Canada Slim behind bars 4: Me and D´Arcy McGee

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 7 July 2016

I have some bad habits.

I am essentially a man who prefers leisure to work.

As each and every person who has ever existed, exists or will ever exist is defined by how he/she decides to use the 24 hours each day provided us indiscriminately, so it can be said your humble blogger could use his limited time more wisely, more productively.

But when I am not devoting myself to teaching or working as a barista, I find myself at my most happiest walking upon some path somewhere.

Not that I am a natural hiker…

For this morning, after yesterday´s hiking, my feet ache and my thigh burns.

I walk through the apartment like an old arthritic man, cramps in my feet and blisters on my heels.

Sitting does not help, for the chafing produced by walking shorts too tight has left the skin sensitive as if a hot cheese grater had visited my thighs without my consent.

So why bother?

For it is upon a trail that I feel most alive.

I feel as if I am a part of a wider universe, part of the circle of life, experiencing a moment pure.

On the trail, the past is but a memory, the future not more than a promise, the now – dynamic and present.

I especially enjoy walking here in Europe, as not only do I feel a connectedness to the world around me but as well I feel a link to the historic past that formed what I perceive today.

In Switzerland there are many signposted trails that one can follow throughout the country – trails that cross the nation entire or ones that simply surround a village.

Switzerland is especially proud of its national trails.

Among these is the Jakobsweg, which if followed in its entirety could lead the ambitious hiker over thousands of kilometres to faroff Santiago de Compostela in distant Spain from many parts of Europe.

How moving an experience it is to follow pathways that pilgrims might have walked over hundreds of years.

Obligations to wife and work compel me to walk only small portions of other Swiss trails and the Jakobsweg at a time.

The Jakobsweg on Swiss soil starts in Konstanz, Germany, or in Rorschach by Lake Constance, or in Rankweil across the Rhine in Austria, and through a series of interconnected trails finally arrives in Geneva to cross over into France.

I have lived in Switzerland since 2010 and have walked the Jakobsweg from Konstanz and Rorschach and Rankweil to Einsiedeln in various stages at various times.

Yesterday I walked the section from Rapperswil to Einsiedeln.

A half day of exploring Rapperswil and a half day of walking led to many discoveries: the Polish Museum in Rapperswil Castle, deer in a deer park, roses in rose gardens, elephants and camels and sea lions and ponies and donkeys and parrots and flamingos and meerkats at the zoo, histories of Rapperswil and the Swiss National Circus Knie at museums, a long wooden footbridge crossing the Lake of Zürich, climbing many a hill, crossing rivers and strolling beside lakes, the birthplace of Paracelsus, magnificent chapels and cathedrals….

Above: Rapperswil Castle and Einsiedeln Cloister

Much to be savoured, much to be told…

But this post will only merely mention yesterday´s events as a prologue to showing how the chronicles of the past and the impact of the moment combine to make us who we are.

I will at a later date weave the events of yesterday into the blogs of tomorrow.

I confess that I have fallen behind in my regular accounts, due to the pressures of work and the distractions of the mind, but I presevere…

As my regular readers know, I began to tell the story of Canada Slim behind bars as a tourist, a tour guide and a prisoner.

Canada Slim behind bars 1: Voyeurs of tragedy spoke of prisons and their use to punish wrong-doers as well as attract visitors.

Canada Slim behind bars 2: Punishment preserved spoke of Fremantle Prison in Western Australia and why it is worth visiting.

Canada Slim behind bars 3: Prisoners of choice spoke of prison – tourist accommodation around the world.

Now what follows in this post is an account of my experiences in the Carleton County Jail / Ottawa International Hostel and how this building´s history affected my past and partially made me who I am today…

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 7 April 1868

Thomas D´Arcy McGee, the silver-tongued orator of Parliament, was gunned down in the street early this morning by an unknown assailant.

McGee, a close friend of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, was returning to his lodging home after a late night Parliamentary session that ended only at 2 am.

McGee was well-loved in Parliament and was an excellent public speaker.

Many of McGee´s outraged friends and colleagues recall his final public speech:

“I hope that in this House mere temporary or local popularity will never be the test by which to measure the wealth or efficiency of a public servant. 

It is, Sir, my humble opinion, that the leader who is ready to meet the tide of temporary unpopularity, who is prepared, if need be, to sacrifice himself, who is ready not only to triumph with his principles but even to suffer for his principles, he is one who has proved himself, above all others.”

When McGee returned to his boarding house on Sparks Street he found that the door was bolted from the inside.

Mrs. Trotter, his landlady, was waiting for her 13-year-old son, a Parliamentary page, to return home, when she heard someone trying to open the door.

She undid the bolt and just as she opened the door a crack, there was a blast from outside.

McGee was bending to put his key into the lock of his front door when someone shot him in the head at point-blank range.

McGee´s false teeth were later discovered at the end of the front hall as they had been shot right out of his mouth.

Mrs. Trotter had opened the door at the exact moment the shot was fired and her dressing gown was splattered with McGee’s blood.

The bullet was lodged in the doorway and later recovered by the police as evidence.

Mrs. Trotter didn’t see the killer when she opened the door, and when her son came home only a moment later, there was no one on the street.

Of the many people who began to crowd around McGee’s body, none had seen any sign of the murderer.

The murder is widely considered to be the work of those revolutionary Irishmen, the Fenians, who are believed to have hated McGee because of his public campaign targeting them.

Above: the Fenian Brotherhood flag

The Fenians are mostly Irish Americans who were fighting to free Ireland from British rule.

They have made it clear that one of their plans is to invade Canada and hold it hostage with the intention of exchanging Canada for Ireland’s freedom.

The Fenians have already launched several attacks from the US border in previous years, and even though McGee was an Irishman, who had once been a rebel leader himself, he had spoken out publicly against them.

Many Fenians think McGee was a traitor and there were quite a number of threats against his life so it seems likely that they are responsible for his murder.

An invasion of Fenians across the border is hourly expected.

Prominent politicians are protecting themselves with bodyguards.

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 11 February 1869

After uttering his last words – “God save Ireland and God save my soul.” – Patrick James Whelan plunged 2.7 metres through the Carleton County Jail gallows trapdoor to his death in a hanging 5,000 people watched this morning.

Whelan, a Fenian, was convicted of murdering politician D’Arcy McGee, shot from behind on 7 April last year as he unlocked the door of his lodging home.

On the night of McGee´s assassination, the police arrested a dozen Irishmen right away, eventually releasing all but one – Patrick James Whelan.

Whelan was in the gallery of the House of Commons that night.

The police started to build a case against him, but much of it was circumstantial evidence.

During Whelan´s trial this evidence began to crumble.

For example, the eyewitness Lacroix who claimed he had heard Whelan speak of his plans to murder McGee was later discredited when six of Lacroix’s coworkers testified that Lacroix was a compulsive liar and was only interested in the reward money.

Despite the lack of evidence, public opinion has been strong in this case and people want someone to be punished for this horrible crime.


Sir John A. Macdonald, McGee’s old friend and Canada´s Prime Minister, is a close friend of the prosecuting lawyer and even began coming to the trial every day and sat beside the judge.

At the end of the trial, despite the fact there was no reliable witness who could place Whelan at the scene of the crime, despite that the evidence against him was largely circumstantial, Whelan was convicted and sentenced to hang for the assassination of McGee.

Whelan maintained his innocence right up until the very end.

Richards: The sentence of this court is that you, Patrick James Whelan, having been accused and found guilty of the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, be taken from this place to the place from whence you came and be thence removed on Thursday, the tenth day of December, between the hours of nine in the morning and four in the afternoon, to the place of execution, and there be hanged by the neck until your body be dead, and may God have mercy on your soul.

When the sentence was handed down, Whelan turned to the judge and said:

“And yet all that, my lord, does not make me guilty.”

The crowd started to gather at dawn outside the jail here for the 11 am hanging despite the terrible snowstorm.

Speaking in a high, trembling voice from the gallows, Whelan asked for forgiveness from the crowd, then concluded with his salute to Ireland.

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 1 July 1989

It is noon on Parliament Hill and at the Centennial Flame I begin a journey, a walk across Canada.

I intended to make my way across Canada solely on my own resources and the kindness of others.

I planned to work my way across the country and when the region I would arrive in could not provide me employment I would return briefly back to Ottawa, work until funds were replenished then return back to the spot I left off walking and resume my journey on foot again.

From June 1989 to the beginning of 1996, I would return again and again back to Ottawa and the Nicholas Street Ottawa International Hostel as a guest, a janitorial and housekeeping assistant and a jail tour guide, later incorporating the Carleton County Jail as part of my independently-owned organised city tours.

And, even now, on those rare occasions when I return to Canada to see family and friends still resident in my home and native land, I make a point of revisiting Ottawa and staying at the IYHA (International Youth Hostelling Association) jail hostel.

Jail entrance

For many of the experiences I had there and many of the people I met would shape and still continue to shape the person I am today.

I met good friends there, including my best friend Iain of Liverpool, and as well I learned that youth hostels were not only great places to stay and often good sources of information in regards to employment opportunities, but they were also “love lodges” – places to meet significant others!

I met four significant others at youth hostels: one who would encourage me to visit Europe, one who would encourage me to develop my intelligence and enthusiasm towards serving others, another who would become fiancéed with me, and the fourth who would become my wife.

(Knowing my history, the wife doesn´t like it if I stay at hostels anymore!)

Reading area in the basement

A former hostel shop manager in Ottawa had perfected the art of seduction of guests so effectively that where others make a notch in the bedpost to signify a “conquest” he was said to have reduced his bedpost to the width of a toothpick!

In my roles as guest and resident employee I would get to know the history of the Carleton County Jail quite intimately.

Between the Rideau Centre shopping mall and the University of Ottawa campus is an impressive stone building.

Opened in 1862, the Carleton County Gaol was in its day the pride of Ottawa and was held up as a shining example of how all county jails across the province should be built.

Replacing the four-room basement jail of the courthouse next door with its dingy, damp cells, the Carleton County Jail was praised as being “probably the best in Canada”.

The Gaol was intentionally designed to be imposing and intimidating.

This prime example of English Georgian architecture with its emphasis on symmetry and proportion evokes a sense of austerity and strength.

The heavy stone foundation creates a sense of mass and power, while the building´s chimneys, stonework, dormer windows and buttresses all reinforce this impression of authority.

Throughout its history (1862 – 1972) the Carleton County Gaol was used for those serving both short-term and long-term sentences as well as for those awaiting court appearances.

Cell Floor

Any sentence of less than two years would be served here.

Longer sentences would result in the prisoner being transferred to the federal penitentary in Kingston.

Prisoners who had been sentenced to death, like Patrick James Whelan, were also held at the Gaol until their execution.

So in this building, at any given time, people thrown behind bars for being drunk and disorderly would live right next to those convicted of violent crimes.

Authentic Jail Cell

Women were also imprisoned in the building and if they had children who could not be cared for then the children would also be housed in the Gaol.

Female prisoners were treated slightly less severely than the male prisoners and lived in dormitory-style accommodations with access to a bathtub and a WC and were watched over by female guards.

Children convicted of crimes, some as young as 7 years old, were housed in the Gaol alongside the regular inmates.

The mentally ill were also kept at the Gaol awaiting transfer to the mental asylum in Kingston as there was simply no other place to keep them.

By 1946, jail inspectors criticized the Gaol as a “monstrous relic of an imperfect civilisation where cells are medieval, incredibly cramped, with conditions far below the limits of human decency”.

The cells were 3 feet wide and 9 feet long, lacked electric light and had only metal pails, known as “honey buckets” for toilets.

Cell Floor

Manual labour was performed in the Gaol until the 1950s, but after that with no other rehabilitation and no recreational facilities, with little to occupy the inmates’ time, boredom was oppressive.

Prisoners would get violent or riot just to break the monotony.

Many prisoners would die here while in custody from disease, suicide, exposure – their final moments in extreme anguish and misery.

The Gaol opened as a youth hostel in August 1973 and has since gone through many changes, some of which I have been witness.

During my time at the Ottawa Jail Hostel, I am proud to say that I was known to be an extremely outgoing, helpful and informative individual recognized for giving excellent and entertaining tours.

I made the tours as interactive as possible, including locking visitors in the cells to get the actual feeling of what it was like to be a prisoner and showing them how an actual hanging took place with visitors standing around the gallows as I released the gallow doors operating a foot pedal.

(This kind of tour has been discontinued at the Hostel after the cell door key once broke inside the lock during one of my tours and the gallows visit has been cancelled for reasons of security and insurance.)

I still recall with great fondness a visit by the Thunder Bay 84 Squadron Astra Royal Canadian Air Cadets in 1996, whose Captain and Commanding Officer wrote the Hostel a letter praising me personally and saying that my level of service was a very pleasant surprise and that I deserved an Academy Award for my immensely enjoyable tour of the Gaol!

I look back with fondness at the Ottawa Jail Hostel for living and working there gave me confidence in my abilities to teach, to entertain, to interact with other people.

All good things do come to an end and my days as tour guide ended with an organisation called Haunted Walks Inc,  outsourced since 1996 by the Hostel to give tours of the Gaol.

I met the director and founder of Haunted Walks Inc. who approached me and wanted my files and collection of memorablia on the Gaol.

Haunted Walks Inc.

Glen Shackleton, who runs Haunted Walks in both Kingston and Ottawa, offered me very little money for this and no employment with the company.

I turned him down.

I knew what research he couldn´t find on his own, he would simply create.

I have always had great difficulty with the concept of ghost tours – tours offering spirits and graveyards and suggestions that places may be haunted simply because their guides are attired in dark cloaks and lead their groups through quiet streets by lantern light.

I have no problem with entertainment and theatricality.

I do have a problem with bald-faced invention.

Telling history entertainingly does not mean having to create ghost stories.

Humanity itself is inherantly interesting without inventing legends of the supernatural.

I won´t condemn those who are entertained by ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night.

I won´t praise those who use fiction disguised as fact to generate money from the gullible.

I always find it interesting that when a ghost is mentioned or a supernatural occurence is related how often proof is rarely present.

Patrick James Whelan may have been innocent of the crime for which he was hanged, but I don´t believe he haunts the halls of the hostel.

But to each his own…

If people want to pay to be spooked and profit is to be made from it, then I can only say that this type of business practice is not for me.

As a tour guide I wanted to give people a sense of what it was like to be a prisoner and to tell of the sadness and sorrow and hardship of life as it was lived then.

I could relate to the former inmates of the Carleton County Gaol, for during my travels in America I too was an inmate of a different jail…








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