Dawson City Challenge

16 January 1905

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the rules of ice hockey were considerably different than they are today. For one thing, a team had seven players on the ice instead of the modern six. The extra player was known as the “rover.” The game itself was divided into two, thirty-minute halves, instead of three, twenty-minute periods. Forward passes were illegal. Similar to rugby, the puck-handler who found his progress blocked was forbidden to pass the puck forward to an open team mate. Pity the poor goalie too.  He was virtually indistinguishable from other players, wearing little or no padding. At best, his shins were protected by cricket pads. The other team members didn’t have it easy though; line changes were a thing of the future.

Who could compete for the Stanley Cup was also very different. Instead of the Eastern and Western Conference champions of the National Hockey League playing in a best-of-seven series, the Cup was a “challenge” cup for amateur play. A hockey club, usually the winner of some league play, challenged the Cup holder for the trophy, typically in a best of three game series, or a two-game, total goals series. The winning team also got to take home the Cup, and only relinquished the trophy upon its defeat by a challenger.

In the fall of 1904, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, Ottawa’s Silver Seven, the forerunners of the Ottawa Senators, were challenged by an upstart team from Dawson City, Yukon called the Dawson City Nuggets, or sometimes the Dawson City Klondikers. The Cup challenge was organized by Colonel Joe Boyle, Dawson City’s number one citizen. Boyle, a larger-than-life character, had made a fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 through mining concessions and other businesses. His nickname was “King of the Klondike.”

By 1904, however, Dawson City was in decline, the gold largely played out. Its population, which had topped 40,000 at the peak of the gold rush in 1898, had fallen to less than 5,000, though there were more settlers in the surrounding hinterland. Boyle, a one-time boxing promoter with a passion for hockey, put together a four-team league consisting of miners, prospectors, police and civil servants. The small league played at a newly-built, indoor rink that amazingly boasted an attached clubhouse, dressing rooms, showers, lounges and a dining room. The Dawson City Nuggets, an “all-star” team, were drawn from this ragtag bunch. Confident of their abilities, however, somebody came up with the idea, reputedly at a “knees up” in a local saloon, of challenging the Ottawa Hockey Club’s Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup.

This wasn’t as wacky an idea as it sounds. A number of good hockey players had come to the Klondike to seek their fortunes. As one press report of the time noted, the men “continued to play hockey when they were not ‘plucking gold nuggets.’” Coincidently, many of the players were from the Ottawa area. The team’s captain, Weldy Young, was a legitimate star who had played for the Ottawa Hockey Club during the 1890s. The team’s rover, Dr Randy McLennan, also had considerable hockey experience, having played for Queen’s University in Kingston when it challenged the Montreal AAA team in a losing cause for the Stanley Cup in 1895. However, the Ottawa team was a formidable opponent. It had defeated the Montreal Wanderers for the Stanley Cup in March 1903, and had successfully defended it against five challengers over the following year.

Dawson City Nuggets outside Dey Arena, 1905, Yukon Archives 88.25.1

The Dawson City Nuggets in front of Dey’s Rink, Ottawa, 1905. In rear, left to right: Hector Smith, George Kennedy, Lorne Hannay, James Johnston, and Norman Watt. In front, left to right: Albert Forrest, Joseph Boyle, and Dr Randy McLellan, Yukon Archives, 88.25.1.


For reasons that are unclear, the Ottawa Club accepted the cheeky challenge from the northerners to a best of three series to be held in January 1905 in Ottawa. Col. Boyle bankrolled the Nuggets, covering their travel and other expenses of $6,000, equivalent to about $125,000 in today’s money. With the team’s likely share of the box office from the Stanley Cup games expected to be only $2,000, he also organized a series of post-Cup exhibition games in eastern Canada and the United States to help re-coup his expenses. The Dawson City Nuggets became an instant media sensation throughout North America. The Montreal Gazette called their trek out east “the most gigantic trip every undertaken by a hockey team.” Ottawa’s Evening Journal said it was “the pluckiest challenge in the history of the Stanley Cup.”

Most of the team set out from Dawson City on 19 December 1904. They were originally supposed to leave several days earlier, but their departure was delayed by a federal election in the Yukon. As it was, the team left without Weldy Young. Employed by the government, he had to work over the election period and couldn’t get the time off. He later caught up with the rest of the players, too late, however, to play in the Stanley Cup series in Ottawa. The team’s number two player, Lionel Bennett, was also a no-show. He didn’t want to leave his wife’s bedside who had been injured in a sleigh accident.

Undeterred, the team set out on the 4,300 mile (6,900 kilometre) trek to Ottawa. The first leg of their voyage was to Whitehorse, a 330-mile slog through the wilderness, on bicycle, foot, and by sled. Despite the cold and overcoming frostbite, the men made good time. They covered 46 miles on their first day alone. But it took them nine days to get to Whitehorse, sheltering at night in cabins owned by the North West Mounted Police. From Whitehorse, they caught a train to Skagway, Alaska. Delayed two days by snow storms in the White Pass, the team missed their boat and had to wait an additional three days before catching a steamer to Seattle. They then backpacked to Vancouver. At Vancouver, they boarded the transcontinental Canadian Pacific train for Ottawa. Before leaving, Boyle sent a telegram to the Ottawa Hockey Club asking for the series to be postponed to allow the Nuggets to recover from their odyssey; the request was denied.

The Nuggets arrived in Ottawa on 11 January 1905, two days before their opening game at Dey’s Rink located at Gladstone and Bay Streets. The team was warmly greeted in Ottawa. The Ottawa Journal called the Dawson players “hardy Norsemen,” and opined that the “Yukon team was a sturdy lot” and would “bear themselves bravely.” The team took some light practice at the arena before the series began, as well as visited the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Club to watch boxing matches and an endurance contest.

The first game of the series was held on 13 January at 8.30pm. In goal for Dawson City was 17-year old Albert Forrest, originally from Trois Rivières, Quebec. Replacing the absent Weldy Young as team captain was Dr Randy McLennan (rover). The other players included Jim Johnstone (point), Lorne Hannay (cover point), Hector Smith (centre), George Kennedy (right wing) and Norman Watt (left wing). Joe Boyle acted as the team’s manager.  At the other end of the ice, Dave Finnie was in goal for Ottawa. The other Silver Seven players included Arthur “Bones” Allan (point), Art Moore (cover point), Harry “Rat” Westwick (rover), Frank McGee (centre), Alf Smith (right wing) and Fred White (left wing). Bob Shillington was the team’s general manager.

The game was played to a capacity crowd of roughly 2,500 spectators. The Governor General, Lord Grey, dropped the puck to start play. Through the first half, the Nuggets, dressed in black sweaters with gold trim, were competitive, holding the Silver Seven, wearing their red, black and white jerseys, to only three goals to their one. But the Nuggets began to flag in the second half, the effects of their trip becoming apparent. Penalties didn’t help either. A punch-up in the first half sent Norman Watt of the Nuggets and Ottawa’s Alf Smith off for ten minutes each for fighting. Tempers deteriorated further during the second half. When Art Moore, Ottawa’s cover point, tripped Watt, Watt retaliated. After he picked himself off the ice, Watt skated over to Moore and smashed him over his head with his stick, knocking him out cold for ten minutes. Two quick Ottawa goals followed. The final score was a lopsided 9-2 decision in Ottawa’s favour; Alf Smith tallied for four goals, Rat Westwick and Fred White each got two, while Frank McGee scored once. For Dawson City, Randy McLennan and George Kennedy retaliated.

Notwithstanding Watt’s brutal assault on Moore and the other fights, the Ottawa Evening Journal admired the sportsmanship displayed by both teams. In the newspaper’s description of the game, the reporter commented: “It was rather a novelty to the Ottawa public to see such a wholesome, even-tempered exhibition and it went down very well with the audience. More power to you boys!” One wonders what rough games were like during that era.

The second game of the series took place two days later on 16 January 1905. Both teams made modest changes to their line-ups. For the Nuggets, Dave Fairburn replaced Randy McLennan as rover. Harvey Pulford, the Silver Seven captain took over on point from “Bones” Allan. The national press didn’t rate the Nuggets chances very highly. The St John Daily Sun commented that the Stanley Cup would likely stay east. The newspaper commented that although the Klondikers had demonstrated they could handle the puck during the first game, the team had been “outskated, out-generalled, out-pointed in very department” by the Ottawa club. Still, the Dawson City newspaper, Yukon World, remained optimistic saying that the Klondike team had “a good chance.” The paper was wrong. Ottawa destroyed the Nuggets in the most lop-sided victory in the history of the Stanley Cup, defeating the northerners 23-2 in front of another capacity crowd at Dey’s Rink. Reports were pretty unanimous that Ottawa would have run the score up even higher if it hadn’t been for the strong goal-tending of young Albert Forrest.

Frank McGee, Ottawa’s centre, scored fourteen times, another record that still stands today. Eight of those goals were scored consecutively in less than nine minutes in the second half. McGee, an Ottawa native, was the nephew of D’Arcy McGee, the father of Confederation who was assassinated in 1868. McGee was a well-rounded athlete who had played football for the Ottawa Rough Riders during the 1890s. He had only one eye; he lost the other one in 1900 to a high stick. With a full time job as a public servant, he retired from hockey in 1906 at the tender age of 23 years. Despite his handicap, he enlisted during World War I after cheating on his vision test. He died in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme.

The evening after the blow-out, second game, the Ottawa Hockey Club hosted a party for the visiting Nuggets at the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Club, with George Murphy, president of the Ottawa Club acting as toastmaster. It must have been quite an event. The Stanley Cup, filled with champagne, was passed around the table repeatedly. Later, somebody drop-kicked the trophy onto the frozen Rideau Canal.

The team from the Klondike left Ottawa for their tour of eastern Canada and the United States. With the return of Weldy Young to the team, the Nuggets had a modicum of success, though not enough to mitigate their overwhelming defeat in Ottawa. The team then disappeared from history, though not before getting its name engraved on the Stanley Cup for all time.

In 1997 a Dawson City team took on an Ottawa Senators Alumni team in a re-enactment of the 1905 game at the Corel Centre (now the Canadian Tire Centre) in Ottawa. Retracing the steps of their predecessors, the Dawson team travelled by dog sled and snowmobile from Dawson City, to Whitehorse, to Skagway and then by ferry to Seattle, before heading to Vancouver, and finally Ottawa. Before a crowd of 6,000 the visitors were once again thumped, this time 18-0. The proceeds of the charity event, split between the two teams, went to the Ottawa Heart Institute, the Yukon Special Olympics, and Yukon Minor Hockey.


Story suggested by André Laflamme, Ottawa Free Tours, http://www.ottawafreetour.com/home.html.

Gaffin Jane, 2006. Joe Boyle: The SuperHero of the Klondike Gold Rush, http://www.diarmani.com/Articles/Gaffin/Joe%20Boyle%20–%20SuperHero%20of%20the%20Klondike%20Goldfields.htm.

Gates, Michael, 2010. “The game that almost brought the Stanley Cup to Dawson,” Yukon News, 22 January.

Globe, (The), 1904. “Coming of the Gold-Diggers,” 29 November.

—————-, 1905. “Ottawa Outclassed Dawson.” 17 January.

Levett, Bruce. 1989. “2-game Series took month’s trek.” Ottawa Citizen, 27 August.

McKinley, Michael, 2000. Putting A Roof On Winter, Greystone Books: Vancouver, Toronto, New York.

Montreal Gazette (The), 1904 “The Stanley Cup Dates,” 23 November.

—————————-, 1905. “Story of the Stanley Cup,” 18 January.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1905. “Overcame All Hardships,” 13 January.

————————————, 1905. “Ottawas Victorious In the First Stanley Cup Match,” 14 January.

———————————–, 1905. “The Stanley Cup Will Not Be Going To The Klondike,” 17 January.

———————————-, 1905. “J.P. Dickson Threw Down Gauntlet To The C.A.A.U. 18 January.

Pelletier, Joe, 2014. “Great Moments in Hockey History: Stanley Cup Challenge from the Yukon,” Greatest Hockey Legends.com,  9 May, http://www.greatesthockeylegends.com/2007/04/stanley-cup-challenge-from-yukon.html.

Pittsburgh Press (The), 1905. “Hockey Flashes,” 13 January.

Rodgers, Andrew, 2011. “Dawson City Nuggets and the Ottawa Senators Alumni: Interview with Award-Winning Author Don Reddick,” TVOS, 16 March, http://www.thevoiceofsport.com/2011/03/dawson-city-nuggets-and-ottawa-senators.html

St John Daily Sun, 1905. “Stanley Cup Will Probably Stay East,” 14 January.

Yukon World, 1904. “Dawson’s Champions And The Cup,” 18 December.

—————-, 1905. “Klondike Hockey Team Creates Great Interest In Ottawa,” 13 January.

—————, 1905. “Klondike Hockey Team Defeated In Extremely Rough Game In the Presence Of Thousands Of People,” 14 January.

—————, 1905. “Klondike Team Has Good Chance In The Game Monday Night,” 15 January.

————–, 1905, “Klondike Hockey Meet An Overwhelming Defeat At The Capital,” 17 January.



The Assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee

7 April 1868

“I, Sir, who have been, and who am still, its [Confederation’s] warm and earnest advocate, speak here not as the representative of any race, or of any Province, but as thoroughly and emphatically a Canadian, ready and bound to recognize the claims, if any, of my Canadian fellow subjects, from the farthest east to the farthest west, equally as those of my nearest neighbour, or of the friend who proposed me on the hustings.”

Spoken at a late night sitting of the House of Commons, these were among the last public words spoken by Thomas D’Arcy McGee, poet, author, and Canadian nationalist. It was fitting that they were voiced in defence of an enterprise with which he was so intimately association—the Confederation of Canada. After the House adjourned at 2.05am on 7 April 1868, McGee walked to the bar of the House, bought three cigars, and stopped to chat with Sir John A. Macdonald. Retrieving his overcoat, gloves, new white top hat, and silver knobbed bamboo walking stick given to him some years previous by admirers in Montreal, he stepped out into the frosty moonlit night…and into history.

Thomas D'Arcy McGee, 1868

Thomas D’Arcy McGee, 1868

McGee left the newly-built gothic centre block of Parliament with Robert McFarlane, another Member of Parliament. The two men walked slowly as McGee was bothered by an ulcerated leg. Arm in arm, the men strolled along the path leading from the centre block towards Wellington Street. Leaving Parliament Hill, they ventured a block down Metcalfe Street to Sparks Street, where they parted company. McFarlane turned east toward Sappers’ Bridge and Lower Town, while McGee headed west to his digs at Mrs. Trotter’s boarding house at 71 Sparks Street on the south side of the road close to O’Connor Street.  McFarlane bade McGee a good night; McGee replied “God bless you.”

Minutes later, McGee was dead, shot at point blank range as he bent down to insert his key into his front door lock. The bullet entered the back of his neck, and exited his mouth, breaking off an upper plate of artificial teeth before lodging itself in the wooden front door. McGee was found in a widening pool of blood on the wooden sidewalk by his landlady who had been waiting up for her 13-year old son who worked as a page in the House of Commons. Hearing someone at the front door, Mrs. Trotter had gone to open it just as McGee was fumbling in the dark with his key. She thought she heard something like a firecracker go off but on opening the door she saw McGee slumped on her door step, his mangled face covered in blood. There was no sign of the assassin.

Informed of the murder, Macdonald rushed from his Daly Street home to Mrs. Trotter’s boarding house in time to help bring McGee’s body inside. On his return home covered in blood, MacDonald’s wife Agnes commented that he was “much agitated,” his face a “ghostly white.” Later that day in the House of Commons, Macdonald, struggling to maintain his composure, said “He who only that morning had charmed them with the eloquence, elevated them by his statesmanship, and instructed them by his wisdom, the echo of whose voice was yet ringing in their ears, has passed from among them, foully murdered. If ever a soldier who had fallen on the field of battle in the front rank of the fray had deserved well of his country, Thomas D’Arcy McGee had deserved well of Canada and her people.”

Thomas D’Arcy McGee was an unlikely Canadian hero. Born in 1825 in Carlingford, Ireland, McGee, a Roman Catholic, was raised on stories of British oppression in Ireland, and Irish resistance and rebellion. As a teenager, he already showed signs of impressive oratory powers speaking at temperance meetings—ironic given his later prodigious capacity for alcohol. With little future in Ireland, he immigrated to the United States in 1842, taking a job as a journalist in Boston. He was a precocious correspondent, well attuned to Irish political issues both in North America and back in the old country. While in Boston, at the tender age of nineteen, he published his first of approximately twenty books, mostly on Irish history and literature. His American newspaper editorials were favourably noticed in Ireland, and he was enticed to return to write for a prominent Dublin newspaper. While in Dublin he met his wife Mary. Together, they were to have five children, only two of whom survived to adulthood. With hundreds of thousands of Irish peasants dying as a result of the potato famine, and continuing British neglect and incompetence in dealing with it, McGee became radicalized, joining Young Ireland in 1847, an Irish nationalist organization. McGee was sent to Scotland to raise men and arms among the Irish settlers around Glasgow, seize a ship, and return to Ireland in time for a planned country-wide insurrection. But the insurrection fizzled, its leaders rounded up. McGee had to flee. Returning to the United States, he resumed his career as a journalist.

But life in the United States was not what he had expected. Immigrants, especially poor, Catholic ones, suffered discrimination and exploitation. Nativist American political groups, fearing the wave of Irish immigrants, looked to disenfranchise them. Far better was life in Canada where the Irish were treated well; many were becoming quite prosperous. Thriving communities had also taken root in the major cities. As well, despite the presence of anti-Catholic Orange lodges, Catholicism was not only tolerated, it was protected under the law, and was the majority faith in Canada East (Quebec).

Invited to Montreal in 1857, McGee started a newspaper, The New Era, and was asked to stand for Parliament in the Province of Canada, winning a seat in the General Election of 1857. In 1858, McGee published a volume of verses titled Canadian Ballads and Occasional Verse. It was also about this time, McGee began to speak publicly in favour of a Canadian federation bringing together all the colonies in British North America. United, they would have the strength to resist annexation by the United States. He later put forward a three-point plan towards Confederation, comprised of representation by population, an Upper House safeguard based on equality of representation, and a constitutional guarantee of full religious and civil rights.

Initially sitting on the opposition benches as an Independent, McGee was made a Cabinet Minister in 1862 in the Reform government of Sandfield Macdonald as President of the Council. Owing to growing policy differences with Sandfield Macdonald, McGee was dropped from Cabinet the following year. Courted by John A. Macdonald, with whom he was developing a close friendship, McGee crossed the floor of the House of Commons in 1863 to join the Conservative Party. McGee was made Minister of Agriculture and Immigration in the short-lived 1864 government of John A. Macdonald and Sir Étienne Taché, a position he retained in the Great Coalition Government, led by Macdonald and Cartier that immediately preceded Confederation. McGee, a “father of Confederation,” was a key player at the Charlottetown and Quebec City Conferences that laid the groundwork for Confederation on 1 July 1867.

McGee’s transformation over time from an Irish republican to a Canadian cabinet minister, loyal to the Crown, brought him many enemies. Irish nationalists despised him, viewing him as a traitor to Ireland. Foremost of McGee’s foes were the Fenians, a secretive society of Irish extremists based largely in the United States, though with cells in Canada. McGee was outspoken in his opposition to them, viewing the Fenians as irreligious, foolish, and dangerous.  There was little doubt that a Fenian hand held the gun that blew his brains out that cold, starry night in April 1868. But whose hand was it? Many were initially arrested, but police attention quickly focused on one man, Patrick James Whelan, who was subsequently charged and later hanged for McGee’s murder.

Funeral of Thomas D'Arcy McGee, Montreal, 1868

Funeral of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Montreal, 1868

On the Wednesday morning following his assassination, McGee’s body was brought from Mrs. Trotter house to Ottawa’s Catholic Cathedral and then to the train station for its last journey to Montreal. Macdonald and Cartier were among the pallbearers. Arriving in Montreal that evening, McGee’s body laid in state at the McGee family home on St. Catherine Street through the weekend. Thousands lined up outside to view the body.

The day of the funeral, Easter Monday, 13 April, was declared a day of public mourning; it would have been McGee’s 43rd birthday. In freezing temperatures, virtually the entire population of Montreal turned out to witness the funeral cortege. At least 15,000 people marched in the procession itself to St. Patrick’s Church, led by members of parliament, senators, and other dignitaries as a band played Handel’s Death March. McGee’s exposed coffin was carried in a catafalque 15 feet long and 16 feet high, drawn by 6 dark grey horses. A canopy, supported by eight pillars, with dark feather plumes shaded his remains. As the funeral procession made its way through the streets of Montreal, guns fired off a final salute to Canada’s fallen leader. Thomas D’Arcy McGee was laid to rest in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-des-Nieges cemetery.


CBC, 2001, “The Assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPCONTENTSE1EP9CH1PA2LE.html.

Gwyn, Richard,  2007. John A.: The Man Who Made Us, The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, Volume I: 1815-1867, Radom House of Canada, Toronto.

——————, 2011.  Nationmaker, Sir John A. Macdonald, His Life, Our Times, Volume II, Random House of Canada. Toronto.

House of Commons, 1868. Debates, 1st Parliament, 1st Session, Volume 1, 6-7 April.

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

Wilson, David. A., 2008. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 1, Passion, Reason, and Politics, 1825-1857, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston.

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


Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Library and Archives Canada, C-01679.

Funeral of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, 13 April, 1868, James Inglis / Library and Archives Canada, C-083423.

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.

Patrick Whelan

Patrick James Whelan, 1840-69

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.


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.