Historicist: "Sir John is Dead"
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Historicist: “Sir John is Dead”

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Cartoon, the News, June 8, 1891.

When Sir John A. Macdonald ran for re-election as Prime Minister during the winter of 1891, the Conservative party appealed to Canadians to vote for “The Old Flag, The Old Policy, The Old Leader.” Despite declining health, the “Chieftain” made many campaign stops to stir up the party faithful. Macdonald returned to office after the ballots were counted in March, but he had little time to enjoy his new mandate as a series of strokes that culminated in a massive attack on May 29 left him incapacitated. For the next week, with frequent references to flames of life and spectral figures of death, Toronto’s newspapers were filled with updates on Macdonald’s demise that ranged from the straightforward to the melodramatic.


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Portion of front page of the June 8, 1891 edition of the Empire.

The most biased coverage of the dying leader was found in the Empire, the Conservative party’s official local rag. While every other paper counted down the minutes to the ultimate visit from the grim reaper, the Empire‘s accounts were the most hopeful about Macdonald’s chances of recovery, with continued emphasis on his “amazing vitality.” When the first reports of Macdonald’s turn for the worse were published on May 29, the paper stated that “the facts are these: Sir John has never taken the time necessary to recover from the fatigue incident to his almost superhuman efforts during the general election.” The PM had thrown himself back into work, which resulted in “several relapses that have alarmed his friends and caused anxiety to his physicians.” When it became clear that Macdonald’s condition was worse than simple exhaustion, the partisanship of the Empire couldn’t have been clearer—it was the fault of those awful Liberals led by Wilfrid Laurier, whose “disloyal and degrading” pro-American policies caused Sir John to over-exert himself in the name of protecting Canadian independence. Such partisan attacks on the Empire’s editorial page, along with its almost comical methods of portraying the dying leader as a deity, don’t seem far removed from how Fox News might treat an ailing Republican president.
By contrast, the city’s other Tory-leaning papers took a more measured approach to Sir John’s illness and influence. An editorial in the June 1 edition of the Telegram hoped that Macdonald’s imminent demise would mark the end of “the era of emotional politics” that were based on old prejudices, so that “hysterics about the old man and the old policy will be succeeded by arguments as to the difference between the parties and the merits of their respective platforms.” Further articles in the Telegram balanced Macdonald’s achievements with his foul-ups and rascally behaviour. The Mail dwelled less on Macdonald’s weaknesses than the Telegram, but didn’t lay on exaltations as thickly as the Empire.

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Sir John A. Macdonald monument, Queen’s Park, circa 1908. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 270.


As for Macdonald’s opponents in the Toronto press, the Globe offered respectful tributes, even if the paper’s editorial writers felt he would be regarded in the long run as “a very brilliant party leader rather than a statesman,” and published headlines which stated he was “helpless as an infant.” The Globe preferred to leave deep criticism for another day, as a June 1 editorial made clear:

We prefer just now to speak of the extraordinary services which Sir John rendered to the Conservative party, of his immense personal popularity, of the ready wit and penetrating intellect which made him powerful in council and in debate, of his winning ways and exceeding kindness of heart, and of something which should never be forgotten, namely that he remained poor amid countless opportunities for growing rich…The grave extinguishes every resentment, and in the presence of death political disputation should be hushed.

The slightest hint of an upturn in Macdonald’s health led to hopeful headlines and editorials in the Empire that weren’t mirrored in the other papers. The best example came on June 5, when the paper proclaimed that there was “A RAY OF HOPE! From the Sick Chamber at Earnscliffe SIR JOHN STILL LIVES.” Let’s compare this to the equally cheery headlines in the other papers that day:
Globe: “FOUR OR FIVE DAYS The Limit Now Given Sir John’s Life YESTERDAY WAS UNEVENTFUL The Action of the Heart Growing Weaker”
Mail: “No Pause in the Dread Life-Struggle WEARY CONTEST The Heart’s Action Becoming Much Weaker. FAILURE MAY COME SOON Glimmer of Hope Raised for a Sort Time DISSIPATED BY THE BULLETINS Wrestling With the Angel of Death From Hour to Hour”
News: “STILL NO CHANGE The Angel of Death Hovering Over Earnscliffe. No Reason for the Belief that Sir John is Improving”
Telegram: Macdonald’s illness was not deemed a headline-worthy story. Classifieds as normal on the front page.
World: “AT ANY MOMENT Like a Flame that Flickers, Then Expires, SIR JOHN’S LIFE MAY GO OUT”

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Cartoon, the Telegram, June 11, 1891.

The World just about had it right—Macdonald’s flame blew out the next day. The News described the scene outside its offices on Yonge Street on June 6:

Believing that the same tenacity which had kept the premier alive the past week would tide him over until the morrow and that the Sabbath sun would find him still fighting, the crowds had gone home Saturday night, and Yonge St, which had been thronged earlier in the evening, was comparatively deserted. The few people who yet remained downtown were hurrying northward, stopping but for a moment before the newspaper offices to read the monotonous bulletins which told the old story that the Chieftain was sinking and the end was expected every minute. The last word which had been received was a private dispatch to say that Sir John could not live more than a few minutes and everybody believed the monotony of previous nights would be repeated. Suddenly there flashed over the Canadian Pacific Telegraph Company’s wires into THE NEWS office the words “Sir John is dead,” those words for which people had been waiting in sorrow for a week. In a moment a brief, black bulletin was hung in the window, and the people left in the streets gathered round and stared at the lines.

Meanwhile, at a competing paper…

At 26 minutes after 10 the dispatch reached THE EMPIRE over its special wire. A minute later the tidings was on the bulletin boards and the crowds downtown learnt the news. From mouth to mouth it spread like wild fire, and along the moving masses on the streets the mournful burden hurried, “Sir John is dead.” A few minutes later THE EMPIRE’s special edition followed afterward by the other newspapers, was out and the message further borne. For the first quarter-hour the tidings had been confined to the downtown portion of the city. Then came the bells. At 10:40 the first bell from the central fire hall toiled out, followed in rapid succession by the other fire halls. Then the whole city stopped, listened and knew the import of the general knell…the bells tolled out their impressive and dismal chorus at minute intervals, and from every tower 76 tolls were rung, one for every year of the Premier’s life. It was past midnight ere the last bell was quiet and the silence of death fell over the city, which went mourning to its slumbers.

Toronto’s newspapers quickly cranked out special editions to relay the news before the Sunday blue laws against working took effect at midnight. Zealous officials from the police morality squad targeted newsboys from the News who hawked free papers on June 7—the paper claimed it distributed an edition on Sunday for the public interest, but this didn’t prevent the police from browbeating mailroom employees into giving their names. Remembering a dead leader did not protect young boys from being arrested for violating the no work/no fun edict of the day.
The Empire took mourning to the extreme, as it devoted page after page to reactions from anyone who ever encountered Macdonald and from many cities in eastern Canada. Heavy black bars were printed around every column for five days from June 8 until Macdonald was laid to rest in Kingston. The Mail also employed black bars, but went back to its normal line thickness after one day. The Globe paid its respects by maintaining “a respectful silence” in criticizing the late leader “until the sense of loss is to some extent diminished and the intense personal affection felt for him by many Canadians has been subsided by time, the all-healer.”

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Cartoon by J.W. Bengough, Grip, June 13, 1891.

We’ll leave the final words to the satirical weekly Grip, where editor and illustrator J.W. Bengough had long lobbed criticism at Macdonald. In the June 13 edition, Bengough did not conceal his belief that Sir John had ruled the country as the “absolute autocrat of our destiny…Never more shall we see one-man government in this land, and the prospect is not an unpleasant one, for the concentration of practically unlimited power in the hands of one man however great is not best for the nation.” Reading the editorial the following week makes one think that Bengough may have realized that, based on public reaction, he might have been too harsh in criticizing Macdonald so soon after death, and that the horse he had drawn that week truly carried an empty saddle:

The trite expression about the “cold and ungrateful world” is a libel. The public has a big heart, and gives way to its feelings like a very child. Nothing in connection with the death and burial of Sir John A. Macdonald has been more touching than the expression of all sides of the public gratitude for the services he rendered to Canada and the Empire. There are those amongst us who, to be strictly truthful, Sir John’s career was more hindering than helpful to this country, and that the principles which he represented will have to be eradicated by long and painful work. But he did certainly do some good things, and for the sake of these all else is forgotten. There is, in the overmastering kindness of the people, something which should touch the heart of every public man and inspire him to the highest efforts of which he is capable. To honestly win such a tribute as has been paid to the late Premier is a worthy object of ambition, and no higher can be placed before a Canadian citizen.

Additional material gathered from editions of the Empire, Globe, Mail, News, Telegram, and World published between May 29, 1891 and June 12, 1891, and the June 13, 1891 and June 20, 1891 editions of Grip.

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