ESCAPING THE PAST
In a melancholic mood one evening, an elderly Prime Minister John A. Macdonald revealed to his private secretary, Sir Joseph Pope, a shocking secret. At the age of seven he had witnessed the brutal murder of his five-year-old brother, James Shaw Macdonald, at the hands of a drunken childminder.
Years later, in his book, Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald
, Pope exposed in detail John A.’s recollection of the crime. The babysitter had dragged both of the children to a Kingston tavern where he forced gin down their throats. “Not liking the taste,” the young John A. grabbed James Shaw’s hand and “started for home.” Angry, and by now thoroughly drunk, the childminder raced to catch up with the boys. When James Shaw tripped and fell, the babysitter struck him with his cane hard enough to force the boy into convulsions.
Hours later, Hugh and Helen Macdonald watched their youngest son’s life ebb away in his own bed, where they had placed him after retrieving him from the street, the childminder having vanished into the night. Had John A. not exposed the circumstances of James Shaw’s murder, his father might have blamed the childminder for administering no more than an overly enthusiastic round of corporal punishment. After all, even an anonymous letter published in the Toronto Globe
of March 12, 1822, speculated that it was “absurd to talk of the degrading influence of corporal punishment. It was cheaper than sending children to jail.”
Despite Hugh’s outrage, however, he did not race to the police station to file a report — though he had never been reticent about filing reports in the past. In fact, months earlier, he had had a boy and his sister arrested for stealing socks from his general-goods store. More likely, he failed to report his son’s murder because the childminder, a man named “Kennedy,” was not only a friend, but an employee.
In the April 23, 1822, edition of the British Whig
newspaper, an individual offered a twelve-dollar reward for the return of a parcel containing muslin “lost or mislaid near Mrs. Stephen’s Fairfield’s Tavern.” Another individual offered a “liberal reward” for information leading to the discovery of a “small dark Bay Horse about five feet high, a white stripe in his forehead and three white feet,” that had strayed away from its farm. There was no reward offered for the apprehension of James Shaw’s murderer. Indeed, the murder — for certainly it could have been called this — never made the papers at all.
In 1822, the law viewed children as chattel. The police were unlikely to devote much time to investigating the murder of a child, especially if his or her parents didn’t compel them to do so. Kingston did not yet have a penitentiary or an efficient court system. Jails were cramped and small, merely holding pens for drunks, prostitutes, and transients. The worst punishment Kennedy might have faced was banishment to another country. Therefore, James Shaw’s murder ended up being a relatively easy crime to ignore. Even nature could play her part, the spring rain quickly washing away any traces of the crime.
No doubt on Hugh’s instructions, from then on the family treated the murder only as an unfortunate incident. The sole public acknowledgement of James Shaw’s death appeared in the May 3, 1822, issue of the Kingston Chronicle
, buried amidst religious poems and ads for the latest in men’s and women’s fashions. The cryptic obituary read: “On Monday the 22 ult., James, second son of Mr. Hugh MacDonald, Merchant of this town, aged five years and six months.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Private Demons by Patricia Phenix. Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Phenix. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.