On today’s date in 1869, Fenian sympathizer Patrick Whelan was hanged on the grounds of the present-day Ottawa Jail Hostel before a crowd of thousands of people for the alleged murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
A day earlier, Whelan wrote a three-page letter to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald – a friend and colleague of McGee, who was serving as the MP of Montreal West at the time of his death – and claimed innocence. Macdonald left the letter unanswered, and while Whelan denied any involvement in the murder, he was hanged in what was Canada’s second-last public execution after spending 10 months in the nearby Carleton County Jail.
The 28-year-old Whelan was up against “profuse but circumstantial” evidence, wrote Bruce Deachman for the Ottawa Citizen in 2017.
“He was in attendance in the spectators’ gallery at the House of Commons that evening; he had earlier been seen there with a gun; his gun had recently been fired (for which an innocent explanation existed); he had previously threatened McGee’s life; boot prints discovered in the snow opposite Mrs. Trotter’s matched his; a lumberjack who claimed to have witnessed the murder identified Whelan as the culprit; and detectives hiding near Whelan’s cell in the Carleton County Gaol on Nicholas Street testified that they heard Whelan admit to the killing.”
“I shot that fellow,” Whelan is reported to have said to his friend, John Doyle, who was also arrested.
“I shot him like a dog.”
IMMIGRATING, FLEEING TO THE U.S.
In 1842, when McGee was 17 years old, he immigrated to the United States, 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 United States.
Upon returning 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 United States.
MCGEE IN CANADA
Less than a decade later, McGee moved to Lower Canada and encouraged other Irish immigrants to explore the country’s 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. During this time, he also lobbied for the establishment of a new nation within British North America and the construction of a transcontinental 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. In the early hours of the morning, as he walked home from the session, he was shot from behind at close range.
Macdonald carried McGee’s body to safety, but the damage was done.
The following week, on what would have been his 43rd birthday, McGee was given a state funeral attended by thousands of Canadians.
Whelan was hanged for the crime on Feb. 11, 1869. His last words were reported to be, “I am innocent.”
“His death was not quick: the drop from the gallows did not break his neck,” added the 2017 Ottawa Citizen story. “Instead, it took about five minutes for him to strangle to death.”
“The prisoner,” reported the Citizen in 1869, “died very hard.”
Whelan was buried in the courtyard of what was then known as the Nicholas Street Jail, where he was hanged.
Canada handed out its final capital punishment 10 months after Whalen was hanged. On Dec. 7, 1869, hundreds of people watched Nicholas Melady’s hanging in Goderich, Ont. Three weeks later, on Jan. 1, 1870, the federal government passed legislation banning public executions in Canada.
1927 McGEE STAMP
A prominent Irish-Canadian politician and a Father of the Confederation, McGee was celebrated on a five-cent violet stamp (Scott #146) issued by Canada’s Post Office Department (now Canada Post).
Issued June 29, 1927, the stamp was engraved by Elie Timothée Loizeaux based on a photograph by William James Topley.