Daring, Devious & Deadly
By Dean Jobb
Excerpted from Daring, Devious & Deadly: True Tales of Crime and Justice from Nova Scotia’s Past (Pottersfield Press, 2020)
Benjamin Russell was only half-dressed when an explosion shook his Halifax rooming house and shattered its windows. Fellow residents, convinced “a bomb from the sky” had exploded nearby, urged Russell to join them in the safety of the basement. But curiosity drew the sixty-eight-year-old to the front door. Above the city’s North End, “a gently curving column of fire, of all the colors that fire can assume, was ascending,” he marveled, “spreading and becoming wider and wider as it rose in height.”
It was shortly after nine on the morning of December 6, 1917, and Russell was a witness to the biggest human-made explosion before the atomic age. After colliding with the freighter Imo in Halifax Harbour, the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc had caught fire and blown up, killing and maiming thousands and leveling large sections of Halifax and Dartmouth.
In the following days, Russell volunteered to look after children left homeless. When a steamer arrived from Boston a few days later with clothing and emergency supplies, he ordered that the hallways of the city’s main courthouse be used as a drop-off point until the goods could be distributed to survivors. But in the months ahead, Russell would play a pivotal role in the aftermath of the explosion not as a relief worker, but as a judge determined to prevent a miscarriage of justice.
“There was no upheaval of nature on that awful day,” the Halifax Herald soon told its shocked readers. “No enemy sent a shell hurtling into the city.” Almost two thousand people had died; another nine thousand had been injured, many of them blinded by shards of glass blasted into their faces as windows imploded. But who was to blame? Who was responsible for the death and destruction visited on a city an ocean away from the battlefields of the First World War? The Canadian government launched an inquiry to get to the bottom of the disaster.
Flattened buildings and shattered railcars in Halifax’s North End after the 1917 explosion, which killed almost 2,000 people. In the background is Imo, the freighter that collided with the munitions ship Mont-Blanc, beached on the opposite side of the harbour. (International Film Service Inc./McCord Museum MP-0000.173.2)
Rumours were rampant that the explosion was the work of German saboteurs. On December 10, Halifax police rounded up and jailed residents of German descent. Anti-German hysteria gripped the crippled city. “So long as there are people in Halifax who remember this past week, or whose children remember it,” the Herald predicted six days after the explosion, “so long will the name of Germany be a name for loathing and disgust.” At one point the search for a culprit centred on Johan Johansen, a Norwegian and the helmsman of Imo, one of the ships involved in the collision. Halifax police mistook him for a German.
Suspicion also fell on the crew that had brought Mont-Blanc’s lethal cargo into Halifax. The munitions ship’s thirty-eight-year-old French skipper, Captain Aimé Le Medec, and local pilot Frank Mackey, forty-five, had fled the burning ship before it exploded. For many, their survival in the face of such widespread destruction confirmed their guilt. Fingers were also pointed at the official who had permitted Mont-Blanc to enter the harbour, Commander Frederick Evans Wyatt. As chief examining officer for the Port of Halifax, Wyatt was responsible for monitoring the movements of all vessels entering and leaving Halifax.
The commission of inquiry opened its hearings a week after the explosion, under the chairmanship Justice Arthur Drysdale of the Supreme Court, a former attorney general. The first witnesses were Le Medec and Mackey. They agreed on the events leading up to the collision, testifying that Mont-Blanc had entered the harbour and steamed along the Dartmouth side of the harbour, in keeping with the rules of navigation. In the narrowest section of the harbour, with little room to manoeuvre, they had encountered the outbound Imo. Despite a frantic exchange of whistle signals to announce course adjustments and avoid a collision, Imo had sliced into the hold of Mont-Blanc, setting its powder-keg cargo ablaze.
Survivors from Imo, including helmsman Johansen, gave a conflicting version of events leading up to the collision. Imo altered its course to avoid an incoming American steamer, then was forced to steer even closer to the Dartmouth shore by a tugboat towing barges. Mont-Blanc was sighted and appeared to be passing at a safe distance when it veered across Imo’s path.
But Imo should not have been heading out to sea in the first place. Commander Wyatt testified he had not authorized the ship to leave its anchorage. Although pilots were supposed to keep him informed of vessel arrivals and departures, he admitted this was not always done. Experienced pilots were in short supply to cope with the port’s heavy wartime traffic, and no one could afford to crack down on those who broke the rules.
Despite the conflicting evidence, Drysdale laid the blame for the collision squarely on Mont-Blanc. That ship alone, he concluded, had caused the collision by violating the rules of the road. Mackey was guilty of “gross negligence” and the judge recommended he be dismissed as a pilot and prosecuted under the criminal law. Le Medec likewise should have his master’s licence canceled and be “dealt with according to the law of his country.” Both men were also rapped for “neglect of the public safety” by not warning the city’s inhabitants of the impending explosion. Wyatt, Drysdale concluded, had neglected his duty to monitor vessel movements in the harbor.
Nova Scotia’s attorney general, Orlando T. Daniels, had already issued a warrant for the arrest of the Mont-Blanc’s captain and pilot on a charge of manslaughter. Mackey, who was sitting in the courtroom as Drysdale read his decision, was arrested as he left the courthouse. Le Medec was picked up a short time later as he walked through downtown Halifax. The pair were arraigned and ordered detained unless they could post substantial bail—$10,000 for the captain, $6,000 for the pilot. The Herald wholeheartedly endorsed the commission’s ruling. “There are no ambiguities, there is no pussyfooting . . . the conclusions are concisely stated in clear-cut concrete language with a decisiveness and fearlessness that everyone expected from Justice Drysdale.” But the arrests only whetted the paper’s appetite for more. “The Halifax Herald also demands the immediate arrest of Commander Wyatt so that he can be placed on trial for his responsibility in the frightful catastrophe.”
The call was heeded on February 5, the day the editorial appeared. Police arrested Wyatt at his home and brought him to court in time for the preliminary hearing for Le Medec and Mackey. Most of the testimony came from Imo’s crew but one witness, not heard by the commission of inquiry, shed new light on the collision. The captain of a tug berthed at the naval dockyard testified that Imo caused the collision by changing course at the last minute. Despite the new evidence, all three men were ordered to stand trial before the Supreme Court.
“Is a man to be sent to the penitentiary for making a mistake?” asked Justice Benjamin Russell, who ignored press and public demands to find scapegoats for the explosion. (Author Collection)
The prosecution of the Mont-Blanc’s captain and pilot, however, came to a swift end. Drysdale’s Supreme Court colleague, Justice Benjamin Russell, granted a motion of habeas corpus, ordering Mackey’s release. “Far from being negligent or careless . . . the defendant had taken every possible care to prevent the collision which was about to be caused by the conduct of the Imo,” the judge would recall in his memoirs.
“It surely cannot have been manslaughter for a defendant to have done what was best in his judgment to prevent an impending accident.” Rejecting Drysdale’s findings, Russell not only ordered Mackey’s release—he ruled there was no basis for the criminal charges against either the pilot or Le Medec.
On March 19, Wyatt’s case went to a grand jury empaneled to decide if there was sufficient evidence to warrant a trial. Russell, again on the bench, assured them that the evidence against Wyatt “fell short of the requirements for an indictment for manslaughter.” Well aware of the community’s thirst for revenge, he seized the opportunity to explain his rationale for releasing Mont-Blanc’s pilot and captain. Mackey should not be held criminally negligent for an error in judgment made “under circumstances in which the most careful and painstaking navigator could easily have been misled.” As for Le Medec, it would have been “absurd” to hold him criminally responsible because the ship, once in the harbor, was in the hands of the pilot.
“When a great calamity such as that which has visited this city occurs,” he continued in his instructions to Wyatt’s grand jury, “there is a very natural and pardonable disposition . . . to demand vengeance and seek to hold somebody criminally responsible.” With Mackey and Le Medec no longer facing prosecution, he noted, “it is quite possible that the injured feelings of the community should be concentrated upon the naval official,” Wyatt.
He was right. Ignoring his instructions to throw out the case, the twenty-four-member grand jury returned an indictment sending Wyatt to trial. “To suppose that he had anything in the world to do with the disaster was an utterly lunatic notion,” Russell later complained. “It was simply nonsensical.” The grand jury’s decision “was symptomatic of the condition of the common feeling.”
Russell, again on the bench when Wyatt stood trial on April 17, declared there was “nothing in the eyes of the law” to justify a manslaughter charge. The jury heeded his instructions, acquitting Wyatt after short deliberation.
The civil courts also failed to assign blame for the disaster. In Admiralty Court, Justice Drysdale—echoing the findings of his earlier inquiry—ruled that Mont-Blanc had been at fault and awarded two million dollars in damages to Imo’s owners. But he was ultimately overruled by the Supreme Court of Canada, which concluded the ships were equally liable for the collision.
News of the Halifax disaster in the Boston Daily Globe’s December 7, 1917 edition.
“WHO IS GUILTY,” demanded a Herald editorial the day after Wyatt’s acquittal. “It now seems as if the whole matter is to be forgotten; that all the investigation has been in vain and that the responsibility for what was undoubtedly one of the most ghastly blunders the world has ever known, is never going to be fixed.”
Mackey was eventually reinstated as a pilot. Le Medec continued to command vessels for Mont-Blanc’s owners until 1922, and retired in 1931. Wyatt, although cleared of criminal charges, was transferred from Halifax to a less sensitive post. And Russell, who had worked tirelessly to prevent the three men from becoming scapegoats for the explosion, made one last attack on the “absolute absurdity” of their prosecution in his autobiography, published shortly before his death in 1935 at age eighty-three.
Dean Jobb, the author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada), teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax. His next book, set for release in July 2021, recreates the crimes of serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who terrorized Victorian Era London and murdered four people in the Chicago area in the 1880s. You can follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb.