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  • Private Demons
  • Written by Patricia Phenix
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780771070457
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Private Demons

The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald

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The first book to expose the turbulent personal life of this fascinating Father of Confederation.

Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald once remarked, “I had no boyhood,” an understatement if there ever was one. Indeed, John A.’s Dickensian childhood, filled with poverty, alcoholism, and the beating death of his five-year-old brother at the hands of a drunken babysitter (a friend of his father, Hugh’s), set the stage for a political power grab that has seen no equal in Canadian history.

In Private Demons, bestselling author Patricia Phenix explores through Macdonald’s family journals, diaries, and never-before-seen letters the troubled man behind Canada’s most successful politician. Phenix describes a man of myriad contradictions: patient, yet prone to settle fights with his fists; ethical, yet capable of pilfering corporate profits to pay private debts; shy, yet wildly flirtatious; sociable, yet so desirous of solitude he built escape hatches into the walls of his homes. She also examines reports that Macdonald’s depression became so deep that he once attempted suicide. Ultimately, in an obsessive need to escape his childhood demons, he sacrificed friends, family members, and financial security to achieve his single greatest ambition — to design and control the destiny of Canada.

Private Demons paints a vivid portrait of nineteenth-century society while exploring the amazingly tumultuous domestic life of our most famous prime minister.

From the Hardcover edition.



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.
Patricia Phenix

About Patricia Phenix

Patricia Phenix - Private Demons

Photo © Ev Newsome

Patricia Phenix is the author of the bestselling Olga Romanov: Russia’s Last Grand Duchess and Eatonians: The Story of the Family Behind the Family. She lives in Toronto.


Private Demons is a thoroughly titillating and, at times, heartbreaking journey through Sir John’s troubled life.”
Ottawa Citizen

“A rollicking, fast-paced yet exhaustive account. . . . Phenix succeeds in page-turning fashion.”
Regina Leader Post

“A real contribution to Canadian history.”

Praise for Olga Romanov:

“An amazing story, with all the sweep and fullness of fairyland and Fabergé eggs.”
Globe and Mail

“A compelling tale, partly because of our perennial fascination with royals and partly thanks to Ms. Phenix’s graceful style.”
Ottawa Citizen

Praise for Eatonians:

“A fascinating popular history. . . . Patricia Phenix’s accessible history, amply illustrated, brings back much of the retail and social giant — warts and all.”
Hamilton Spectator

“A scrapbook in words, something to hold on to. . . . Reams of fascinating trivia and people fill its pages.”
Winnipeg Free Press

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