The strange case of Dr. Douglas MacRobbie
On a summer night 100 years ago, a Hamilton doctor was found dead in a pool of blood upstairs in a building on Cannon Street The mystery remains, and so does the building, which some believe is haunted
Aaron Blake read the booze- and bloodsoaked details: Screams in the dark on a hot August night. An intrepid detective. And the medical men exhuming the dead.
THEN HE SEARCHED in Hamilton Cemetery. It was, he knew, an odd way to spend an afternoon, looking for a grave of someone unrelated to him. Who died 100 years ago. And who was murdered. Perhaps. He dragged his wife, Vanessa, along with him, but it was hot, she was pregnant with twins and she stayed in the car as he walked the 170-year-old burial ground on York Boulevard.
He asked a cemetery staffer where Douglas MacRobbie was buried, but just the section; he wanted to find it on his own from there.
THE END SHOCKED HIM
BLAKE’S INTEREST in MacRobbie’s death began a few years ago when he and Vanessa were dating and he visited her at work at Crescent Oil, the family business.
The 121-year-old stone building on Cannon Street at Bay is invisible to most motoring past, hard against little Railway Street. (Little street, big history: Johnny “Pops” Papalia was gunned down there outside his vending machine business 20 years ago this past spring.)
Across Cannon is Sir John A. Macdonald high school, where there was once a watering hole called the Royal Oak Hotel — a place Dr. MacRobbie had known well.
Blake heard that long ago someone died in the Crescent Oil building. Who? How? He researched at the central library branch’s Local History and Archives Department.
MacRobbie died Aug. 19, 1917. And not of natural causes.
The case was not included in the historical homicides archive. Why?
He read dozens of stories, thousands of words, from Hamilton’s three daily newspapers that covered the case: the Spectator, Herald and Times.
The end to the story shocked him most of all. He could not leave it alone.
And he made that pilgrimage to the cemetery.
He searched and searched for MacRobbie’s stone.
An hour passed. Clouds gathered. Rain started to fall.
It wasn’t there.
A POOL OF BLOOD
IN THE HEAT of the night the bell rang 11 times in the clock tower at Hess Street School. It was Sunday, Aug. 19, 1917. In the darkness, a golden glow from gas lamps filled windows on the upper floor of the building on Cannon Street at Bay.
A big night of drinking had been going on in the Crescent Oil offices.
Hard liquor was taboo and against the law since Ontario passed the Temperance Act nearly a year earlier.
You could obtain alcohol for medicinal purposes, and buy 2.5 per cent beer at places like the Royal Oak Hotel across the street, where the men in the office had been drinking ale that hot afternoon.
Canada-wide prohibition would soon be declared and Hamilton, whose population had doubled in 10 years to 100,000, had a growing underworld of bootleggers, including the likes of Rocco Perri.
A woman walking along Cannon heard a scream. And another, muffled. And then nothing. At 1 a.m. the phone rang at Central Police Station on King William Street.
Det. Harry Sayer, pulling the graveyard shift, took the call.
Sayer was a rising star on the force, well-regarded among police officers far and wide.
It was a doctor named Langs on the line, at the Crescent Oil office, a couple of minutes ride from the station on a Hamilton Police motorcycle.
Sayer arrived through a side door and climbed a flight of stairs to the upper floor.
He saw a man lying in a pool of blood, a large man, perhaps 200 pounds.
It was Douglas MacRobbie, a wellknown doctor. Dead.
SAYER CAST A WARY EYE
DR. LANGS SAID he had attempted artificial respiration about an hour earlier and detected a flutter of the heart, “a spark of life,” but it was difficult to hear it; men seemed to be coming and going, clomping up the stairs, and a faucet ran in the bathroom.
The room was strewn with old carriage parts. Iron bars lay on the floor next to MacRobbie’s head.
At a glance, in dim light, Sayer could see a gash at the base of the skull, and the man’s shirt collar gaped open.
Had he fallen and hit his head on the bars? Sayer examined the iron with a magnifying glass.
Downstairs he spoke to the Crescent Oil night watchman, Herbert Asselstine, who said when he arrived just after 11 p.m. he saw a man he did not know, on his back, breathing faintly.
He said the first thing he thought was, “this man must have hurt himself,” and he noticed three other men asleep in the room.
He knew one of them was Harry Smith, the owner. Asselstine phoned another Crescent Oil official at home, who in turn called a doctor.
Sayer cast a wary eye at Asselstine. Why not wake Smith up?
And why did it take the second company official at least an hour to call a doctor?
The three men in the room with MacRobbie had been Smith, and Walter Scott, an architect, and Joseph McAuliffe, a real estate agent.
Sayer left the building and found McAuliffe in the yard, asleep, and drunk, his collar missing and wearing one shoe.
He arrested him, and within the hour, also Scott, who was at his home in bed, and then Smith. He saw no blood on any of the men, or their clothes.
Why had all three left the building?
All of them said they couldn’t remember why, they were too drunk.
“I don’t know anything,” Smith said. “I don’t know anything about it.”
He charged them with vagrancy so he could hold them at Barton Street jail.
A police ambulance took the body to the City Hospital morgue.
Sayer went home, slept a few hours, and returned to the scene.
On street corners, newspapers that brandished headlines about Hamilton men wounded or dying in the First World War, in its 36th month, now carried news of carnage closer to home.
‘THE DEATH CHAMBER’
They drove to a slaughter house to examine blood-clotting patterns, and to study cattle struck on the back of the head, to see how they fell.
The Hamilton Spectator Monday August 20, 1917 Dr. MacRobbie Found With Skull Crushed Gruesome Discovery Made on Premises of Crescent Oil Company
AT 42, Douglas Gilbert MacRobbie had lived in Hamilton 10 years after moving from a medical practice up north near Georgian Bay.
He was one of the younger doctors in town, with a reputation for helping those who couldn’t afford to pay for treatment, including delivering a baby for a woman after she was
turned down by four others.
He was not known to have “vicious habits,” reported the Hamilton Times, “although he would take a drink now and again with friends.” He played poker “for small amounts … and was universally liked, with a jovial disposition.”
Back at Crescent Oil, Sayer continued questioning Asselstine.
Sayer had found a piece of wooden moulding, three feet long, next to the body. There was a red spot on it. Blood?
“It could be red paint,” Asselstine said.
The detective found two bottles of whisky behind the building with fresh labels, recently consumed, among older broken bottles tossed out an upstairs window.
The more witnesses Sayer interviewed, the murkier the picture became through the mists of booze, deception, or some combination.
MacRobbie and the three men had been drinking together that Sunday night, but even before that, Smith, McAuliffe and Scott had been drinking, driving around the country on the Mountain and nearly crashing their car.
They were men of wealth and stature, although Smith, in the oil business for years, had been under investigation in 1914 over contracts he had with the city.
The city coroner ordered an inquest into what was being called the MacRobbie tragedy.
Monday afternoon, jurors viewed MacRobbie’s body in the morgue, and then visited the Crescent Oil scene and the room newspapers were calling “the death chamber.”
With the room filled with natural light, blood spatter appeared to pepper the walls.
A Hamilton architect drew blueprint-style sketches of the scene, and a blood-expert doctor tested stains, including those on floor boards he tore up. He concluded it was human blood.
Given the statements made so far by witnesses, and preliminary forensics, the theory among doctors was that his death had been a terrible alcohol-fuelled accident: MacRobbie had fractured his skull falling on the iron bars.
The three men drinking with him denied there had been gambling, or a fight. And yet they claimed to remember little.
Dr. Langs and Det. Sayer poured water on the floor to see which direction it flowed, comparing it to the movement of blood, to determine if the body had moved from its original position.
It had: MacRobbie had lain on his side, and then his back. Could he have moved under his own power?
TWO KEY WITNESSES
THE FUNERAL was held in MacRobbie’s home at 56 Hess St. N. His father, a pastor at Nelson Presbyterian Church in Tansley, near Burlington, arrived by train.
The shattered man, at 85, had lost his wife just over a year earlier.
Mourners turned out at Hamilton Cemetery where pallbearers were fellow doctors with names like Harper, McEdwards, MacLoughlin, Cody and Blake.
That night, Thursday Aug. 23, at 8 p.m., residents flooded Central Police Station where the coroner’s inquest opened, with many waiting outside to hear news.
The purpose of the inquest was to determine the cause of death and what, if any, criminal charges should progress to a grand jury trial.
In the prisoners dock, the three accused men looked pale, sweat popping on their foreheads.
MacRobbie’s widow, Catherine, dressed in black, took the stand.
She said her husband had been napping in the afternoon that Sunday, when three men arrived asking after him; men she didn’t know, or trust. She didn’t like the look of them.
She said he left home for his office at 6 p.m. He often went out without saying where he was going.
Her husband drank, she said, but then would go months without. She believed he had not had a drink for six weeks.
She went to bed at 10:30 Sunday night and he had still not come home, but she thought nothing of it and slept well.
“I did not see him alive again,” she said, her voice, that had been strong and dignified, finally cracking.
The three men testified and said they remembered nothing about how MacRobbie was hurt.
Walter Scott said MacRobbie drank with them at the Royal Oak Hotel, and then Crescent Oil. By 9 p.m. they were all drunk, and at Smith’s suggestion all four lay down to rest.
Another witness, the owner of the hotel, said in fact MacRobbie had appeared sober to him.
“Can you account for Dr. MacRobbie’s injuries?” Scott’s lawyer asked his client. “Not in the least,” Scott said. “And you had no quarrel with him at all?” “None whatever.” The inquest sat five times, with the final session Sept. 1.
The hope that fingerprints might solve the case hit a dead end: a bloodstained piece of wooden moulding sent to Ottawa for analysis matched none of the men.
“Police are pessimistic,” wrote The Spectator. “The belief that the mystery surrounding the tragic death of Dr. MacRobbie will never be solved appeared to be growing in volume.”
But Harry Sayer had found two key witnesses: women who heard screams around the time MacRobbie had died; one lived next door to the building.
One of the women had been walking past, looked up and saw a silhou-
“The belief that the mystery surrounding the tragic death of Dr. MacRobbie will never be solved appeared to be growing in volume.” THE SPECTATOR
ette against a window shade, what appeared to be a man, sitting, or reclining back, and not moving.
Another witness reported hearing a carriage pulling away fast, soon after the cries for help.
With evidence of murder surfacing, Dr. Langs, and his colleague Dr. John Parry, continued investigating.
They drove to a slaughter house to examine blood-clotting patterns, and to study cattle struck on the back of the head, to see how they fell, and from how many blows.
Critically, the day after the inquest had started, they quietly ordered MacRobbie’s body exhumed in Hamilton Cemetery.
They found signs of a fight: a deep scratch on his neck; his left hand bruised, as though struck by an object.
They found two skull fractures, parallel to each other. One of them extended two-thirds of the way around the skull.
Only blows from a heavy instrument could have caused such damage.
And no man could have voluntarily moved, after being felled by such an attack.
They had missed the complete picture in their initial post-mortem examination.
Not this time.
A CHILL DESCENDS
Hamilton Spectator September 3, 1917 Two Blows Killed MacRobbie “Startling medical testimony given unhesitatingly by Dr. Langs and corroborated by Dr. Parry brought a gasp from the crowd. McAuliffe, in clean linen, lolled back in the dock, seeing nothing; Harry Smith, manager and part owner of company, chin in his right hand taking little interest; Walter Scott, young architect, was equally unaffected.”
September 4, 1917 Doctor slain, jury finds Manslaughter is charge Men Who Weighed Evidence Believe One of Prisoners Dealt Fatal Blow
THE INQUEST JURY ruled the three men be charged with manslaughter, and also a fourth: Herbert Asselstine, the night watchman. He had gone from witness to an accused; his testimony had been evasive and inconsistent.
Harry Sayer waited for Asselstine at the Grand Trunk Railway station on Stuart Street. The train pulled in at 2:45 a.m., an hour late returning from the Toronto Exhibition. Sayer held a warrant for his arrest.
A grand jury trial was scheduled at Hamilton’s Assize Court.
In the meantime the men were granted bail.
Smith, McAuliffe and Scott had used their influence to make the best of their four-week stay in Barton Street jail — or “Ogilvie’s Castle,” as it was derisively named after administrator James Ogilvie.
Finding the regular menu lacking, friends brought in “dainties” to eat, reported the Hamilton News; “they dined sumptuously in state.”
Justice was not of the rough, or equal, variety. Not for everyone.
It was a sign of things to come.
THE BODY OF EVIDENCE
THE TRIAL BEGAN Nov. 14, less than three months after MacRobbie’s death, presided over by Justice Francis Latchford, a former politician who was Ontario’s attorney general from 1904-1905.
The courtroom was half full, reflecting waning public interest in the case in the two months since the inquest, reported The Spectator.
The Crown attorney, Thomas Battle, told the grand jury their task was to determine how MacRobbie died and who was responsible, and if the accused men should face a criminal trial.
They did not have to conclude which of the four men killed MacRobbie: if the fatal blow was “struck by one of them and the four were acting in concert, then all four can be held for the act of one of them.”
The first Crown witness showed drawings of the scene, and measurements of blood spatter, and said a head wound could not have projected blood that extensively.
“Objection,” said one of the defence lawyers. “Statement is based upon supposition.” “Sustained,” Judge Latchford said. Dr. Langs took the stand and held up a human skull to explain how the wounds were caused by a blunt instrument, not a fall.
But he added the wood moulding, while stained with blood, was not likely the weapon.
Harry Smith’s lawyer went after Langs.
“You said that for several days you thought it was an accident?” he said.
“I did almost until the time of the inquest,” Langs said, adding that was why they ordered an exhumation, to take a closer look.
“Would you dispute a doctor who said about 60 per cent of fractured skulls are due to falls?”
“I would not want to say it was not correct.”
He ridiculed Langs for researching at the slaughter house.
“Do you think the experiment with the cattle was a good comparison?” “Yes. A rough one.” “A pretty rough one indeed!” Battle asked Dr. John Parry if there was any chance a fall caused the wounds.
“Not those particular fractures, not unless he dived … twice,” Parry said.
He said MacRobbie received at least one of the two blows while lying on the floor.
“No man could have remained standing after receiving a blow that caused either one of the wounds on his head.”
Battle suggested the doctors demonstrate the position the body was found in the room.
The judge said that would not be necessary.
The trial lasted through the day and into the evening.
Harry Sayer was the final witness for the Crown.
He wheeled in a cart of exhibits and recreated the scene, including the iron bars, and made chalk marks on the wall to indicate blood spatter.
He showed a collar with the accused man Joseph McAuliffe’s initials, found under the victim’s body.
The judge interrupted Sayer, an edge to his voice.
“What have these things to do with the case?”
Moments later, Battle announced the Crown’s case was complete.
Judge Latchford directed the jury to retire while he discussed legal issues with the Crown.
Later, after 9 p.m., court resumed, with the jury still out.
The day had broken unseasonably warm for November.
But now a chill descended over the city. The judge addressed Battle. “What evidence is there against Asselstine?”
“No direct evidence, my lord,” said Battle. “Then Asselstine is discharged.” The night watchman stood and quickly strode from the prisoner’s box.
“What about McAuliffe?”
“I don’t propose to separate the other three men,” Battle said. The judge called the jury back in. “In my opinion,” Latchford told the court, “there is no evidence to justify any jury to find that these three men, or any of them, had committed any crime, if a crime was committed. There is no evidence proper to go before you for consideration.”
The clerk read an indictment the judge had composed: “Verdict by direction of the court, not guilty.”
The clerk asked if the jury concurred. They did. The judge asked the men to stand. “To you three men I wish to say a word of advice, if advice is needed after the experience of last August and after your experience today before the bar of justice,” he said.
“Your position is clearly due to your fondness for liquor, a most discreditable weakness. If you expect to hold the position in the community that your appearance and seeming intelligence justifies, you must decide now to never drink another drop of intoxicating liquor, for fear that you again fall away into the beastly state that you were found in that Sunday night.
“The only safe course is for you to never again indulge. You are discharged.”
The four men shook hands with friends in court.
And that was the end of the judicial investigation, as The Spectator put it, “into the untimely end of the late Dr. D. G. MacRobbie.”
THE PAST NEVER DIES
“NO EVIDENCE the men committed a crime, if a crime was committed?” said Aaron Blake, his voice rising, reading from the article headlined: “MacRobbie case was taken from the jury.”
After Blake had researched the story, rolled through spools of microfilm, reading the buildup to the trial, printing out all the articles, it was a cruel punch line.
“I was blown away when I read that. Where is the sense of justice?” he asked.
How could the judge pull the rug out from the jury?
The judge had invoked the men’s “position in the community.” Did their status carry the day more than evidence?
Today, it would be rare for a judge to “take away” a case from a jury, but it can happen in a different sense: a judge can take away first-degree murder as an option for a jury and leave second degree to deliberate, if the judge feels there is insufficient evidence to support planning and deliberation.
Were there missing pieces to the case?
There was a short story in The Spectator one week after MacRobbie was killed, quoting unnamed police sources, about a man police searched for who had allegedly been in the room but was never found; he had “disappeared from his usual haunts.” His name was never revealed.
Aaron Blake believes gambling and perhaps bootlegging led to a dispute between MacRobbie and Harry Smith. There was a rumour at the time that MacRobbie took Smith for a lot of money. He wonders if Smith, the most powerful of the group, directed the coverup, the staging of the crime scene to look like an accident, and the drunken stupor alibi.
Blake was more motivated than ever to find MacRobbie’s stone in Hamilton Cemetery after his first search came up empty.
Who knows what drives him. He works at Crescent Oil as territory manager. He has a big heart, is naturally curious, and his father is a lawyer.
He asked cemetery officials to survey the plot area. They found the grave, in Section S, obscured entirely by grass and dirt.
It was, Blake thought, the epitome of being forgotten, that even his grave marker had disappeared into the earth.
The simple flat stone was carved out, once again bathed in light.
It had his name, year of birth and death, and a one-word epitaph: Daddy.
Douglas MacRobbie had left behind a widow, and also two daughters, five and nine years old.
Blake and his wife Vanessa have three young children.
The story, the injustice, the stone, was buried a long time. No longer. It felt good. And still he continues his quest to peel back the layers. He found a distant relative of MacRobbie, near Guelph, and visited him.
The man said the family story told for years was that MacRobbie had been killed trying to help someone that night, for some reason the men all turned on him.
That version doesn’t mesh with evidence reported at the time. Perhaps, the relative conceded, the more positive story was spun by MacRobbie’s father.
But MacRobbie did have a reputation for helping others. Given the haze surrounding the mystery, anything is possible.
Maybe the good doctor has for eternity tried to convey something: some believe a spirit is active within the old walls of Crescent Oil.
They say smartphones have died inside for no reason. Aaron Blake’s brother in law, Dash Ewen, who works there — and who typically doesn’t go for X-Files type stuff — says he’s heard and experienced things in that building that give him pause. Maybe the past never really dies. It’s there in the blink of an eye, a flutter of the heart.
And MacRobbie’s ghost would have more reason than most to be restless.
One customer regularly comes by to pay his bill. He heads up to the office on the upper level.
The wooden stairs creak and groan and it hits him, a presence.
“Every time, I get that feeling,” he said, “like something is up there.”
No one has ever told him what happened, up there, that August night.
“The only safe course is for you to never again indulge. You are discharged.” JUDGE LATCHFORD PRESIDING OVER THE MACROBBIE MURDER TRIAL
Top: The Crescent Oil building on Cannon Street, where Dr. Douglas MacRobbie was killed on Aug. 19, 1917.
Above: Hamilton police detective Harry Sayer shown at far right, back row, was the lead investigator in the MacRobbie case.
Aaron Blake stands in the second-floor office where Dr. Douglas MacRobbie was bludgeoned to death on Aug. 19, 1917.
Aaron Blake searched for Douglas MacRobbie’s stone in Hamilton Cemetery on York Boulevard, before staff was able to locate it covered by grass.