Valentine Shortis Case

The 1895 Valentine Shortis murder trial was a landmark case in Canadian judicial history. It revealed inadequacies in the legal definitions of criminal responsibility and insanity, and because of political implications, reached into the highest offices of government.
Earl of Aberdeen
John Campbell Hamilton Gordon (The Earl of Aberdeen), Ottawa, April 1895
Bowell, Sir Mackenzie
Bowell began his career with vigorous Orange prejudices, but by the 1880s his fighting spirit was subsumed within Conservative politics and his Orange positions had softened (courtesy National Archives of Canada/PA-27159).


Irish-born Valentine Shortis was the son of wealthy parents. In 1893, at age 18, he was sent to Montreal to learn to be independent of his overindulging mother. He obtained a secretarial position with the Montreal Cotton Company in Valleyfield, Quebec, but was soon dismissed. Shortis’s mother sent him money, but in January 1895 wrote to him falsely stating that the family fortune had been lost and he would have to fend for himself.

Robbery and Murder

On 1 March 1895, Shortis tried to rob the Montreal Cotton Company’s pay office. He fatally shot clerk John Loy and watchman Maxime Leboeuf, and seriously wounded clerk Hugh Wilson. Paymaster John Lowe managed to grab the payroll money and lock himself in the office vault. While Shortis started a fire in a failed attempt to force Lowe out, Wilson escaped and called for help.

Shortis was apprehended while still waiting near the vault. He immediately began to display unusual behaviour. Quebec newspapers reported a history of insanity in his family.

Trial: Defence Case

Shortis’s trial for murder began in Beauharnois, Quebec, on 1 October 1895. Foremost was the question of his sanity. A newspaper, the Progès de Valleyfield, had already expressed its opinion that Shortis was faking insanity.

J.N. Greenshields, the lawyer who led Shortis’s defence, had been commissioned by the court to go to Waterford, Ireland, to interview people who had known Shortis. Crown prosecutor Donald Macmaster had also gone to Ireland to cross-examine Greenshields’s witnesses. Greenshields had found documented evidence of insanity in the Shortis family. He had collected a large body of testimony that he believed would be “sufficient evidence to convince a jury that he is beyond a doubt insane.”

According to the Irish commission testimonies that Greenshields would present in court, Shortis had been known in Waterford as “cracked Shortis.” The accounts included numerous incidents of cruelty to animals and displays of “mad” behaviour such as starting fires and shooting at ships. Former acquaintances said he often complained of headaches, was obsessed with firearms and seemed incapable of controlling himself.

Shortis was examined, for the defence, by four experts on mental illness: Dr. James V. Anglin of the Verdun asylum in Quebec; Dr. C.K. Clarke of the Rockwood asylum in Kingston, Ontario; Daniel Clark of the Toronto asylum; and Dr. R.M. Bucke of the London, ON asylum . In their testimonies, they all said Shortis was insane when he shot his victims.

Greenshields opened with a plea that Shortis had been “labouring under natural imbecility and disease of the mind to such an extent that rendered him incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act and of knowing that such an act was wrong; and was at the time suffering from unconsciousness and disease of the mind by which a predetermination of his will was excluded; that he was in a state of madness and was insane.”

Trial: Prosecution Case

Macmaster, meanwhile, had found no evidence that Shortis had ever been arrested in Ireland or admitted to an asylum there. He objected to Greenshields’s plea as unprecedented and beyond the terms of Canada’s Criminal Code.

Judge Michel Mathieu overruled Macmaster’s objection. However, in his address to the jury, Macmaster laid out the facts of the case and then outlined the law concerning insanity. He said the law required an accused person to answer for the crime unless he could clearly prove insanity. Macmaster warned that if Shortis were found not guilty by reason of insanity, there was no law that said he would be confined to an asylum for life.

Macmaster didn’t call any doctors to testify as medical experts, saying it was up to the defence to prove insanity. He played down the testimonies of the Irish commission and doubted that Shortis’s parents would have sent him to Canada alone if he’d been “bereft of his reason.” He attacked the evidence of Greenshields’s doctors as biased. The attempted robbery, Macmaster said, wasn’t an act of madness, but premeditated.

On 3 November, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Shortis was sentenced to be hanged on 3 January 1896.

Political Controversy

Shortis’s parents, who had been present at the trial, campaigned to have the death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Francis Shortis returned to Ireland to gather petitions, while his wife remained in Canada. They sought “royal clemency.” The governor general of Canada technically had the power to commute a death sentence on the advice of the federal Cabinet. Mary Shortis pleaded the case of her son’s insanity with Justice Minister Charles Hibbert Tupper and Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell. She asked Lady Aberdeen, the wife of Governor General Lord Aberdeen, to use her influence to have her husband intercede on her son’s behalf.

Earl of Aberdeen
John Campbell Hamilton Gordon (The Earl of Aberdeen), Ottawa, April 1895
Bowell, Sir Mackenzie
Bowell began his career with vigorous Orange prejudices, but by the 1880s his fighting spirit was subsumed within Conservative politics and his Orange positions had softened (courtesy National Archives of Canada/PA-27159).

Bowell, Tupper and Aberdeen received a flood of letters concerning the Shortis case, most of them against carrying out the execution. But the case had become politicized. Bowell’s Conservative government was embroiled in the Manitoba Schools Question, and the Shortis case threatened to cause further division between Catholic Quebec and Protestant Ontario. A French Canadian named Amedée Chatelle had recently been hanged for murder in Ontario, and 10 years earlier Louis Riel had been hanged for treason. In both cases there had been evidence of insanity, but no commutation.

Rumours were also circulating that Shortis’s rich parents were trying to buy a commutation for their “English” son. In late December, Bowell’s Cabinet held a series of special meetings to discuss the Shortis situation. Practically each time, when the question of execution or commutation was put to a vote, the result was a deadlock (The Cabinet voted seven to five for the hanging on 28 December, but this didn’t settle the matter). The Cabinet finally agreed to put Shortis’s fate in the hands of the governor general. On 31 December, Lord Aberdeen commuted Shortis’s death sentence to life imprisonment.

Shortis spent 42 years in insane asylums and prisons. He was eventually found to be mentally competent and was paroled in 1937. He died in Toronto in 1941.

Further Reading

  • Martin L. Friedland, The Case of Valentine Shortis: A True Story of Crime and Politics in Canada (1986).

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