“This morning about half-past nine, one of the most deliberate attempts at murder that has ever shocked the community was made at the corer of George and Queen streets”
Spectator January 5, 1876
There had been many serious crimes in Hamilton before, but the event the attack on Nelson Mills by one of his tenants, Michael McConnell, was so brazen, violent and senseless that the community was deeply disturbed.
Nelson Mills was one of Hamilton’s most prominent citizens, a member of respected, and influential families. His substantial home was on the west side of Queen street south, between King and George streets.
Mills owned several properties in the city which he rented. One of the properties was a modest house located several blocks south of the Mills homestead at the corner of Queen street south and Concession street (later Aberdeen avenue).
The tenant at that house was a Scotsman named Michael McConnell, a butcher who had a stall at the James Street Market downtown.
McConnell had not been paying his rent because of a dispute with his landlord. Mills had apparently promised to have a new fence put in around the property which McConnell rented.
As of Wednesday, January 5, 1876, that promised fence had yet to be installed and McConnell’s rent was owing. Nelson Mills decided to have a distress warrant issued against McConnell.
While McConnell was busy at his butcher stall, a bailiff appeared at his home demanding payment of the rent or eviction would result. McConnell’s wife, unable to pay the fourteen dollars owing herself, rushed to the market to tell her husband of the problem.
Told of the appearance of the bailiff, McConnell removed his butcher’s apron, picked up a knife, nine inches long, cooly sharpened it on a stone, slipped it up the sleeve of his shirt and proceeded to walk towards the Mills’ home. McConnell’s wife followed, imploring her husband to not do anything rash.
As described in that afternoon’s Spectator, the details of the attack as far as were known to that point were provided for thepublic (The punctuation and lay out of the article are captured below exactly as published)
Understandably as it was written and printed very soon after the incident, some of the particulars were not completely accurate, but the intensity of the assault was well captured:
“(McConnell and his wife) reached Mr. Mills’ house on the corner of Queen and George streets, a few minute’s after nine o’clock, and came to the principal entrance and asked for Mr. Mills, who appeared, and with whom McConnell had a short altercation. It was immediately after this that
THE TERRIBLE DEED
Was committed. Mr. Mills’ house is a large red brick building, and stands on the south-west corner of Queen and George streets. The principal entrance is from Queen street, and there are two gates from each street leading into the premises. Two of these gates are in an iron fence, one on each street, and two wooden gates, one on each street, the two iron gates being nearest the corner. McConnell was standing before the principal door, and inside the iron gate on Queen street. McConnell shouted something at Mr. Mills, rushed out of the iron gate, and attacked him in the middle of the street, almost opposite his own house, and about thirty yards south of the crossing on George street. After a short struggle, Mr. Mills broke from McConnell and rushed away across the street, where he tripped and fell against the fence surrounding Mr. Watkins’ premises on the south-east corner of George and Queen streets.”
It was beside the Watkins’ fence that the first blow on Nelson Mills was inflicted. Screaming for assistance, Mills tried to escape by heading west on George street, but he did not get far :
“(MIlls) fell in the middle of the street opposite his own gate. McConnell sprang upon him and
STABBED HIM SEVERAL TIMES
In the head, back and side, his victim all the time crying out for mercy. It was at this moment that Mrs. Mills,and a colored servant named Sarah Smith, observed the deed and rushed out to succour the unfortunate man. Smith pelted McConnell with stones, and finally compelled the wretch to desist from his murderous work. McConnell rose from the prostrate form, coolly wiped the knife in his sleeve, gave a contemptuous glance at his victim, and walked slowly to the northwest corner of George and Queen streets, where he stood for some time watching Mrs. Mills and her servant carrying the wounded man into the house.”
McConnell walked south, towards the mountain, along Queen street to his home, where less than five minutes later, Police Detective McPherson, accompanied by an eye-witness to the crime, confronted him. McConnell was in the act of washing blood off his hands when arrested. The knife, covered with fresh blood lay nearby. McConnell produced a revolver he had been carrying in one of his pockets.
As it was thought that Nelson Mills might have been mortally wounded, Police Magistrate was summoned to the Mills homestead to take an ante-mortem statement. As was the practise at the time, McConnell was taken into Mills’ presence while the statement was written down.
After Mills had stated his version of the attack, McConnell was asked if he had any questions to pout to his victim.
“No, it is not necessary,” he replied.
Mills was then asked if he thought he would survive. He replied that he did not think he would.
McConnell and some of the eye-witnesses to the crime were quickly taken to the Police Court where formal charges were laid against the butcher, and preliminary witness statements were recorded.
The news of the attack had spread like wildfire, as was the fact that McConnell had been taken to the Police Court.
At the Police Court, the Spectator reporter described the attitude and behaviour of the prisoner in some detail for the paper’s readers:
“During examination, (McConnell) leaned forward in the dock and seemed deeply absorbed in the proceedings. His face gives one the impression that he is a highly irascible man, and he has none of the bulldog look so frequent among criminals. His forehead is low and retreating, his eyes black or dark brown, his nose is sharp and pointed, curving outwards from the root to the tip, his lips are thin and he has the habit of compressing them which gives the appearance of a large mouth. At the conclusion of Detective McPherson’s evidence, he attempted to ask a few questions but soon burst into tears, and turning his back on the audience, sobbed audibly with face buried in his handkerchief.
The reporter also vividly recorded the scene when it was time to transport McConnell to the Barton street jail:
“The Police Magistrate had remanded the case until it was known whether or not the wounded man would recover. As a very large and excited crowd had gathered outside, it was deemed advisable by the Chief of Police to use stratagem in taking him away. The other prisoners – drunks and vagrants – were led out of the north-east door of the Police Court and McConnell was taken out through the Magistrate’s office on the south side, placed in a hack and driven rapidly through the market. The crowd, in seeing they had been out generaled rushed up James street as far as Merrick where, seeing that it was useless to follow, they gave up the chase.”
Back at Nelson Mills’ home, the victim was being attended to by several city physicians.
At one o’clock, less than four hours after the attack, the doctors told the reporters about the condition of their patient and the news was not encouraging : “Mr. Mills was suffering a good deal and was bleeding internally. The wound in the back was the most painful, and it is likely to be the most dangerous. Before this wound was dressed, the air could be heard gurgling through it as the wounded gentleman drew his breath. In the wound in the abdomen, the murderous villain seems to have missed his aim, as the knife slanted downwards, and it would not necessarily prove fatal. That in the back, however, it is believed, was inflicted when Mr. Mills fell forward in his attempt to escape, and it seems certain that it penetrated straight inward. Mr. Mills’ house was besieged all day with inquiring friends, but, by strict orders of his physicians, none were allowed to see him.”
An update on Nelson Mills’ condition was provided to the Spectator reporter just minutes before he had to file his story for the evening edition of the paper:
“At 3 o’clock, Mr. Mills was somewhat easier but was suffering from severe pain in the stomach. The wound in the back was still bleeding but not so profusely as before. His physicians do not hold out any hope of his recovery.”
In that edition, the Spectator editor quickly wrote an editorial on the crime, the tone and substance of which would later be used by McConnell’s lawyer in court proceedings :
“It is many years since this community was startled so thoroughly as it was this morning by the news that Mr. Nelson Mills had been fatally stabbed by a butcher named McConnell. The details of the dark deed will be found in other columns, and are most revolting in their brutal inhumanity. A strong disposition was manifested by the crowd who surrounded the Police Court to lynch on the spot the wretched villain who perpetrated the crime. The counsels of calmer minds, however, prevented the attempt, which the preparations of the police would have frustrated. The murderer, for such he was in intent, and will probably be in fact, had nothing to say in extenuation of his crime, except that he was in such a passion that he lost control of himself. The law, however, will infer from the facts that it was premeditated murder, and common sense will admit of no other inference.”