Shadows on Sparks Street (Listen)

On April 7, 1868, one of the Fathers of Confederation was gunned down just steps away from Parliament Hill.  The murder of Thomas D'Arcy McGee made news around the world and culminated in the last public execution in Canadian history.  In February 1869, Patrick James Whelan was hanged for the crime.   But was he the real assassin?  Freelance journalist Sarah Boothroyd explores the mystery.


140 years ago one of the Fathers of Confederation was gunned down just a few blocks from Parliament Hill. Thomas D'Arcy McGee remains the only Canadian federal politician ever to be assassinated. He has been called "Canada's JFK" - a charismatic politician, poet, and journalist, shot on the doorstep to his rooming house on Sparks Street. He was killed six days before his 43rd birthday, and left behind a wife, a brother, and a 10-year-old daughter.

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This is the story of Canada's first political assassination - one that happened less than a year after the new Dominion of Canada was formed - and one that many think led to the wrongful conviction and execution of Patrick James Whelan, an Irish tailor. Shadows on Sparks Street by Sarah Boothroyd explores this mystery, drawing on various archival materials as well as the expertise of historians David Wilson and David Shanahan, as well as lawyer Lawrence Greenspon.

Diary entry by Lady Agnes Macdonald, the wife of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, for Tuesday April 7th, 1868:

Patrick James Whelan Patrick James Whelan
(Credit: Library and Archives Canada)

At half past two o'clock...Sir John came home from a late sitting. It made me a little uneasy his being away so long....I heard carriage wheels. I flew down to open the door for my husband. We were so cozy after that - he coming in so cheery with news of the debate...

I was almost half asleep when I was roused by a low, rapid knocking at the front door. In an instant a great fear came upon me. Springing up, I threw on a wrapper and ran into my dressing room...just in time to see John throw up the window and hear him call out 'Is there anything the matter?' The answer came up clear and hard through the cold moonlit morning...'McGee is murdered...lying in the street...shot through the head.'
The words fell like the blow of a bar of iron across my heart. We felt at once that the shot was fired by a Fenian.

Source: Library and Archives Canada

McGee's funeral as reported by the New York Times on April 14th, 1868:

Thomas D'Arcy McGee Thomas D'Arcy McGee
(Credit: Library and Archives Canada)

It is estimated that not less than 80,000 people were on the streets, and 30,000 were in the procession. The [hearse] was heavily draped with crepe, black cloth and velvet, was drawn by six grey horses, covered in black cloth. The troops lined the streets to aid in keeping back the crowd as the procession passed along. Thousands of people on the sidewalks wept aloud. The feeling of sorrow is sincere and deep, and pervades the entire community.

Source: TimesMachine - The New York Times


Related Websites

Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

Concordia University Archives

Library and Archives Canada


Hassard, Albert R. Famous Canadian Trials. Toronto: Carswell, 1924.

Phelan, Josephine. The Ardent Exile. Toronto: Macmillan, 1951.

Phelan, Josephine. The Ballad of D'Arcy McGee: Rebel in Exile. Toronto: Macmillan, 1967.

Slattery, T.P. The Assassination of D'Arcy McGee. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1968.

Slattery, T.P. They Got to Find Me Guilty Yet. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1972.

Spaight, George. Trial of Patrick James Whalen for the murder of the Hon. Thomas D'Arcy McGee. Ottawa: G.E. Desbarats, 1868.

Taylor, John H. The History of Canadian Cities: Ottawa, an Illustrated History. Toronto. James Lorimer and Company, 1986.

Wallace, W. Stewart. Murders and Mysteries: A Canadian Series. Toronto: Macmillan,1931.

Wilson, David. Thomas D'Arcy McGee: Passion, Reason, and Politics 1825 - 1857. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008.

Special Thanks

Pierre Brault, Doug Lucas, Xavier Gelinas, John Taylor, Carol Spendlove, Roy Jinks, Brian Slattery, Nancy Marelli, Vincette Ouellette, Sharon McKenna, and Tony Fisher.

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