by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
John Cormack was initially baffled by all the attention his flogging for a prison breakout had attracted in newspapers, as well as the public indignation and protests arising from the ordering of the first such punishment since the province of Manitoba was created in 1870.
When newspapermen came to his cell in the provincial gaol to get his side of the story, Cormack said he had hoped that his punishment would have gone unnoticed. Above all, Cormack told the interviewers, he didn’t want the news to reach his mother in Ontario. His use of various alias, such as McCormick and McCormack, may have been an attempt to prevent his family in Ontario from associating him with the incident.
By this time, it was too late. Newspapers across North America had reported the flogging, with most calling it a “barbarous act.” The same newspapers denounced Manitoba Attorney General James Miller for ordering the lashing of the petty thief to serve as a deterrent to any prisoner contemplating an escape from the provincial jail on Vaughan Street.
Cormack told the interviewers he hadn’t realized attempting to escape was punishable by flogging. In fact, “when he was taken out and saw the crowd,” he initially believed he was going to be hung. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t such a wild assumption, since the provincial jail yard was the site of previous executions, something that would have been common knowledge among the prisoners (Joseph Michaud, 23, was the first person executed in Manitoba — that is, after the province became part of Canada in 1870 — at the former Main Street provincial jail on August 26, 1874).
Initially, Cormack was hesitant to admit to the interviewers that the flogging had been painful. They persisted in their questioning, soliciting him to finally reply, “it hurt me pretty hard,” compelling him to shout out in agony.
But the primary pain he endured was the disgrace of being subjected to a flogging. “I would rather ten thousand times take the licking than bear the disgrace,” said Cormack. “I do not want my parents to know anything about it because it all happened through taking a little liquor.”
At this point, Cormack broke down and sobbed. He later said he would rather die from a revolver shot than be flogged again.
“How would any parent in this city feel were his or her son similarly used?” asked the November 4 Free Press editorial. “John McCormick’s father is dead, but his mother still lives to suffer to the fullest extent on her son’s account.” The editorial called the flogging “a terrible degradation.”
When asked about the letter released by Miller, Cormack replied it was written with the belief that it might help influence the jail governor not to fit him with a ball and chain as well as to induce a shorter jail term.
After further prompting, Cormack admitted he was in his jail cell with an iron band around his foot when jailer Mackay approached him. The jailer told Cormack that writing a letter of apology to the governor would be in his best interest. Cormack agreed and the heavy iron band was removed and a man named Garneau was summoned to write the letter for him. Apparently, Cormack could neither read nor write. He told Garneau to include an apology in the letter for what he had done and that he deserved his punishment.
Both jail governor Patrick Lawler and provincial sheriff Colin Inkster denied issuing the order to flog Cormack, saying the order had come from an unnamed higher authority — presumably Miller.
Miller originally attempted to deflect criticism against him by alleging that Lawler ordered the flogging as well as the fitting of the ball and chain on Cormack, although later it was confirmed the attorney general had been responsible for these actions.
Attorney-General Miller was later interviewed by a Sun reporter.
“Have you any statement to make regarding the flogging of McCormick, about which such a row has been raised?” asked the reporter.
Miller answered by at first blaming the media for inciting the people to demonstrate. “Why,” he said, “if a plain simple statement of the facts had been made, there would have been no demonstration such as there was the other night, but the people — the law-abiding citizens — would, if they thought of the matter at all, say I had only done my duty, and that instead of bringing me into such unenviable notoriety, they would have done the very reverse.”
Miller said newspaper reports were “untrue, sensational” and coloured to make for “spicy” reading.
An “infamous” report in the Winnipeg Times and “street rumours,” claimed Miller, “have been taken up and used for the purpose to injure me, and the good name of the city has been injured by the indiscretion of reporters with weird imaginations ...”
He said there hadn’t been any reporters on-hand during the flogging, which contradicted an October 30 Sun article that claimed its reporter was an eyewitness, although it would appear that Miller was right and the Sun was simply referring to an unnamed source at the flogging as its reporter.
Miller said prior to Cormack’s escape he told the jail governor his guards did not have the authority to fire on a prisoner only convicted of a misdemeanor. On the other hand, they were allowed to fire on inmates convicted of major felonies. He added that the jail was already overcrowded with real felons implicated in murder, attempted murder and cattle-rustling.
Miller also said the guard had acted on his instructions and only threatened to shoot as Cormack fled. Miller said Cormack was lucky Morrisey hadn’t fired, since the guard was a good shot and “McCormick’s chances for life would have been small indeed had he done so.”
Miller expressed frustration that there had been six escape attempts over a two-year period with three convicts making good their flight from jail. The three who had been recaptured were given additional sentences, but Miller said this “had no deterrent effect.”
In consultation with Lawler, the conclusion was reached that only flogging would deter further escape attempts and maintain discipline in the provincial jail. As precedent for his flogging order, he cited an Ontario report which said seven inmates, who had attempted to escape, were given from 20 to 30 lashes for punishment “for (their) very aggravated offences against prison rules.”
While being interviewed, Miller produced the order, signed by Lawler: “Convict McCormick: For the breach of prison discipline committed by you yesterday, the 29th day of October, 1884, I order that you receive twelve lashes and a further punishment of twelve lashes one month prior to the termination of your sentence, and that you do further labour for thirty working days with ball and chain, as a warning to yourself and other convicts.”
Although the order was signed by Lawler, Miller admitted he had initiated the procedure and attended the flogging “in a sense of duty and not out of mere curiosity.” As a matter of legal procedure, it makes perfect sense that Lawler would be required to read out an order issued by a higher authority before the punishment was meted out. His signature may have only been confirmation that he had followed legal procedure. Flogging was new at the provincial jail, so regardless of the investigations made into similar punishments in other jurisdictions, everyone involved was essentially making up the procedure to be followed as they went along.
Instead of having 25 lashes administered, as had been originally contemplated by following the Ontario example, Miller said he ordered that Cormack should only receive 12 lashes, “and advised that the order of the jailor (sic) should direct another twelve lashes being administered one month previous to the expiration of his sentence. He inserted the provision that, if Cormack became a model prisoner while serving the remainder of his sentence, the final 12 lashes would not be enforced.
At the flogging, a warning was issued to other convicts that any serious breach of prison discipline would result in more floggings.
As far as using a “cat” was concerned, Miller admitted it was a “terrible weapon,” but the lash used was by necessity makeshift. “The governor of the jail said no whipcord could be purchased in town to make a regular lash, so he procured some of the ordinary chalk cord, which is not one-third as effectual, as the regulation cat, it being much thicker, and not cutting as the cat would.
“With this weapon, the person inflicting the punishment could not possibly hurt, with 100 strokes, half as much as he could with the usual cat in 30.”
Despite Miller’s assertion that an individual could not be hurt by the lash, when Cormack bared his back during the interview with newspapermen a week after the flogging, the Sun on November 3 reported “The marks of the cat are plainly visible. Beneath the shoulder blades, right across the back, and about a foot in depth, the skin had a ‘striped’ appearance, while in a number of places scabs had formed, showing that abrasions had been made, and that blood had oozed out. Most of the gentlemen present declared these were the result of blood blisters, but Dr. Benson held that the cat would create water blisters.”
Miller said he believed in flogging to protect the public and imposing stiff prison terms deterred crime and was a check on severe classes of crime. He said it was his duty to make every effort “to put down crime here,” and if he had made any errors “it is on the side of law and peace and order, and in behalf of the safety of the lives and property of good citizens.”
Miller asserted that he intended to bring the flogging to the attention of a grand jury that would soon be convened. “With the facts before them — and there has been a total misapprehension of the facts — the indignity which has been heaped upon my devoted head will be removed,” he told the newspaper.
Miller did not receive the outcome from the grand jury he expected. In fact, the grand jury of the Assize Court condemned the use of the lash and urged that Cormack be released from custody as he was the only support for his widowed mother then living in Ontario.
An unnamed Toronto man familiar with the family — he informed the print media that the real last name was Cormack, not McCormick, “as stated in the papers” — sent a letter to a “leading resident of this city” (Sun, November 15), relating that Cormack’s mother was a widow living in Brussels, Ontario, and that he had an older sister and two younger brothers. According to the letter writer, Cormack’s mother wrote him saying she was determined to go to Winnipeg to get her son out of jail.
“John,” wrote the Toronto man, “is a pretty wild boy, a good-hearted, rollicking young fellow, who is apt to get into scrapes, but he has been, I think, steady up to present, and has sent his mother his money regularly since he has been in the Northwest.”
Cormack’s mother arrived in Winnipeg from Ontario on November 15 to plead with Miller and Norquay to free her son from jail, but she was unable to get either politician to promise to release her son on compassionate grounds.
The Free Press reported the woman was “greatly distressed by the disgrace which has so unfortunately fallen on her son who, she says, has always been very kind to her, and since coming to this country has sent her a large portion of his wages.”
With the permission of the attorney-general, Mrs. Cormack (no first name was given) visited her son on November 17 for a half hour in the presence of a jail guard.
A few hundred Winnipeggers, including all the city’s clergymen and the Archbishop of St. Boniface, were moved by the mother’s distress and signed a petition that was sent to Ottawa requesting a pardon for Cormack.
According to the petition, the young man had a “good reputation,” and his sentence did not fit his crime. The petition called for Cormack’s release due to the too harsh punishment received, as well as the subsequent public humiliation resulting from the flogging.
The grand jury report, signed by jury foreman Thomas McCrossman, said the jurors were “of the opinion that it was most unfortunate that it should have fallen to this man’s lot to have been made an example of, as the crime for which he was committed was trivial, and was to us to have been his first offence.”
The jurors said flogging was necessary in extreme cases, but the court alone should have the authority to impose such a sentence — not the attorney general nor any other public official outside the courts.
Cormack was far from a major criminal. Prior to his incarceration for robbing the prostitute Fanny Hood of a watch and chain, his only other run in with the law was an assault conviction for which he paid a $5 fine, but served no jail time.
(Next week: part 3)