The discovery of a long-dead British monarch shows that investigations into the past can have a positive outcome. In order to arrive at this result, researchers were required to have a firm belief in one contemporary source to the exclusion of others, as well as a bit of luck. It would be interesting to apply the same principles to uncover an enigma in Manitoba history that has remained unsolved since 1870.
The body of Richard III — the king maligned by Shakespeare as well as historically controversial — was found buried under a parking lot by a team of University of Leicester archaeologists. Richard died in 1485 at age 32 during the Battle of Bosworth Field, which was won by Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII. The archaeologists dismissed a local legend that claimed the king’s body was thrown into the river by an angry mob. Instead, they believed a contemporary account by Grey Friar’s monks that the body was claimed by the Franciscans and buried hastily in a position of honour near the high altar of their church, which was exactly where the remains were found.
One of the great mysteries of the events surrounding the historically controversial March 4, 1870, execution of Thomas Scott, by the Louis Riel-led provisional government at Upper Fort Garry in Winnipeg, is the final resting place of his body. Rev. George Young and Rupert’s Land Bishop Robert Machray went to the fort the next morning to claim Scott’s body, but Riel refused to release it. Young said he was told by Riel that Ambroise Lépine, the military leadert of the provisional government, had insisted that the body be buried within the fort. By controlling Scott’s remains, Lépine incorrectly believed it won’t be creating an opposition martyr — even without a body, a matryr was created. The priest was later informed by Riel that that the burial in fact occurred.
In August 1870, Young was given permission to disinter the body by Canadian authorities. In a contemporary Manitoban article about the search, it was reported that digging began “a few paces in front of the north end of the store” in the fort. A “spade struck on a board, and when the earth was removed ... a deal (pine) board shaped like a coffin (was uncovered) ... 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!” Since a 5-foot-8 fruit tree box was unearthed and Scott was over six-feet tall, it was unlikely his body was ever intended to be buried in this make-shift coffin.
In his book, A Critical History of the Red River Insurrection (1935), Father Adrien Gabriel Morice insisted that he had solved the mystery — Scott’s body was interred in St. John’s Cemetery. In a January 27, 1936, Free Press article, Morice said he obtained the story from André Nault, the head of the firing squad, who while sharing a “drop,” related the events of that early morning in 1870. According to the story, 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 anyone should 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 ...”
W.C. Pritchard claimed Scott’s body was interred in the graveyard at the “Church of England (Anglican) Church near Selkirk” — 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 an unnamed man who provided information about Scott’s final resting spot. According to this account, first published in the Free Press in January 1909, the “gentleman, an old pioneer and a well-known resident of Manitoba,” 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.
John Bruce, president of the Métis National Committee in 1869, 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 ...” He said a few days later the body was placed in a sleigh (cutter), and “taken towards the Red River ... opposite the River La Seine. By means of a large stone tied 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.
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. In addition, Riel shed no light on the final resting spot of Scott’s body during his treason trial in 1885 in Regina.
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 final resting spot of Scott’s body could be virtually anywhere within the fort’s former walls.
Skeletons periodically turned up in the vicinity of the old fort whenever excavations were undertaken for street improvements or new buildings, but it has never been proven that any were the remains of Scott.
To solve the mystery, “the friends of the late Thomas Scott” in 1871 offered a substantial £200 reward for information leading “to the recovery of the body, for the purpose of Christian burial,” but no one ever claimed the reward.
To this day, the ultimate fate of Scott’s body has not been proven beyond a shadow of doubt. Still, the presence of a parking lot and only a centuries old and scant account to follow didn’t deter the Leicester archaeologists who uncovered Richard III, so maybe there’s still hope that Scott’s body will eventually be found.