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At any price - The story of the Megantic Outlaw
by Richard Stanford
2011-09-28 07:18:03
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There may have been many things going through Donald Morrison's mind that languid June day in 1888 as he walked past the church, round the bend, down the hill to the main street of his hometown of Megantic.  Probably uppermost in his mind was whether he was going to survive the day.  He had the cold metallic security of his Colt.45 resting loosely in his holster.  For seven years as a cowboy, riding herds from Montana to Texas, the pistol had been his protector and only once had he ever come close shooting a man.  His reputation as a man with a strange accent and quick hands followed him everywhere.  That was five years ago - he thought those days were long gone.

donald_morrisonFrom the balcony of the American House Hotel, Donald saw the chambermaid shaking a white bedsheet.  She smiled at him and waved, her heart aflutter.  Donald waved back and continued on, his tall, broad-shouldered body moving gracefully and sure.  He watched the children playing hide-go-seek in the dusty street and he remembered his own youthful days playing the same games with the same people who were waving at him now.  They were mothers and fathers, unlike Donald.  They bid him warm hellos and went about their business in Matheson's General Store, the blacksmiths shop and the post office.  Donald Morrison had other business to attend to and he might have asked himself how it could have been that fate would now be leading him on this walk, in this place of all places.

A horse-and-buggy rumbled past Donald sending up a plume of dust.  He walked on, the dust settled and Donald stopped.  He saw Jack Warren coming down the steps of Leet's Hotel, and walk out to the middle of the street, placing a reassuring hand on his hip.  Donald fixed his steel blue eyes on Warren's hand.  He knew Warren had a warrant for his arrest for arson and attempted murder.  Maybe it was fitting he would die here, for all to see.  His friends - the mothers, the fathers - ran and gathered up their children.  The street emptied as Warren moved closer and closer.  Morrison walked diagonally across the street.  Warren moved to cut him off.  The mothers and the fathers peered through windows, praying that everything they had heard of Donald being a crack shot was true.  Now, ten feet apart, both men stopped.

"Stand clear!" shouted Donald.  Warren smiled, motionless.  The chambermaid, terror in her eyes, clutched the bedsheet to her chest as if it were a shield.  "Stand clear!", repeated Donald.  Warren smiled again as his hand dropped down to his holster.  Donald's eyes caught the glint of the gun barrel clearing the holster.  The last thing Warren saw would have been a blur as Donald drew his Colt and fired in one blinding motion.  Warren's head twisted back, horror etched in his face.  He stood suspended for a few seconds then his knees buckled and he fell to the dirt, blood oozing from his neck.  All was silence and unmoving.  Donald was transfixed, trying to comprehend the dead body at his feet - this bounty-hunter who had been running bootleg whiskey from Vermont and he was an American.  Now there would be hell to pay.

Malcolm Matheson, who was like a second father to Donald, shook him out of his trance, shouting at him to run!  Donald ran down the street and up a hillside at the far end of town.  He stopped, looked down to Megantic and saw Warren's limp body being carried away. 

Donald ran down the other side of the hill, making his way to Sandy Bay on the shore of Lake Megantic.  From there he could see Ness Hill and the log cabin.  My God, how did it all come to this?

It started in Montana Territory five years earlier when a letter arrived for Donald.  It was a mother's plea to come home. He could sense the urgency between the lines buried deep in Gaelic.  Returning to Ness Hill above the shimmering waters of Lake Megantic, Donald had looked out over a vastly different landscape from the grassland plains of the West.  Here the lush evergreen valleys, the carousing streams of crystal water and the fields of glacial rock aroused sweet memories.  But Ness Hill could soon be lost.  This farm which Murdo and Sophia Morrison, and their sons and daughters, had carved out of rock and forest over the past twenty-five years was deep in debt, the rocky terrain too unforgiving for the growing of vegetables and grain.

Sophia had often told Donald the story of how they and hundreds of other sheep farmers, or crofters, had emigrated from the Hebrides Isle of Lewis in 1841.  All endured a perilous voyage to come to Canada in search of a new life.  The Morrison's eventually made their way to Ness Hill in 1855.  They were no longer tenant farmers.  They cleared the impenetrable forest and rock for just enough land to grow barley and potatoes.  They built a modest log cabin and a barn.  It was here that Donald Morrison was born in 1858.

As Donald sat on the shore of Lake Megantic, he could see the jagged line of the cedar fence where he and his father often argued.  He could hear again his father's harsh, angry voice.  It had always been like that between them.  It was one of the reasons why Donald had gone out West in the first place - to get away from him; the other was to see the world. 

But the letter brought Donald back.  He paid off the outstanding debts without a second thought.  Donald thought he was helping out by offering to take over the farm, and its never-ending debts, in return for providing his parents with a new cabin and two acres of land.  Murdo angrily rejected the offer.  He was not going to give up what he had built with blood and sweat.  Once again, Donald slammed the cabin door and left.

Murdo went to Malcolm McAulay for a second mortgage of $1,100 on the farm.  Murdo was illiterate and McAulay, who was mayor of Megantic, knew it.  McAulay scribbled a note at the end of the contract: $400 would be paid three months after the mortgage was due while interest would be levied on the full amount.  Knowing even less about the intricate details of finance, Murdo signed. 

When Donald found out about the swindle, he confronted McAulay, accusing him of taking advantage of his father and demanding the terms of the mortgage be changed.  Donald's blood boiled when McAulay refused, and boiled even more when Murdo was unable to make the payments. 

The farm was put up for auction in September 1886.  Donald had $400 in his pocket that day - all that was left of his savings.  His lawyer told him that would be sufficient because all McAulay wanted was to protect his investment.  But the moneylender fooled them all, outbidding Donald and acquiring the farm for $1,000.  Ness Hill was lost.

Donald had watched from a hillside the day Murdo and Sophia Morrison loaded their possessions into a wagon and left their Ness Hill farm forever.  It was a gut-wrenching departure, the scrunching of the gravel crying out under the slowly turning wheels, away from the cabin and out into the obscurity of the open land.  Donald saw Sophia as she looked back at the log cabin, a thousand memories of warm fires and laughing children etched on her face.  He swore then he would get back the Ness Hill farm at any price.

Donald spent most of the following winter in Sherbrooke and Montreal trying to find a lawyer who would take on the case for reclaiming Ness Hill.  Most listened sympathetically.  All turned him down.  The sale transaction was complete, they said, and the case was doomed to failure.  The next summer Auguste Duquette and his family moved in to Ness Hill.

It was then Donald made a serious blunder.  He went to Ness Hill, telling Auguste this was Morrison land and if he knew what was good for him, he would take his family and leave.  He should not have been surprised when Auguste told him he would do no such thing.  A few days later, the barn was torched and shots were fired into the cabin.  Donald maintained he was nowhere near Ness Hill when these events happened.  Although he remembered telling his brother, Murdo Jr., that he would do something if Duquette stayed on the farm, it was a fit of anger, nothing more.  He would never dream of burning down the barn or of harming a woman and a child.  Donald never expected that Murdo Junior would testify to his threats at the coroner's inquest but he should have known - Donald and his father had been fighting battles; Donald and his brother had been waging war for years.

Standing at Sandy Bay, Donald took one last look at Ness Hill and ran off into the forest.  The coroner had issued the warrants for arson and attempted murder.  Now it would be murder.

As Donald Morrison was disappearing into the forest,  Malcolm Matheson returned to his store.  What he was about to do there would significantly affect the future course of events. Matheson wrote up a list of names of people from the surrounding Scottish communities of Stornoway, Lingwick, Spring Hill and Winslow.  This would become the Morrison Defense Organization which would keep track of the police and provide Donald with safe houses and food.  Had Matheson not done so, Donald Morrison would probably have been quickly captured and the whole affair would have sunk into obscurity.  Instead, for ten long, gruelling months Donald Morrison would evade capture, becoming the most hunted outlaw in the history of Québec.  He would reach the status of a legend and a hero to his people, a status which endures to this day.

With the help of this network of informants Donald Morrison roamed the countryside easily evading the local constabulary as well as police from Sherbrooke and Québec City who had been summoned to assist in the manhunt.  A reward of $1200 was posted for his capture but no one would give the authorities any information.  Then in August the Montreal Star published an exclusive interview with Donald Morrison, written by its reporter Peter Spanyaardt.  Casting aside any pretence of journalistic objectivity, the headlines screamed: "A Rebellion in Megantic - Morrison Defended by Yeomanry - The War Correspondent Interviews the Rob Roy of the Region".  The story of Donald Morrison had become a cause célèbre beyond the Scottish community and beyond Megantic.

The French press, however, had a very different view.  La Presse noted, "Si le Star n'avaient montré autant de sympathie pour ce nouveau Rob Roy...peut-être Morrison serait-il aux mains de la justice."1  Le Pionnier lectured the English papers for their failure to make it clear that it was the duty "de tous les citoyens d'accorder tout appui matériel et moral aux représentatants de la Couronne."2  In spite of this, many French actively assisted the Morrison Defense Organization.

The Premier of Québec, Honoré Mercier, was furious.  How was it that a journalist could find Morrison while after three months of searching, three police forces could not?  Mercier was being embarrassed in Québec and across the country.  He ordered Attorney-General Arthur Turcotte to flood the Eastern Townships with police, militia, bounty-hunters, adventurers, anyone who would capture Morrison, dead or alive.


1 "If the Star hadn't shown so much sympathy for this new Rob Roy, maybe Morrison would be in the hands of justice."

2 "of all the citizens to grant total physical and moral support to representatives of the Crown."    

Montreal Police Chief George Hughes now headed the manhunt with over 200 police and militia.  He devised a new strategy: sudden house-to-house searches that would encompass the entire region.  The tactic only strengthened the resolve of the Morrison Defense Organization which now had informants in every village reporting on police movements, harassing them, withholding information, and sending them off on 'wild goose chases'.  Peter Spanyaardt may have been creating a myth, but he was accurate when he wrote:  "The people of the Scottish settlements declare they have suffered for years the greatest injustice at the hands of unscrupulous money lenders.  Till the Morrison outbreak, the hostility of the people did not show itself.  [Morrison] is the first to declare his enmity, and his friends and countrymen consider it their duty to stand by him".      

Clearly the French and English newspapers took diametrically differing perspectives on the events.  Linguistic divisions in Québec were as evident then as they are today.  For the French press, the defiance of law and order by the Scottish community was itself the injustice.  The English press saw such defiance as the only way to deal with the injustice.  The French newspapers were also sensitive to the ridiculing of the government and the police, especially in the interviews with Morrison published in the Montreal Star.

None of this, however, explains why many French farmers in the region would become part of the network protecting Morrison with safe houses and escape routes.  Nor does it explain why the English language Sherbrooke Examiner had little sympathy for Morrison when it trumpeted "Morrison must be arrested."

The explanation is much simpler.  The myth of Donald Morrison, which so angered the French press and which, like all myths do, gave the Scottish community a faith in higher cause, was the creation of one man: Peter Spanyaardt.  Without him this story would have sepia-toned in time, vanishing into the clouds over Lake Megantic.  The moment Spanyaardt placed the legend of Donald Morrison on the same level as that of Rob Roy, everything changed.

Throughout the brutal winter of 1888-89 Donald slipped through the net.  Hughes asked for more men but by February, Premier Mercier had had enough.  He wanted a general, a leader, someone who could think on his feet and match wits with Morrison and his "clan of ruffians".  Not a military general, but a judge: Judge Aimée Dugas. 

What Dugas may have lacked in height (and hair), he more than made up for in tenacity and shrewdness.  He quickly assembled a new team, recruiting a detective and two high-ranking officers from the Montreal Police Force.  He established base camps throughout the region so that his forces could respond more quickly to any sightings of Morrison.  He raised the reward to $3000.  Then Dugas applied a pressure tactic: a public proclamation which gave Dugas the authority to issue warrants for the arrest of anyone aiding or sheltering the outlaw.  Dugas was counting on the guilt Morrison would feel knowing his friends might languish in jail.  Dugas backed up the threat by arresting three members of Morrison's network.  Then, he offered a truce so he could meet with Morrison to negotiate his surrender.

The man who stood before Dugas was hardly the handsome, resolute and strong young man depicted in the wanted posters.  The winter had taken its toll on Donald - he was pale, exhausted, dirty, and the tense, sleepless nights showed in his blood-shot eyes.  Dugas would later admit to feeling great respect for this man who had outwitted the police for over nine months now.  Dugas urged Morrison to quit before one of the bounty-hunters killed him first.  Donald offered to leave the country but only if Ness Hill were given back to his family.  Dugas hadn't come to barter.  Neither had Morrison.  The meeting was over.

The following day, Dugas issued forty-five more warrants.  He dismantled the network piece by piece, taking into custody five key members, but leaving the head of the clan, Malcolm Matheson, free.  The rest vanished into the wilderness. 

A writ of habeas corpus was filed by lawyer J. Sidney Broderick, preventing further arrests but Dugas chose to ignore it.  Time was running out - the Montreal Police were due to return Easter weekend.  As the deadline approached, Dugas feared defeat in the mud of a spring thaw.

The Police, militia and bounty-hunters, now numbering over 300 hundred, were tired and fed up with freezing in this rugged land.  Except for two of them - a Montreal detective and a bounty-hunter.  They were watching from a hillside as a plume of smoke rose from a log cabin where Donald was eating his last meal as a free man with his mother and father, near the warmth of the fireside.

Murdo was forlorn that evening, with guilt bearing down on him as he realized his responsibility in this sad mess, too stubborn to listen to his own flesh and blood.  Donald said he was heading back West where he could vanish.  When Donald finally stepped out into the darkness, they were waiting for him.  As bullets whistled around him, Donald made a desperate dash for freedom.  Nearing the perimeter fence, one bullet found its mark in Donald's buttock sending him crashing to the ground.  It hurt tremendously but it didn't matter.  His days as a free man were over.

Donald Morrison was tried for murder in Sherbrooke in October 1889.  Throughout the trial, the courtroom was packed.  Donald listened stoically as Judge Edward Brooks charged the jury to find him guilty of manslaughter if it could not find him guilty of first degree murder.  The jury reluctantly found Morrison guilty of manslaughter but pleaded for the lightest sentence possible.  The judge did not agree, sentencing Morrison to eighteen years hard labour in St. Vincent-de-Paul Penitentiary.

Donald had told Peter Spanyaardt he would never surrender as prison would be a death sentence.  Condemned to hard labour and silence, Donald could only look to the trees and sky through the bars of his cell with the painful longing of a lost friend.  Unable to face the prospect of such hard time, the proud Donald Morrison went on a hunger strike and died of pulmonary consumption in the spring of 1894.  He was thirty-six years old.

Over two hundred Scots and French from Megantic and surrounding villages came for Morrison's burial in the Guisla Cemetery, just down the road from Sophia and Murdo Morrison's cabin where Donald had been ambushed.  It was a solemn day for not only his family but for the many who had tried so hard to protect Donald.  Murdo would die the following year and was buried next to his son - fittingly they are together, sorting out their differences for eternity.  Sophia joined them in 1906.

Within a generation, the Scottish community of the region had all but disappeared.  For the younger generation, the West was the land of opportunity as it had been for Donald Morrison years before.  For those who remained, the Morrison saga had strengthened their communal bonds, but it may have also hastened their exodus by intensifying their sense of alienation as more and more French Canadians moved into the region.  It was tough enough to make a living from this harsh, unforgiving land.  It was time to move on, to greener pastures.  By 1945 the diaspora of the Scottish clans was complete. 

Yet, when you come into the bustling town of Megantic today, retracing Donald Morrison's footsteps round the bend and down the hill onto Rue Frontenac, you will come to "Le Morrison".  It's a brassierie, formerly the American House Hotel.  If you ask anyone on the street they will tell you en français, and with great pride, that you are standing on the very spot where Donald Morrison shot Jack Warren.  Thus the legend seems to have crossed linguistic lines.

Then you can go into "Le Morrison", sit at a table where a place mat will be set before you.  Printed on it is a large sepia photograph of man with sharp eyes, DONALD MORRISON printed boldly across the top.  While you wait for your pint of ale, you can read the highlights of l'affaire Donald Morrison printed in French and English on the place mat.  Then you can sip your ale, look out the window and maybe see a chambermaid shaking a bedsheet under the hot sun.      


Richard Stanford is a screenwriter living in Vaudreuil-Dorion, Québec.  He has completed the writing of a screenplay, "At Any Price - A Life of Donald Morrison".



The archives of The Montreal Star, The Montreal Gazette, The Sherbrooke Record, and La Presse.

The Morrison Papers held in the Bibliothèque Publique de Megantic.

Popular Resistance to Legal Authority in the Upper St. Francis District of Quebec: The Megantic Outlaw Affair of 1888-89, by J.I. Little.  Labour/Le Travail, 33(Spring 1994).

The Megantic Outlaw and His Times: Ethnic Tensions in Quebec in the 1880's, by Ronald Rudin.  Canadian Ethnic Studies, 18 (1986).

The Outlaw of Megantic: The Story of a Canadian "Rob Roy", by Peter Span (Peter Spanyaardt.  The Wide World Magazine, Vol. 28 (March 1912).

Donald Morrison - The Canadian Outlaw, by Oscar Dhu. Limited edition reprint 1993.

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