A particularly noisy row between Joseph James O’Leary, of 114r Versailles Street, and his wife, Emma (née Printer), led to the police being called in. It was Tuesday evening, March 4, 1902, a cold, late winter night. Constables Roderick Diamond and Joseph St. Pierre were dispatched to the scene by Police Lieutenant Robert Proulx who took the call around 10:00 P.M. Proulx worked at Station Six which was situated at 32 Chaboillez Square. The station (today the site of the now defunct Montreal Planetarium) was manned by 28 police officers and other officials.
Like many working class Montrealers, the O’Leary’s lived in a cold water flat set back off the street behind other dwellings. This simple fact was reflected by the letter “r” in their address. It stood for “rear”.
When the officers arrived they were greeted by a frantic Mrs. O’Leary who begged them to protect her and the children (there were at least two) from her clearly very drunk and violent husband. According to newspaper reports from the period, Diamond and St. Pierre explained to the frenzied woman that their intervention in that regard would require a warrant, which they did not have. Nevertheless, the law enforcers were hesitant to leave. Instead, they lingered inquisitively checking out the shanty from top to bottom while at the same time trying to calm the extremely aggressive Joseph O’Leary.
When Diamond and St. Pierre reached the back shed, O’Leary became especially agitated for there the two policemen made a most macabre discovery. In a wooden box, beneath a table, the startled constables stumbled upon the corpse of an infant girl – a tiny waif who had been evidently dead for a good period of time.
Above, Montreal Star period sketch depicting the gruesome discovery
The two officers proceeded to arrest O’Leary in order to take him to the station for questioning. Needless to say, the inebriated carpenter did not leave willingly and fought forcefully, particularly with Constable Diamond. Once at the Chaboillez Square station, however, O’Leary ceased the struggle and was placed in a holding cell. Coroner McMahon was immediately called in to investigate the tragic find.
The very next day both husband and wife gave essentially the same lamentable explanation. The infant was born prematurely on January 12 and died in convulsions four days later. The father saved his pennies (or so he said) in order to obtain a very modest newborn’s coffin into which he placed the poor little tyke’s body. Burial, he rationalised, for economic reasons would have to wait for the spring.
However, according to The Montreal Star, the death had been reported “in the usual way but no funeral was held, the parents being loathe to part with the body”. The reports of the time further indicated that the father frequently visited his departed child in the storage shed in the back of their cold water flat. In fact, the night of the incident O’Leary, 44, became drunk and wanted to run off with the coffin! Hence the argument between the couple.
Coroner McMahon held the inquest without a jury the following day at the morgue, then located on Perthuis Street, just east of the C.P.R.’s Place Viger Station. He noted that it was indeed the second time that he had seen the infant’s corpse, the first being on January 17 – the day after the minute girl’s death. This second time, as then, he ruled that the causes of death were “natural” and he subsequently issued a another certificate to that effect.
A day later, March 6, Joseph James O’Leary appeared in the Recorder’s Court to answer to charges of “committing a nuisance” by keeping the dead body of his child in a storage shed in the back of his working class flat on Versailles Street. O’Leary argued desperately that he was too poor to bury his daughter. However, it was demonstrated convincingly by the Crown that O’Leary was “an habitual drunkard and that he spent all his earnings on whiskey”.
Moments later, Mr. Recorder Weir branded the accused “a drunken wretch” and chastised O’Leary for wanting to spend his money on whiskey and not on the interment of his child. With that, the father broke down in the courtroom weeping uncontrollably, like a baby.
Nevertheless, Recorder Weir did not relent in his moralizing discourse. He stated unequivocally that the infant’s body could have been handed over to the Health Department for inhumation, if only the authorities had been made aware of the situation by either of the parents. In all events, His Honour concluded that it was “conceivable” that O’Leary did not know that he was creating a “nuisance” by not attending to the burial and he allowed him to leave with a suspended sentence. O’Leary was cautioned, however, not to appear again in Weir’s court or “his previous conduct would be remembered”.
The short saga of this tragic event ends on March 8 with the handing over of the poor little foundling’s body to the appropriate authorities at Montreal’s Cote des Neiges Cemetery where the child was later interred.
Published in the Quebec Family History Society’s quarterly, Connections, in June 2004