#31 – The Horrors of our Past – Part 3 – Ocular Miss, The Quirk Murder Mystery

It was March of 1902. A little over a year since Winston Churchill made his maiden speech. A few months since Theodore Roosevelt renamed the executive mansion as the white house. Three months since the first Nobel prize in physics was awarded to Wilhelm Rontgen for his invention of the x-ray. And, just around the time when many Canadian soldiers were returning from fighting in the Boer war. But James Quirk wasn’t one of those returning soldiers.  At 42 years of age, James was an extroverted, enthralling, and energic moustached gentlemen enjoying his retirement from professional completive foot-racing. And, although he enjoyed some fame in Canada and the United States, he appreciated his time since being on the racing circuit. James went into the hotel business with long-time associate John Toole, and Fred Westbrook, once a champion cyclist, was married to a woman who was “wealthy in her own right” and had two young daughters.

James Quirk (Aka Jim Daly, Jim Quirk)

He and John had purchased and ran a hotel in downtown Brantford Ontario. The hotel was located on Dalhousie Street, just across from the Market and was aptly named Commercial Hotel. Adjoined to the side of the three-story brick building, whose architecture reflected the typical 19th-century style in which it was built, was a stable where the equines in the traveler’s group would stay. It was also where James would keep his prized gaming chickens, that he used in various coq fights. 

The Commercial Hotel – Dalhousie Street, Brantford (C. 1880-1900) – Courtesy of Brant Historical Society

You see, James liked to gamble. And, sometimes, this would lead him into a bit of trouble, and as a result, he likely made a few enemies along the way. In his younger years, he seemed to have made a habit of swindling some “honest” folks of their “hard-earned” money with long-time fellow racer Billy Boyd. On one occasion in 1888, when James was 28, and his friend Billy was around 26, they travelled to Maidstone Cross, and Billy posed as a cattle buyer. He then seemed to have coincidently saw a poster in the hotel lobby while checking in of an upcoming foot-race, to which he said he might be interested in participating if time would allow as he was in town looking at cattle. Except, he wasn’t looking to buy cattle.  

The first set race between two local racers kind of fizzled, so they brought Billy over to compete in the second race and naturally, as he was an award-winning professional athlete, n he won by a long-shot. Although this piece of information was not known to the town folk, for the second race, all the townspeople were placing their bets on Billy, having shown how fast he could be in the race in which he had just participated. For the third race, the 100-yard dash, suddenly another new-comer came, brandishing a bunch of bills, betting he could win the race. Well, they had just seen how fast Billy was, and so they put all their cash behind him. Little did they know that at this time, there was virtually no faster sprinter in the area than James Quirk, especially in the 100-yard races. Of course, James won the race, and Billy came in second. Many locals were aggravated, having lost a lot of money, and James took the pot. And having felt the sting of losing money, they then saw James Quirk, after having collected his money, join Billy Boyd and get into a buggy together and leave town and head out towards Essex. It was at this point that a Mr. Kennedy, a local newspaper editor, told the crowd that James Quirk of Brantford won the race and the cattle buyer was William Boyd from Woodstock, a noted sprinter, and he “didn’t know a fat steer from a bale of hay.”

Lots of fights broke out, and some older man ended up getting accidentally punched in the face and then his sons were out for revenge. Of course, James and Billy were long gone at this point, laughing towards Essex with a large payout in hand. 

Of course, he had settled a bit by 1902. He was a sharp businessman with a young family. He was a slender and athletic man who turned heads as he walked through town. But old habits die hard, and the thrill of a fight or race would never leave his veins. 

James was a fancier and bred and raised gaming roosters that would be used in Coq fights. He housed these in the stables attached to the Commercial Hotel that he ran with his old-time business associate, his agent or manager during his professional racing years on the circuit. 

Sunday, March 23rd, 1902, was a typical day for fair and gregarious James Quirk. He was in good spirits, the hotel was mostly full, and he was enjoying his usual company of friends and acquaintances. Although he never made contact with the stranger that allegedly came calling for him while he was out. Nor was he aware that an unknown man had come calling for him.

At around 10 PM that evening, he left the hotel to go for a stroll with friend and street railway staff Dave Thomas. They got back to the hotel at around 11:30 PM, chatted a few minutes at the door and then Dave went on his way. James immediately went inside the hotel and started speaking to the bellboy, Eddie Kennedy, and his business partner, John Toole. During this conversation, James suggested that John gets to bed and that he would finish up things in the hotel for the night before turning in. John Toole would then make his way to his room. A little after this, James then told Eddie Kennedy that he could stop working for the night. Eddie bid good night to James and then made his way to his room, which was just above the harness room of the stable. For it was there, in the stables, that James Quirk would meet his end in just a short 10 minutes.

James bade good night to Bob Ryan, the hotel cook. Bob watched his employer walk away towards the lavatory, which was in the general direction towards the rear of the bar, shortly after 11:30 and oddly, John Toole was near behind him, not knowing that this would be the last time he would see him in life. 

Shortly after that, a bartender from the Kirby house, named George Rillis, entered the front office looking for James, after first checking the bar. Bob Ryan, the cook, had said that he must have just stepped out. By this time, it was close to midnight. Eddie, the bellboy, was getting ready for bed in his room when he heard loud, shocking cries coming from the stables. He thought, “Maybe someone got kicked by a horse!” He swiftly left his room and hurried down to the front office where he met the hotel cook, Bob Ryan. When Eddie entered the front office, he exclaimed, “there’s something wrong in the stable! I heard a noise of groaning from my room.”

Together the three men rushed to the stables and there found the body of James Quirk, still somewhat alive, gasping for breath, trying to move, unable to speak, with his head bashed in, lying in two pools of blood at the bottom of a 10-foot ladder the lead to the loft where he kept his game chickens.  

The stable’s gate leading to Dalhousie street was swung wide open, despite having been bolted closed by the hostler earlier that evening, whose job it was to look after the horses of people staying at the hotel. 

His screams awakened two guests of the hotel. They both got up, looked out their window that overlooked the yard, but didn’t see anything and went back to bed. But, having heard more screams, once again got up and looked out and saw that the door leading into the harness room was wide open. 

The men ran inside to get John Toole, to notify James’ wife, and to call a doctor. They frantically knocked on John’s door, but there was no answer. Bob Ryan, the cook, when two doors down and started knocking on Mrs. Quirk’s door. John Tool, James and his wife, and their two daughters all had rooms down the same hall, and all rooms adjoined. James & his wife’s room adjoined to their daughters’ room, and their daughters’ room adjoined to John Tool’s room. 

When Mrs. Quirk opened the room, she was met with the desperate face of the cook who blurted out, “Jim is killed.” A few moments later, Mrs. Quirk and John Tool would enter into the hall from Mrs. Quirk’s room.At this point, the doctor was being fetched, and the rest of the house was being awakened. 

By the time the doctor arrived, James was dead. The doctor, having seen the state of James’ head and face, suggested that they call the police and the coroner. Sergeant Wallace was first on the scene, followed by Chief Vaughan and P.C. Donnelly. The three made a preliminary examination of the scene. 

James’s body was lying flat in his back in pools of blood. There was some blood on the ladder. Initial theories were that someone had been waiting in the loft and attacked him as he was climbing up the ladder. A swift initial search of the stables did not reveal the murder weapon. Is seemed as though the perpetrator had taken it with him. Although later they would discover a small axe in the hayloft, however, it didn’t appear to be the murder weapon. 

Based on James’s fatal injuries, it seemed apparent that he had been murdered. He had severe damage to his skull, which was practically caved in, having been hit five times with a blunt instrument. Also, there were two deep gashes across his left eye. The wounds looked as though they were inflicted with an axe or hatchet. 

A search of his body and clothing showed that the $21 that he had on him was not taken; therefore, they had concluded that immediate robbery was not a motive for the attack on James. 

John Tool, James’ business partner, was seen by several people with blood on his body and clothing. He told law enforcement it was because he had picked up James’ head when he saw him lying dead on the harness room floor and became splattered with blood. 

It wouldn’t be long before the local police would call on and request the assistance of famed provincial investigator John Murray to investigate the circumstances surrounding James’ death. In fact, his help was requested within one day of James’ death. 

John Murray’s initial crime scene examination may have gone something like this:

“This is March 23rd, 1902 and we in the stable house at 132 Dalhousie Street, location of the Commercial Hotel in the city of Brantford. In the Harness room, there is apparent blood on the ladder leading to the loft where the victim’s game chickens are housed. The decedent is lying flat on his back, with his legs extended straight out towards the door and his head leaning slightly to the right, as though he had been placed in that position by the victim’s attacker. There are two deep pools of blood under decedent. All the sustained injuries are to his head and face and would have been caused by someone close. The body is fully clothed, and there does not appear to be anything, at first sight, missing from his person. There is evidence of blood on the ladder leading to the loft. Upon inspection, it looks as though the blood was placed there. Both back doors, the one leading from the hall and the one from the back-end of the bar to the rear yard of the hotel are unbolted, indicating someone could easily move from the hotel to the stables and back without being seen.”

John Murray was a famed investigator with the Ontario Provincial Police, initially called the criminal investigation department. He was Ontario’s only full-time detective at the time and continued as such for at least a decade. He was Ontario’s only full-time detective for close to 10 years. John Murray was arguably the most famous police officer in the country. He was logical and relied heavily on the use of science and forensic autopsies in his investigations. Have you ever watched Murdoch Mysteries? It’s a television series based on a logical, science-driven police detective named Detective William Murdoch, working out of Toronto in the late 19th century. The character of William Murdoch was based on the life and career of Provincial investigator John Wilson Murray. 

John Wilson Murray

James Quirk’s funeral was held on March 26th, 1902. It had one of the largest gatherings of a funeral that the city had ever experienced. His family travelled from the U.S. and other areas of Ontario to attend. His remains were laid to rest at Mount Hope Cemetery. And yet, not all of James’ remains would be buried with him. Shortly after the funeral service, before his body would be taken to be interred, his head was removed from his body, placed in a jar of alcohol to be further examined. A coronial inquest was called almost immediately; however, it would start and then be postponed several times over numerous months. 

During this time, James’ head would be sent to Toronto for examination. The examination was based on an old theory that an image of whatever is last seen by an individual is burned into their retina. They believed it might have been possible to see the image on the retina and even photograph it. No evidence came from this examination. 

Also, during this time, ate first of two anonymous letters would be sent to the Brantford police. This one originated from the nearby town of Woodstock. It read:

“Chickens will come home to roost is an old saying. Well, I have only returned the blow. Quirk and his pal Boyd done me years ago, and I never got over it. I have waited a long time for my chance. I have got one and will get the other crook if it would take ten years. They will, neither of them, have a chance to say ‘God Forgive me’ if I can help it. Hundreds will say ‘Well Done’ over the job. (signed) Revenge.”

A second anonymous letter, this time originating from Buffalo, NY, was sent to the police shortly after the first letter was received, which was all within a week of James’ murder. The letter read:

“I wish to repeat my former statement, although not in the same writing, to the effect that the consummate-and-Billy Boyd, will surely meet with what he deserves even as sure as Quirk is now dead. The worst of the two is yet living yet in constant dread. He dares not stay around Detroit, Michigan and makes Chatham his home. But there are those who keep a constant lookout for the villain, and they will surely get him. Very truly yours” (not signed).

John Toole would tell law enforcement that a little while before James’ murder, he had received a letter from a man in Detroit known to Mr. Westbrook, stating that he would get his revenge on James. 

James’ brother Frank, who lived in the Buffalo, had immediately started stating that James was murdered for his money. He was saying that James had on his person $170 was that amount which was taken in at the hotel bar and wouldn’t yet have been deposited in the bank. These funds went unaccounted. But there was also his net worth, insurance money, and surely his senior share of the hotel to consider. James had life insurance between the amounts of 14,500 to 17,500, which would be approximately $400,000 today. 

“My opinion is that he was called out to the barn by a man with whose voice Jim was familiar. Jim always closed up the hotel himself, and it was his custom to take a look about the rear of the hotel before retiring. Some person, whose voice was familiar to Jim, and who was familiar to his movements, probably called to him. For I do not believe that he would have occasion to enter the barn at that time of night, or would have gone out there with a stranger. I do not place any credence in the report that my brother was murdered by someone who sought revenge for being worsted in a sporting deal. I do not know whether this person who called Jim out murdered him or whether the deed was committed by an accomplice. Jim’s groans were heard 10 minutes after he was attacked, and it puzzles me how the men made their escape, as the night was very clear. Detective Murray does not favour the theory that Jim was struck with a hatchet while ascending a ladder. He believes that he was attacked as soon as he entered the harness room.”

Detective John Murray believed that one person committed the crime, which was carefully planned and executed, with the highest care not to leave any evidence. He also believed that this person was well known to the victim, had lured him into the harness room, and hat hit him on the head several times as soon as he entered the room. He then moved James’ body into the position that he would later be discovered, which would account for the two pools of blood. 

After James’ murder, James’ widow and business partner were not granted a liquor license for the bar. Also, his insurance money was never paid out. But, most interestingly, James’ widow and John Tool were wed in secret within nine months of James’ death, they sold the hotel and moved to Buffalo to live out their lives. 

Provincial detective John Murray strongly believed who the murderer was and had hoped to be able to close the case with a conviction before long. Unfortunately, the case was never closed, and the famed OPP detective died only four years later. 

“The case is a mystery that is a mystery only insofar as the formal legal solution of it is concerned. […]

I am morally certain who the guilty parties are, but there is not sufficient evidence yet to convict…”

Part of John Murray’s concluding statement in his memoir reads:

“As civilisation [sic] and science advance, crime also will advance. The detective business of the future will be far ahead of the detective business of the past. I hope that the future will see it raised to the high place of a profession, whose members will have a pride in their calling and a careful preparation for their duties.”



Toronto Daily Star, 24 Mar 1902, P. 7

The Ottawa Citizen, 24 Mar 1903, P. 5

The Windsor Star, 24 Mar 1902, P. 1

The Province, 24 Mar 1902, P. 1

Vancouver Daily World, 24 Mar 1902, P. 5

Buffalo Evening News, 24 Mar 1902, P. 13

Buffalo Morning Express, 25 Mar 1902, P. 1

Buffalo Morning Express, 25 Mar 1902, P.  11

The Buffalo Enquirer, 26 Mar 1902, P. 10

Buffalo Evening News, 26 Mar 1902, P. 14

The Ottawa Citizen, 26 Mar 1902, P. 1

The Windsor Star, 26 Mar 1902, P. 4

The Ottawa Citizen, 27 Mar 1902, P. 2

The Windsor Star, 27 Mar 1902, P. 1

Buffalo Morning Express, 27 Mar 1902, P. 13

The Ottawa Citizen, 28 Mar 1902, P. 5

Buffalo Courier, 28 Mar 1902, P. 8

The Buffalo Enquirer, 28 Mar 1902, P. 11

The Windsor Star, 29 Mar 1902, P. 1

Buffalo Courier, 30 Mar 1902, P. 21

Buffalo Morning Express, 30 Mar 1902, P. 7

The Buffalo Enquirer, 31 Mar 1902, P. 7

The Buffalo Inquirer, 2 Apr 1902, P. 5

Detroit Free Press, 2 Apr 1902, P. 10

Republican and Herald, 3 Apr 1902, P. 1

Vancouver Daily World, 3 Apr 1902, P. 7

The Salt Lake Herald, 4 Apr 1902, P. 7

The Windsor Star, 7 Apr 1902, P. 3


Peacemakers & Lawbreakers: 125-Year history of the Brantford Police Service, Heather Ibbotson (P. 74-75)

Memoirs of a Great Detective, John Murray (P. 473-476)

Other: https://www3.brantford.ca/inventory.nsf/heritage_web?OpenFrameSet&Frame=left&Src=%2Finventory.nsf%2F266000831af05c9d85256ad5006ead5c%2F7f50aebc6bbd2b6f85256a8b0058617b%3FOpenDocument%26AutoFramed

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