Today is the 161st anniversary of the death of Matthew Sheedy.
The story of Sheedy's death begins the day before. Sheedy was an Irish Catholic who had fled the famine in Ireland to come to Canada. He was all of twenty three years old, had a wife and an infant son, Paddy. He was in the area of St Lawrence Hall and St James Cathedral (which was mostly rebuilt by this time after its immediate predecessor was destroyed in the 1849 fire which also destroyed much of the old city) that day. This was the heart of Orange, Protestant Toronto. This was not a place a Catholic would wish to be on most days, but this was not most days. It was St Patrick's Day, and Sheedy was there in a parade with several thousand other of his co-religionists and countrymen.
According to most accounts, Sheedy and his fellows had gathered around St Lawrence Hall. There the most famous Irish Canadian of his time and future Father of Confederation Thomas D'Arcy McGee was giving a speech in honour of the day. The day had already been a bit violent: a police officer had been beaten by some of the members of the parade for wearing an Orange ribbon and flower on a day that was dedicated to the Green.
The presence of the Orange on the officer was a signal of one of the problems that existed at that time: The police department- and the fire department as well, though they don't figure in this story- and most of the city council were dominated by the Orange Lodge. Catholics had long been complaining that they could find neither protection nor justice from the authorities in Toronto, but their complaints were ignored, as they Catholics were regarded as a criminal element. The top magistrate in Toronto at the time wrote that the Irish Catholics were nothing but drunkards and thieves, and a future Mayor of Toronto would describe them as 'traitors all.' The Fireman's Riot and the Clown Riot of 1855 had shown to the population of Toronto that the Orange Lodge was unwilling and unable to hold itself accountable to the law, and so the process of reform had begun, but, on this day, no real change had yet occurred.
The real trouble began shortly after McGee began his speech. An Orangeman who was a cabman, or a carter- the sources are not clear- coming north from St Lawrence Market whipped his horses and attempted to drive through the crowd gathered on the streets to hear McGee. He was turned back by a shower of stones and mud thrown at the horse and cart by the crowd, but the commotion in the streets drew out many nearby shop owners and workers, who, not coincidentally, were also members of the Orange Lodge, and many of them were brandishing weapons. A riot began, and localized brawls and fights were occurring up and down the streets. Sheedy was reported to be trying to help the police restore order, when he disappeared down an alley near Colborne Street. When he reappeared moments later, he had been stabbed. He was rushed to a nearby pub (or pharmacy, or both- again, sources are somewhat unclear) He was examined by a doctor, questioned and rushed to a hospital. It was thought he might recover.
Some witnesses were found, and at least one gave a description and identified the attacker, and an Orangeman was taken into custody. That night, various Irish groups gathered across the city to have a feast in honour of St Patrick. One group of prominent Irish Catholics who were dining at the National Hotel, upon hearing that a group of prominent Irish Protestants were having a similar feast at a nearby hotel, sent a token of friendship to the Protestants, and claimed that though they may differ in Creed, an Irish heart still beat within them all. It was a rather rare gesture at the time, but it was well received by the Protestants, among whom was the founder of the Grand Orange Lodge in Canada himself, Ogle R. Gowan, and they sent back a message accepting the token, and in appreciation of the friendship. Several of them , including Gowan, went to deliver the message personally.
The message was never delivered. They found the National Hotel surrounded by a mob of Orangemen. Bricks and stones were being thrown at the Hotel, and by now all the windows had been shattered. Other members of the mob had brought pistols and were firing into the hotel. They were enraged at the beating of their fellow Orangeman,the police officer, and that another Orangemen had been arrested. Unbeknownst at the time, Thomas D'Arcy McGee was fleeing for his life from another Orange mob, The prominent Orangemen called upon their Lodge brothers to cease and remember their oaths to uphold British Law and the Queen's peace. Their words had no effect. They called upon the police officers to break up the mob and protect those inside. That also had no effect. Many of the police actually took part in the riot. Then several of the prominent Orange men then slipped through the crowd and vaulted themselves through the broken windows into the hotel. They found the Catholic men there inside, some seeking cover, others pelting the crowd back. The Protestants somehow convinced the Catholics to accept their protection, and Gowan and the others lead the Catholics out of the hotel, personally shielding them from the mob. Despite the large police presence, no one was ever charged or even taken into custody for the attack on the National Hotel.
The next day, Matthew Sheedy died from his wound. The wound had pierced one of his large intestines, which had leaked 'feculant matter' into his bloodstream. He died in agony. Among his last words, he told a friend that the worst part about his dying was that his killer had stolen him from Paddy. Over three thousand would attend his funeral a few days later, and accompany his cortege all the way up Yonge Street to the cemetery at Yonge and St Clair.
An inquest was called into Sheedy's murder, and a coroner's jury was selected- every member a Protestant, and many of them Orangemen. The Catholics protested that jury so composed would never be able to impartially enact justice for a Catholic. The jury were offended at the charge. And so several long weeks of testimony began.
It was confused and confusing. The murder weapon could not be determined. The coroner testified that he believed the wound to have been from a clasp knife. Several witnesses testified that Sheedy had been stabbed by a pitchfork, and pointed to a man who had been seen waving a pitchfork at that time. A doctor and a reporter testified that they had spoken to Sheedy while he lay in the pub when no one else was present, and both asked him if he could identify his attacker. One said Sheedy told him that the attacker was a friend (i.e., fellow Catholic), that the stabbing was an accident and Sheedy refused to name him. The other said that Sheedy said that he had been stabbed by someone he didn't know, but who closely resembled the man who had been taken into custody. Others then testified that they had been present when Sheedy had been questioned, and testified that Sheedy had said the exact opposite of what the doctor and the newsman said. The one man who claimed to have witnessed the attack.was found to have been drinking that day, and the protestant jury dismissed the testimony of an Irish drunk. Another man came to the inquest drunk, and insinuated that he knew what had really happened, but wasn't going to tell. He was thrown into jail for contempt of court, and when he returned to the inquest a few days later sober he claimed that he was only pretending to know what happened, and he really had no idea and nothing to add. The carter who had been seen driving his horses into the procession, who was also an Orangeman, wanted it to be known that he had done no such thing, and a few fellow Orangemen police officers testified that it was so, for he had been present with them and nowhere near the trouble when it began. Meanwhile, one member of the jury insisted on asking every Irish witness a single question: were they wearing the green ribbon (symbol of Irish independence) that day?
The inquest could come to no firm conclusion. The man who had been arrested was set free, and the cause of Sheedy's death was officially listed as 'murder by person or persons unknown.' The Irish community would have none of that, and Sheedy's burial record would read, under the heading 'cause of death': "Murdered by an Orangeman."
In the wake of his death and the attack on the hotel, many in the Irish community concluded that they would never be protected or be given justice from the police of Toronto, and they formed the Hibernian Benevolent Society, dedicated to providing protection for the Irish in Toronto, by force if necessary. The Fenians would find them a fairly fertile recruiting grounds- in fact, the founder was himself a Fenian, and would die in the US following the Fenian Raids of 1866.
But police reform was coming. It too was spurred on by the miscarriage of justice in Sheedy's case. Many in Toronto, not merely the Catholics were fed up with the Orange Lodge protecting its own. Then in the wake of the 1855 riots was spurred forward, and, later in 1858, the entire police department was fired on a single day. The new department was to be more reflective of the population of Toronto as a whole, and membership in secret societies was forbidden. That didn't quite work out: many of the officers were still Orangemen in the new force, and the Catholics would be less than ten percent of the force by 1875, though they were twenty per cent of the population. But it was better than nothing.
Sheedy's death would be a rallying cry for years to come. When the Corpus Christi Riot of 1864 occurred, the publisher of the Irish Canadian weekly newspaper would rail that the Orangemen had sought to stop a Catholic procession on the grounds of the Catholic Cathedral. "And now... we must be regulated in future, as to how and where to celebrate our religious festivals, not by our Bishops and Priests, but by the murderers of Sheedy and the sackers of the National Hotel."