Published in the Montreal Gazette on July 14, 2012
It’s rather poignant to ponder in passing that the recently created esplanade of the ultra-modern ‘Quartier des spectacles’ was in days gone by the ill-fated site of one of the more notorious murders of the Edwardian Period. Even so, a little over a century ago, halfway up that same splendid walkway that today graces the ‘Quartier’, Constable George D. Shea of the Montreal Police Force, lost his life at the hands of a half-crazed desperado who had an infamous reputation for violent outbursts.
The Gazette reported in its April 7, 1908 edition that only the day before the tragic killing there had been a fierce disagreement between one John Dillon (also known at the time as ‘James Smith’) and his boarding house landlady, Mrs. B. Pritchard of 34 Mance street. Dillon, who had been drinking heavily that same Monday morning, threatened the terrified woman with a shotgun, so frightening her that she rapidly contacted the police to deal with the situation. Their intervention, which involved Montreal’s Fire Brigade as well, lasted a little over five hours.
When Constables T. O’Shaughnessy and Joseph Foucault first arrived from a nearby police precinct, Dillon greeted them with double-barreled shotgun fire. Foucault was struck, though not seriously injured. O’Shaughnessy quickly sent in for reinforcements.
Around the same moment, he also badly wounded Detective Chief Silas Huntingdon Carpenter, who after which spent nearly six weeks in hospital recovering from his various injuries.
A shaky standoff, in front of an estimated 5,000 curious onlookers, endured for several more hours. On multiple occasions, Dillon presented himself at the window and, according to one newspaper report, “could have been picked off with a good shot” by any of the officers below. Despite the loss of their comrade, however, the police did not want to go that way, not at first anyway.
Somewhat later, firemen directed a powerful stream of water into Dillon’s room, hoping to force the madman out in that fashion. It was not an uncommon tactic at the time. Eventually, as darkness fell, Constable Patrick Dooner and another three policemen entered the building from the rear, confronted Dillon in his room, shooting him on the spot. The offender was not, however, fatally injured and was taken to the General Hospital, then located on Dorchester Street near St. Lawrence. As for the building from which the gory drama took place, it was totally destroyed by heavy water damage.
What caused Dillon’s folly is not known although rumours abounded that Mrs. Pritchard, who was in fact a widow, had spurned his frequent advances. The ‘couple’ had been spotted several times by various people in the streets of Montreal.
Dillon, a bookkeeper by trade, had been in Montreal since 1896 and was well-known throughout the city his for immaculate, almost elitist presentation.
Nevertheless, few who knew him well were surprised by the tragic turn of events. “He was subject to fits of what then seemed to us to be insanity”, said Mr. John B. Sutherland, general manager of a booksellers company for whom Dillon had worked from time to time. “They would come suddenly at intervals. When he had had any liquor he would simply go crazy, and I am certain from what I know of the man that when he did the shooting in Montreal he was altogether out of his senses”.
Over time, Dillon recovered from his wounds and was brought before the courts. Seventeen months later he was found guilty of the murder of Constable Shea and was sentenced to be hanged on November 19, 1909. However, the very day the punishment was to be carried out, Dillon received a pardon. He died a model prisoner in July of 1910 at St. Vincent de Paul Penetentiary in north end Montreal. There, in his final year spent most often in sickness, he read and did whatever work was requested of him by the authorities. He never once spoke about the crime he had committed.
As was the policy at the time, Constable Shea’s young widow and mother of their infant child was given a one time payment $1000 by the Police Benevolent Society.
Ironically, Shea’s badge number was 191 and the previous holder of that pin number, Constable John O’Connell, was also killed while on duty, although in O’Connell’s case accidentally.
In that regard, the Montreal Star had perhaps understated in an editorial the day after the 1908 tragedy: “We do not always appreciate the risks which the police and the firemen take in our behalf, and all as a part of the day’s work”.
The esplanade of the ‘Quartier des spectacles’ in June of 2012. It was more or less where the fountain is today that the young Constable George D. Shea was so tragically murdered.