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An Empress Hotel Mystery

20110106empressfinal.jpg
Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.


It’s a sure bet that, just like the Naked City, there are eight million stories to be told about 335 Yonge Street and those who passed through the doors throughout its long history as a hotel and retail space, before the building’s recent misfortunes.
This is one of them.


In 1888, Richard Dissette leased much of the newly built property at the southeast corner of Yonge and Gould and opened the Empress Hotel, which initially used 339 Yonge as its address. A profile in the book Toronto Illustrated 1893 provides a glimpse of what the hotel had to offer:

The building is a handsome four-story brick structure, 44 x 140 feet in dimensions, containing upwards of forty newly and handsomely furnished sleeping rooms. The hotel is equipped with all modern improvements and conveniences, including gas and electric light, steam heat, etc. The dining room is commodious and well lighted and has a seating capacity for fifty guests. A large and handsome bar room is attached, where only the choicest wines, liquors, ales, porters, cigars, etc., are sold, and the best liquors are also put up for family use. The rates are from $1.00 to $1.50 per day, and while the rates are reasonable, no expense or pains have been spared to make this a first-class hotel in every respect, while every means or appliance tending to the comfort and convenience of guests has been adopted. Electric cars pass the door every three minutes direct to and from the Union passenger station and connecting with all parts of the city. Mr. R. Dissette, the genial and popular proprietor, is a gentleman in the prime of life, and is a Canadian by birth and an old resident of this city.

On the evening of October 17, 1896, a room was booked by a man who signed the register under the name George Hall. The next morning, Hall discovered he was paralyzed on the right side of his body, which left him unable to leave his room. A physician was called in, but when he inquired as to details regarding the patient’s family, Hall refused to answer any personal questions. Hall was soon transported to Toronto General Hospital, where he continued to rebuff anyone who pried into his background or questioned his activities prior to his sudden incapacitation. By October 20, the mysterious patient piqued the curiosity of city newspapers, who guessed that Hall may have been a lawyer from Sundridge. As for what might have caused Hall’s paralysis, the World cited a Dr. Rennie, who felt it may have been an apoplectic fit.
Over the next two days, Hall’s past slowly emerged. He was a thirty-four-year-old lawyer who had last practiced in the north, but in Parry Sound, not Sundridge. And his name wasn’t Hall but Wall—Guret S. Wall—whose legal career included stints with two Toronto firms (including one whose partners once included Sir John A. Macdonald) and a junior partnership in the practice of Parks and Wall. His mother had passed away in Smiths Falls two years earlier and left him with some property. What happened to Wall after her death was left vague in the newspaper accounts; a front page story in the Star indicated that his life was “rather eventful” and that he “first adopted the name George Hall to prevent his friends from knowing of his whereabouts.”
But any old friends had little time to visit Wall. The night his identity was published, he passed away due to what the Telegram termed as an “acute congestion of both kidneys.” No further follow-ups on Wall appeared in the papers, which leaves many unanswered questions. Why was his life so “eventful” that he decided to take on a new identity? What would have caused him to remain so tight-lipped about his past? Debauchery? Debts? Fraud? Murder? Social deviancy? Was his sudden paralysis a bad stroke of luck, the result of hard living, or caused by nefarious means?
Frustratingly, delightfully, we have just enough of an outline that a historical mystery writer could let their imagination run wild.
Additional information from the book Toronto Illustrated 1893 (Toronto: Consolidated Printing, 1893) and editions of the Globe, Telegram, Toronto Star, and Toronto World published between October 20, 1896 and October 22, 1896.

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