Tag Archives: nicholas street gaol

1869: Patrick Whelan, Canada’s first assassin?

On this date in 1869, Irish immigrant Patrick Whelan was hanged at Ottawa’s Nicholas Street Gaol for the assassination of Canadian politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

McGee, a Father of the Confederation — Canada as a self-governing dominion was only months old when he was gunned down in Ottawa — was the first politician assassinated in the country, and for a century more, the only one. He may have been a sort of proto-Michael Collins, shot by onetime fellow-travelers in the Irish nationalist movement for going legit with the English.

It’s an open question whether the tailor convicted of his murder was actually one of them. Whelan, like McGee, was an Irish immigrant and supposedly a Fenian sympathizer. He also matched the gunman’s description.

Whelan was snatched up within 24 hours and convicted on essentially circumstantial evidence.

Hanged in a snowstorm before thousands, he maintained his innocence to the end — a plea that has had its advocates in posterity, including a high-profile recent play. Whelan bolsters his own case by haunting the jail where he met his fate … a structure which still stands today, now serving as a (singularly atmospheric) hostel.

Whelan is sometimes reported as the last man publicly hanged in Canada, although apparently he is not. (Officially, that honor belongs to Nicholas Melady.)