The strange career of Detective Nic Power

When Nicholas Power died in 1938 the headline on the obituary filled the top of the second page of the Herald. Hardly surprising considering his astonishing career as the Halifax Police Department’s first detective. “Mr. Power build for himself an enviable record of achievement and was connected with practically every criminal case of importance,” said the article. “He possesses a record of many captures and many criminals had been run to earth through his instrumentality.”

Half a century earlier Detective Nic Power had dominated the courts and the headlines with his extraordinary investigative skills. In 1883 he nabbed two American travellers he accused of planning to assassinate Prince George (the future King George V). The Prince was aboard HMS Canada in Halifax Harbour and Power deduced that the two disgruntled Fenians, found in possession of dynamite, planned to blow up the ship. Power’s remarkable construction of the plot and its gravity garnered international attention. During the last decade of the nineteenth century he was frequently compared to Sherlock Holmes.

In his most famous case, his deliverance of Prince George, the courts gave less credit to Power’s logic than the media. The verdict was that there was no conspiracy and no Fenian connection. James Holmes and William Breckton, Irish-American miners en route to the coalfields, were convicted only of illegal possession of dynamite. Power’s conclusions followed from a long behind-closed-doors grilling of the two young men during which Power allegedly wrung the truth out of them. However, the courts didn’t buy it.

This wasn’t the first time that the courts failed to follow Power’s chain of logic. During the visit of P.T. Barnum’s circus in August 1876, a local bank was robbed of $22,000 while the employees watched the circus parade into town. Like a bloodhound Power set off after two men allegedly fleeing Halifax.

Power quickly arrested them while they were having dinner at French’s Hotel, across from the train station. The two, like Holmes and Breckton, Americans, were arrested and interrogated. There was no physical evidence, a shaky identification by two possible witnesses and no recovered loot. The case rested on Power’s theory and testimony alone. No one was ever convicted. Power ignored evidence that the theft was an inside job, even after learning that a bank executive fled to England days after the theft.

Subsequent to these noteworthy failures in the courts, the summer of 1896 can be seen as the nadir of Power’s imperfect record. In July of that year Power had Thomas M. Bram deported to Boston to face murder charges (an American vessel arrived in Halifax with the murder victims towed behind in a dinghy).

Power’s testimony was key to the prosecution’s case and the court convicted Bram of murder. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict specifically on the basis of Power’s flawed investigation and illegal interrogation. The majority held that Power’s confrontation of Bram had called “imperatively for an admission or denial” by Bram, thereby rendering his response involuntary.

According to the Court, Power had reached his conclusion before he interviewed Bram as he testified that he began the interview by stating, “Now, look here, Bram, I am satisfied that you killed the captain…” The case is still cited by Northwestern University’s, Center for the Wrongfully Convicted website as a classic example of justice suborned by an unprincipled investigator.

At the same time Power was lead investigator in a heinous murder in Bear River. He immediately repeated his mistake. Upon his arrival in the hamlet he immediately announced his conclusion, that Peter Wheeler, a Mauritian neighbour, had murdered young Annie Kempton. This time, he got his conviction and the court sentenced Wheeler to hang.

Recently, internationally recognized forensic expert Debra Komar revisited the case in The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, and concludes Power tried the case in the media before it got into the courtroom, inciting a mob that convicted and killed an innocent man.

Power’s final unique distinction is his King’s Police Medal Power received in 1915, as the “saviour” of Prince George. It came only after repeated self-nominations (unheard of before or since). He was chief of the Halifax Police Department from May 1906 to November 1907, one of the shortest tenures as chief of police in the department’s history.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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