First published in March 2002 in CONNECTIONS, the quarterly of the Quebec Family History Society.
Shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in April of 1968, I attended my first demonstration in this city – a protest march to condemn his murder and those it was believed to have been behind it. It was a peaceful rally in which desolation was the dominant emotion. We marched -ebony and ivory- from Sir George Williams University through the streets of this fair city to Dominion Square, from where we eventually dispersed.
As a student in history at that same university, I was aware that, while Canada did not have the same degree of overt racism in our national narrative as was found so often south of the border, nevertheless, we have had our moments. I then thought about a story I had been told a few years earlier concerning the racially-motivated murder of a black man in Montreal in the early 1900’s, the researched details of which are quite disturbing.
Simply put, in 1902, over one hundred and eight years ago, a black American stableman by the name of George Wellington Smith was shot and mortally wounded near the Hotel Dieu de Montréal. This deplorable event was one of the first homicides of the new year in this city. It was also racially motivated, and, in several ways, revealed Montreal to be hardly any better in its treatment of minorities than were most of our urban counterparts south of the border.
The tragic episode began when Smith “sober and industrious of character” arrived here on August 20, 1901 with his wife and son, Arthur, aged seven. He was a well – known horse trainer and was engaged to come to this Canadian metropolis from Willink, New York ( today Aurora ) by Mr. Cyrille Laurin, an equally well – known horseman. The Smith family lived at 15 Arcade Street ( today that section of Clark found between Pine and Cuthbert ) while Cyrille Laurin resided at 443 Mance (today Jeanne Mance Street), near Pine.
Early on the Sunday morning of January 26, 1902, Smith, 38, had received instructions to get a horse prepared in order for Mr. Laurin to go to 9:00 A.M. Mass at the Gesù Church on Bleury Street. After the service, Laurin was to visit with Henry Hogan, proprietor of the prestigious St. Lawrence Hall Hotel.
With the horse harnessed, the 21 year old son of Mr. Cyrille Laurin, Eddie, entered the stable and proceeded to chasten Smith for not having had the horse readied sooner. It had been for some time his habit to assault verbally the employee from New York State. On this occasion the invidious behaviour culminated with the younger Laurin calling Smith “an ill-bred nigger”, and he subsequently ordered the American to ask his forgiveness on his knees “just as the niggers in South Africa had to do to their masters”. At that point, the young Laurin left the area but returned a short time later with a revolver in his hand. He repeatedly threatened the startled horseman with the weapon, demanding an immediate apology with Smith on his knees.
After calling the stableman some more “fearful names”, Smith’s aggressor threatened to strike him. A rather violent struggle ensued and the armed Laurin fired two shots, one of which struck the American in the left side. Upon being quickly examined at the site by Dr. A. Brodeur, it was wisely decided to take the wounded man to the nearby Hotel Dieu Hospital. It was there in room number seven that Smith, in and out of consciousness, died the following morning, January 27, at 2:00 A.M.
Later the same day an inquest headed by Coroner Edmond McMahon, met at the morgue to study the case in the presence of the body. At the time, Mr. Cyrille Laurin (the father of the accused) stated that he was unaware of any quarrel between the two men and was at a loss to explain why his son was in the stable in question that particular morning. Nevertheless, the coroner’s jury decided, in all of five minutes of deliberation, that his troubled son was indeed criminally responsible for the unprovoked shooting death of George Wellington Smith. Accordingly, Edward Laurin, charged with murder, was taken in custody. He seemed totally unconcerned and unaware of the seriousness of his position. His legal advisor was Mr. H.C. St. Pierre, K.C.
The criminal trial of Edward Laurin for murder (to which Smith’s widow was compelled to attend) took place in Montreal throughout much of March 1902 and created great interest amongst the population as a whole. Despite the fact that he acquitted himself reasonably well during the daily proceedings, Laurin was, due to the overwhelming preponderance of evidence against him, found guilty on April 5 in the Court of King’s Bench (then situated in the Old Justice Building immediately west of the Montreal City Hall) of manslaughter in the death of the unfortunate American. After a stern lecture, Mr. Justice Wurtele sentenced him to 14 years in the federal prison of St. Vincent de Paul.
In the melancholic presence of his widow and young son, the body of Mr. Smith was removed from the vaults of the Hotel Dieu Hospital on April 17, 1902. It was conveyed by the Grand Trunk Railway to Buffalo, New York, and then transferred to East Aurora, Erie County, New York for interment in Oakwood Cemetery. The fate of his wife and son remains a mystery.
It is difficult to say from where the young Laurin acquired his racist views and attitudes. Perhaps his brief stint in South Africa during the Boer War a year or so earlier did the trick. However, and we can make no mistake about it, racism and intolerance against many different ethnic groups were ripe in most North American cities at that time, and clearly and sadly, Montreal was not an exception.