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Chapter XX


from Memoirs of a great detective:
incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray

compiled by Victor Speer

FENCE-RAIL robberies were quite a fad in part of Canada early in 1876. The robbers selected isolated houses, in the farming districts, where occupants were prosperous and apt to have money on the premises. In the night the robbers would drive up near the house, take a stout fence-rail, batter in the door, with loud shouts, terrify the family into submission and ransack the rooms, after threatening the family with death, if they did not tell where the money and valuables were concealed. The robbers then would drive away with their plunder, notifying the family they would return and shoot them like dogs if they dared to give an alarm. Old folk usually were the victims.

  "In March 1876," says Murray," there were living in the township of Harwick, county of Lambton, two brothers, Patrick Monaghan and Michael Monaghan, sturdy old Irishmen, both over fifty, and within a few years of the same age. They were bachelors, prosperous and industrious. Their widowed sister, Mrs. McGuire, kept house for them. About March 10th a big snowfall came, and the Monaghan brothers went early to bed and soon were asleep. They occupied the one bed. An old rifle hung above the bed on the wall. It had not been fired for over five years.

  "A crash at the front door awakened them in the dead of night. It was followed by shouts and curses, then another crash, and the front door banged open and in rushed three strange men.

  "'Get down on your knees!' they shouted with oaths.

  "Michael Monaghan leaped out of bed, grabbed the old rifle and rushed to meet them. They met face to face in the big room, in the darkness save for the flash of their lantern. They saw a figure in white, with a long rifle pointed at them.

  "'Stand back and get out!' commanded the figure.

  "A second white figure with an axe loomed up as Patrick joined Michael.

  "'Out, or I'll shoot!' said Michael.

  "A revolver spat a flash of flame in the darkness. Michael fell, shot through the leg. The robbers fled. Patrick bent over Michael.

  "'Good-bye, Pat, I'm done for,' said Michael.

  "The bullet had cut an artery in Michael's leg and he bled to death. I was detailed by the Government at once. I drove to the Monaghans, and there I tramped all around the house and the road in the heavy snow of the day of the murder. I came upon the track of a cutter that had been hitched not far from the house. No neighbours had hitched a cutter there. Tracks led from it to the fence, where a rail had been taken, and thence the tracks led to the Monaghan house and then back to the cutter.

  "I took the trail of the cutter. A piece evidently had been broken out of the shoe of the cutter for it left a mark on the snow as if it had been split. I observed also a pecular mark in the print of a foot of one of the horses. Evidently it interfered for it had been shod so that a crossbar showed singularly on the shoe. With these two marks to identify the trail, I started at once. I went to Brantford and followed the tracks to London, to the house of a woman known as Mary Ann Taylor. I followed also the tracks of the cutter as it drove to the Monaghan farm over twenty-five miles from London. In Brantford I immediately set out to find the cutter. In the stable of Liveryman Hewart I found a Portland cutter that had a split about six inches long in the hind part of the shoe. In searching the cutter we found the shell of a cartridge that fitted the bullet found in Monaghan's leg. I learned that three men hired a team in the evening. They wanted two good travellers. A cross-matched pair, one white and one black, were offered. They objected to taking the white horse, and a dark bay horse was substituted. They drove that night to London, over forty miles away and the horses were put up at Lewis's Hotel in London.

  "Mary Ann Taylor had no information to give me. Among the girls who lived in her house was a very pretty German girl named Polly Ripple. She came from Brooklyn in the State of New York. I learned that three men had stopped at Mary Ann Taylor's and had some beer and then drove on along the road that led to Monaghan's. I found a witness who saw three men in a cutter at Hickory Corners, a few miles out on the way. On the night of the murder, Polly Ripple was late for the midnight meal at Mary Ann Taylor's, and she said Mary Ann was serving three men. Polly swore she saw them and heard them mimic the Irishmen, Monaghan.

  "'Arrah, Mike, are you shot?' the one was saying.

  "'Shure, I am, Pat,' said another.

  "The upshot of all my work was the arrest in London of Daniel MacPhee and Robert Murray, and the arrest in Brantford on May 15th, 1876, of Robert Greeny. On May 18th they were committed to Sarnia gaol to stand trial. Before the trial, Polly Ripple disappeared. I went to her old home in Brooklyn and through her friends there I located her in Rochester, where she was living with a Mrs. Jennings. I went to Rochester to see her, but pretty Polly said she would not go back to Canada for all the diamonds in the world. I could not take her back. So I set out to get her back by strategy. I learned the name of a young fellow in Rochester on whom pretty Polly was sweet. I quickly got in with him and arranged for him to take pretty Polly to Niagara Falls on an excursion. When they arrived at the Falls they crossed to the Canada side to get a better view of the cataract, and pretty Polly was taken in charge by a respectable woman who made sure she would be present at the trial.

  "Bob Murray, who was a big fine-looking fellow, of respectable family, got out on bail and did not appear for trial. In those days I could not get them back from the States, as I could later. At the trial Arthur Sturgis Hardy, the late Premier of the Province, then a Queen's Counsel and a Member of Parliament, defended the prisoners, and the present Judge MacMahon was prosecutor. Mr. Hardy and I had quite a tiff at this trial and it was some months before we made peace. But we became good friends and later he became Attorney-General and head of the Department of Justice.

  "When pretty Polly Ripple came to tell her story on the stand I cautioned her to tell the truth, the naked truth. She did not vary from her story of the men in Mary Ann Taylor's and she saw them plainly and heard them mimic the Monaghans. Mr. Hardy's cross examination of her dealt with details of her life in Mary Ann Taylor's, and she answered truthfully about the life of shame, and some of its particular degradations, and the judge became disgusted. I pitied poor, pretty Polly, who told the naked truth. Greeny and McPhee were acquitted. Bob Murray was not tried, as he was shot and killed in Port Huron by a fellow named Tom Britton, a brother of Royal Britton. Tom Britton was not convicted for the shooting, and he, too, is dead. Dan McPhee went to Australia; he was a horseman. Greeny is a hotel-keeper in the United States. He is one of the men in this world who do not feel kindly towards me.

  "After the Monaghan affair it was a long time before I heard of another fence-rail robbery, and it was not in this part of the world at all. So far as Greeny and McPhee were concerned their acquittal of course established, in the eyes of the law, their innocence. Pretty Polly Ripple went back to the United States, and Mary Ann Taylor was as uncommunicative in after years as she was in 1876, and compared with Mary Ann at that time an oyster was loquacious and a clam was a garrulous, talkative thing."

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