This week in Canadian History – December Week 2

Canada’s Sherlock Holmes!

Murdoch Mysteries
Murdoch Mysteries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Detective John Wilson Murray was the Canadian version of Sherlock Holmes. Are you familiar with Canada’s Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian drama television series on both Citytv and CBC Television, featuring Yannick Bisson as William Murdoch, a police detective working in Toronto, Ontario, in the 1890s? Well, it’s based on Murray.

For most of his thirty-one year career during the late 1800s, he was the only provincial police detective in a jurisdiction that extended east from Montreal to Rat Portage in Manitoba. He never gave up on a case and his tenacity earned him the nickname “Old Never-Let-Go.”

Murray was born in Scotland in 1840 and moved to New York as a child. At seventeen, he enlisted in the United States Navy and he had his first taste of detective work during the Civil War. In 1862, he uncovered a complicated plot to free 4,000 Confederate prisoners.

After working as a special agent for the Navy he joined the Erie police force and, ultimately, came to Canada as Head of Detectives for the Canadian Southern Railway. In 1874, Ontario Attorney General Sir Oliver Mowat persuaded him to accept the position of Provincial Detective of Ontario.

Murray proved to be a tireless investigator who was far ahead of his time in scientific criminal detection. Many a conniving soul found themselves convicted literally by their soles, since he was one of the first detectives in the world to realize the importance of footprints. He regularly requested an autopsy on murder victims and had clothing and murder weapons chemically tested for clues.

Between 1875 and 1880, counterfeiters embarked on a bold effort that sent over one million dollars in phony bills into circulation throughout North America. The plates used to make the bills were so finely crafted that even the bank officials could not identify the fakes. In the far north-west $200,000 of such money was used to pay for furs that were shipped to England, Montreal and New York.

After contacting known “con” men in New York, Murray determined the bills to be the work of John Hill and Edwin Johnson, who were very skilful engravers. After discounting Hill as an active suspect, Murray spent months tracking Johnson and his family to Toronto.

He staked out the Johnson house, and began conducting covert interviews with everyone from the family’s butcher to the milkman to find patterns of behaviour.

Everything appeared normal, until one day Murray followed Johnson on a boozy, bar-hopping session from Toronto to rural Markham. After many stops, the tipsy Johnson paid for a drink with a counterfeit one dollar bill, and continued to so so at various stops, culminating in a four dollar purchase of a neck tie. Johnson was arrested.

Plates valued at $40,000 were unearthed in a north Toronto wood-lot, where they had been carefully wrapped in oilcloth and encased in a protective coating of beeswax. There were twenty-one separate copper plates used to recreate seven different bills, including a U.S. five dollar note. Johnson’s wife and seven children had all been involved in the creation and distribution of the phony money, which was printed only once a year and quickly turned over to wholesale dealers known as “shovers.”

Johnson’s fatal flaw was his penchant for using the counterfeit money when he was inebriated. His nemesis, Detective John Wilson Murray, noted: “Crime lost a genius when old man Johnson died.”

Fascinating man, don’t you agree? This is just one anecdote. To read more about Murray, here are a few places to start: for instance, there is the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, and then the Mount Royal University, as well as The Torontoist – all great reads! To read more still about this great man, you can download the 500-page book, “Memoirs of a great detective” by Victor Speer from 1904.


    • I like it too. I know they’ve had “guest stars” of famous writers and scientists, but I was quite happy to hear that Murdoch was based on a real person as well! M:-)


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