“Dastardly outrage” — good doctor became scapegoat for failure of incorporation bill

by Bruce Cherney

A “dastardly outrage," as it was called at the time, was committed in the early morning hours of March 7, 1873.

Dr. Curtis James Bird, the victim, explained in the Manitoba Legislature the day after the outrage that he wished to inform the House “of a certain instance that occurred on Thursday evening (March 6), or rather early Friday (March 7) morning. I was called out of  my bed about one o’clock, and told that I was wanted immediately to visit a patient who was represented to be dying. I said I was unable to go as I felt very unwell, so I gave them a note and sent them to Dr. Codd.

“About two (o’clock) they returned and said Dr. Codd was out. I then arose and got into a cutter that was waiting at the door, and was driven in the direction of Kildonan.”

What the doctor could not have suspected was that the men, who had roused him from bed under the pretext of tending to a dying patient, were intent upon teaching him a lesson for opposing the aspirations of the little town.

“Shortly after crossing the bridge at Brown’s (Creek, where Main and Bannatyne now meet),” Dr. Bird, the recently-elected Speaker of the legislature, continued: “I heard a call and several men ran out of a certain building, dragged me from the cutter and treated me to warm tar and otherwise bruised me. I lay for a little time unconscious and then managed to walk home. I think it proper to make this explanation, as the indignity was offered to myself, but in consequence of the action which this house had taken on the Bill for the Incorporation of Winnipeg.”

Newspaper articles published shortly after the attack  added more information about the outrage perpetrated on the doctor. 

The Manitoban reported it was a small boy who had first called upon Dr. Bird, claiming to be a messenger from Rev. John Black. The young boy said that the reverend wanted Dr. Bird to immediately go down to Eureka House, a local hotel in St. John’s at 325 Main St.

Feeling unwell, Bird gave the boy the note for Dr. Codd, but an hour later the boy returned and said Dr. Codd was not in, which resulted in Dr. Bird getting dressed to accompany the boy in a cutter.

Shortly before the cutter reached Eureka House, the doctor heard someone call out a warning of his approach. Opposite Eureka House, eight to 10 men ran to the cutter and one fellow grabbed the cutter’s horse to steady it while another man placed his hand around the doctor’s throat. To gag the doctor, another man shoved what Dr. Bird later judged to be a piece of cotton across his mouth and down his throat. He was then knocked senseless.

When he came to his senses, two or three men were still trampling on him, but they soon ran away.

Dr. Bird remembered the hot tar poured on his face and hands and when arriving at home saw that he was covered all over with the tar.

In later stories about the incident, it was said Dr. Bird had been tarred and feathered, but contemporary accounts make no mention of feathers. It may have been the original intention of the attackers to tar and feather the doctor, a form of frontier justice dating from the first days of colonization in North America.

Dr. Bird was correct in saying that the assault resulted from the failure of the legislature to pass the act of incorporation, but it was his actions which directly contributed to the wrath of his attackers. The doctor ruled an amended bill incorporating the city of Winnipeg was out of order as it reduced provincial revenue collected on licence fees to only 10 per cent. At the time, the province was facing a fiscal crisis and was seeking “better terms” from Ottawa to increase the federal government’s financial contribution to Manitoba. Any decrease in revenue was recognized by Dr. Bird as compromising the province’s financial health.

It would be months before the act could be re-introduced in the legislature. Since he made the last move to dash Winnipeggers’ hopes in the legislature, Dr. Bird’s decision made him the most readily identifiable target for the indignation of Winnipeggers.

But even prior to Dr. Bird’s ruling, there were other problems with the bill that enraged Winnipeggers. Members of the Legislative Assembly introduced a number of amendments that essentially altered the bill beyond the original intent of Winnipeg residents. 

Reporters were not given a copy of the amendments, which were added while the legislature sat in a committee of the whole that was barred to journalists, but a Manitoban journalist was able to determine that: “The clauses giving power to the corporation (city of Winnipeg) to borrow money were struck out, also all clauses respecting licences.” 

Further changes were made to the ability to raise property taxes with the maximum rate reduced from one per cent to one-half per cent on improved property, and one-20th of one per cent on unimproved property.

In addition, the date for the first civic election was changed from April to May.

After the changes made in committee were introduced in the legislature other amendments were proposed.  House Leader and Attorney-General (sometimes called Manitoba’s first premier: March 14, 1872 to July 8, 1874) Henry James Clarke (St. Charles) proposed the first amendment that changed the name of the new community from Winnipeg to the “City of Assiniboia.” His motion wasn’t passed. Not to be outdone, John Sutherland (Kildonan) introduced an amendment to call the new city “Garry,” but this motion also failed. What did pass was the amendment by John McTavish (St. Anne) to change the act to the Incorporation of the “City of Selkirk.”

This was seen as another ply on behalf of the HBC, since the Company had earlier formed a town plan for its land around Upper Fort Garry under the name Selkirk.

The proceedings in the legislature created a furor in Winnipeg.

In his book, History of Winnipeg, Manitoba historian, George Bryce (1844-1931), said: “Everything in early Winnipeg was introduced with a rush and with a struggle. There was no time for deliberation. There was no past to be followed. The wants of the people in the growing burgh were imperative, and there was temper to wait for their being supplied.”

“When it became known, on Wednesday afternoon, that the incorporation of Winnipeg Bill was being cut, slashed and butchered beyond recognition of its promoters, by the assembled wisdom in the House of Assembly,” a Free Press editorial said on March 8, 1873, “public indignation knew no bounds. The people, long as they have been accustomed to injustice at the hands of their lawmakers, were astonished at this new piece of legislation.”

The first “indignation meeting” to protest the changes — in the early days of Winnipeg such protest meetings were common — was arranged at the Winnipeg School House, the city’s first public school which opened on October 31, 1872, in Point Douglas. The evening meeting occurred after the massive changes were made to the bill in the legislature and prior to Dr. Bird’s ruling on March 6.

Newspapers reported the school house was crowded on March 2 with what seemed to be every male in Winnipeg. At the time, the population of Winnipeg was estimated at 1,500 people. For the city’s first municipal election in December 1873, it was estimated that there were 308 eligible male voters.

Major William Nassau Kennedy was elected chair of the meeting, while merchant and author Alexander Begg was elected secretary.

John Villiers reminded those gathered about how long it had taken to shape the bill presented to the attorney-general by federal land agent and banker Gilbert McMicken, an experienced parliamentarian originally from Ontario, and merchant A.G.B. Bannatyne on behalf of Winnipeg’s residents.

Villiers said the bill was not McMicken’s nor Bannatyne’s or any other individual’s, but represented the “wishes of the entire community.”

“And what had the House done with the wishes of the people? They had given the people a portion of what they had asked for, and deprived them of the most part. They had given the people an elephant and nothing to feed him.”

He said, “the whole thing had been villainously dealt with.”

John Luxton, the editor of the Manitoba Free Press, said he was present in the legislature during the passage of the amended bill, and accused members in the legislature of trying to placate the Hudson’s Bay Company by relieving its tax burden. He particularly accused MLA Donald A. Smith (Winnipeg and St. John’s), the chief commissioner of the HBC, as “the man responsible for this state of affairs.” 

McMicken also accused Smith and the HBC of lobbying against the bill, as did mayor Francis Evans Cornish, a lawyer from Ontario who would be elected Winnipeg’s first mayor in December 1873.

A motion moved by Luxton and seconded by McMicken was carried unanimously. It said: “That the mutilation of the Incorporation Bill is very unsatisfactory to the people of the City, and this meeting therefore pledges itself, in the absence of possible immediate redress, to go unitedly to the polls in opposition to those who have been instrumental in bringing about this unsatisfactory state of affairs.”

Another motion called for the  committee to represent the community’s dissatisfaction to the legislature.

The last motion called for a mass meeting in front of the Manitoba legislature.

Meanwhile, the committee first approached members of the Legislative Council (Manitoba Senate abolished in 1876), which was still in session, “who heard the grievances of the people” and “seemed to be thoroughly impressed with the justice of the claims set forth, and promised to give the matter their favourable consideration.”

Villiers, Luxton, McMicken, Robert “Hotel” Davis (a future premier) and Cornish presented a petition to the legislators asking them to reconsider the amendments. In support of their cause, an indignant crowd gathered at the legislature grounds instilling fear in legislators. 

Clarke told the delegation the legislature was “willing to consider and comply with the wishes of the people so far as we believed them to be right, but we cannot and will not be forced into doing anything.”

But, that is exactly what happened. Clarke told the delegation the session of the legislature would be extended to reconsider the act of incorporation. He re-introduced the act with yet another amendment restoring it to the original shape as demanded by the “people of Winnipeg.” It was this amendment that was declared out of order by Speaker Dr. Bird and led to other “indignation meetings.” That evening, the plan to attack Dr. Bird was also hatched.

Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris subsequently issued a proclamation on behalf of the legislature that read: “Whereas a dastardly outrage was committed on the person of Curtis J. Bird, Esq., MD, who was decoyed out of his house ... Therefore now Know Ye, that a reward of one thousand ($1,000), lawful money of Canada will be paid to any person or persons, not being the actual offender or offenders, who will give such information as will lead to the discovery, apprehension and conviction of any one or more of the perpetrators of the above outrage.”

Despite the reward, no one was ever arrested for the assault on Dr. Bird.

The events of March 1873 originated in the aspirations expressed months earlier in a new publication edited by Alexander Begg. On New Year’s Day 1872, Begg published the first issue of the Trade Review. In the newspaper, Begg wrote: “On the 16th of next month the Legislature will sit, and it is well for us to take into consideration the propriety of incorporating our town. If we let this chance slip, who knows but others more enterprising may get ahead of us, and this change the whole aspect of the place in a few years.”

The others referred to by Begg were the HBC at Fort Garry and the communities of St. John’s and Point Douglas.

“Fort Garry had old customs and wealth in its favour;” wrote Bryce, “Point Douglas represented a number of active speculators who knew well how to keep their interests before the people; St. John’s was the old ecclesiastical centre, around which much sentiment gathered.”

Bryce said the conflicting interests in the area “induced irritability and impatience that became a Winnipeg characteristic ... a rapidity of decision and action which afflict newcomers with the idea that all is done too hastily and possibly unwisely.” 

Winnipeg of the era was a town in a hurry and residents were proud of the progress being made. On January 4, 1873, the Free Press said Winnipeg had more than doubled in size.

 In the spring of 1873, the Free Press reported 11 houses were under construction and “29 new edifices.” Preparations were also in the works for “a great many more, and the sound of the saw and the hammer is heard in the streets almost incessantly from sunrise till sunset, and from Fort Garry to Point Douglas.”

To meet the demand, two saw-mills — one owned by Macauley, Sprague &  Co. and the other owned by Dick & Banning — were ready to process 5.8 million feet of logs. Bricks were being made by Chambers & Mould to be used in a warehouse for Dr. Schultz and the Canada Pacific Hotel. 

The newspaper said the total value of merchandise to be imported that spring would be double the amount of any “former year’s business.”

Besides the visible signs of progress, Bryce wrote Winnipeggers were pressing for the benefits of incorporation since: “There was no municipal law! No way of building streets or pavements! No adequate fire protection! No water system! No drainage — and central Winnipeg was a swamp! No regulation of street surveys! No proper school facilities!” 

What Begg was expanding upon in his January 1, 1873, article were the opinions expressed at Winnipeg’s first incorporation meeting on December 27, 1872.

Alexander McArthur, a local businessman, was elected chairman of the meeting and Major William Kennedy was elected secretary.

Gerald McMicken argued at the  meeting that the advantages of incorporation would include the ability to deal with infrastructure improvements such as drains, sewers and sidewalks with the cost spread over a number of years. The property taxes imposed by improvements would more than be made up by the increased property values, he added.

Stewart Mulvey, the first editor of the Manitoba Liberal owned by Dr. John Christian Schultz, said Winnipeg contributed $6,000 in licence fees to the provincial coffers but realized few benefits as the money collected in the city was spent by the government throughout the province.

St. Anne MMP (Member of the Provincial Parliament — today MLA) John Henry McTavish said he would not pledge himself  to either support or oppose a bill for incorporation, but he thought incorporation would be beneficial.

At the meeting, Dr. Bird, who would figure so prominently in the events of March 1873, said he was not an opponent of incorporation but wondered whether people on the east side of the Red River would be forced into incorporation.

McMicken said the boundaries for incorporation were to be considered at a later date. A group of those present, such as McMicken, Luxton, Dr, Schultz, and G.B. Spencer, argued that St. Boniface should not be “coerced into incorporation.” Subsequently, St. Boniface would form its own civic government and not be swallowed up by Winnipeg until Unicity was established in 1972.

The result of the meeting was the formation of a committee, which included Dr. Schultz, McMicken, Davis, Bannatyne, Wilson. Dr. Bird, Cornish, McTavish, Villiers and Lyon. It was this committee which drafted the legislation that was put to the legislature in March 1873.

Meanwhile, newspapers began to discuss incorporation. Bryce wrote that “the Liberal was the embodiment of Winnipeg interests” and the Manitoban was the government newspaper, and seems to have been ultimately associated with the HBC influence.” Among the other English-language newspapers, the Free Press also favoured incorporation.

“We have read over the (January 1, 1873) article (in the Trade Review) closely,” wrote the Manitoban editor, Robert Cunningham, who was also the MP for Marquette riding in Manitoba, “but have failed to find any arguments in favour of incorporation save one, to wit, that ‘others may get ahead of us.’ But this is no argument. Let Kildonan, St. Boniface, St. James' and St. Paul’s incorporate jointly or singly to-morrow if they will or can ...

“Putting it in a general way, the article says ‘that there are many benefits to be derived from an act of incorporation.’ Will our spirited contemporary just indicate a few of them? Say half a dozen or so. It’s only information we want.”

The Trade Review returned the salvo, arguing for the ability to tax for civic improvements. Begg ended by saying:”We will be able to secure the present town against the liability of being placed on the outskirts instead of the heart of the future city.”

Bryce said the conclusion of the Begg article was “evidently a hit at Fort Garry.”

The Free Press was just as vicious in its criticism of Cunningham, calling him “unscrupulous,”  a “servile tool” of Attorney-General Clarke’s provincial government “... rarely without peer” and “an obstructionist in the community.”

“As a newspaper publisher, he is notorious for having thrown cold water upon every advance movement, both local and general,” claimed the newspaper.

Since Cunningham was known to support the Métis and had received help from Riel, the Free Press accused him of condoning treason and murder.

For his part, Cunningham replied that he did not oppose incorporation and an April 5, 1873, editorial in the Manitoban outlined his position. According to the editorial, Cunningham wanted a “workable bill .... with a view to meet our local exigencies, and to guard as far as possible against jobbery in working the machinery to be give us under incorporation.”

Bryce wrote that “the public mind was worked up to a high pitch of excitement, the more that the legislature seemed so careless of the popular request.

“The Hudson’s Bay Company were, however, lukewarm to say the least on the subject of incorporation,” Begg added.

Rival feeling in the community resulted in A.G.B. Bannatyne, who had been a friend and supporter of Donald Smith, to oppose Smith’s second election bid. In fact, Bannatyne accepted the nomination to run against Smith in the 1872 federal election.

Smith later said that his position on incorporation was “grossly misrepresented.”

He wrote a March 10, 1873, letter to the Free Press — the newspaper had labeled him as obstructing incorporation — that “as the chief commission of the Hudson’s Bay Company, I thought and still think that the Hudson’s Bay Company, who are the owners of a very considerable portion of land within the limits of the proposed city, should in common fairness have been consulted, and had they been so consulted they would have received the proposition in such a spirit as to satisfy the committee of their desire to co-operate with the other inhabitants and to ensure its incorporation on a basis which would be acceptable to every one having a stake in the community who was willing to bear his own fair proportions of the burdens of its municipal government.”

Manitoba historian Randy R. Rostecki, in a Beaver article (Spring 1875), entitled Winnipeg Land Politics in the 1870s, said “Winnipeg of the 1870s was divided between the so-called ‘private’ landholders north of Notre Dame Street, and the Fort Garry Reserve of the Honorable Company.”

The reserve was made up of 500 acres of land centred around Upper Fort Garry.  In July 1872, when the reserve was put on sale, many prominent Winnipeggers eagerly snapped up the 50-by-120-foot lots. The speculators in this land were “aggressive Ontarians,” who were characterized as having a “hatred” for the HBC . 

“When the Company subdivided its lands, the Winnipeggers were doing the same. Each sought important buildings and functions for their holdings,” wrote Rostecki. “In turn, each sector could have harboured the central business district when one emerged, for matters were still in a state of flux in the early 1870s.

“The attitude of Winnipeggers became one of belligerency toward their rival, and there was nothing gentlemanly about their hostility.”

The election riot of 1872 was a direct result of the animosity of Winnipeggers, who destroyed the offices of the alleged pro-HBC and government-controlled Manitoban and the Gazette, which was housed in the same building as the Manitoban, as well as Le Métis. While the riot was originally instigated as anti-French and Métis — a mob first disrupted voting at a polling booth in St. Boniface before returning to Winnipeg — the Manitoban was also singled out because of its initial reaction to Begg’s article in favour of incorporation.

Later the Manitoban would comment that Winnipeg was in the “veriest state of embryo” — its population was estimated at 773 in June 1872 and 1,467 by the beginning of November — and was unable to sustain major infrastructure programs such as road and sewer improvements.

“In the matter of incorporating,” according to a Manitoban editorial, “people seem to be getting almost crazy. They seem to imagine that it only requires incorporation to make the hamlet of Winnipeg jump into a great, flourishing, magnificent, commercial city. For our part we cannot see it.”

The Manitoban answered its detractors by saying that the HBC was “no longer a huge monopoly, but a mere business firm.”

On the issue of incorporation, by late 1873 all the major newspapers, including Le Métis, were on side. And McTavish, elected a member of the incorporation committee, worked for the HBC.

Rostecki argued that HBC records did not show a formal policy opposing incorporation, and the taxation imposed in the bill written by the Winnipeg committee would not be onerous to the HBC since it amounted to only $5,900 and the Company had already obtained $41,550 for 36 lots in 1872 with the prospects for greater profits in the next few years. As the HBC’s holdings decreased, its tax burden also decreased, he added.

Smith told the Free Press he had not lobbied against passage of the bill and blamed its defeat on “those who so violently repudiated any concession from their ideas, and of them alone ...

“So far from being an opponent of the measure, as I have been represented, I desire to see the town incorporated and on the principle on which now in Ontario and other Provinces of the Dominion have been incorporated ... that property holders should contribute in proportion to the actual value of their property to the maintenance and support of the place incorporated.”

In the latter case, Smith and McTavish lobbied on behalf of the HBC in favour of a change in the tax regime lowering the rate for unimproved property.

The same desire to limit taxation was in the interest of Winnipeg’s other large landholders such as Bannatyne, James Ross, E.L. Barber, Schultz and Andrew McDermot. In fact, Cunningham of the Manitoban was accused of being the “tool of a certain number of large property owners in town, who feared taxation ...,” according to Begg as quoted by Bryce.

But the Manitoban said that the HBC and ‘the other landed proprietors’ against whom this unjust accusation has been hurled, hold the heaviest stake in ‘the house’ property and other wealth of Winnipeg to-day, and feel the need of incorporation far more than most of those who agitated themselves about it.”

Since the Trade Review was printed by the Manitoban, Begg said his article favouring incorporation led Cunningham, due to the pressure from the landholders, to decline publishing the Trade Review.

The Free Press entered the fray by adding another twist to the alleged incorporation opposition effort by the Manitoban. It accused the Manitoban of acting at the behest of the government — the newspaper was called an “organ” of the provincial government —  of delaying printing the incorporation bill so that it would not be available for adequate committee discussion in the February-March 1873 session of the legislature.

In reply, the Manitoban said the Free Press was mistaken and the bill had been printed within the timeframe contracted. 

In preparation for the fall sitting of the legislature, another incorporation meeting chaired by Ashdown with Luxton acting as secretary was held at the school house.

At the meeting,  a motion was passed for the original incorporation bill to be presented at the coming session of the legislature. 

“The probabilities now are that the desire of the heart of Winnipeg will be granted,” said the Free Press in a November 1, 1873, editorial, “and that the city will be speedily incorporated.”

Another committee met with MPPs soliciting their support and then submitted the bill to the attorney-general for introduction in the legislature.

On November 4, 1873, the bill was presented in the legislature; four days later it was quietly passed and came into effect with Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris signing the incorporation bill granting it Royal assent.

“Oh! brave legislators!” wrote Bryce. “Thus on November 8, 1873, Winnipeg became a city!”

On the evening of November 8, Winnipeg’s skyline was lit up by fireworks in celebration of the small town becoming a city after a relatively brief but difficult struggle typified by the attack on Dr. Bird.