by Bruce Cherney
One of the strangest incidents arising from the flogging of John Cormack involved a case of mistaken identity and an actor with a touring theatrical company. While in Winnipeg, the company was slated to stage its first two plays on October 27, 1884, at the Princess Opera House.
Years later in his book, The Print of my Remembrance, Augustus Thomas, a former newspaperman turned actor and playwright, recounted the scene that greeted the Dickenson Sketch Club just after an engagement at the opera house. The American told of a “crowd of Englishmen” gathering outside the Windsor Hotel where Manitoba Attorney General James Miller was making a speech. The mob was calling for Miller to answer to them for the flogging of Cormack.
“The hotel proprietor had been forced to lock his doors, guard his windows, and finally the lieutenant-governor, after an hour or two of this menace, was covertly conducted out the back way, in disguise, and spirited off in a sleigh in order to save his skin,” wrote Thomas.
As an American, Thomas can be forgiven for confusing Miller’s title — he was not the lieutenant-governor of the province, but the attorney general.
Thomas said the actors were stopped by the police attempting to control the unruly mob, asked to prove their identity and only then allowed into the hotel.
Once in the hotel, Thomas took to heart William Shakespeare’s claim that “all the world is a stage,” and whenever an audience appeared, it was the duty of an actor to give them a stirring performance. Thomas particularly felt a hearty display of his talents would inspire the throng to attend the theatre the next day, as the troupe was disappointed by the poor attendance at that evening’s performance.
“When we reached the second storey I went out on the little iron balcony, while Will Smythe and Edgar Smith stood behind me in the doorway.
“It was impossible for the people below to distinguish this figure silhouetted against the light but curtained windows. To them it seemed to be some messenger from the fugitive official they were hunting. With the foolishness of twenty-seven I addressed them as fellow citizens, lifted my hands for silence, which came quickly, then leaned on the rail and spoke ...”
Thomas harangued the mob on the benefits of the “rights of Englishmen,” followed by a mention of his theatrical troupe and how the most pleasure could be obtained for the least amount of money by witnessing their performances.
“Bang! A shower of snowballs caught me and my friends standing behind and broke a number of windows. I was dragged inside and some man, speaking more directly to the facts from the door below, finally got them to believe that the lieutenant-governor had escaped.”
When Thomas discussed the attendance with the theatre manager the next day, he was informed that the two plays — Editha’s Burglar and Combustion — were not “hilarious” enough for local residents’ taste. With this advice, the company decided to change the bill and stage Muldoon’s Picnic. After their last performance of the new play, the company collected sufficient funds to buy railway tickets and flee to the safety of the U.S.
Thomas was impressed by the mob, although he didn’t condone their actions, which can also be attributed to their potential to cause the actor significant grief.
“The people didn’t know the man who had been whipped; they didn’t care anything about that,” he wrote. “Their rights had been invaded by an appointed (actually elected) official. The thing that impressed me in their behaviour was the way they went about their self-assertion. Instead of being perfectly satisfied with getting something on the editorial page in the public forum signed by a Lover of Liberty, they had moved promptly to direct action.”
There seems to be some confusion about Thomas and the company’s visit to the city, with some local historical accounts claiming they appeared a year earlier — on January 4, 1939, the Winnipeg Tribune made this assertion which has since been repeated. But this mistake is cleared up by the newspaper advertisements for the company’s plays mentioned by Thomas that coincided with the flogging of Cormack. In the fall of 1883, the company was not in town and there was no threat of flogging a young man for escaping his jailers by either the lieutenant-governor or the attorney general. And all accounts in 1884 mentioned that Cormack’s flogging was the first such punishment in Manitoba since the province joined the Canadian Confederation in 1870.