Historicist: The Great Detective
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Historicist: The Great Detective

The True Story of John Wilson Murray, the inspiration for Murdoch Mysteries.

Portrait of John Wilson Murray reproduced in Memoirs of a Great Detective (Fleming H. Revell, 1905).

In the summer of 1877, provincial detective John Wilson Murray was called to Pickering to investigate the rape of a young farmer’s wife, Mrs. Bennett—a crime so brutal that it led to her death shortly afterward. By the time Murray arrived, a deposition she had given prior to her death, including detailed descriptions of her attackers, resulted in indictments against two local young men, John McPherson and Thomas Burke.

Tensions were running high amid both shock at the savageness of the attack and disbelief that it could have been committed by local boys. Despite sufficient evidence presented at an initial post-mortem inquiry to secure indictments, there were also numerous defence witnesses swearing to the alibis of the accused and questioning the virtue of the victim. The community was divided, and a conviction was far from assured.

Murray’s task was to strengthen the prosecution’s case. First, he interviewed the prisoners separately, meticulously reconstructing their movements before and after the crime. “I found people who saw them together when they averred they were apart,” Murray discerned in retracing their steps to uncover points of weakness in their defence. “I found people who saw them in places where they stoutly maintained they had not been.”

Then Murray and his men searched the houses of the accused for corroborating evidence, discovering a pair of McPherson’s wool trousers still faintly stained despite having been washed. Chemical analysis by Professor Ellis at the School of Practical Science in Toronto confirmed that the trousers were stained with a woman’s blood, providing the key piece of evidence used to secure both men’s conviction in May 1878.

The novelty of Ellis’s expert scientific method and advanced forensic analysis, coupled with the sensational brutality of the crime, drew media interest from across the United States and Canada. Not for the first time, Detective Murray’s name was featured on the front pages for cracking a case that had confounded local authorities—often by employing a combination of traditional investigative methods and cutting-edge, scientific techniques. The Toronto-based detective, as it happens, was renowned as one of the leading sleuths of his day, and over the years his exploits inspired plays, novels, films, and two television series.

Front Page Coverage of Murray's death in the Toronto Globe (June 13, 1906).

John Wilson Murray was born in Edinburgh on June 15, 1840, and at about five years of age he moved to New York with his parents, a Scottish sea captain and the daughter of a Belfast doctor, and his older sister Mary. Murray ran off from school as a teenager to enlist in the U.S. Navy. In the common telling of Murray’s early career, as a sailor aboard the U.S.S. Michigan during the American Civil War, he was instrumental in thwarting Confederate spies in Canada from capturing the ship—apparently his first experience detecting crime. “However,” Jim Phillips and Joel Fortune conclude in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “he likely had nothing to do with the case.”

The legal historians likewise found no evidence to support Murray’s claim of having worked, upon his discharge from the Navy in 1866, as a special investigator for the U.S. government. More certain are that Murray joined the Erie, Pennsylvania, police department as a detective in 1868, and that he took a similar position with the Canada Southern Railway in the spring of 1873. Based out of St. Thomas, Ontario, Murray investigated robberies, sabotage, and the destruction of railroad equipment. As news of his investigative skill spread, he drew the attention of the attorney general and future premier of Ontario, Sir Oliver Mowat, who offered him a job in May 1875.

At 35 years of age Murray accepted a full-time appointment as provincial detective, with investigative responsibility for a total area of 101,733 square miles; that included large cities, tiny and remote hamlets, and vast expanses of wilderness. Beyond the reach of the established constabularies in the urban centres, most rural communities were served by ill-paid, little-trained patronage appointees, making investigation and all but the most elementary law enforcement ineffective. Murray’s appointment was intended to correct these perceived shortcomings. Whenever requested by local county officials, Murray (or later one of the constables he supervised in his nascent Criminal Investigation Branch) hastened from his Toronto office (located first in Queen’s Park and later in a King Street West office building) to the far corners of the province, to supplement local efforts with his superior investigative skill.

Counterfeit banknote reproduced in Memoirs of a Great Detective (Fleming H. Revell, 1905).

“The cases he has solved range through every variety of crime known to the police records of the world,” Victor Speer, editor and co-author of Murray’s memoirs, assessed in Memoirs of a Great Detective (William Heinemann Ltd., 1904). “He has run down counterfeiters of $1,000,000 and more; he has unravelled the mysteries of murder where life was taken for eighty cents.” Murray solved innumerable crimes, severe and minor, including burglary, assault, and arson, as well as fraud, larceny, and counterfeiting. The more celebrated cases, the Globe (June 13, 1906) remarked upon his death, “were interspersed with considerable work of a less important but quite exacting nature, in which he had few failures to record.”

In his first case for the province, the murder of Lambton County farmer Ralph Findlay, Murray demonstrated his ability to rise above the parochial nature of local law enforcement. While local constables were certain that Findlay had been shot by cattle rustlers he’d startled outside his barn, Murray examined the scene without such preconceptions or local prejudices. Quickly realizing that such a scenario was unlikely and noticing the wife’s suspicious behaviour, Murray secured a confession that she and her lover, a farmhand, had done the deed.

“The detective business is the higher branch of the police business,” Murray asserted, insisting that his calling be considered a professional occupation requiring skills honed through years of practical application and hard work. He listed the detective’s essential attributes:

There is nothing done in it, nothing accomplished by any detective, that is not the result of conscientious work, the exercise of human intelligence, an efficient system of organisation [sic] and inter-communication and good luck. A good detective must be quick to think, keen to analyse, persistent, resourceful, and courageous. But the best detective in the world is a human being, neither half-devil nor half-god, but just a man with the attributes or associates that make him successful in his occupation.

Murray was regarded as a pioneer of innovative criminal investigative techniques, utilizing fingerprint analysis, measuring and taking plaster casts of footprints, and consulting other professionals in order to harness their scientific and medical expertise in the cause of crime-solving.

(At right: coverage of a Murray case in the Star; December 12, 1905).

On more than one occasion, Murray called upon professors at the University of Toronto’s School of Practical Science for chemical analysis of evidence such as clothing and weapons, and he ordered post-mortems of victims as standard practice in cases of suspicious death. Combining these techniques with traditional legwork, Murray could methodically weave the evidence into a tapestry that was difficult to refute.

However, as Peter Calamai notes in the introduction of his edition of Memoirs of a Great Detective (The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2000), Murray employed such innovative techniques in only a minority of his cases. The majority of Murray’s arrests, Calamai writes, “can be credited to old-fashioned shoe leather, a network of law-enforcement buddies and luck.”

“Hard work and consistent work,” Murray once explained to a Globe reporter, “is the thing which brings the largest share of what most people call ‘good luck.'” The assertion is best illustrated by the detective’s pursuit, in the spring of 1880, of a counterfeiter who’d distributed over $1 million worth of forged banknotes of such exceptional craftsmanship that even banks accepted them as genuine. Through New York City, Chicago, and towns in between, Murray pursued leads and interviewed former forgers, determining that the culprit was master counterfeiter Edwin Johnson. He then criss-crossed from Indianapolis to Cincinnati to Kentucky, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and back to New York City in dogged pursuit of Johnson. Labour turned to luck when the worn-out detective returned to Toronto by train and immediately spotted Johnson’s son at a tavern near the station. Once he trailed the forger’s son to a house on Hazelton and Avenue, Murray only had to stake out the residence until Edwin Johnson was spotted and caught passing one his own forged banknotes.

Counterfeit banknote reproduced in Memoirs of a Great Detective (Fleming H. Revell, 1905).

Murray cultivated relationships with policemen and detectives across the continent. So when he distributed handbills of wanted men, believing that “a good description is worth more than a dozen photographs [because it] gives you an accuracy in idea of how your man looks and acts, that no photograph can do,” Murray found his compatriots willing to cooperate. And every time Murray called in at a police department during his travels, he consulted as many descriptions and photographs of prisoners as could be assembled in the hope of spotting any of his fugitives-at-large. It was in this manner that Murray, years after a violent break-and-enter at the Dain family home near Yonge and Bloor, located the culprit, Frank Meagher, in an Indiana prison.

Beyond tracking his own fugitives, Murray maintained correspondence with colleagues in other cities and kept abreast of judicial proceedings in other jurisdictions in order to commit to memory details and descriptions of malefactors throughout North America. “You never can tell,” he once told the Globe, “they might drift to Canada any time.” Thus, Murray was purported to know many leading criminals on sight, even if he’d never encountered them before.

Murray’s professed ability to identify a criminal on sight—resulting in his willingness to search without warrant and to arrest on suspicion alone—was but one of his controversial views on crime. Criminality, Murray wrote, “is an inherent, inherited weakness” passed on in families from one generation to another. “It may skip a generation or even two or three generations,” but would always reassert itself. “You have read of people living immaculate lives for many years and suddenly succumbing to crime. The disease was ever present, but was not manifest.”

As such, he thought criminals were irredeemable, and could only be reformed in extremely rare instances. Confirming his status as an unreconstructed man of his time, Murray used racial epithets and racist descriptions throughout his Memoirs; the most egregious instances were omitted from editions republished in 1977 and 1980. Nevertheless, he was regarded as a man of impeccable character and sound judgment. Even if a suspect was not convicted, an editorial in the Star argued upon Murray’s death, “never was one of any note in which public opinion did not agree that Murray had put his finger on the right man.”

Murray’s exploits and his methods were widely reported in the newspapers of the day, making him one of the most famous detectives at home and internationally. Having developed relationships with two generations of journalists, Murray fed them unattributed stories or choice quotes when it served his interests, though never at the expense of a case, as the Globe explained: “He knew to a nicety just how much of a story should be given and when it could be given: he was as dumb as a stone image when a few lines in the newspapers would have warned some transgressor of the law that the officers were on his track.” Once a case was concluded, however, he shared stories of his exploits with them as intimates in informal settings.

(Right: coverage of Murray’s death in the Toronto Star; June 13, 1906.)

Perhaps due to the regular press coverage of his success at solving crimes, Murray was emboldened to work with remarkable independence, neglecting to keep his superiors at the Attorney General’s Office informed of his movements (and ignoring their telegraph communications) to such a degree that, on at least one occasion, his superiors threatened to put him on suspension if he didn’t report to the office at once.

Throughout Murray’s 31-year career in Ontario, rarely a month passed without his being mentioned in at least one major daily paper. Nevertheless, the detective was all but unrecognizable to the public. Tall and athletic, Murray had a great drooping, sandy-coloured moustache, shrewd blue eyes, and a cheerful but commanding voice. His anonymity ensured that even as his fame grew, it never affected his ability to inconspicuously trail suspects.

As a lawman, Murray was single-minded in his pursuit of justice, at the expense of all else in his life. In 1892, he tracked Charles Hilton Davidson, a Burlington church organist who’d amassed a small fortune through fraud, in Vera Cruz, Mexico. But, because his prisoner was also wanted in the United States—and a direct route back to Canada would have him losing Davidson to American authorities—Murray followed a roundabout path. From Mexico, the duo travelled via Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and England—encountering a political revolution and meddling local authorities, and enduring a broken-down ship, and a hurricane along the journey—before arriving back in Toronto over four months and 20,000 miles later. Such dedication to his craft apparently took a toll on Murray’s private life, Calamai suggests. Murray’s wife, with whom he had two daughters, left him at some point (or pre-deceased him) although it is not certain when because his Memoirs are entirely silent on the subject.

Although he earned a modest salary of $1,650 for most of his career—padded by his travel expense claims and, on at least one occasion, a substantial reward for his services from grateful bank managers—Murray lived in a comfortable brick semi-detached at 82 Brunswick Avenue (since demolished for the creation of Margaret Fairley Park). His library—lined with volumes of Sir Walter Scott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and poet Robbie Burns—was decorated with trophies from successful cases: the plates which had created over $1 million in counterfeit banknotes, bullets pulled from the skulls of murder victims, burglary kits, and rusty pipes used as evidence at trials. “Each has its history,” Murray’s Memoirs explain, “and in the story of his life all have their place.”

From his copious case files, Murray assembled his more famous exploits including the cases noted above, a plot by Irish republicans to blow up the Welland Canal, and the infamous Birchall Case for publication in Memoirs of a Great Detective: Incidents in the Life of John Wilson Murray in 1904. His collaborator on the project was Victor Speer, an editor at a Toronto advertising agency, who omitted small facts and added colourful details, embellishing Murray’s adventures to rival the dramas of fictional detectives.

Murray's gravestone at Toronto's Mount Hope Cemetery. Photo by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.

Comparisons would later be drawn between Murray and Sherlock Holmes—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective of the 1890s—in marketing materials for abridged reprints of the Memoirs in 1977 and 1980. At that time Murray was enjoying something of a renaissance of interest with a CBC-TV series, The Great Detective, loosely based on his cases, that ran for three seasons. A decade later, author Maureen Jennings used Murray as inspiration for a series of plays for the Solar Stage theatre company which, in turn, led to seven full-length novels and a novella about her iconic character, Detective William Murdoch, as well as a Citytv television series that moves to CBC this fall.

In early June 1906, Murray investigated a string of cattle-poisonings in Etobicoke. It would be his last case. On June 9, he suffered a stroke, and three days later Murray died with one of his daughters, Mary Murray, at his side. She was joined at Murray’s funeral on June 15 by her sister, politicians, bureaucrats and, newspapermen noticed, at least one of the criminals he’d apprehended.

Additional sources consulted: Peter Calamai’s introduction to Memoirs of a Great Detective: Incidents in the Life of John Wilson Murray (The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2000); John W. Sabean, “Crimes of a Century: The Bennett Case,” in the Pickering Township Historical Society’s Pathmaster 7:1 & 2 (Winter/Spring); Michael Worek’s introductions to Memoirs of a Great Canadian Detective: Incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray (Collins, 1977) and Further Adventures of the Great Detective: Incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray (Collins, 1980); and articles in the Toronto Globe (June 13, 1906) and Toronto Star (June 13, 1906 & October 2, 1982).

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

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