

These were prophetic words. Virtually nineteen years to the day later, on 3 February 1916, the Centre Block was destroyed by fire. The precious Library of Parliament was the only part of the building saved, owing to the quick thinking of a librarian who had the presence of mind to close an iron fire door that separated the structure from the main part of the building.

Over the decades that followed, the West Block was much altered. In 1911, a new wing was built linking the east and west wings to form an enclosed quadrangle. During the mid-1950s, the West Block suffered from extensive renovations which were unsympathetic to the original design. However, this was better than the alternative. In 1956, the St. Laurent government almost manage to achieve which the 1897 fire had failed to do—the complete destruction of the beautiful and historic Gothic-revival building. The Federal District Commission, the fore-runner of the National Capital Commission, wanted to replace it with a modern office tower. But after a nation-wide protest, wiser heads prevailed and the building was saved. However, the neighbouring Supreme Court building was not so lucky. It was destroyed to make way for a parking lot.

Today, the enclosed quadrangle in the middle of the West Block, now covered by a glass ceiling, is the temporary home of the House of Commons while the Centre Block undergoes much needed restoration and renovation.

Sources:

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1897. “The Western Block in a Blaze,” 12 February.

————————-, 1897. “The Second Alarm,” 13 February.

————————-, 1897. “A Present Danger,” 13 February.

————————-, 1897. “After The Fire,” 15 February.

————————-, 1897. “Their Usefulness Done,” 25 March.

————————-, 1897. “West Block Blaze,” 24 June.

————————-, 1898. “West Block Fire,” 24 March.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1897. “The Talk of Today,” 13 February.

——————————, 1897. “The Official Report,” 17 February.

—————————–, 1897. “The Wright Campaign,” 17 March.

—————————–, 1897.  “An Insult To Hull,” 18 March.

—————————–, 1897. “One Million Dollars,” 27 March.

—————————–, 1899. “West Block Repairs,” 9 August.

Privy Council Office, 1897, “Special Warrant $56,000 [sic] [$25,000], Fire, Western Departmental Buildings – Minister of Public Works,” 17 February, Library and Archives Canada.

The Saturday Funnies

11 February 1905

Comic strips are a standard feature in most newspapers. The Ottawa Citizen currently publishes twenty comics daily, ranging from one image stories to four- or five-panel strips. On Saturdays, the Citizen publishes the comics in colour—sticking with a tradition of a weekend colour comic supplement that goes back to the dawn of newspaper cartoons. Most of the comics in the Citizen are written by Americans whose work has been syndicated to other newspapers around the world. The only exceptions are Carpe Diem, written and drawn by Niklas Eriksson of Sweden, and Between Friends by Canadian Sandra Bell-Lundy. Many of the strips have been published for decades. In longest production is Blondie whose run began in 1930. Cartoonist Chic Young wrote and drew the strip until his death in 1973, when his son Dean Young took over.

comic bayeux wikipedia
Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, circa 1070, showing the death of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold. The Latin inscription reads Harold Rex Interfectvs est, meaning King Harold is slain. Wikipedia.

But comic strips, which can be defined as a telling of a story through a series of pictures, have a far longer and illustrious pedigree. Some historians contend that Trajan’s column in Rome, which tells in sculptured pictures the victory of the Roman emperor over the Dacians (modern-day Romanians) in the second century A.D., is a precursor form of a comic strip. A thousand years later in about 1070, Bishop Odo of Bayeux commissioned the making of another early “comic strip” known today as the Bayeux Tapestry. Made by female needle workers, possibly nuns, in Canterbury, England, the tapestry recounts the story of the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror that had occurred four years earlier. Bishop Odo was Duke William’s half-brother and principal supporter. Embroidered on linen cloth using multi-coloured woollen yard, it is roughly 68 metres long and 50 centimetres high, and is composed of 75 picture panels. Complete with Latin text, the tapestry is a marvel of medieval European art.

Following the invention of the printing press, satirists and caricaturists used cartoons to mock the social, political and religious life of their times. William Hogarth (1697-1764), an English painter, painted in 1731 a series of moralizing but humorous paintings that he subsequently had engraved and sold together called A Harlot’s Progress. Highly successful, this series was followed by the famous A Rake’s Progress and Marriage à la Mode. The British caricaturist and illustrator, George Cruikshank (1792-1878) was the author of many satirical and funny cartoons that lampooned the aristocracy, including King George IV and Queen Charlotte. He was one of the first to employ the multi-panel structure and dialogue bubbles used in cartoon strips of today. His 1849 comic strip The Preparatory School for Fast Men starred the likes of Professor Boozey Swizzle who taught drinking class and Professor Swindle in charge of Finance. See George Cruikshank in Lambiek Comiclopedia.

funnies, yellow kid
The Yellow Kid by R.F. Outcault, 1896, Wikipedia

Newspaper cartoon strips begun appearing at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States. They quickly swept North America when newspaper owners realized that comics sold copies. American Richard F. Outcault (1863-1928) is generally regarded as the father of the modern newspaper cartoon strip. He introduced readers of the New York World newspaper, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, to Uncle Eben’s Ignorance of the City in 1894. He also created the character of The Yellow Kid—a street urchin. Wearing a hand-me-down, oversized, yellow shirt, the Kid was likely drawn bald to indicate that his head had been shaved to prevent lice, a constant problem in the crowded urban slums of North America.

The Yellow Kid and his Phonograph, written in 1896, is believed by many to be the first modern comic strip that combined multiple image panels and speech bubbles. When Outcault was lured away from Pulitzer to the New York Journal-American by William Randolph Hearst in 1907, competing versions of The Yellow Kid were produced by the two newspapers as Outcault had failed to obtain a copyright on the character. The less-popular World version was written by George Luks. The expression “yellow journalism” is based on the Pulitzer/Hearst cartoon rivalry. The expression came to mean an emphasis on comics, fictitious news, exaggeration and misleading headlines. In Britain, it is often referred to as “tabloid journalism.”

Canadians were also active in the early days of newspaper cartooning. Henri Julien (1852-1908), who reportedly spent part of his childhood in Ottawa, drew cartoons for Canadian Illustrated News and satirical publications such as Le Canard. He later became the artistic director for the Montreal Daily Star. Palmer Cox (1840-1924) created the Brownies, a very popular series of humorous cartoon stories about sprite-like creatures based on British mythology. Like later twentieth-century cartoon characters, the Brownies were widely merchandized as toys, games, cards, etc. though Palmer apparently didn’t reap the rewards. Even the early Kodak camera, the Brownie, capitalized on their popularity.  Another prominent early Canadian cartoonist was Arthur Racey (1870-1941). He drew a series of humorous drawings called The Englishman in Canada in 1893-94 that incorporated speech bubbles. Racey took over Julien’s position at the Montreal Daily Star after the latter’s death.

comic fatty 11-2-1905 oej
Fatty Felix by Walter McDougall, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 11 February 1905

The weekend funnies came to Ottawa on 11 February 1905 when the Ottawa Evening Journal published without fanfare three multi-pane cartoon strips. The first was called Fatty Goes On An Errand To The Doctor’s And Gets Sick, featuring Fatty Felix, created by the American cartoonist Walt McDougall (1858-1938). McDougall was an illustrator for the New York Graffic, and was published in Harper’s Weekly and Puck Magazine. Reflecting the power of cartoons to effect society, McDougall’s 1884 satirical cartoon The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings, which appeared in the New York World newspaper, skewered James Blaine, the Republican nominee for President, and is credited with helping Democratic Grover Cleveland win the U.S. Presidency that year. McDougall drew Fatty Felix originally for Philadelphia’s North American. Later, the comic strip also appeared in newspapers associated with the New York Herald’s syndicate. McDougall is also well known for his Handsome Hautry and The Wizard of Oz comic strips.

comic muggsy
Comic Strip Featuring Muggsy by Frank Crane, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 11 February 1905.

The other major cartoon strip in the Journal was called Muggsy Saves A Dude From The Billposter’s Paste drawn by Frank Crane (1857-1917). Crane, who had graduated from the New York Academy of Design, became a cartoonist and later the art editor for the New York World and later for Philadelphia’s North American. Muggsy was also distributed through the New York Herald syndicate. Crane produced the Muggsy comic strip from 1901 to 1915.

comic unknown, 11-2-05 toej
Untitled by unknown cartoonist, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 11 February 1905.

Sandwiched between the McDougall and Crane comic strips was a short four-panel strip featuring a circus elephant getting his tooth pulled. There is no title or dialogue, and the author’s name is unclear.

comic buster b 13-1-06 toec
Buster Brown and Tige, by R. Outcault, The Ottawa Evening Citizen, 13 January 1906.

The Ottawa Citizen began publishing regular comic strips a year after its rival. From the beginning of January 1906, Richard Outcault’s full-page Buster Brown comic strip, which originally appeared in the New York Herald, could be read in the Citizen. Buster Brown was an upper-class imp with a page-boy haircut who was accompanied by his pit bull terrier Tige. The series was like a cross between Dennis the Menace and Calvin and Hobbes. When Tige spoke only Buster could hear him. Each Buster Brown story ended in a moral with Buster resolving to do something. As was the case with the Yellow Kid, the comic strip got caught up in the Pulitzer/Hearst rivalry with competing versions of the cartoon being produced. Not having the rights to the strip’s title, post-1907 Buster Brown comic strips produced by Outcault were published without a title. Buster Brown became hugely popular across North America. The comic spawned the 1904 silent short movie Buster Brown and the Dude. That same year, Buster Brown’s name was licensed by the Brown Shoe Company. The company also produced “Mary Jane” shoes named after Buster Brown’s comic sweetheart.

In later decades, Ottawa’s two major newspapers carried all of the famous American comic strips, many of whose names remain household words. The Katzenjammer Kids, Bringing Up Father, and Mutt & Jeff were published by the Journal in the 1920s and 1930s. Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Mickey Mouse and Superman followed in the 1940s. Blondie, with her hapless husband Dagwood Bumstead, debuted in the Journal just a couple of weeks before the start of World War II. Readers of the Citizen would find Felix the Cat, Henry, Li’l Abner, and Tarzan during the 1930s and 1940s, and Roy Rogers Joe Palooka and Dennis the Menace in the 1950s. Beginning in 1957, Citizen readers could also enjoy the philosophy and wisdom of Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus when the Peanuts comic strip of Charles Schultz first appeared.

So, the next time you pick up the newspaper to read Bizzaro or Hagar The Horrible spare a thought to their rich comic history that stretches back at least two thousand years.

Sources:

America Comes Alive, “Buster Brown Shoes and Mary Janes,” https://americacomesalive.com/2016/06/20/buster-brown-shoes-mary-janes/.

BBC History Magazine, 2018. “5 Bayeux Tapestry facts: what is it, why was it made and what story does it tell?,” History Extra, https://www.historyextra.com/period/norman/5-bayeux-tapestry-facts-what-is-it-why-was-it-made-and-what-story-does-it-tell/.

Haltz, Allan, 2018. Strippers’ Guide, http://strippersguide.blogspot.com/.

Lambiek Comiclopedia, 2018, Palmer Cox, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/c/cox-palmer.htm.

—————————-, 2018. Frank Crane, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/c/crane_frank.htm.

—————————-, 2018. George Cruikshank, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/c/cruikshank_george.htm.

—————————, 2018, Henri Julien, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/j/julien_henri.htm.

—————————, 2018. Walt McDougall, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/m/mcdougall_walt.htm.

—————————, 2018. Richard H. Outcault, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/o/outcault.htm.

—————————-, 2018, Arthur Racey, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/r/racey_arthur.htm.

Old Things, 2013. Buster Brown by R.F. Outcault, 31 October.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 11 February 1905.

San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection, Newspaper Comic Strips Guide, http://ead.ohiolink.edu/xtf-ead/view?docId=ead/xOhCoUCR0001.xml;query=;brand=default.

Saturday Evening Citizen (The), 12 January 1906.

Ill-Starred Royal Romance

11 February 1924 and 26 February 1941

Mrs Thorkild Jueslberg died at her Danish estate, Bjergygaard, near Copenhagen on 26 February 1941 at the young age of 43. With Denmark occupied by the Nazis, news of her passing went through consular channels to her widowed mother who was living in California in neutral United States before being relayed to the rest of her family in Ottawa. It was the end of the last chapter of what had been an ill-starred royal romance that rivalled that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer a half century later.

Mrs Jueslberg was born Lois Frances Booth on 2 August 1897, the only daughter of Mr and Mrs John Frederick Booth, and granddaughter of John Rudolphus Booth, Ottawa’s pioneering lumber baron. In late 1923, it was announced that she would wed Prince Erik of Denmark, the first cousin of both King Christian X of Denmark and King George V of Great Britain. The couple had met at Lake Louise, Alberta. At the time, Prince Erik was a rancher near the small hamlet of Markerville, Alberta, located roughly 30 kilometres southwest of Red Deer. Because he was marrying a commoner, Prince Erik, was required, as was customary at that time, to renounce his (distant) right to the Danish throne and forfeit the style “Royal Highness.” Instead, he became known as His Highness Prince Erik Count of Rosenborg.  His wife would receive the title “Her Highness Princess Erik Countess of Rosenborg.”

Princess Erik
Wedding Party of Their Highnesses Prince and Princess Erik of Denmark, Ottawa, 11 February 1924

On the bright, sunny morning of 11 February, 1924, Prince Erik, accompanied by the bride’s brother, went to city hall for a marriage licence. The city clerk, Mr Norman Lett, described the prince as a “nice, pleasant, young man.” The wedding was held that afternoon at 4pm at the All Saints Anglican Church at the corner of Laurier Avenue and Chapel Street. It was the society event of the age. Some 1,000 guests were invited, including all of Ottawa’s elite. Among the attendees were Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and Sir Robert and Lady Borden. The Governor General, Lord Byng of Vimy, and his wife also attended. Many members of Prince Erik’s family were in Ottawa for the wedding, including his father, Prince Valdemar, and brother, Prince Viggo, who acted as one of the four ushers at the nuptials. Prior to the ceremony, Mackenzie King hosted a reception for the visiting “royals.”

More than 4,000 mostly female spectators jammed the streets around the church to get a glimpse of the bride as she was driven in a limousine the short distance from her family home at 285 Charlotte Street to the church. So great was the crush that spectators who had climbed onto curb-side snow banks to get a better vantage point were pushed into the road, blocking traffic. At the church, guests had difficulty negotiating the crowds to get inside. Mackenzie King, who walked to the church from his home across the street, was lucky. He had arrived early, avoiding the worst of the crush. Other dignitaries fared less well. The Governor General and his wife only managed to get inside with the help of a police escort who had to physically push back the throngs to make way for the vice-regal vehicle.

Notwithstanding the cold, the temperature of the crowd reached a fevered pitch with the arrival of the bride. An awning over the entrance way of the church was pushed off its moorings and began to sway dangerously. Reportedly, Miss Booth said “Oh dear, I’ll never be able to get through.” Appeals from the bride’s father standing on the running board of the limousine, and a phalanx of policemen, were successful in opening up a narrow path up the stairs to the church doors. But the two little page boys who were desperately trying to hold up the white satin train were separated from the bride. It was only with the help of two policemen and a Citizen reporter that the pages were able to gather up the bride’s train and avoid it from being ripped.

On entering the church, the bridal party made their way through six evergreen arches, draped with clusters of southern smilax. White lilies, hyacinths, and freesia perfumed the air. Palm trees and ferns also decorated the church interior. In addition to the bride and groom, the bridal party consisted of a matron of honour, four bride’s maids, (two of whom were daughters of the Earl of Stratford, nieces of the Governor General), four ushers, two flower girls and two page boys. The service was conducted by Rev. J. C. Roper, the Bishop of Ottawa, assisted by Rev. Hepburn, rector of All Saints Church. Miss Booth’s gown was made of white, duchess satin, embroidered with pearls at the yoke, with long plain sleeves edged with pearls and a satin train. Her veil was held in place with a bandeau of pearls and rhinestones. She wore a corsage of rubies and diamonds presented to her by Prince Valdemar, and a diamond bracelet, a gift of her father. Her bouquet was made of lilies of the valley and maidenhair fern. Her attendants wore pale turquoise blue crepe gowns, edged with fur and embroidered with silver and blue forget-me-nots.

After the short ceremony, the bridal party left for the reception held at the bride’s family home. Their departure from the church was even more fraught with difficulty than their entry owing to the crowd of well-wishers and sightseers which had swollen to about 6,000. As Their Highnesses Prince and Princess Erik left the church, a cry went up “Here they come” which elicited more pushing and shoving. Two women fainted and had to be carried off on the shoulders of policemen. The tattered awning over the church entrance was reduced to a twisted wreck. Police locked arms to force back the crowds to allow the newly married couple to get into their car; lilies were torn from the bridal bouquet, while the bride’s veil was disarranged. Fortunately, there were no serious accidents, and everybody remained in good cheer.

At the Booth home, guests were greeted in the drawing room with refreshments served in the dining room. The pièce de résistance was a four-tiered wedding cake decorated with Danish and British flags, and tiny sugar elephants, emblems of Danish chivalry. Wedding presents were on display in the billiards room; Prime Minister Mackenzie King gave the couple a large sterling picture frame with a photograph of himself. The bride’s father gave the couple a cheque for reputedly $4 million (about $56 million in 2014 money). There was a rumour that her grandfather had provided half of the dowry but this was later denied. The couple also received hundreds of congratulatory telegrams, including ones from King George V and Queen Mary, and Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother. After the reception, the royal couple took a train to Montreal before leaving for New York. They later sailed for London, and then onto the French Rivera, before going to Copenhagen to meet the Danish King.

The couple settled in Los Angeles County, California where they started a chicken farm. There, in 1927, their daughter, Alexandra, was born. Unfortunately, the chicken business failed the following year.  The couple subsequently moved to Denmark, where there son, Christian, was born in 1932.

As was the case with Prince Charles and Diana decades later, the marriage did not last. On 16 November 1934, it was announced that the couple had separated and were seeking permission from the Danish king to divorce. This request was granted and the marriage was dissolved in 1937. Lois lost her titles as Princess Erik Countess of Rosenborg. Days later, on 8 July 1937, it was announced in Copenhagen that she had married her secretary, Thorkild Jueslberg, six years her junior. Jueslberg was the son of the director of the Copenhagen Post Office. After a honeymoon abroad, plain Mr and Mrs Thorkild Jueslberg settled down in the former princess’s Danish estate, Bjergygaard, where she died four year later. After the war, her body was interred, as she had requested, in the Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa alongside that of her father.

Sources:

The Citizen, 1924. “Bright Sunshine For Wedding Of Miss Lois Booth,” 12 February.

—————, 1924. “People of Ottawa Pay Loving Tribute To Their Princess,” 12 February.

—————, 1924. “Wedding Of Miss Booth To Prince Erik Causes Unparalleled Scenes Of   Enthusiasm In Capital,” 12 February.

—————, 1941. “Former Princess Erik, Lois Booth, Passes On,” 27 February.

The Daily Gleaner, 1934. “Danish Prince is Seeking Divorce,” Kingston, Jamaica, 19 November.

The Montreal Gazette, 1937. “Ex-Princess Erik Believed Married,” 9 July.

The New York Times Archives, 1998. “1923: No Longer Heir: In Our Pages: 100, 75, and 50 Years Ago,” 28 December.

Time, 1937. “Milestones,” 26 July, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,758044,00.html.

Wikipedia, Count Erik of Rosenborg, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Count_Erik_of_Rosenborg.

Image: Wedding Party of Their Highnesses Prince and Princess Erik of Denmark, by Central News, 1924, Royal Weddings in Postcards, http://www.royalpostcards.be/royal%20weddings.htm.

The Hanging of Patrick Whelan

11 February 1869

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.

Darcy Mcgee reward
Wanted Poster issued by the City of Ottawa, 7 April 1869, Bytown or Bust

The City of Ottawa offered a huge reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of McGee’s assassin. Meanwhile, 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.

Patrick Whelan
Patrick James Whelan, 1840-68, LAC

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—$2,000, 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, http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/features/2009/12/18/shadows-on-sparks-street-cd/.

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, http://hsottawa.ncf.ca/stories.html.

Sleeping Dog Theatre, 2004, Blood on the Moon, http://www.sleepingdog.ca/botm.html.

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.