On today’s date in 1869, before a crowd of thousands of people, Fenian sympathizer Patrick Whelan was hanged on the grounds of the Ottawa Jail Hostel—during a snowstorm—for the alleged murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
While Whelan denied any involvement in the murder, he was eventually hanged in what was Canada’s second-last public execution (the nation handed out its final capital punishment 10 months later in Goderich, Ont., where hundreds watched Nicholas Melady’s hanging).
IMMIGRATING, FLEEING TO THE U.S.
In 1842, 17-year-old McGee immigrated to the U.S., where he worked as the assistant editor of the Boston Pilot, a Catholic newspaper in Boston. Before returning home to Ireland a few years later, he supported Irish independence and the rights of Irish Catholic immigrants in the U.S.
Upon is return home, McGee became a central figure in the Irish independence movement. He maintained his support for Irish independence until his involvement in an armed uprising in Tipperary forced him to escape the country and flee to the U.S.
TIME IN CANADA
Less than a decade later, McGee moved to Lower Canada and encouraged other Irish immigrants to explore the country’s vast opportunities. He was eventually elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and sat with the Reform Party; however, in 1862, he crossed the floor, joining the cabinet of the John A. Macdonald/George-Étienne Cartier coalition government. He was appointed minister of agriculture, immigration and statistics the following year and became a leading advocate for Canadian Confederation, lobbying for the establishment of a new nation within British North America and the construction of a trans-continental railroad.
“I see in the not remote distance one great nation bound like the shield of Achilles, by the blue rim of ocean,” said McGee. “I see within the ground of that shield the peaks of the Western mountains and the crests of the eastern waves.”
He also took part in the Canadian Visit—a diplomatic tour of the Maritimes that led to the first Confederation Conference in Charlottetown in 1864.
DENOUNCING THE MOVEMENT
In 1868—one year after the Constitution Act essentially created Canada—McGee denounced the Irish Independence Movement as well as the Fenian Brotherhood, which was calling for a U.S. takeover of the newly formed dominion. He went as far as to place an ad in the Montréal Gazette, where he listed the names of suspected Fenian sympathizers.
It was April 7, 1868, when McGee—after giving a passionate speech about national unity at a late-night Parliamentary debate—was shot and killed killed. In the early hours of the morning, as he walked home from the session, he was shot from behind at close range. Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald carried McGee’s body to safety, but it was too late.
The following week, on what would have been his 43rd birthday, McGee was given a state funeral attended by thousands of Canadians.
Whelan, the Fenian sympathizer accused of killing McGee, was hanged for the crime on Feb. 11, 1869; however, his guilt has been questioned with some believing he was a scapegoat for the murder.
1927 McGEE STAMP
A prominent Irish-Canadian politician and Father of the Confederation, McGee was featured on a five-cent violet stamp from the Historical Issue. Issued June 29, 1927, the stamp was engraved by Elie Timothée Loizeaux based on a photograph by William James Topley.