November 25, 1887
There was much excitement in St. John’ on November 25, 1887, the talk in town was all about the whereabouts of Michael Whelan, a convicted murderer who had escaped from the penitentiary at Quidi Vidi Lake. The local newspapers ran advertisements that stated:
“Whereas, Michael Whelan, a prisoner in the Penitentiary, under sentence of manslaughter, escaped recently from prison, and is now at large. Notice is hereby given, that reward of two hundred dollars will be paid to any person or persons who shall give the police authorities such information that shall lead to his arrest; and all persons are cautioned not in any way to harbour or aid the said Michael inn his escape.”
Michael Whelan, a fisherman of Horse Cove, (now St. Thomas) was charged with the willful murder of Livi King of Broad Cove, on the 6th of October 1883.
Witnesses swore that the tension between the two men was driven by alcohol and religion. According to the trial testimony it seems that the custom of those travelling from St. John’s to the Broad Cove – Portugal Cove area in those days on horse and cart was to make an occasional stop for a drink along the way. They stopped at M. Lundrigan’s to pick up a bottle to bring home, next they stopped at Walsh’s, near the pond, for a few drinks. It was here that the trouble started. It seems that Whelan “was cursing the Orangemen” and King threatening to “go down and haul down the chapel.” Nothing good was to come of this.
Michael Whelan pleaded not guilty to the charge of murdering Levi King when he was arraigned. The trial took place on November 28, 1883. It took the jury one hour to decide on a verdict of “manslaughter without mercy.” Whelan was sentenced to prison for life in H. M. Penitentiary.
On November 25, 1887, between seven and eight o’clock seven prisoners left to work on a drain which they were constructing from the General Hospital (Forest Road) to Quidi Vidi Lake in the charge of two prison officials. Amongst the prisoners was Michael Whelan.
Whelan had been slowly plotting his escape gradually ingratiating himself into the good books of the prison officials. He was rewarded for his good behavior by being allowed to join the other prisoners in their work detail. While at work in the drain he asked to retire “for a natural purpose”. He was permitted to do so.
In the meantime the prison wardens were distracted by the other prisoners, when Whelan saw this he made a dash for liberty; he was a powerful man and a fast runner; he followed the margin of Quidi Vidi Lake to the East end. The officer gave chase; Whelan outdistanced the prison officials and disappeared into the White Hills.
Despite an intense search using all of the police resources and the large reward offered for Whelan’s capture, he was never caught. Police watched his home and questioned his friends but to no avail, he was not to be found.
An inquiry into the escape established that this was a planned escape, not some spontaneous act by the prisoner. Whelan’s prison guard told the inquiry that he should have known that something was up because Whelan had taken his Rosary beads that had always hung on his bed post. Typically, when he went with the prison work crews the beads were left in his prison cell.
There were lots of rumors about what happened to Michael Whelan, some said that he made his escape to Placentia, a town where the Whelan family were well established, and from there he got away to America in a fishing schooner.
It is known that his wife left Newfoundland some years after his escape for America, fueling rumors that he had established a home somewhere in the Boston States. Twenty years following his escape in November 1906 the Evening Telegram speculated that she was living with him in Boston.
The Whelan’s were among the first settlers of Horse Cove; the town changed its name to St. Thomas in 1922 and was amalgamated with Paradise in 1992. St. Thomas with the amalgamation is now the oldest settled part of the town of Paradise and the Whelan’s remain among the residents.
It is not likely that Michael Whelan came home but did any of his kin visit with him? Did he keep his connections to friends and family in Horse Cove?
Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives see GN2.2 Evidence taken at the Magisterial Inquiry, The Queen vs Michael Whelan for the felony of Prison Breach, November 29, 1887. A transcript of the trial can be found in the Evening Telegram (St. John’s, N.L.), 29 November 1883.