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Chapter XXXIII


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

compiled by Victor Speer

A MIGHTY hunter lived in the county of Simcoe. His name was Henry McCormick. Everybody in those parts knew him as Big Mac. He was a giant, with the strength of two powerful men. He had been known to up-end a log as if it had been a barber's pole. He could shoulder a deer at noon and trudge till nightfall, with the burden on his back. At logging bees he led the gangs. In the early '70's in Canada some of the logging bees culminated in carnivals of fisticuffs and sometimes in revelries of death. After the big supper, when the day's work was done, whisky would be served like water and at last came murder in the moonlight. It was so in the case of Big Mac. At a logging bee in the county of Simcoe in 1870, with liquor flowing after the supper, a drunken row started, and a powerful fellow named John Pangman became involved with Big Mac. There was a brief struggle, then Big Mac stumbled on a stake from a sleigh. It was four feet long and very heavy. Big Mac seized it, thrust Pangman from him and smashed the stake down upon his head. Pangman went down in a heap, dead as a stone. Big Mac disappeared, taking with him his wife, who was at the logging bee.

   Eleven years passed. The county of Simcoe was divided, the county of Dufferin being cut from it.

   "After the new county were made," says Murray, "the old county's records were divided. The records of the townships in the new county went to the county of Dufferin. Included in them was the township of Mulmer in which Big Mac had killed Pangman in a drunken row. The new county had a new gaol, a new sheriff, and a new county Crown attorney, Mr. McMillan. He found this case of murder, eleven years old, and wanted to make business and communicated with the Department of Justice. I went to Orangeville, the county seat of the new county, and obtained full information of the crime and details of the life and appearance of Big Mac. The people all remembered him, a mighty man, a great hunter, a powerful fellow of colossal frame and tremendous strength, and one of the swiftest men afoot that the county ever had known. I obtained a perfect description of Big Mac as he had appeared eleven years before, and I billed him north, south, east, and west. No answer came. I found at last an old-time friend of Big Mac, who told me that Big Mac had travelled for several years after the murder and then had settled down near Saginaw in Michigan. I prepared extradition papers and then went to Saginaw.

   "I located Big Mac near Coleman, Michigan. I got Officer Sutherland of Saginaw and went to Coleman. I knew that if Big Mac saw us first he would fight or flee. If he fought, it meant a desperate battle; if he fled, it meant a long, hard chase. On July 15th, 1881, I arrived in Coleman. It was a hot day and I was wearing a blue serge suit. Sutherland and I went to Big Mac's house. No one was there. As we stood in the shade beyond the house I looked across the field and saw a man I knew at a glance was Big Mac. He was picking berries. He was indeed a giant. His wife was with him. We slipped down to the field beyond. A barbed wire fence was between. I hailed Big Mac and asked where some one lived. Sutherland was on the other side of the field. I started over the barbed wire fence when I hailed Big Mac, and in my haste to get over, my serge suit, trousers and coat, became hooked on the barbs. I jerked to get free and split my trousers from end to end and tore two long slits in my coat. I struggled and tore my trousers almost completely off. Big Mac laughed like a lion roaring and his wife pulled her sunbonnet close down over her head. I tied my slit coat around my waist by the sleeves, wearing it like an apron, and went over to where Big Mac was waiting.

   "'Aren't you Henry McCormick?' I asked.

   "'Yes, what of it?' said Big Mac, still laughing.

   "'I'll have to arrest you and take you back to Canada,' said I.

   "Mrs. Mac let out a howl of rage and tore her sunbonnet off.

   "'You naked barbarian,' she cried, 'you'll never take him out of Michigan alive.'

   "I thought she might mean to call me a naked barbwirean! She started at me, but Big Mac drew her back.

   "'Silence be,' said Big Mac. ''Tis a case for men, not women.'

   "I thought he meant a finish fight there, and I knew I had him with my revolver against his fists. But Big Mac thrust out his wrists for the handcuffs and was as docile as a child. We went to his house and I borrowed a pair of trousers, that looked on me as if an ostrich were to don the hide from an elephant's legs. Big Mac enjoyed my plight. I verily think it was the sight of me struggling on the fence, that put him in the good humour to submit tamely to arrest.

   "I took him to Saginaw. He employed as counsel the Hon. Tim Tarsney, later a member of Congress, and a son of Judge Gage, before whom the extradition case was to be argued. I employed Mr. Durand, and I had seen Judge Gage about the case. Naturally I felt a little squeamish with a son of the judge against me. Big Mac had friends in Michigan and one of his sons had married and his friends had money. I swore a number of witnesses from Canada at the extradition hearing. Judge Gage was strictly honest and committed Big Mac for extradition. I arrived in Orangeville with Big Mac on August 26th. He was a fascinating old fellow. Men liked him. Although he had been away eleven years he had many warm friends. He was tried at the Fall Assizes in 1881 and was convicted of manslaughter. The jury brought in a strong recommendation for mercy and Big Mac was sentenced to one year in the county gaol.

   "I remember one of the spectators at Big Mac's trial was an old man named John Smith, who had passed his seventieth birthday, yet farmed like a youngster and lived alone with a fifteen-year-old nephew, Johnnie, on his farm in the township of Amaranth, county of Dufferin. The old fellow was supposed to have money and to keep a snug sum hid in his house. On Saturday night, January 21st, 1882, while Big Mac was serving his year in gaol, fire partly burned the house of old man Smith. The nephew ran to a neighbour's house, cap in hand. He told the neighbour that as he sat with his uncle, two shots were fired through an uncurtained window. One pierced his cap, the other, he thought, struck his uncle, who fell. Flames broke out and the nephew ran for help.

   "The neighbour, with others, went to the Smith farmhouse. It was partly burned. The old man was found on the floor, dead, with part of one leg burned off. The doctors laid the old man out and washed him. They found no marks of a wound on him and no trace of any bullet. I arrived in the night and the doctors reported no marks of a wound on the body. I got a lamp and went to the old man's house with the doctors. He had not been coffined, and I went over the body carefully. I finally discovered a punctured wound beneath the breast, so located and of such size as to pass almost unnoticed. In fact, the doctors had failed to observe it. I pointed it out. They examined it.

   "'Is that an ante-mortem or post-mortem wound?' I asked.

   "'Ante-mortem,' they agreed.

   "We traced up the wound and found the bullet. It was such as would fit a thirty-two calibre revolver. I saw Mr. Hannah, the hardware merchant in Shelburne, the town nearest the Smith farmhouse, and I learned that young Smith, the nephew, had bought a thirty-two calibre Smith and Wesson revolver at his store shortly before the mysterious death of old man Smith. The revolver was not to be found. I searched the premises several times, and finally I began to drain the well. In its bottom I came upon the revolver and fished it out. Young Smith was arrested and held for trial. He was locked up in the county gaol at Orangeville, where Big Mac was serving his year for the murder of Pangman. The boy was close mouthed.

   "I had been in Big Mac's good graces ever since I first met him in the berry patch in Michigan, with my trousers in shreds. I instructed Big Mac to find out what he could from the boy. Mac made friends with young Smith and promised to take him to Michigan, and eventually got the whole story of the crime from the boy. Young Smith was tried in October 1882. Big Mac was a witness against him. He went on the stand and told, under oath, the story as the boy had related it to him. George Galbraith was attorney for the boy and Aemelius Irving, Crown attorney, prosecuted. Galbraith gave Big Mac a severe cross-examination on the line that he was my detective. Some of the gaol officials swore they would not believe Big Mac under oath. The jury brought in a verdict acquitting young Smith. Later I took up the matter of the conduct of some of the gaol officials and attended to it.

   "Big Mac returned to Michigan after serving his year. I kept the revolver for some time that young Smith bought shortly before his uncle was murdered. The bullet found in his uncle's body fitted the cartridge of the revolver. I regarded that as quite an interesting coincidence. But coincidences occasionally fail to convict.

   "I recall one case, about the same time, that was full of more than coincidences. Yet the most powerful antidote to convincing evidence was present in the form of friends on the jury, and the result was acquittal. It was a crime that duplicated in marvellous accuracy of detail, the murder of old Abel McDonald by the Youngs. It occurred in 1881 and if it had been patterned after the McDonald tragedy it could not have fitted it more precisely.

   "A team of horses with a waggon and no driver ran into a stump, on the road leading out of Barrie into the farming country of the county of Simcoe, and stopped. It was twilight on November 18th. A farmer saw the team standing there and climbed into the wagon and found an old man lying dead, with his head beaten in with an axe handle. The farmer recognised him as Thomas Sleight, an old fellow of sixty six, who was a farmer in the township of West Guillembury. The team, when it stopped, was in the township of Innisfil, on the road leading to the township of Guillembury, so the crime became known as the Innisfil West tragedy. I took up the case.

   "Sleight had driven from his farm to Barrie with a load of cider and potatoes. He sold them and started home at sundown with the cash in his pocket. I skirmished the entire county for a clue to the perpetrator of the crime. I visited farmhouse after farmhouse, talking with all the inmates. Three or four persons were locked up and released after accounting for themselves. Finally, near the town of Bondhead, I got Bill Nay, about twenty-six years old, son of a farmer. Bill always was broke. The day after Sleight's murder Bill had money. I arrested him and searched him and found money on him, and Bill, at that time, was not clear as to where he got all of it. When the coroner's inquest was held, I had a strong case of circumstantial evidence against him. The inquest resulted in a verdict of murder against Bill and he was held for trial. I scoured the county for evidence. I found a little girl of fifteen, who saw Bill get into old man Sleight's waggon on the way out the Barrie road. I had other witnesses who saw him coming away along the road.

   "Bill Nay was tried at Barrie at the Spring Assizes in 1882. He was defended by a great lawyer, an able man, the Hon. Dalton McCarthy, of Barrie, a Member of Parliament and a brilliant advocate. Colin McDougal, of St. Thomas, prosecuted. Judge Strong presided and charged the jury strongly against Bill Nay. There was quite a connection of Nay's in the county and Dalton McCarthy was a lawyer who knew the county thoroughly and a man who missed no opportunities in behalf of a client. The jury was out a long time. Bill Nay was on the anxious seat in great suspense. But the jury came in with an acquittal, and Bill Nay's friends reminded him that Dalton McCarthy was an able man and that friends on a jury were like pearls beyond price.

   "An interesting coincidence of this case is that I heard Bill Nay was killed since. Big McCormick, young Smith, and Bill Nay were three vastly different individuals. The law dealt with each of them in its own way. Of the three, I like to think of Big Mac rather than of young Smith or, least of all, Bill Nay."

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