Crime

The Christmas Eve Murder That Shocked 19th Century Victoria

A man was gunned down in cold blood outside a Christmas Eve mass, in what police suspected was a botched assassination

By Tristin Hopper
December 24, 2019
Crime

The Christmas Eve Murder That Shocked 19th Century Victoria

A man was gunned down in cold blood outside a Christmas Eve mass, in what police suspected was a botched assassination

By Tristin Hopper
Dec 24, 2019
St. Andrew's Cathedral at Blanshard and View, site of a grisly Christmas Eve murder in 1890.
Crime

The Christmas Eve Murder That Shocked 19th Century Victoria

A man was gunned down in cold blood outside a Christmas Eve mass, in what police suspected was a botched assassination

By Tristin Hopper
December 24, 2019
The Christmas Eve Murder That Shocked 19th Century Victoria
St. Andrew's Cathedral at Blanshard and View, site of a grisly Christmas Eve murder in 1890.

It was Christmas Eve at Victoria’s St. Andrew’s Cathedral in 1890 when, just before midnight, the Latin carols and prayers of a Catholic midnight mass were suddenly shattered by the sound of a small explosion on the street outside.

A contingent of worshippers rushed outside to investigate, and there saw David Fee, a spreading pool of blood around his motionless form. A hole torn in his chest, the gun blast had been so close it had left him covered in powder burns.

Fee had left the church only moments before, and had been on his way to a Christmas party. It was to this party that bystanders carried his bloodied form in order to get it out of the night’s driving rain. Fee died still clad in festive costume, a child’s toy trumpet around his neck. His funeral, held only a few days later would become the most-attended in Victoria history.

It was “a crime as dark, cowardly and mysterious as ever disfigured the history of this province,” declared the Christmas Day edition of the Daily Colonist.

A Christmas Eve shooting was shocking enough, but this wasn’t a crime of passion or a robbery gone wrong. As prosecutors would soon argue, the 28-year-old Fee had unwittingly gotten himself caught up in a case of political murder.

The front steps of St. Andrew's Cathedral, pictured on December 23, 2019.

There was no doubt as to who had fired the fatal shot. The murderer, had given himself up almost immediately. Just before 2 a.m., a sleeping constable at the city’s police barracks was shaken awake by a young man of medium build with an Irish accent. “I am the man that shot a man tonight,” declared 33-year-old Lawrence Phelan to the groggy officer.

Investigators were able to recover the murder weapon within minutes. The Victoria police chief had been at church at the time of the murder and had heard the shot. The gun, wet from the rain and its right barrel still warm, was quickly found abandoned in a nearby house.

By the time dawn broke on Christmas Day, the only thing missing was a motive. By all accounts, David Fee had been a model citizen: An active volunteer, a former firefighter, a well-like socialite. “Everyone had a good word for ‘Dave Fee,’” memorialized the Daily Colonist. He was a shopkeeper in Nanaimo, but had returned to Victoria only the day before in order to be with his parents for Christmas.

Fee had no debts, no jilted lovers, no mortal enemies. And yet, he had seemingly been marked for death in a brazen killing more in keeping with a mob hit or a terrorist assassination.

According to the account that would be presented by prosecutors, an assassination was exactly what it was supposed to be. Political terrorism had visited the streets of Victoria, they said, but the killer had shot the wrong guy.  

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Frank Partridge, a friend of Fee, had been at his side at the time of the shooting. As he would later tell a coroner’s inquest, the two of them had been suddenly accosted by a figure who said “I challenge you” before raising his gun and firing.  

The Crown would argue that Fee had been doomed by his choice of a white coat. Whelan had really been after another man that night, a foreman named Thomas Deasy known for his white raincoat. And the killing, they argued, had been plotted as an act of Irish nationalist violence.

The cornerstone to the current-day St. Andrew’s Cathedral had been laid only two months before, and a dispute over a flag had reportedly inflamed tensions between site managers and the predominantly Irish-American construction crew. A Union Jack, a U.S. flag and an Irish flag had been raised over the site of the future cathedral, but Deasy had reportedly ordered the takedown of a much more political flag openly advocating for Irish independence from Great Britain.   

Witness accounts from other workmen alleged that the incident had caused Whelan to vow revenge against Deasy. And thus, when he was picked to guard the construction site on Christmas Eve, he armed himself accordingly knowing that Deasy, a good Irish Catholic, would be attending mass at the old Catholic cathedral next door. The smoking gun (aside from the actual smoking gun) was said to be cryptic note discovered at the home of one of Whelan’s friends reading “he will never speak again.”

A midnight mass held in St. Andrew's in 1958 (Source: BC Archives)

Canadians were much more on edge about Irish nationalist, or "Fenian" terrorism in 1890, and for understandable reasons. Only 20 years before Fee’s murder, the country had been invaded by full-fledged Irish armies intending to conquer Canada and trade it to Queen Victoria in exchange for an independent Ireland.

To date, Canada’s only assassination of a federal politician was perpetrated by an Irish nationalist. In 1868, federal MP Thomas D’Arcy McGee, an Irish-born outspoken anti-nationalist, was killed in very similar circumstances to Fee. He was gunned down at night at close range by an unprovoked assailant. By pure coincidence, the man who shot McGee was also named Whelan.

Victoria’s Whelan, for his part, argued that the killing of Fee had all been a big misunderstanding. On Christmas Eve, Fee and Partridge had been “raising a row” as they strode past St. Andrew’s. When Whelan had demanded they show some respect for the cathedral, he reported that one of the men blew a trumpet in his face, causing him to retaliate with the shotgun.

The gun wasn’t supposed to be loaded, said Whelan, and the man who provided Fee with the ammunition would indeed testify that he only provided blanks. “I fired a shot, but I am no murderer,” Whelan claimed to have told police upon surrendering. Also, in a claim that no witness dispute, Whelan was also incredibly drunk.

It wasn’t a great defence: Even a shotgun firing blanks can be lethal at close range, and the large lead slug found in Fee’s body quickly proved that, intentional or not, the gun had definitely been loaded.  

However, a jury would ultimately decide that Whelan was more likely a reckless drunk than a Fenian terrorist. He was convicted of manslaughter.

Fee would be buried in Ross Bay Cemetery, his grave marked with a massive marble pillar so well preserved that it still seems brand new. His untimely death, meanwhile, has cursed him to spend eternity as a feature attraction on Victoria’s many ghost tours. His bloodied white-coated form is alternately said to haunt his tomb or the front steps of St. Andrew’s, although sightings never seem to be amount to more than an “eerie” feeling.

As for Phelan, his sentence would be handed down by none other than Matthew Baillie Begbie, the so-called “Hanging Judge” of early British Columbia. By 1891, Begbie was in the twilight of his career; his days of conducting circuit court by horseback in remote mining camps were well behind him.

Matthew Begbie in 1875 (Source: BC Archives)

And after a storied career of having hanged men for far less, Begbie bristled at the jury’s finding of manslaughter, called Whelan a wilful murderer and hinted to him that an outraged public hungered for his blood. "Do not attempt to lie to me," he said. "I am as convinced that you stand there, guilty of a wilful murder, premeditated all along, as I am of my own existence."

He then dealt the harshest sentence he could: A life sentence of "penal servitude." Said Bebgie, “you shall go from here to be made miserable, to be a slave for the rest of your life.”

And yet, the man guilty of B.C.’s most “dark, cowardly and mysterious” crime would be punished more lightly than almost any other notorious Victoria murderer to come. He had gunned down a man in an era where people were usually hanged for such crimes. And yet, Phelan would be out within 10 years, freed by an order by an apparently sympathetic federal Ministry of Justice.

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