by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
As he stood on the front steps of the Manitoba Legislature, Premier John Norquay was beseeched by the angry crowd of 4,000 demonstrators to explain the attorney-general’s handling of the “sensational” case of petty thief John Cormack, who at the time was known by the alias McCormick. After a measure of quiet was restored, the premier expressed his regret “to see the citizens of Winnipeg so much excited,” according to a November 1, 1884, report in the Manitoba Daily Free Press.
“A voice — ‘Who caused it?’
“Another voice — ‘Who caused the order to be issued to flog McCormick?’
“Mr. Norquay — ‘It was done at the request of the jailer.’
“A chorus of voices — ‘No, no. It was Miller who did it.’
“Another voice — ‘Do you sanction the action of the Attorney-General (James Miller)?’
“Mr. Norquay — ‘Gentlemen, your questions are very pointed.’
“The yell was very loud and Norquay’s voice was almost inaudible. He said he was not prepared to say at present whether Mr. Miller’s actions were justified or not. He would call a meeting of the cabinet in a few days, when the matter would be discussed, and he felt the decision they arrived at would meet with the approval of the citizens of Winnipeg.”
The fact that Cormack managed to escape his jailers did not make him famous, but what happened afterward caused a sensation throughout North America and made the convict a cause célèbre in Winnipeg.
On November 26, 1884, newspapers briefly mentioned that Cormack, who was sentenced to six months hard labour in the Vaughan Street Provincial Gaol in Winnipeg, which was then officially known as the Eastern Judicial District Gaol, for larceny (he stole some jewelry from a prostitute named Fanny Hood). It was reported Cormack accompanied by two other prisoners escaped their jailer. Initial reports said only one other prisoner escaped with Cormack, but Cormack later contradicted this by saying he and two others had bolted from the “Turnkey Morrisey.”
The men were working just outside the jail on October 27 when they fled. Cormack later told a Free Press reporter (March 3, 1885) that as soon as he was sentenced, he was resolved to escape at the first opportunity, which came just one day after his incarceration.
“When we got through our work Turnkey Morrisey took us around to a rear door to get a drink of water. The tap was a few feet from the door, and the guard went inside, and after giving the other prisoners a drink, he said: — ‘Cormack, do you want some?’ I answered in the negative, and while he was watering himself (and his back was turned) I sloped.”
The other prisoners were quickly recaptured, but Cormack, who apparently also went by the last names McCormack, McCormick, Cormick and Stewart (it wasn’t until much later that local newspapers determined that his real last name was Cormack), managed to elude his pursuers for nearly an hour.
“He was found concealed in a closet about two hundred yards west of the jail and was immediately taken into custody again,” reported the Winnipeg Daily Sun on November 26, 1884.
Cormack later told the Free Press the reason for his capture was that he had hurt his leg while escaping, forcing him to crawl into a “vacant building” to hide. The escapee said he was recaptured by a “mounted police officer.”
“Steps will be taken to prevent another escapade of this sort,” reported the Sun.
The “steps taken” resulted in Winnipeggers taking to the streets in protest and the removal of Manitoba’s attorney-general from the provincial cabinet.
“The first flogging that ever took place in Winnipeg was witnessed this morning (at 11:45 a.m.) in the yard of the provincial jail, by Attorney-General (James “Jim” Andrew) Miller, Deputy Coutlee, Dr. (David Henry) Wilson, (provincial jail) Governor (Patrick) Lawler (sometimes spelled Lawlor in newspapers of the era), half a dozen officials, and all the prisoners,” reported the Sun on October 30.
The flogging of Cormack was ordered by the attorney-general almost immediately after the prisoner’s recapture. Initial newspaper accounts said Miller sentenced Cormack to 12 lashes with “the cat-o’-nine-tails.” The attorney-general further ordered that Cormack receive another 12 lashes one month before his release from jail.
Since this was the first flogging in Winnipeg’s history, it was necessary to manufacture a lash. The whip had a handle about half a metre long with a metre-long knotted whip cord extending from the handle. It was said the cords were double the number used in the traditional cat-o-nine-tails.
Under armed guards and as heavy snow fell, all the prisoners in the provincial jail were forced to stand in a circle to witness the flogging. Cormack, described as red haired and having a full face sprinkled with freckles (there are no illustrations or pictures of the man in the newspapers), was bound to a triangle erected in a corner of the jail yard and stripped to the waist, baring his back to receive the lash.
“While the preparations were going on the victim whined pitifully. The signal was given, and the sturdy guard, with muscles as hard as iron, and possessing the strength of a little Hercules, brought down the lash upon the white back of McCormick (Cormack). One, two, three and four came down with the might of a blow from old Tubal Cain. (Tubal Cain is a reference in Genesis to the son of Lamech and Zillah, “an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron ... “the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron” — a blacksmith; associated with Freemasonry which at the time had a strong following in Manitoba.) The victim roared for mercy, but the lash descended five, six, seven, and eight.
“‘He can’t stand it,’ remarked a bystander.
“‘Oh, yes, he can,’ put in Dr. (Edward) Benson, who was the jailhouse physician engaged to look after McCormick. Still the lash descended amidst the yells of pain from the victim ... and the exclamations of sympathy which escaped from the prisoners who were compelled to witness the sickening sight. Nine, ten, eleven and twelve, and the task was over.” Cormack was described as “still roaring” after the last lash was applied to his back.
Apparently, the exertion required to wield the lash tired out the herculean guard. Ironically, Morrisey, the man who wielded the lash, had been assigned to guard Cormack on the day of the escape attempt. Perhaps his fatigue resulted from vigorously applying the lash as a way to take out his anger at Cormack for escaping and making him appear incompetent.
When Cormack was led back to the jail, his back was described as resembling “a fresh cut of steak.” To prevent infection from setting in, Cormack received a bath of salt water on his back, which was termed a salt poultice by Dr. Benson. The doctor was the jail surgeon for 25 years, coroner for Winnipeg, medical officer for the Deaf and Dumb Institute, and one of the founders of Winnipeg General Hospital.
Soon after the flogging, indignation against the “barbarous act” was expressed throughout Winnipeg, many of the opinion that the punishment did not fit the crime.
City Alderman K. McDonald said he had read about such horrible punishments occurring in the Dark Ages, but had never expected to hear of such an act in a “civilized country.” Alderman Wilson said citizens were justified in “showing their disgust at the outrageous conduct of Miller.”
Apparently, the punishment Cormack received was easily observed by people outside the jail and women and children heard the prisoner’s shrieks for mercy. “The ladies living in the neighbourhood,” according to Wilson, “would be only too willing to take a hand in flogging the attorney-general.”
During his Sunday sermon, Baptist minister Rev. A.A. Cameron denounced the flogging and called for “an ample apology ... to our fathers and mothers, our sisters and brothers, (who) refuse to acknowledge the authors of this deed as either men or gentlemen.
Mack Howes thought the flogging was “a lasting disgrace to the people of Winnipeg if they did not show their indignation and disgust of the horrible occurrence. He added that the attorney-general deserved a “good flogging for allowing such a thing to take place ....” Howes said if a dog had been threatened in the same manner as Cormack, the Humane Society would be called upon to punish the perpetrators.
Winnipeg politician Hugh Macdonald, the son of Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, said the idea of flogging a man for simply trying to regain his freedom was “monstrous, and would not be tolerated in this country.”
Henry Joseph Clarke, a former Manitoba attorney-general, expressed the opinion that tarring and feathering was too good for Miller who perpetrated the outrage.
Even the secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), C.M. Copeland, believed Miller should get a dose of his own medicine “to teach him not to gloat over the sufferings of a poor, defenceless prisoner.”
Dr. Benson was reported in the Sun to have said he would sooner watch a hanging than again witness a flogging and the agony endured by Cormack. The doctor published a circular of his account of the flogging, denying some of the statements attributed to him by the press.
In particular, the Sun’s description of Cormack’s bare back looking like a “fresh cut of steak” was denied by the doctor. But the Sun stood by this statement, saying its source was a member of the provincial government present at the flogging, who further remarked that the lash had “raised blood blisters.”
At its next meeting, the Winnipeg Legal Club decided to pass a resolution denouncing flogging as an unnecessary and undesirable practice to enforce prison discipline.
An editorial in the St. Paul Day said that if such a flogging had occurred in the United States, “Attorney-general Miller would be in a condition to sympathize with his victim.” Even the New York Times reported, “Had the crowd (of protesters the next night) found the Attorney-General they would have applied the lash to his back.”
A crowd of 4,000 protesters burned Miller in effigy three times during the demonstration. The first effigy was suspended from a telegraph pole near Trinity Hall and ignited to cries of “Burn, you coward!” The second effigy was burned at the corner of Portage and Notre Dame. After the fire burned out, the crowd was heard to shout “Fort Garry! Fort Garry!” and proceeded to march up Main Street. At York Street, where the street was “black with people,” according to the Free Press, the next cry was “To the jail!”
After meeting with Premier Norquay, the Free Press reported a third effigy of Miller was hung and burned from a telegraph pole in front of Hargrave’s Block. Upon the effigy was pinned a placard that read, “Miller, the brute.”
While protesting in front of the provincial jail, the crowd sung out, “We’ll hang Jim Miller to a sour apple tree.”
The crowd called for Lawler to come out, but he could not be tempted to reveal himself to the mob. While others shouted out to break down the jailhouse door, someone actually rang its door bell, but the summons went unanswered. Lawler lived in the north, or front, wing of the jail with his wife and children. One can imagine the fear instilled in the family as the mob converged on the gaol and called out for Lawler.
At the jail, the crowd gave three cheers for Cormack and then marched to the legislature and demanded that Premier Norquay, who bravely faced the mob from the legislature’s front steps, produce Miller. But Miller had wisely taken refuge in the North-West Mounted Police barracks.
The 90th Battalion was called out and with fixed bayonets faced the crowd along Broadway, but kept its distance and avoided further inciting the mob. After the demonstration, the battalion was assigned to guard the provincial legislature and the provincial jail. The militiamen were kept on alert in case another demonstration erupted in the city.
The Mounted Police were assigned to guard federal government buildings.
Winnipeg city police were also on hand, but thought it was prudent not to confront the angry mob and made no attempt to disperse the demonstrators.
It wasn’t until 3 a.m. that the demonstrators went home and quiet was restored to Winnipeg’s streets.
The day after the flogging Miller produced a letter allegedly penned by Cormack which said he had deserved his punishment. After it was produced and released to the public, people suspected that the letter was obtained by prison officials by using the threat of force to intimidate the prisoner.
Miller was embattled from all sides with no real support provided by his Conservative Party colleagues nor Premier John Norquay. The public pressure was so intense that Norquay was forced to promise to consider removing Miller from office and provide a response to the request within a few days.
Meanwhile, Winnipeg newspapermen — William Luxton of the Free Press, Rowe of the Times, T.H. Preston of the Sun, Edward Philip Leacock, MPP (Member of the Provincial Parliament; today known as MLA), J.S. Ewert and D.J. Beaton of the Times were invited by the attorney-general to come to the jail and interview Cormack. A number of other officials were on hand, including ministers Rev. Charles William Gordon (better known as the author Ralph Connor) and Rev. A.A. Cameron.
At first Cormack refused to speak in the presence of the jail officials, but once they were gone he began to tell his side of the story, although Dr. Benson remained and posed the first questions to the prisoner. The doctor said it was his intention to set the record straight.
Cormack began by saying he had not seen any of the newspaper accounts of his flogging and expressed alarm that his name was in print for all to see.
The queries by Dr. Benson centred around the physical condition of the 23-year-old man. The doctor asked Cormack whether he had fainted: he hadn’t; whether there was blood running down his back: “Not to my knowledge.”
Cormack told those attending that it was his first time in jail, and his other dealings with the law involved a $5 fine for assault. He told the newspapermen he had been working out west as a blacksmith on a bridge contract and had only come to Winnipeg recently; he had lots of money in his pocket, most of which he spent on spirits and in gaming houses which were common throughout the city. Broke, Cormack said he was induced by a young man he met to steal a watch and chain, the crime for which he was originally convicted.
It was suggested by someone that Cormack show his back, but he declined, saying he did not want to disgrace his mother, brothers, sisters and friends with further accounts of his condition in newspapers. But after constant pressure from the interviewers, he did bare his back. Although the flogging had taken place four days earlier, the newspapers reported “the marks of the ‘cat’ are plainly visible ... the skin has a ‘striped’ appearance, while in a number of places scabs have formed, showing that abrasions had been made, and some blood had oozed out.”
“Most of the gentlemen present declared that these were the result of blood blisters,” according to a Sun article containing the interview, “but Dr. Benson held that the cat would create water blisters.”
A November 4, 1884, editorial in the Manitoba Free Press, declared that after those present saw Cormack’s back, they were convinced “that the flogging had been far from light ... But the exact degree of torture inflicted on the prisoner is probably a matter of much less interest to the public than the fact that he was, for what all must consider a very venial ... offense, subjected to a form of punishment ... light in comparison with the mental agony which the poor fellow has been compelled to endure.”