Hanged for the murder of D'Arcy McGee
Born: Galway, Ireland
Died: 11 February 1869, Ottawa, Ontario
James Patrick Whelan came to Canada via Quebec City. He spent two years there, serving with volunteers who were guarding against Fenian raids, then moved to Montreal where he worked as a tailor. In 1867, he married Bridget Boyle and moved to Ottawa. He found work with a merchant tailor and was a frequent visitor to the House of Commons where he liked listening to the debates.
On 7 April 1868, D'Arcy McGee, a politician and Father of Confederation, was assassinated as he entered his apartment building. The government immediately offered a $2,000. reward and, less than 24 hours later, Whelan was arrested. A man matching his description had been spotted near the murder scene that night. The evidence against Whelan was entirely circumstantial but his accusers suspected he was a Fenian sympathizer. Although that was never proven, the government needed someone to pin the murder on and Whelan, being Irish, was the perfect candidate. The trial lasted less than a week.
The hanging took place during a snowstorm with 5,000 people in attendance. Whelan proclaimed his innocence until the very end, saying “They've got to find me guilty yet.” His body was buried in an unmarked grave in the back courtyard of the Carleton County Gaol and it's said that Whelan's ghost still haunts the building, which is now the Ottawa International Youth Hostel.
In August 2002, a ceremony was held near the location of the hanging. A box of earth was blessed by a priest and Whelan's family members took it to Côtes des Neiges cemetery in Montreal, burying it next to his wife's body. D'Arcy McGee is buried in the same cemetery.
After the execution, Bridget Whelan moved back to Montreal where she lived the rest of her life as a recluse.
The one-man play, Blood on the Moon, written and performed by Pierre Brault, tells the story from Whelan's point of view.
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Thanks to Garth Cowan for the suggestion.
Thanks to Diane Sarginson for the correction.
Added 11 October 2003.