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Born County Galway, Ireland, 1849. Died Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 11 February 1869.

Author: David Wilson

Patrick James (Jim) Whelan is best known in Canadian history as the man who was accused of, charged with, and executed for the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee in Ottawa in April 1868.  He always claimed that he was innocent, that the evidence was manufactured against him, and that he had been falsely accused of being a Fenian – an Irish revolutionary prepared to use violent means to secure an independent Irish republic.  How much truth was there in these claims?

There is, in fact, considerable circumstantial evidence that he was involved in Fenianism, although at what level is hard to say.  He was proud of the fact that his brothers in Ireland were Fenians; one of them, Joseph, had been convicted of attempting to swear soldiers into the Brotherhood from his pub in Marlborough Street, Dublin.  Jim Whelan himself was charged with a similar offence in Quebec City in 1865, but there were not enough witnesses to secure a conviction.  In Montreal, he hung out with a group of Fenians who frequented Kate Scanlan’s tavern, and the tailor’s shop where he worked in Ottawa (at 55 Sussex Street) was owned and operated by one of the city’s leading Fenians, Peter Egleson.  It is possible that Jim Whelan was more than a low-ranking member of the movement.  The witness at his wedding in February 1867 to Bridget Boyle shared the same name as one of Canada’s leading Fenians, Edward Condon, and a well-placed informer in Fenian headquarters in New York identified him as the Ottawa delegate to a Fenian Convention in Cleveland.  When Whelan was arrested, the police found several copies of the pro-invasion Irish American newspaper, indicating that he was one of its Canadian distributors.  All of this casts doubt on his denial that he was a Fenian and on his insistence that he was a loyal subject of the Queen.

It does not, however, shed any direct light on the question of his guilt or innocence in the assassination of McGee.  Here, we must turn to evidence produced against him in the trial.  A number of witnesses spoke to the issue of motivation, reporting that on several occasions Whelan had expressed his hatred for McGee (on the grounds that McGee had become a traitor to Ireland and an informer on the Fenians) and had threatened to take his life.  On one of those occasions, he had gone so far to knock on McGee’s door in Montreal, only to be greeted by McGee’s half-brother.  Such threats, of course, would be consistent with Fenian sympathies.  It also appeared that Whelan had the means to kill McGee – a Smith and Wesson revolver that he carried with him regularly, and which he brought into the House of Commons on at least one occasion.  The detective who examined the gun after Whelan’s arrest (the day after the assassination) reported that it had been fired within the previous 48 hours.  Forensic tests carried out in the early 1970s indicated that the bullet that killed McGee was consistent with Whelan’s gun and with the bullets that he owned, although they could not state definitively that the bullet had been fired from that particular gun.  As well as the motivation and the means, Whelan had the opportunity to murder McGee.  Witness statements indicated that he had been stalking McGee before the assassination, that he had been in the House of Commons on the night that McGee was killed, and that he was last seen heading in the direction that McGee had taken on the way to his boarding house.

On the other hand, Whelan was right to say that the evidence – or some of it, at least – had been manufactured against him.  One witness, Reuben Wade, told an unlikely story about overhearing Whelan plotting with his friends in a pub to assassinate McGee.  A French Canadian lumberjack, Jean-Baptiste Lacroix, who claimed to have witnessed the murder failed to pick out Whelan in an identity parade, after which the police made Whelan change into the clothes he had been wearing on the night of the murder, and put him back into the line-up; this time, Lacroix made the desired choice.  The jury, it subsequently transpired, dismissed Lacroix’s story, and based its guilty verdict on the police evidence about the recently-fired gun, the testimony of Whelan’s former lodgers about his threats against McGee, and the evidence of a detective who overheard Whelan state in his prison cell that he would go down in history as a great fellow who “shot that bugger like a dog.”

Shortly before his execution, Whelan was visited by a crown attorney and a police magistrate, who told him that Mary McGee had forgiven him for killing her husband.  Tell her that she has nothing to forgive me for, he replied; I did not kill that man.  But he went on to say that he was present when McGee was shot, that he knew the identity of the killer, but that he would never turn informer.

He was hanged on February 11 1869, in what has mistakenly been called the last public execution in Canada.  His last words were those made famous by the Fenian leader – and possible close friend – Edward Condon, and which quickly became a revolutionary rallying cry:  “God Save Ireland!”

Fearing that a public funeral would turn into a Fenian demonstration, the government insisted that he be buried on the grounds of the Ottawa jail.  A priest who agreed to consecrate the ground backed out in the face of Fenian threats; Whelan would get a proper burial in a Catholic cemetery or none at all.  His body was buried in an unmarked grave, and lies there still.

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