Monday, February 27, 2017

Accidents and Meaningless Deaths


The house was a wreck, and what they had not smashed the oil from the lamp had scorched.

Gazette, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 1895

Spare a thought for poor John Griffin. In trying to act the peacemaker, he wound up in hospital – and then in jail to boot.

Griffin, a steamfitter, rented the lower floor of a small tenement on Hermine St., near the corner of today’s St. Antoine. Upstairs lived a labourer named Thomas O’Connor and his wife, Bridget O’Brien.

It was a cold Tuesday evening in 1895, and O’Connor and his wife were making a dreadful racket. Finally, Griffin could take no more. He set off for the stairs to separate the combatants, and got caught up in the fracas himself. It nearly cost him his life.

A man named McKenzie lived in a house on St. Antoine that overlooked the back yard of the Hermine St. tenement. Like Griffin, he couldn’t help being aware of the almighty row going on between the couple, but unlike Griffin he was content to keep his distance.

Suddenly, through the windows, McKenzie watched in horror as an oil lamp went flying through the air. Immediately after, as The Gazette reported, he was startled to see “a man running out into the cold with his head all ablaze.” The man was John Griffin.

McKenzie rushed out and with his overcoat smothered the flames enveloping Griffin. Other neighbours, meanwhile, rushed into the tenement and put out the fire that was beginning to spread before too much damage could be done.

The police arrived, arrested the warring couple and hauled them off to a nearby station. Griffin was taken in an ambulance to the Montreal General Hospital.

“At the hospital Griffin was found to have a half-dozen cuts, besides having all his hair and his ears nearly burned off,” we reported. He was patched up and sent back to the police station where he told the officers, “Mrs. O’Connor, the damn fool, threw the lamp at me, and look at me now.” (We can only guess he said “damn,” for our editors used a long dash instead.)

But then, the police added insult to the injury dished out by Bridget O’Brien. “A charge of drunk and disorderly was laid against [Griffin], so as to hold him as a witness,” we said, “while the other two were charged with aggravated assault.”

The outcome of the case is lost to us. Not so for another oil lamp mishap a few days earlier.

It occurred a few blocks away in a tiny, ramshackle house on St. Justin St., today’s Berger. The wife of a labourer named Israel Lebovitch knocked a lamp from a table onto the floor. It exploded, spreading its burning oil over her, and she died at Notre Dame Hospital three days later.

Alas, she was scarcely alone in her meaningless death. As she lay in agony at Notre Dame, a young Scottish immigrant named John Thompson stepped from the quarters he rented on St. Paul St. Perhaps he had been drinking; not long before, his wife had left him to return to her father’s house on Congregation St. In any event, Thompson stumbled, fell down the stairs and badly cracked his head. He was taken to the same hospital but died early the following morning.

Drink certainly figured in the death of a man named Martin Higgins. The same day Thompson died, an inquest concluded that Higgins’s excessive drinking had hastened the onset of pneumonia, which killed him.

That afternoon as well, a woman named Margaret Carson was buried. Like John Thompson, she also had fallen. In her case, it was in the middle of Peel St. and she did not survive long enough to be taken to a hospital. She died on the spot. Her brother ordered a coffin but then promptly absconded. The coroner ordered that she be buried at the city’s expense.

Death hovered in the background of a robbery trial then under way. One of the accused, we reported, was “in the last stages of consumption, and it is feared that imprisonment will kill him.” A different affliction had befallen his co-accused: the night he was arrested, his infant son died.

But elsewhere in the case, death was perhaps forestalled. The two men on trial accused a third of complicity in their scheme but the police decided, at least for the moment, not to arrest him. “The wife of the man had just given birth to a child,” we reported, “and it was feared that the arrest of the husband would kill her.”

courtesy – Montreal Gazette

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