HOLLY DOAN, CPAC Host: He was attorney general, judge and premier by the time
he turned 40. As prime minister he might have made history.
FATHER JACQUES MONET, Historian: The death of John Thompson really
changed what Canadian history would’ve been.
HOLLY DOAN: A remarkable career cut short by a dramatic death: John Thompson.
Welcome, I’m Holly Doan. Ask who was the first Roman Catholic president of the
United States, and someone is bound to answer John F. Kennedy.
But ask who was the first Catholic prime minister of Canada, and few recall the life and
achievements of John Thompson. If he’s remembered, it’s not for how he lived but how
he died. We present, John Thompson.
NARRATOR: Prime Minister John Thompson died only days before Christmas 1894.
He lay in state; even the Queen bowed in tribute to what he was and what he might have
been. It was a tragedy, the newspapers said; “no event in a generation…called forth more
widespread and sincere expressions of grief.” Thompson was an honest man in an era of
scoundrels – the gaslight era. “…Corruption pervaded every tissue of our society”, said a
Member of Parliament. Grafters attracted public scorn. The press called them “Men of
Weight in Parliament” – lawmakers who grew rich on cronyism and kickbacks. And then
there was John Thompson. He did not get rich in office. “I detest the idea,” he said.
ANN MITCHELL, Descendant: As a politician, he didn’t enjoy it. He hated
campaigning. For him it was slime! He hated the hypocrisy. He hated having to go out
and say nasty things about his opponents when he didn’t believe it. He was, completely
and utterly, an honest man.
NARRATOR: Thompson had one vice that he satisfied at his favorite restaurant. He
liked food and drink. Lunch was a plate of chocolates; supper, a steak with rum and
gravy. He was 5 foot 7 and weighed over 200 pounds.
ANN MITCHELL: He was heavy. And I gather, although he was slim when he met his
wife, he got fatter and fatter as the years went by. And I think he used the word fat to
describe himself as a matter of fact.
PETER WAITE, Historian: He has a very unassuming face. At one point when I was a
little bit exasperated with these portraits, I seem to remember saying he looked like a
country butcher at a wedding. But he was better than that. As he grew older he was one
of those people – there’s an Italian expression: “Bruta en facia, bella en piazza.” It was a
little bit that way with him – “ugly in the cradle but handsome in the square.”
NARRATOR: After his death that winter of 1894 friends remembered Thompson had
lived so plainly he walked to work to save cab fare. “Poor Thompson”, a colleague
wrote. “He was a gentleman…”
JACQUES MONET: John Thompson was very conscientious. Very, I would say,
intellectual, and very serious. As some of his biographers have said, his search for truth,
his search for wanting to have things well-defined and very clear in his mind about what
was the right thing.
NARRATOR: He came from Halifax, the son of an Irish immigrant. Thompson had
been a town alderman. He was first elected in 1871 in the waterfront ward. Elections
were unruly. Votes were bought with cash or liquor.
PETER WAITE: That’s what he hated about politics. He felt there’s an awful lot of
potential skullduggery around. This is why in political speeches he hated to have to say
some of the things he had to say, because he would be exaggerating.
NARRATOR: Thompson was 14 when he found his profession. He was hired as a clerk
in lawyer’s office. He had a passion for it, a friend said. In Halifax he soon had his own
practice. Few accomplished so much in so short a time.
ANN MITCHELL: He was called to the bar of Nova Scotia at the age of 19; at 20, had
established his own law practice. At 32 he was Attorney General. And at 36 he was
Premier of the province. Quite an extraordinary rise for such a young man. He was a
brilliant man. He loved the law.
NARRATOR: Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was so impressed by Thompson, in
1885 he named him federal minister of justice. Cabinet veterans complained Thompson
was too young, only 39. Give him six months, Macdonald said. “Come to me then, if you
will, and tell me I’ve made a mistake.” Nobody did. When The Prime Ministers returns –
leap of faith. Canada’s first Catholic Prime Minister.
NARRATOR, Continued: It was a faith of the country’s founders. But outsiders looked
on it with suspicion as a foreign cult with elaborate rituals: the Roman Catholic Church.
JACQUES MONET: There was a long standing prejudice against Catholics on the part
of Protestants and vice versa. And since there were more Protestants around in Halifax
than there were Catholics, he certainly would anticipate that people would turn against
NARRATOR: Forty percent of the country was Roman Catholic. They were clerks and
farmers, mill hands and storekeepers. But they were often scorned in public life. “The
Roman Catholic vote is more or less perfectly controlled by the priests,” said a Protestant
leader. No Catholic had been permitted to serve as prime minister.
PETER WAITE: Thompson had to think twice about changing religion. But he did.
And it took courage to do that -- political if you like, but social courage, says something
about him too.”
NARRATOR: “I believed that day of my baptism,” he said, “was the day that closed my
chances” of success. Raised a Methodist, Thompson converted at 25. He had conviction.
He was also in love. Her name was Annie, a Halifax shop girl. She was Catholic.
ANN MITCHELL: He loved his wife. He adored her. He met her out walking on the
street. He followed her home. He turned up at her house the next day. He never let her
alone; he didn’t give her a chance to say no, he was devoted.
PETER WAITE: Crazy about each other. In a sense they couldn’t leave each other
alone. But the problem is, what do you do? Methodists do not marry Catholics. Or at
least they do only at great social risk.
NARRATOR: He courted Annie for years, sending her love notes, calling her “baby
dear”. She called him “kitten”. When I receive your letters, he said, “my heart jumps to
the ceiling.” They wrote in shorthand to keep the affair a secret.
PETER WAITE: Her family did not at all like her being courted by a Methodist. For
one thing, they feared for her being taken away from the Catholic faith. They didn’t like
it on principle because remember religious divisions in Nova Scotia were pretty sharp in
the 1850s and 1860s. So they didn’t like this idea. So the shorthand on his letters was to
prevent the family from poking their nose into it.
NARRATOR: John and Annie Thompson married and had nine children. Almost
unique among prime ministers, Thompson had a passionate home life.
ANN MITCHELL: He adored his children, no question. There’s one letter in which he
writes, “You mustn’t forget that you Pa loves you so much and is lonesome all the time
for his darlings.” He wrote his children regularly. He wrote his wife all the time as is
well known. Their correspondence to each other is famous for its romantic and
sometimes steamy references.”
PETER WAITE: His tenderness, his tenderness towards his children. He remembered
birthdays. He would bring things to them. It was a wonderful demonstration of a family
man, which in Canadian prime ministers, as you may discover, there aren’t very many
NARRATOR: In public Thompson was austere. Once, at a town meeting, he was
speaking when a balcony collapsed. Thompson waited 20 minutes ‘til calm was restored,
then picked up his speech in mid-sentence where he’d left off. A journalist said: “It’s
difficult to excite such a man.” Arriving in Ottawa in 1885, Thompson did not care for
the capital. The work was “dreary”, he complained. And the city was expensive.
Thompson lived in a boarding house. He had a family to support back home. He
complained he was always broke. His main recreation was the Parliamentary Library.
Thompson read all the newest fiction – Dickens and Twain, Jules Verne and Robert
Louis Stevenson. The books were free to members of Parliament. His only ambition was
to serve on the on the Supreme Court. Thompson had been a judge in Nova Scotia and
still had a love for the law.
PETER WAITE: He was a fair minded judge. A little bit tough when it came to cruelty.
Don’t expect a lot of charity from Judge Thompson if you were guilty of murdering your
wife, or beating your wife, or beating your children. You wouldn’t get it. But in lots of
other cases he was mild as milk.
NARRATOR: In the Commons, even opposition members said Thompson was the best
justice minister the country ever had. He appeared on Parliament Hill every day but
Sunday, working a hundred-hour week. And Thompson made legal history. He
introduced the first Criminal Code; the first laws for juvenile delinquents; the country’s
first gun controls. He was “the brainiest man in the country,” a colleague said, “…a gold
mine to the Conservative Party. When Conservatives sought a new leader in 1892,
Thompson was touted as the best man for the job.
JACQUES MONET: Thompson himself was reticent. His name was mentioned, it was
obvious he knew he was being thought of as a possible successor to Macdonald, but he
was reticent about it himself for that reason. Maybe in the same way he’d feared he’d
lose clients by becoming a Catholic back in Nova Scotia years before. He realized it was
a sensitive situation and why take that kind of risk?
NARRATOR: John Thompson was still in his 40s. He’d been a judge and a premier,
and now prime minister by “sheer force of intellect”, a journalist said. But tragedy lay
ahead. When we return – the dramatic death of John Thompson.
NARRATOR, Continued: Only later in the Commons, when John Thompson was
gone, would friends say it was inevitable. He would not live long. His “incessant work,”
a colleague said, his “lack of exercise, and…appetite…all pointed one way.”
Thompson was unwell. Doctors told him to lose weight and quit drinking. Convinced
that travel would do some good, Thompson planned a trip to Europe. It was nearly
Christmas; he would make a pilgrimage to Rome. At the Vatican stood St. Peter’s, the
greatest church in the Catholic world -- its dome 40 stories high.
JACQUES MONET: The idea of pilgrimages to Rome was an increasingly big thing for
Catholics in the 19th century. A young man like John Thompson growing up as a Catholic
and as a convert would have the notion that it would be a good thing for him to do a
pilgrimage to Rome, that it might even be a dream that he had. So he climbed all those
steps, up the equivalent of 40 stories to the top of the Dome of St. Peter’s and people
would say ‘Why did he do that?’ Especially his friends around him told him it wasn’t a
good idea. At five foot seven, he was 225 pounds. Well, one of the reasons he was in
Europe was to consult doctors about his heart. So climbing all those steps was not a good
idea, but he wanted to do it anyway.
NARRATOR: Thompson was so weakened by the climb he staggered with shortness of
breath and was ordered to rest by doctors. He did not rest for long. Queen Victoria
summoned Thompson to London to accept a rare honor. He was to be appointed to Her
Majesty’s Imperial Privy Council. On December 12th, 1894 Thompson appeared at
Windsor Castle in full court dress. Forced to stand 20 minutes at a court ceremony, he
nearly fainted. Perspiring and gasping for breath, Thompson went to lunch with the
PETER WAITE: He goes to lunch in the Octagon Room of Windsor Castle. At lunch
he starts to feel a little bit peculiar and goes out of the room briefly. Someone says to
him “Are you feeling alright?” Thompson says “I was feeling a little faint but I’m alright
now.” Well Lord Bartleby says “You’d better have a little brandy” and so Thompson
takes a little bit of brandy, goes back and sits down. The Queen’s doctor is placed beside
him at lunch now that he’s not feeling very well. And all of a sudden, he leans over and
falls into the lap of the doctor. Dead. Heart attack.
NARRATOR: In Ottawa, a reporter contacted the prime minister’s wife for comment.
Comment on what, she asked. Thompson’s widow was among the last to know her
husband was dead. She collapsed in grief. “Never to hear his voice again,” she wrote
“never to hear him come home at the door, never to hear him come up the stairs again…I
am afraid of the days and I am afraid of the years and if it were not for the children I
should long to creep away in some corner and die.” She was alone and nearly penniless.
ANN MITCHELL: He wasn’t a good steward of his properties. As a result Annie was
left very, very badly off. Friends undertook to provide an education for the two boys who
were at law school in Toronto. And I think there was a fund on the part of
parliamentarians to fund Annie’s pension. There was practically nothing left by Sir John
Thompson when he died.
NARRATOR: The Queen had Thompson’s remains brought to Canada aboard a British
Navy cruiser painted black in mourning.
PETER WAITE: Everybody is shocked. The queen thinks so highly of Thompson and
the British government thinks so highly of Thompson they send him back to Canada on a
British Mon-O-War which is brought home from Gibraltar for the very purpose. And so
Thompson’s body is put in a fancy casket and driven across the Atlantic to Halifax. And
then he’s buried down here in Holy Cross Cemetery on a beautiful late December day.
NARRATOR: Thompson was home again, in Halifax. His state funeral was a Catholic
mass. “Dead at the crest, the crown and blossom of his fortunes,” the inscription reads,
“this strong son of our great realm sank down beneath the load of honors scarcely won.”
ANN MITCHELL: He has been forgotten primarily because he died so young. He died
at the age of 49. He was just beginning to show what he could do.
JACQUES MONET: The death of John Thompson was a tragedy. Perhaps more than
any other single person in the last part of the 19th century, the death of Sir John
Thompson really changed what Canadian history would’ve been.
NARRATOR: With Thompson’s death, a colleague said: “There is a gap which cannot
be filled.” He was right. Without Thompson, it was 17 years before the Conservatives
won another election.
POSTSCRIPT: Parliament established a $62,500 fund to support John Thompson’s wife
and family. Annie Thompson outlived her husband by nineteen years. She never
Bibliography & Sources
1) Collard, Andrew “Canadian Yesterdays” 1955 Longmans
2) Healy, W.J. “Sir John Thompson” Men of the Day, A Canadian Portrait Gallery,
1890 Mortimer & Co.
3) Waite, P.B. “The Man from Halifax, Sir John Thompson” 1985 U of T Press
4) The Toronto Globe 1880-1894