by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
Provisional government Adjutant-General Ambroise Lépine declared that since the majority of the “Council of War” had voted guilty, Thomas Scott’s execution would proceed at noon on March 4, 1870.
“And only when the guard came to lead him (Scott) out to be shot did he realise his fate,” reported the New Nation on March 4. “Then, he said, ‘As I am about to die, I wish to see my friends, and the other 47 prisoners.’ The request was conceded, and he saw them and bade each a long last goodbye.”
Scott was taken outside the fort, near the east gate, to be shot by a six-man firing squad.
Scott asked Rev. George Young whether he should stand or kneel.
“Can you now trust in Christ for salvation?” inquired Young, who had told Scott to kneel.
“I think I can,” Scott replied.
When witnesses appeared at the Lépine trial in 1874, the evidence they presented of Scott’s execution was often contradictory and confusing. Today, such eyewitness testimony is invariably greeted with skepticism and considered as unreliable by justice officials, although some basic shared facts can still be weeded out from their accounts.
“Several studies have been conducted on human memory and on subjects’ propensity to remember erroneously events and details that did not occur” (Barbara Tversky, professor of psychology, and George Fisher, professor of law, presentation to Stanford Law School, April 5, 1999). “Courts, lawyers and police officers are now aware of the ability of third parties to introduce false memories to witnesses.”
The biases of third parties following the events of 1870, as well as personal prejudices, undoubtedly had an influence on the witnesses testifying at the Lépine trial.
The basic facts that can be supported are that, while kneeling, Scott was shot twice, once in the shoulder and once in the chest, and then fell to the ground. To ensure he was dead, one member of the firing squad, a man named Guilmette, stepped forward and shot Scott in the head with a pistol. The body was then placed in a rough board coffin that was quickly nailed shut and then carried inside Upper Fort Garry.
Years later, John Black Morrison was quoted in the April 2, 1927, Manitoba Free Press, as an eyewitness to the events of March 4, 1870. At the time, Morrison was a “young boy,” although he was included among the ranks of the prisoners.
“The day came for Scott to meet the firing squad,” he recalled. “They brought him out of his cell blindfolded. There was a stair going down (to) the door. When he came to the stair, he put his hand on the newel-post and asked them to let him say goodbye to the boys. The guards just opened the door a little piece, and held their bayonettes ready in case he made a rush. Scott put his head in as far as he could and said, ‘Goodbye boys; this is cold-blooded murder.’ He said the same words at the other door, the door where the surveyors were held. Then the guards led him out.
“In a few minutes a guard came running in crying. He shoved the gun into our hands. ‘It wasn’t me that did it,’ he shouted; ‘See! See the gun; it’s still loaded.’ We tried the gun and found it still had a full charge in both barrels. Then this guard said again, ‘I didn’t shout that man. I would not be coward enough to shoot a man with his hands tied behind his back.’ He was crying like a child.”
The Winnipeg Free Press on July 4, 1936, carried an eyewitness account from W.H. Mulligan, who as a child stood with his young sister near the wall where Scott was executed.
Mulligan said the Métis firing squad was extremely nervous (other witnesses claimed they were very drunk), causing some of the percussion caps in their muskets to fall out due to their shuddering. He related that just a couple of the muskets actually went off, resulting in Scott only being half-dead when struck by the hand-moulded lead balls, and so Scott “had to be shot through the head with a pistol.”
In his letter to the Montréal Gazette, reprinted in the March 21, 1874, Free Press, Bruce claimed Augustin Parisien, one the six “soldiers” in the firing squad, openly declared he would not shoot at Scott, so he took the cap out of his gun before the command was given to fire.
“Of the five (musket) balls remaining only two hit the poor victim,” wrote Bruce, “one in the left shoulder, the other in the upper part of the chest, above the heart. Had the other soldiers missed the mark unintentionally, or had they willingly aimed too high, too low, or aside? It is unknown.”
Bruce agreed with other witnesses that Guilmette “stepped forward and discharged the contents of a pistol close to Scott’s head while he was lying on the ground.”
But Bruce alleged that Guilmette’s shot “took a wrong direction. It went into the upper part of the right check and came out somewhere about the cartilage of the nose.”
In his memoirs, Young said as Scott knelt in the snow, the order was given to fire and several “rebel bullets were sent on their mission of death, into and completely through his breast, causing snow to be stained and saturated with his heart’s blood ...”
The priest said that as he approached the body “quivering in death,” Scott was shot through the head by a “half-drunken guard” wielding a revolver.
Some witnesses later claimed that Scott was still alive when he was put into the coffin and could be heard groaning and crying out.
At Lépine’s trial, Modeste Lejemonière said that he helped carry the wooden box inside the fort and heard a voice coming from the coffin. This prompted Lejemonière to blurt out, “That man is not dead, he still speaks.”
Francis Charette, a guard at the fort, also claimed he heard a voice crying out from the box, “Oh Lord. Oh Lord.”
Charette testified at the Lépine trial that he saw the box put into a grave between the south gate and Dr. William Cowan’s house, but never actually saw the body placed in the makeshift coffin.
Bruce, who preceded Riel as president of the provisional government (he resigned in December 1869), insisted that Elzéar Goulet, a member of the firing squad, told him Scott was alive in the box, and pleaded, “For God’s sake, take me out of here or kill me.”
Scott was then killed on the spot, according to Bruce, but he had remained alive in the coffin for 10 1/2 hours.
Note: For being part of the firing squad, Goulet was killed by a revenge-fueled mob soon after the arrival of the troops under the command of Col. Garnet Wolseley in August 1870.
Some historians claim that a possible reason for Bruce’s damning testimony in 1874 was that he resented Riel’s takeover of the provisional government. To down play his role in the provisional government, Bruce later said he was nothing more than a figurehead.
In a letter to Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe in February 1870, Bruce claimed the provisional government wasn’t divided, but there were also hints that he wanted Red River to become part of the U.S. rather than Canada, a position contrary to Riel’s own stand. In fact, there is strong evidence he supported William O’Donoghue and the Fenian invasion of Manitoba in 1871.
He had been appointed a magistrate by Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald, but was dismissed from office after his support for the Fenians was discovered.
When he testified against Lépine, Le Métis called Bruce a “turncoat and traitor.”
In 1874, Bruce and his family moved to Leroy, North Dakota, where he died on October 26, 1893.
Historian G.F.G. Stanley, Riel’s biographer and author of a number of books and papers on the events of 1869-70, dismissed the assertions that Scott was alive in his coffin and similar grisly tales as “atrocity stories” started by Riel’s enemies (Free Press, November 26, 1966).
Among the “atrocity stories” was one attributed to Henry Martin Robinson. The story in the St. Paul Press claimed that Robinson was asked by Riel to accompany him into a shed where the “fatal box” was located, and “from which the blood dripped into the snow.”
Robinson was reported to have heard Scott call out to be freed from his coffin. Riel and a sentry ushered Robinson out, re-entered the shed and “there was the sound of a shot within ...,” presumably ending Scott’s ordeal. Riel was claimed to have sworn Robinson to secrecy about what transpired. The incident was alleged to have occurred five hours after the firing squad had done its work.
Robinson’s tale has subsequently been dismissed as intended to slander Riel in retaliation for firing him from his position as editor of the New Nation for being too pro-U.S. annexation of the Red River Settlement.
Others allege that Scott lived for at least four days in his coffin, all the time crying out in agony and begging to be put out of his misery. Again, this can hardly be the case.
Bumsted wrote in his book, Thomas Scott’s Body: and Other Essays on Early Manitoba, that it was quite likely Scott’s execution was botched once and possibly twice due to the drunken condition of the firing squad, the distance they fired from (approximately 25 metres) and the weapons used.
“Even the revolver shot to the head might well have failed to complete the job,” according to Bumsted.
For this possibility, there is Bruce’s letter.
Still, the wounds Scott sustained would likely have caused him to bleed to death rather quickly. Even Rev. Young noted the large quantity of blood on the snow-covered ground following the execution and claimed Scott had died soon afterward due to his wounds. It was only after he began hearing the “atrocity stories” that he started to doubt what his eyes had witnessed.
Another witness to the events at the fort was Victor Mager, a St. Boniface resident who was 21 years old at the time of the execution. “Mr. Mager declared Scott was shot dead by the firing party, he having personally looked at the body” (Free Press, October 12, 1929).
Riel was reported to have specifically told Young that Scott died immediately.
One of the great mysteries of the events surrounding March 4 is the fate of Scott’s body.
Young and the Bishop of Rupert’s Land, Robert Machray, went to the fort the next morning to claim the Scott’s body, but Riel refused to release it.
Young said he was told by Riel that Lépine had insisted the body be buried within the fort. He was later informed by Riel that this had in fact occurred.
Lépine’s insistence likely arose from the fear that Scott’s grave site would become a place of pilgrimage and a rallying point for those opposed to the provisional government. Apparently, Riel made the promise to Young without first consulting Lépine, who readily recognized the political danger posed by Canadian Party propagandists taking up the cry that Scott was a “martyr” to their cause.
Unfortunately for Lépine, the physical presence of a body was not needed by the Canadian (Canada First) Party, which used the very fact that Scott was executed to create a “martyr” and turn Ontario against the “murderer” Riel and the leaders of the provisional government, including the adjutant-general.
It was rumoured that Scott’s body was secretly submerged at midnight in the Assiniboine River through a hole in the ice (Alexander Begg, The Creation of Manitoba, or, The History of the Red River Troubles). A body was recovered from the Assiniboine that spring, but it was never properly identified.
On March 23, Begg wrote: “Some of the French declare that Scott is not dead and have taken and given bets on the subject ... It will be very strange if he turns up all right — but it is not likely.”
Shortly after Wolseley and his soldiers arrived from Eastern Canada, Young was given permission to disinter Scott’s body. In a Manitoban article about the search reprinted in Young’s memoirs, it was reported that digging began “a few paces in front of the north end of the store” in the fort. The exhumation attracted a crowd of people, which included Adams Archibald, the newly-appointed Manitoba lieutenant-governor. A party of men under the direction of Young dug to a depth of six feet when a “spade struck on a board, and when the earth was removed and disclosed a deal (pine) board shaped like a coffin ... But the excitement was turned into something like disappointed rage when one of the diggers thrust his arm into the box and pronounced it empty! It was empty, except for only the rope which Scott’s arms had been pinioned.”
Since a 5-foot-8 fruit tree box was unearthed and Scott was over six-feet tall, Bumsted wrote that it was unlikely Scott’s body was ever intended to be buried in this make-shift coffin.
With such a discovery and the circumstances of Scott’s death, it is no wonder that wildly speculative rumours arose in the settlement about his body’s fate that resonate to this day.
In his book, A Critical History of the Red River Insurrection (1935), Father Adrien Gabriel Morice insisted that he had solved the mystery of the location of Scott’s body — it was interred in St. John’s Cemetery. In a January 27, 1936, Free Press article, Morice said he obtained the story from André Nault, who while sharing a “drop,” related the events of that early morning in 1870.
According to the story told to Morice, Louis Riel, Damase Harrison, one of the Lagimodiéres and Nault took Scott’s body from the basement of the fort and loaded it onto a horse-drawn sleigh. Before they journeyed down the ice-covered Red River, Riel made each man swear an oath to never reveal to anyone what they were about to do. After burying the body in the cemetery, “they fixed the place in such a way that nobody would know.”
Morice said they didn’t contradict the rumours circulating in the community, since it helped to “throw the public off the track. ... If, however, people had stopped to think, they would have realized at once that so religious a people as the Métis would never have thrown a Christian body into the river.”
When asked, Nault replied to Morice that he could not accurately point out the location of Scott’s final resting spot in St. John’s Cemetery because there were “too many graves” after the lapse of so many years.
When he was criticized for his assertions, Morice wrote an April 6, 1936, letter to the Free Press, saying “the Métis never revealed the spot to anybody — not even me, though, they betrayed themselves into confessing to me those remains laid in a place where there are now too many graves to identify the exact spot where they were deposited. But why should they have taken them far away in the dead of night, when they had a Protestant graveyard at their very door?
“Archbishop Matheson, it is true, gave out the other day good reasons for doubting it was the St. John’s (Matheson served at St. John’s). But we must remember that it must have been around one in the morning (March 5) when the Métis committed him to Mother Earth — no danger of being seen.”
W.C. Pritchard claimed Scott’s body was interred in the graveyard at the “Church of England (Anglican) Church near Selkirk” — St. Peter’s Dynevor, five kilometres north of East Selkirk at the junction of the Red River and Cook’s Creek — an assertion that was repeated by others in subsequent years.
But Morice disputed this claim, saying he “cannot believe that they chose such a distant place as St. Peter’s Cemetery to dispose of their gruesome burden.”
Roderick Pritchard, a former chief trader with the HBC, related that he met a gentleman who provided information about Scott’s final resting spot while attending the funeral of Pierre Deschambault. According to this account, first published in the Free Press (January 1909) and repeated in other newspapers, such as the May 17, 1924, Lethbridge Herald, the man was an eye-witness to Scott’s execution and one of Riel’s officers. His name was apparently withheld to protect the “gentleman,” because he was an old pioneer and a well-known resident of Manitoba.
He told McFarlane that a grave was actually dug within the fort and the coffin placed in it, but Scott’s body was not in the coffin. Instead, the body was taken to the bank of the Red River near where the Provencher Bridge (replaced old Broadway Bridge) now stands and a hole was made in the ice. The body was weighed down with an HBC grindstone and pushed under the ice. At the time, McFarlane believed an investigation would find the grindstone and possibly some of Scott’s bones.
Rev. Young related a similar story allegedly told to him by one of the guards. The guard said Scott’s body was removed from the coffin, weighted heavily with chains and plunged through a hole in the river ice, “being thus anchored, it will probably remain for long ages.” The priest said he regarded this as the “satisfactory answer to the question” of the fate of Scott’s body.
Bruce said the coffin containing Scott’s body had actually laid in the south-east bastion of the fort for “a few days, being watched by soldiers, relieved in turn.” He didn’t remember which night the corpse was taken out of the bastion and placed in Dr. Schultz’s sleigh (cutter), but said it could have been the third or fourth.
“That same vehicle, then drawn by a gray horse, was taken towards the Red River, and stopped about one and a-half miles from the Fort, nearly opposite the River La Seine. By means of a large stone tied to to the corpse, the body of Thomas Scott went to the bottom of the river to come thence no more.”
Bruce said the grave dug inside the fort by “the gate facing the Assiniboine River, a few steps to the right,” was meant to divert suspicion from the clandestine disposal of Scott’s body under the ice.
Although it cannot be definitively proven, a likely scenario is the one told by Bruce, McFarlane, Rev. Young and others — Scott’s body was secretly taken to a river, weighed down and pushed under the ice.
Lépine may have ordered such a watery grave, as he didn’t want anyone to use a known burial place of the “martyr” as a rallying point.
At the very least, Lépine would have had Scott’s body buried in an unmarked grave, possibly within Upper Fort Garry, that has yet to be discovered, and likely won’t be, as much of the original site has been subjected to infrastructure and construction projects.
Today, the plan is to convert a section of the location into a $19-million interpretative centre and historic park centred around the sole remaining artifact of Upper Fort Garry — the north gateway.
Last summer, an archaeological excavation was undertaken in the middle of the parking lot of the Grain Exchange Curling Club, which was purchased by the Friends of Upper Fort Garry for the heritage site. Archaeologists uncovered the footing for the fort’s northwest bastion, but not Scott’s grave.
The three previously mentioned grave sites — near the gate facing the Assiniboine, “a few paces in front of the north end of the store,” or between the south gate and Dr. Cowan’s residence in the governor’s house — where Scott’s body was allegedly buried in a rough coffin, are now mostly covered by Main Street and Assiniboine Avenue.
The fort’s stone and wooden walls, as well as buildings, were demolished between 1881 and 1884 to straighten out Main Street and extend Assiniboine Avenue. Main had previously bypassed the fort along its east side, and Assiniboine, which now extends to Main, ended at the south entrance to the fort prior to the walls being torn down.
The fort was then in a severe state of disrepair and neglect, resulting in few opposing its demolition, despite it having witnessed so many significant events in Manitoba’s history.
The Upper Fort Garry store was the first large building on the right-hand side upon entering the HBC post from the south gate, or main gate, facing the Assiniboine River. The original store was deemed too small and made redundant when the HBC built a new and larger retail outlet that opened in 1881 at the corner of Main Street and York Avenue.
The final resting spot of Scott’s body could be virtually anywhere within the fort’s former walls, as the three locations given are many metres apart. One site might have been the plot of land surrounded by an oval road — a roundabout — where the fort’s flag pole once stood, as it was a few paces from the south gate, the front of the store and between the south gate and Dr. Cowan’s residence.
On September 19, 1896, it was announced in the Daily Nor’Wester that the skull and remains of Scott had been found while workers were excavating at the southwest corner of Main Street and Portage Avenue. Robert Patterson “advanced the theory that the skeleton was that of Thomas Scott, and he assigned for his reason that the spot where the remains were unearthed was the exact location of the Red Saloon, run by a notorious character named Bob O’Lone. The Red Saloon was the headquarters of a Fenian gang who were the real instigation of the Riel rebellion.”
The skull was examined by Patterson and Charles Mayer, who both knew Scott. Mayer actually occupied the same cell as Scott in 1870.
“Talking with the (Nor’Wester) reporter he (Mayer) said in the early days when Fort Garry was sparsely populated, it would have been impossible for a white man to have disappeared or been murdered, without everyone being cognizant of the fact.”
According to Mayer, no one was aware of a murder or disappearance of a white man, and the remains were of a white man since they were found underneath the former Red Saloon, “where Scott was hated.”
That’s hardly an endorsement of race, since aboriginal people inhabited the area for centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans. The remains probably dated back decades before there was an Upper Fort Garry, but no written accounts of an ensuing investigation could be found.
Also troubling to this claim was the fact that the skull lacked evidence of a bullet hole. The absence of a hole was explained by asserting it was “only a matter of conjecture” that Guilmette had shot Scott in the head. More troubling was the fact that the remains were found blocks away from the former site of Upper Fort Garry where the earliest witnesses said Scott was buried, as well as the allegation that “Fenians” were responsible for the “rebellion.”
The latter was an indication of the prejudices of the claimants rather than fact. The only Fenian among the provisional government leadership was the American William O’Donoghue, but opposition to the British government and the Fenian desire to free Ireland from its grasp was not a factor in 1869-1870, as shown by the actions of the provisional government, which appointed three delegates to negotiate the Red River Settlement’s entry into the Canadian Confederation.
When O’Donoghue fled to the U.S. as Wolseley’s troops approached, he broke with Riel, whom he claimed had sold out to the British. In the U.S., O’Donoghue plotted his next move, which was the comic-opera Fenian invasion of Manitoba. The 1871 invasion was opposed by virtually everyone in the province, including Riel, who enlisted Métis fighters to help Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald repel the invaders. As it turned out, the U.S. Cavalry was responsible for stopping the Fenians before they were able to actually launch their invasion.
Still, the abortive Fenian invasion would have left bitter memories among the Protestant population of Manitoba, as did the fact that O’Lone was a Winnipeg delegate to the Métis National Council in 1869. Originally from Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, O’Lone was killed in a barroom brawl in the Red Saloon in 1872.
Skeletons have periodically turned up in the vicinity of the old fort whenever excavations were undertaken for street improvements or new buildings. In June 1914, a coffin was uncovered with a skeleton visible inside when workers were drilling postholes about 200 metres from the old fort’s main gate. At the time, no one made the claim that the skeleton of the large man inside was Scott.
Witnesses at the Lépine trial said Dr. Schultz's horse-drawn cutter was commandeered to take Scott’s body to the river where it was weighed down and pushed through a hole in the ice. The remaining question is which river, as some said it was the Red while others claimed it was the Assiniboine. The south wall of the fort faced the Assiniboine, but the Red was also nearby. Young’s account makes no mention of the actual river.
On the other hand, Bruce testified in 1874 that Goulet told him Scott’s body was taken by three men in Schultz’s cutter a mile down from the mouth of the Seine River (then called German Creek), heavy chains were placed around it and the body was pushed through a hole made in the ice.
Lépine, the man who would have know the fate of Scott’s body, didn’t testify during his 1874 trial and took his secret to his grave when he died in 1923. The few people involved in the disposal of Scott’s remains never revealed information that would have helped clarify the matter (we only have alleged evidence far removed from the actual participants), which supports the assertion that all were required by Riel to swear an oath of secrecy. In addition, Riel shed no light on the final resting spot of Scott’s body during his trial in 1885.
To solve the mystery, “the friends of the late Thomas Scott” in 1871 offered a substantial £200 (then equivalent to $1,000) reward for information leading “to the recovery of the body, for the purpose of Christian burial.” No one claimed the reward, and to this day the ultimate fate of Scott’s body has not been proven beyond a shadow of doubt.
(Next week: part 4)