Book Excerpt: The Bad Detective

Nic Power was once Halifax’s top cop and Canada’s Sherlock Holmes (just ask him) — a new book shares the truth about his storied career

A century ago, Nic Power was Halifamous. The lurid newspapers of the day hailed him as an innovative detective, the scourge of saboteurs, dynamiters, and assassins. He was a media darling, riding a wave of publicity from high-profile cases.

Author Bob Gordon first grew interested in him when doing a newspaper review of the book The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, by Debra Komar. It’s the story of a Black man executed in Nova Scotia in 1896 for the murder of a white child, under a cloud of racist hysteria. The evidence was dubious, and doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

The lead investigator? Nic Power.

“Power was astonishingly egotistical,” Gordon says. “He had a really symbiotic relationship with the media. He got the attention he wanted, and newspapers got the stories that would sell. Newspapers just freely and frequently made up news if there was nothing to print. In Peter Wheeler’s case, it was categorically impossible he committed that murder. The forensic evidence puts the murder at a time when reliable witnesses testified he was at his boarding house. But according to the press he confessed multiple times. Every time a reporter had a slow news day, they made up a confession. And Power just fed into all that, and profited from it.”

One of the challenges in researching Power is that the man himself left few records. Much of what we know of him comes from those unreliable reports.

“He was the longest serving member of the Halifax police department,” Gordon says. “He was 43 years on the force but he hardly wrote anything down, and he rarely shows up in the records. In terms of policing he only shows up once again, not surprisingly strikebreaking on Cape Breton. But the newspaper is full of him. The myth has become so firmly established that any slow news day they’d go interview ‘the man who saved the prince.'”

His claim to be the rescuer of royalty was central to the Power myth, and again, largely based on hot air and the scapegoating of innocents. In this excerpt from his new book, The Bad Detective, Bob Gordon delves into the tale.

“Saving the Prince”

Nicholas Power
Nicholas Power

“ANOTHER DYNAMITE SCARE!” The Morning Herald headline screamed in caps. Reassuringly, the lead added, “Two Suspicious Characters Arrested.” In October 1883 His Royal Highness Prince George (Frederick Ernest Albert) of Wales[1] , future King George V, was visiting Halifax while serving in the Royal Navy aboard HMS Canada. The Herald story reported Halifax Police Department’s newly minted detective, Nicholas Power had prevented a terrorist attempt to blow up the Canada and kill the Prince. Power’s astute detective work had prevented the murder of the future king. Thirty years later Power would be rewarded for his diligence with the King’s Police Medal. Fifty years later the accolades persisted, in 1934 a glowing feature in The Halifax Mail included an interview titled, “Tells of Part In Preventing Murder Of Britain’s King”. Four years later his obituaries repeated and reinforced the tale. Saving the Prince made Detective Nicholas Power’s career.

In the 1880s Englishmen felt Albion was erupting beneath their feet. As is the case today, the press, public, police and politicians were all consumed by a relentless, seemingly endless and apparently unstoppable terrorist bombing campaign. Stabbings, shootings, assassinations and other acts of terrorism were also on the bill of fare. The incident Power prevented was only one of many throughout the Empire. Ireland was enraged and determined a price must be paid by the English and their empire.

In England the terror campaign opened in January 1881. The Invincibles bombed Salford Barracks in Manchester, killing a child. Four months later, and forty miles west, it was the barracks at Chester. After nine days, on May 16, the police station in Liverpool was targeted and on June 10, 1881 the city hall suffered the same fate. Four bombings in six months. A hysterical public saw a fire-eyed bomber under every bed.

In May 1882, Liberal British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone had to deal with the resignation of his hardline, Quaker, chief secretary of Ireland, William Edward Forster, Liberal MP for Bradford. He replaced him with Lord Frederick Cavendish. He took the oath as chief secretary at Dublin Castle, on the morning of Saturday, May 6, 1882.

His residence was in Phoenix Park. Thomas Henry Burke, the permanent under-secretary, also had a residence in the Park. As Cavendish and Burke strolled arm-in-arm through the bucolic lanes of the Park later that day knife wielding assasins, Joe Brady and Tim Kelly, murdered them both. The unlucky Cavendish had survived less than twelve hours in his new office.

A panicked government passed the Prevention of Crime Act but the bombings continued, targeting Glasgow on January 20, 1883. Two months later London was rocked by a coordinated series of bombings. The targets on March 15 included The Times, the Local Government Board and other government buildings on Parliament Street. Police raids in Ireland were uncovering caches of rifles, ammunition, and large stores of dynamite. It seemed as if there were Invincibles, with bombs, everywhere.

The newly invented explosive dynamite increased the lethality of their blasts exponentially. Previously nitroglycerin had been available but it was notoriously unstable, banned in many jurisdictions and responsible for an accidental explosion in a Wells Fargo office in California that killed fifteen people in 1866. The next year, 1867, Alfred Nobel discovered how to stabilize nitroglycerin by adding diatomaceous earth. Ironically, Nobel, of Peace Prize fame, made an instant, explosive impact. Prior to the invention of dynamite black powder was the most practicable explosive to be had. For a host of reasons, it was impossible to create a compact and portable bomb using black powder. The kegs of powder required to generate a significant blast were impossible to conceal.

There is, of course, the exception that proves the rule. In 1605 an attempt to assassinate King James I by blowing up the entire House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on November 5 was betrayed. On November 4 Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder in the undercroft of the House of Lords. Had the plot succeeded the Lords would have been obliterated: The King and entire English aristocratic, ruling class eliminated. The Gunpowder Plot by its very name – it is the Gunpowder Plot not a Gunpowder Plot – demonstrates bombing in the age of black powder was possible, but it was exceedingly difficult and very rare. Dynamite changed the rules of the game. Suddenly, a single stick, about the size of a candle, weighing seven ounces, could destroy a small building.

The Criminal Investigation Division (widely known after the location of its headquarters as Scotland Yard), decided that the creation of an Irish Branch dedicated to combatting nationalist terrorism was necessary. On March 20, 1883 Liberal Home Secretary William Vernon Harcourt authorized a twelve-man force to focus on Irish nationalist violence, to be known as the Irish Branch or Irish Brigade.

One year-later in a stunning attack, a bomb was placed in a public urinal in Scotland Yard directly beneath the Irish Branch. The offices were vacant at the time, there were no fatalities, but documents and records were destroyed. The sophistication, daring and creativity of the attack was obvious, and the humiliation of Scotland Yard could not have been more complete. The detectives of the Irish Branch had egg on their face in their own kitchen.

Across the pond, in the newly unified colonies of British North America, known as the Dominion of Canada since Confederation in 1867, this news of terrorism and IEDs was received with concern. The Fenian Brotherhood was the North American face of Irish nationalism and animosity towards Fenians ran deep in the new Dominion. In Ottawa, less than one year after Confederation, in April 1868 Irish-Canadian politician, Thomas D’Arcy McGee was felled by a Fenian bullet, as he returned to his Ottawa boarding house after a late debate in Parliament. His assassin Patrick D Whelan would be the last man to be publicly hung in Canada.

The Fenian Brotherhood, founded in the United States in 1858 by John O’Mahony, a former colonel of the 69th Regiment of New York State Militia, and Michael Doheny, was the American affiliate of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In the wake of the United States Civil War many Fenians had Civil War combat experience like their leader. They also shared a bizarre worldview. The Brotherhood would attain Ireland’s independence by invading the British colonies in North America. Having occupied them they would then trade these colonies back to Britain, in exchange for Irish independence. A geopolitical exchange of hostage territory. Quixotic as the dream may have been that was their story and they were sticking to it.

In the spring of 1866 Fenians numbering some 700 had threatened Campobello Island, famous as FDR’s beloved summer home, in New Brunswick. Sitting astride the entrance of the Bay of Fundy it is less than fifty miles from Nova Scotia’s southern tip. Led by O’Mahony the Fenians assembled a small fleet and prepared to mount an amphibious operation against the island. British commander Charles Hastings Doyle, stationed at Halifax, responded with ‘shock and awe’. He dispatched a naval squadron transporting Royal Marines and British regulars immediately. Choosing discretion over valour, O’Mahony’s forces melted away. While the invasion had been pre-empted, the wariness lingered.

According to Canadian historian Desmond Morton, “For another couple of generations, Fenians became the handiest bogey for any politician faced with unrest or disaffection.” Since Confederation in 1867 Gilbert McMicken a small town, small time businessman, minor functionary and political hack had been Sir John A Macdonald’s erstwhile spymaster, detailed specifically to penetrate Fenian organizations and betray planned operations against Canada. So desperate was the fear of Fenians that early in his career McMicken had proposed to Macdonald, ““one or two clever women whose absolute virtue stands questioned by the censorious” to get “susceptible members of the ‘senate’ [the Fenian leadership] into their toils and thus as Delilah with Sampson possess themselves of their secrets.”

The perception of a Fenian threat endured in the memories of Haligonians with astonishing dynamism. Halifax Aldermen Patrick M Duggan, Ward 3 and Andrew Hubley, Ward 4, loathed one another and the two engaged in regular donnybrooks, replete with personal insults, and even a quarter-century after the Fenian raids they recalled them as yesterday. During a Police Committee meeting in 1893 the animus endured when the latter spat out this ancient insult, “The true secret of your malice against the deputy marshal is this. That at the time of the last fenian invasion the fenian flag was flying over your father’s house, and the deputy marshal compelled him to take it down. Now, after all these years, you’re a small enough man to hound the deputy for what he did then.”

The Fenians were also a favorite target of the newspapers across the new Dominion. In May 1883, The Globe (Toronto) reported Fenian rumours threatening Halifax. It noted that Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A Macdonald sent a letter to Nova-Scotia’s Lieutenant-Governor Archibald warning, “that two suspicious vessels, manned, it was believed, by Fenians, and carrying a quantity of torpedoes [referred to today as mines] and other dangerous explosives, had sailed from Boston a few days ago, and it was thought intended to make Halifax their destination…. With the intention of blowing up shipping entering or leaving.” Particularly worrisome was May 14, “the day on which [Joe] Brady, one of the Phoenix Park murderers, is to be executed, it was also recommended that the guards at the various barracks, powder magazines, dockyards, and war ships in port should be strengthened.” It did not require a Prince in port, only an imaginary assault, for Fenian rumours to flare up. The bogey that was the Fenians was as good for the press as it was for the politicians.

In Nic Power’s Halifax, the fear of Fenian violence was as real, deep-seated and persistent as it was in London, England in 1883. Haligonians were not unaware of the bombing campaign in England, nor were they tolerant of it. On October 19, on the front page, The Morning Herald, reprinted a letter to the Irish Canadian, from former British Member of Parliament, A M Sullivan. His conclusion was shockingly straightforward, if the moderate IIrish nationalists cannot reign in the bombers, they “will be exterminated by exasperated Englishmen as Monsters.” Hyperbole, threats and extreme sentiments typified Irish issues in the early 1880s on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1883 everybody in Halifax was up in arms about the Fenians: The politicians, the press, the public and Power. Power was acutely aware of the widely held, popular perception that Fenians were a real and present danger. He was determined that nothing happen on his watch.

Fear and loathing of Fenians was alive and well when HMS Canada, and its princely cargo, steamed through the Narrows on August 1, 1883. The Canada had departed Portsmouth on June 13, touched at Plymouth on the 19th, and spent the week from the 29th to July 3rd at Madeira. Storms from the 23rd to the 25th tore off the top gallant mast, but otherwise the trip had been uneventful. The Prince, accompanied by the Captain of the Canada, Frances Durrant, came ashore and the pair were feted with a concert in Halifax’s beautiful public gardens.

The Globe (Toronto) described the Prince as “a slender youth, in height one or two inches over five feet, with light coloured hair and a fair complexion.” The Transcript (Boston) offered a more intimate portrait, “He has a rounder face than his elder brother, [Prince Albert] full lips that easily curve into smiles and a very pleasant expression.” The Halifax Herald relayed a superior officer’s glowing report, “Yes we like the Prince well…. He is pretty lively and enjoys a lark as well as any of us.” However, with the death of his older brother during an influenza pandemic in 1892, he became the Heir Presumptive after his father, and was required to resign from the RN. The death of Prince Albert may have been a blessing in disguise for the English monarchy as ‘Bertie’ was widely regarded as a witless dunderhead. Following a brief stay in Halifax the Prince undertook a tour of the new Dominion of Canada. The Royal party would not return to Halifax until October.

Nicholas Power joined the Halifax Police Department as a Constable in 1864 fresh out of the Royal Navy. Approximately a decade later he made Sergeant and after another decade, upon the death of Detective William Hutt he was promoted to that plainclothes role. He had been a detective almost two years when the Prince returned to Halifax and reverted from visiting royalty to a humble Royal Navy midshipman again. The sophomore investigator, with the recent threat of a Fenian attack on shipping fresh on his mind, was determined that nothing would happen to the Prince.

He set out to scan the registers and question the owners of the local hotels and boarding houses. Strolling along the wooden sidewalks of Barrington St., Power paused at Jacob Street and looked right toward the bird’s nest of spars and masts in the harbour below. Power’s homburg matched his double-breasted gabardine sack coat. With a $40 allowance for clothing Power could afford the best. Gabardine, invented only a few years earlier, was wool waterproofed with lanolin before weaving; more comfortable than the rubberized fabric of the traditional Mackintosh. His shield was on the inside of his breast pocket flap, to be flashed with a flick of the wrist. Aside from his imposing presence, his only weapon was a leather sap. Royal Irish Constabulary issue and a nod to his heritage, it was less than a foot long and almost innocent looking. The brown leather covered a steel spring with a one inch ball bearing on the end. A second flick of his wrist could crack a skull. Twenty stone and six foot, four inches, he briefly contemplated the mud, liberally dosed with horse manure, before he stepped into it and crossed the intersection.

Appearances and attire mattered to Detective Power, even the details: His wide blue hat band was a nod to his two decades ‘wearing the blue’ before he earned promotion to detective. His bull neck demanded the broad Prince Albert knot of his tie. His image mattered to Detective Power because he knew it influenced others. More than once his massive bulk had won the day without the need for fisticuffs. In similar fashion, his self confidence and force of personality could be harnessed to assert his narrative of a crime or overwhelm suspects while giving them the third degree.

Across the mired corner and strung along the east side of Barrington, McMurray and Co had three storefronts offering their wide range of millinery stores and dry goods: Everything from underwear to outerwear and everything in between both custom and ready made, as well as dry goods and furnishings. With five children at home, Power’s wife, Mary Jane, was a regular visitor.

Wedged between their storefronts was the entrance to the Parker House Hotel, 277 Barrington St. Its proprietor, John Creelman, a 57-year-old Presbyterian, his wife and their five children all resided in the hotel. The Parker House’s rooms occupied the upper stories above McMurray & Co.’s storefronts. Power approached Creelman at the desk and requested the register. Two entries caught his attention, William Breckton and James Holmes. They were American, from Boston, with Irish sounding, probably Roman Catholic, names and potentially Fenians.

Power requested, and was granted, access to their room. Accompanied by Creelman, the two men entered a room with three beds squeezed into it.  Within, amongst various items, there were two leather valises against the wall behind one of the beds. According to Creelman’s testimony to the subsequent inquiry, “the detective took the small red valise and lifted it on the bed; it was not locked, only strapped.” Power loosened the strap and opened it. Staring at the contents he was speechless. So shocked that he proceeded no further. The valise’s contents demanded a higher authority even than Detective Power. Realizing the gravity of his find he set off in search of his superior, City Marshall Garrett Cotter. Suppressing his growing excitement the detective reported his discovery. The innocently nondescript valise contained dynamite, fuses, an alarm clock and all the components of an ‘infernal machine’, a bomb of some sort, perhaps even a ‘time bomb’.

Power immediately set out to arrest the pair. Holmes was arrested quickly. Breckton was run down in an Upper Water Street Tavern. They were incarcerated in the damp, dark and dank cells of the old police station on Spring Garden Road.

With the bombers safely locked up in the police station cells there was no need to rush. It was not until the next day that Power and Cotter returned to the captives’ room. Yesterday’s scene was repeated, with Cotter doing the honours. “There were packages of dynamite, some fuse, clothing, a clock, some lead, a saw, hammer, a lump of grease, some copper wire and other articles,” he testified. The implications were obvious, the whole was greater than the individual parts. The lethal trio were the dynamite, the fuses and the clock; together they added up to a time bomb. American Fenians with a time bomb, exactly like the explosives that Irish bombers were using in England and Scotland, had travelled to Halifax at the same time as the Prince’s party returned to the city. Detective Power put the pieces together and detected a plot to kill the Prince.

There was even more incriminating evidence awaiting discovery. When he searched the pair after their arrest, Power found a ticket for checked baggage with the Windsor and Annapolis Railway. The baggage was being stored at the Intercontinental Railway depot on North Street. On Wednesday evening Detective Power walked to the ICR station.  From the police station he walked down Spring Garden past St. Mary’s Cathedral. Construction commenced in 1820 and after substantial, neo-Gothic renovations completed in 1874 it was one of only two Roman Catholic cathedrals in Canada and, at 198 feet above the sidewalk, it sported the largest granite spire in North America. It was Detective Power’s parish, and he had married Mary Jane Sheehan within, in the spring of 1864. Facing the Cathedral was the Old Burying Ground, Halifax’s first cemetery. In 1875 both of his parents had made the short trip across the street from funeral to burial as had his eleven year old daughter, Alice, one year later. Turning left at Barrington St. Power walked over a mile north, through the heart of Halifax to the ICR station at Barrington and North Streets.

Power greeted the baggage-masters, Phelan and Clay. In return for the check, they passed over to him a bundle wrapped in osnaburg and bound with a new shawl strap. Power returned to the station with the package unopened. Cautiously, with Marshal Cotter looking over his shoulder, Power loosened the strap and peeled back the coarse cloth. Jules Verne, the famously popular science fiction writer of the era, could not have imagined the contents. It was, according to The Herald, “a complete suit of the best rubber material,” known at the time variously as a diving skirt or swimming suit. In terrifying detail, The Herald described its operation: “It was of a kind never seen here before and could be put on by any person and filled with air, through long tubes, which are fitted with screw stops to prevent the air from escaping. This renders them buoyant, and a man so clothed with one of these suits might float in the water for hours at a time.” The Herald could only shudder when it speculated on the implications of this discovery, “the numerous threats that have been made out time and again in regard to the destruction of English shipping, it is just possible that they may have had designs in that direction.” Detective Power was more than willing to boldly and explicitly make the connection. These men were Fenians, Fenian bombers intent on destroying the Prince, along with HMS Canada and her crew. They were terrorists unbothered by collateral damage in their desire to strike a mortal blow at the royal family. Power rushed to inform the newshounds of his discovery and the Fenian plot filled the front pages and headlines.

An inquiry under the stipendiary magistrate was immediately initiated and incriminating evidence steadily accumulated throughout the inquiry. The pair had visited Halifax weeks earlier, at the very time the Prince had first arrived in the summer. They were reported to be always flush, but only occasionally, if at all, employed. Their landlord testified the valises had been carried to the room, stowed behind the bed and remained there untouched since. An experienced miner, John Grant, testified that the fuses and dynamite in their possession were not commonly used in mining. Finally, they had hired a boat and toured the harbour. Not an unusual pastime for visitors to the city, but surely evidence that they had been conducting an intelligence gathering reconnaissance in preparation for the dastardly deed.

In the press, The Morning Herald’s reporter used innuendo with masterly effect after he visited their landlady on their previous visit, Mrs. Mehan of 71 Dresden Row. “’Were they fenians?’ eagerly asked Mrs. Mehan and continuing: ‘Didn’t Dan suspect —-‘ Here she cut short a remark that might have thrown some light on the movements of these men.” Helpfully, she added that they had once had a visitor who “looked like an American, but said he was reared here in Canada.” A revelation by O’Donnell, the third man to share the room was interrupted: “’They told me one day – ‘ Here Mr. Mehan, who had taken a seat beside O’Donnell, nudged him with his knee and shook his head. O’Donnell’s countenance thereupon underwent a visible change. He didn’t finish what he was going to say.” Also, the Mehan’s “son had some suspicions of the two men.” Their current landlord’s testimony, “they said they were going to the gold mines to work,” was dismissed as an alibi cleverly concocted by Holmes and Breckton to disguise their evil intent.

The story quickly outgrew Halifax, even the Maritimes. On October 23, The Globe (Toronto), included an article headlined, “THE FENIAN PLOTTERS,” that noted, “The Halifax dynamite carriers provided with a diving dress.” The story went on to detail the events during the magistrate’s court the day before. The day, the entire day, had been spent examining Detective Power. This was because Power had played an essential role in the initial arrest and been involved in the subsequent investigation throughout. But, also because Power loved the limelight and delighted in taking the stand and blowing his own horn. For a full day Power set his narrative in stone, enumerating the incriminating evidence and outlining his narrative. Power enjoyed the spotlight, whether his audience was a judge and jury or journalists, he could rarely resist a chance to talk about himself. Power outlined his initial hunch, the incriminating bomb-making components in their luggage, and the checked baggage containing a ‘swimming suit’ that confirmed a threat against a naval target. He also testified that the men had, while alone with him, confessed to their deadly plans.

With Breckton and Holmes secure in jail awaiting trial in the new year, Power’s legend had been made. Three decades after saving the Prince, in 1912, with the Prince now ruling as George V, Power was awarded the King’s Police Medal for “special services to Royalty”, in recognition of the central role he played in foiling the Fenian bomb plot and saving the Prince, the Canada and her crew. Detective Nicholas Power would forever be known as ‘the man who saved the Prince’. His tenacity had saved lives and foiled perfidious Fenian assassins.

The previous excerpt was from The Bad Detective by Bob Gordon. Reprinted with permission.

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