PEOPLE



By RÉBECCA BÉLANGER
Arts, lettres et  
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CANADA'S GREAT DETECTIVE!

Detectives have always served as muses for novels and shows alike, for their profession intrigues and inspires. While detectives are a part of the regular system of policing nowadays, every profession needs a pioneer, and the role of investigator was no exception. Here in Canada, it was John Wilson Murray who started it all. His assiduous work allowed justice to be done in times when the lawless thrived, and even now, the man serves as a model. The job fit him like a glove, and when it didn’t, he changed the circumstances until it would.

While John Wilson Murray dedicated most of his life to his profession, a man existed behind the detective. He was born on June 15, 1840, in Edinburgh, where he lived for five years before his family moved to New York. As a teenager, he quit school to enroll in the U.S.S Navy. During the American Civil War, he was a sailor on the Michigan, where he acted to stop Confederate spies from capturing the ship, even though it wasn’t his place to. Seemingly, that was the event that sparked in him the desire to investigate the lawless. Consequently, he proceeded as a detective settling cases of various crimes for the rest of his life. Despite juggling with both significant cases and smaller but painstaking ones, he had the accurate reputation of rarely failing. However, such an obsession with his profession would have undermined his private life. Thus, most of his time was spent away from his family. His wife died early, and his two daughters grew up without much sightings of their own father. On June 9, 1906, still working at the age of sixty-six, he suffered from a stroke that led him to his death three days later. 

For all that, Murray’s craft was predominant in his life. His career as a detective started in 1868, when he worked for the police department in Pennsylvania until 1873. Then, he was employed as a detective by Canada Southern Railway, in Ontario. He was to look into robberies, sabotages and the destruction of equipment. In those years, corporations commonly hired private security services. Furthermore, as the Canada Southern Railway competed strongly with the Great Western Railway, Murray was also appointed to the sporadic clashes between the two rivals. A year and a half later, his business with the CSR made Sir Oliver Mowat, Attorney General and future Premier of Ontario, notice him. The latter paid him to track down a counterfeit operation. Murray was successful, and he was offered the temporary position of a provincial detective, although it turned permanent two years later as it was incorporated in the regular police system. The detective was responsible for an area of more than 264,500 square kilometers that included large cities, small towns, and wilderness. He was Ontario’s only full-time detective until 1884, when Joseph E. Rogers was hired. In 1887, William Greer who had helped by contract before joined them. A decade later, the investigation branch of the Attorney General’s Department was formed, and the two men were appointed as inspectors, with Murray as chief inspector.

Perhaps John Wilson Murray’s success was due to how atypical of a detective he was. Indeed, his use of a mix of traditional investigative methods and new scientific techniques propelled forward his investigations. Additionally, he was considered the one who popularised the use of fingerprint analysis, of measuring and taking plaster casts of footprints, and he also commonly consulted professionals in science and medicine, such as the professors at the University of Toronto’s School of Practical Science. He asked them for chemical analysis of evidence, and for post-mortems of victims who had died suspiciously. But for most of his cases, he relied more on legwork, a network of law-enforcement allies and luck. He kept contact with policemen and detectives, to whom he gave handbills of wanted men. Every time he was at a police department, he would consult descriptions and photographs of prisoners for the possibility of spotting one of his fugitives. Accordingly, he kept track of other criminals throughout North America, believing they could cross to Canada anytime. Subsequently, he could recognize criminals on first sight. All in all, he accomplished the jobs of several detectives with success despite the numerous difficulties.

As someone dedicated to his job, Detective Murray held a strong opinion for his craft. For him, detectives were the higher branch of police. In his words, they were to “follow criminals to any place and run them down.” They needed skills acquired by experience and hard work, but also plenty of instinct. Conscientious work, adequate use of human intelligence, efficient system of communication and intercommunication, good luck; those were all traits Canada’s first detective valued above all. Nonetheless, what others referred to good luck, he linked to hard and consistent work. However, while John Wilson Murray was a thriving detective, his flaws occasionally impeded his work. He believed criminality was hereditary. It could skip one or many generations, but it would always come back, exactly like a disease. Criminals could never redeem themselves, and so reforms were exceptions. Additionally, he was racist, as his memoirs showed, as is expected from a man of that era. Despite those copious prejudices, no one argued that he always found the right criminal. Instead, he was seen as a man with sound judgement. Moreover, he prioritised his independence: he sent few reports to his superiors, and their telegraph communication went ignored. At least once, his superiors threatened to put him on suspension if he didn’t inform them of his movements.

With time, the great detective’s fame grew. The population was curious and eager to hear the story of his cases. Monthly, he was habitually mentioned in at least one major newspaper, and repeatedly even oftener. Oddly, public rarely recognized him in spite of his popularity. This anonymity allowed him to trail criminals without being noticed. During a case, he refused to say a word that could alarm a suspect, but as soon as it was completed he had no qualms on sharing his tales. Murray seemed to enjoy his popularity and went on to write his biography under the form of memoirs. Co-written with Victor Speer, an editor at a Toronto advertising agency, Memoirs of a Great Detective was afterwards published. Facts were omitted and details were added, making his adventures seem more interesting. Decades later, when the memoirs were reprinted, he was even compared to Sherlock Holmes for marketing purposes. Later on, plays, novels, films and two television series were created based on his life. 

In conclusion, John Wilson Murray was the kind of person who stays unforgettable. He didn’t leave this world without leaving a mark. At his funeral, his two daughters were joined by many politicians, bureaucrats, newspapermen, and at least one of the criminals he’d dealt with. This man’s achievements in a profession that left him shot, bruised and beaten makes it unsurprising that even today his successors regard him with admiration.

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