With the arrival of Black History Month, it’s perhaps an opportune time to reflect on occasionally little-known iniquitous happenings that have occurred to people of colour in our very own Montreal down through the years. One in particular comes to mind, and it’s a story in itself.
One hundred and twelve years ago, a black American stableman by the name of George Wellington Smith was shot and mortally wounded near this city’s Hotel Dieu Hospital. The shooting was racially motivated and dramatically showed Montreal to be hardly any better in its treatment of minorities than most of our urban counterparts south of the border.
The dreadful event began when Smith “sober and industrious of character” arrived in the city on August 20, 1901 with his wife and son, Arthur, aged seven. He was a well – known horse trainer and was engaged to come here from Willink, New York (today Aurora) by Mr. Cyrille Laurin, an equally celebrated horseman. The Smith family lived at 15 Arcade Street (today that section of Clark found between Pine and Cuthbert) while Cyrille Laurin resided on Jeanne Mance, near Pine Avenue.
On Sunday morning, January 26, 1902, Smith, 38, 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.
With the horse harnessed, Laurin’s 21-year-old son, Eddie, entered the stable and proceeded to chasten Smith for not having had the animal readied sooner. It was for some time his habit to insult the hire hand from New York State. On this occasion, his belligerent behaviour culminated with the younger Laurin calling Smith “ill-bred”, and he subsequently ordered the American to ask his forgiveness on his knees “just as the n…..s in South Africa had to do to their masters”.
The young Laurin abruptly left the area, but returned a short time later with a revolver. 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 decided to take the wounded man to the nearby Hotel Dieu Hospital. It was there that Smith, in and out of consciousness, died the following morning.
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. Cyrille Laurin 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 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.
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 evidence against him, found guilty on April 5 in the Court of King’s Bench of manslaughter in the death of the star-crossed American. After a stern lecture, Justice Jonathan 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 Smith was removed from the vaults of the Hotel Dieu Hospital that same spring. It was conveyed by railway to Buffalo, New York, and then transferred to East Aurora, Erie County, New York for interment in Oakwood Cemetery.
It is difficult to say from where the young Laurin acquired his racist attitudes. Perhaps his brief stint in South Africa during the Boer War did the trick. However, racism and intolerance against many different ethnic groups were ripe in most North American cities at the time.
So, during this Black History Month, those of us inclined to think that this type of conduct did not exist in our city should think again. During the Edwardian Period, and well into later decades, virtually all minorities, visible and non- visible alike, were victims of one form of discrimination or another.
Clearly, and unhappily, Montreal was not an exception.
Above, George Wellington Smith