Memoirs of a (Not So) Great Canadian Detective

Book cover "Memoirs of a Great Detective"

Decades ago, when I was a journalism student in southern Ontario, I was advised by an instructor that it would be perilous to accept something as fact unless it had been corroborated by at least three independent, reliable sources. As it turns out, that level of caution is just as valuable in historical research as it is in journalism.

One of the challenging things about researching the brutal murders of William Bryan and his son Charles on Manitoulin Island in June 1877 came with the realization that not every document I came across was accurate and some of the most misleading information came from sources I would have expected to place a high degree of value on the truth.

Case and point is a memoir that was first published in 1904 under the title "Memoirs of a Great Canadian Detective: Incidents in the Life of John Wilson Murray". This book purports to give astonishing true accounts of criminal cases that were solved by Canada's first full-time detective during the course of his illustrious career as Chief Inspector of Criminal Investigation for Ontario's Department of Justice beginning in 1875.

Told with a great deal of swagger, the stories in this book present Murray as a heroic, incorruptible crusader for justice. He made daring arrests. He outwitted the finest criminal minds in the province. He was so honest and fair and clever that the criminals he apprehended often thanked him for catching them. At least according to him. Not that he had much respect for them, mind you. Murray cruelly caricatures his foes and gleefully brags about violently beating them. He is wincingly racist and misogynistic. I suspect he crosses the line from boasting to outright lying on many occasions.

In chapter XXIV, Murray presents the Bryan murders with a reckless disregard for accuracy. The problems start in the first paragraph, where Murray gives a nod to the famed beauty of the road leading past the Bryan property. In 1877, the road Murray refers to would have been a chaotic jumble of stumps, boulders, potholes, and misery. Few people would've dared to travel down it for fear that their horse would break a leg or their cart would bust an axle. That Murray evidently does not know this makes me wonder if he ever actually visited the crime scene he claims to be so familiar with.

Murray gets a significant number of the details surrounding the Bryan murders wrong. His opening account of one of the neighbouring Porter daughters stumbling across the freshly murdered Bryan men lying in the yard of their home on a Sunday morning while Eleanor Bryan sat nearby cackling and chortling like a lunatic is gaspingly incorrect. We have the court testimony of multiple witnesses to directly contradict this version of events. It's also notable that the murders occurred on a Thursday night and several neighbours arrived at the homestead prior to dawn, summoned by a lucid yet terrified Eleanor, who had already moved the bodies indoors. By the time the sun had risen Friday morning (not Sunday), a doctor had already been fetched and a Justice of the Peace was on his way. Andrew Porter's daughters do not figure into this story. And Murray's name does not appear on any official document related to this case even though there are a lot of documents to be had: trial transcripts, witness statements, petitions, letters, receipts, appeal filings, and more. No one ever mentions Murray and his signature appears nowhere, most likely because, despite his claims to the contrary, he had nothing to do with the murder case.

Not that such an inconvenient circumstance stops him from gleefully infantilizing Eleanor Bryan, describing this indomitable, middle-aged mother of seven as a "tot of a woman" and a "mite". Murray depicts her as feeble-minded, hysterical, and incapable of coping with even the slightest of upsets. He describes her with words like "doddering" and "childish". He repeatedly declares that Eleanor -- who went on to live another quarter century following the murders -- was a shrunken, shrivelling woman who was fading away so fast she would soon disappear. She did not. In Murray's account, Eleanor remains insensible for years following the murders, during which time she jabbered a single word -- the murderer's name! -- over and over and over again, as if so traumatized by what happened that she was never able to snap out of it. There is no evidence this is true.

I've touched on just a few of the problems with Murray's account of the Bryan murders. There are many, many more and that's troubling. I was hoping to gain insights that I had not been able to get from other documents. But Murray was so busy blatantly fabricating details to make himself look like a hero and everyone else like simpletons that he didn't even get the name of one of the murderers he supposedly had a hand in bringing to justice right. What's worse is that the Bryan murders were extremely well documented for their day. A great many other crimes were not and there is no way now to know just how far Murray strayed from the facts in an effort to produce this compendium of misrepresentations, embellishments and flat out lies, all of which were designed to service what must have been an enormous ego.

Based on the real-life 1877 killings of William and Charles Bryan by their neighbours, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain prosperity in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.