Lucas Fisher is a 2022-2023 Ontario Legislature Internship Programme participant. He completed a portion of his internship at the Canadian Parliamentary Review.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it saved Ontario’s former parliament building. In this article, the author recounts the story of how a curious boy discovered evidence used to foil one of the most serious terrorist plots in Ontario’s history.
In 1884, the son of a caretaker at the old Provincial Parliament Building on Toronto’s Front Street foiled one of the most brazen and audacious terrorist plots in the history of Ontario. This attempt, one that I suspect you may not have heard of, involved the placement of several parcels of dynamite in and around the parliament building. Were it not for the curious disposition of a young boy roaming the grounds, this dynamite could have levelled the Parliament Building, taking the lives of parliamentarians, civil servants, and innocent bystanders. Ensuing investigations uncovered an organization, based out of New York, that planned similar nefarious attacks across North America.
On April 30, 1884, Willie Kennedy, the son of a caretaker at the Provincial Parliament Building was roaming the precinct when he noticed a package protruding from a recess in one of the walls. Taken by his curiosity, the boy inspected the package which, he quickly discovered, contained two sticks of dynamite. Kennedy alerted his father and soon the entire precinct was being searched from top to bottom. The search eventually produced two more cartridges, found in a similar vent in the western portion of the building. A groundskeeper, John Simser, also came forward with what was thought to be part of a detonator. He had come across it while mowing the lawn.
Once the precinct had been deemed to be clear of hazards, authorities began their investigation of the near-deadly plot. Interviews with staff and potential witnesses determined that, due to the busy nature of the location where it was discovered, the dynamite must have been hidden no earlier than the night prior to its discovery. Further examination revealed that the dynamite had been primed and was ready to explode before it was seemingly abandoned. Experts later confirmed the packages contained more than enough explosives to easily level one wing of the Parliament Building, if not the whole structure. The western wing of the building, where the dynamite cartridges were found, was near the staircase that led to the Speaker’s chambers, as well as the area of the building that was home to the Parliament’s official records. Though not confirmed, both provided potential targets of the attack.
In the days and weeks following the discovery, investigators received tips regarding potential suspects and their motives. At first thought to be the work of a lone individual, rumours began to swirl of a group that was financing other similar schemes around the country. The New York Times reported that three men had been dispatched from a mysterious New York headquarters with $2,500 in funding to carry out the terrorist plot. Although unconfirmed, the article claimed the newspaper had received an inside tip from someone familiar with the group. This article went on to suggest that the three men had thoroughly investigated the Parliament Building before the dynamite had been planted, and that similar trips had been made to investigate the Dominion Building in Ottawa. The Times referred to the terrorist group as “the Brotherhood” and noted it had members across Europe and North America that were actively opposed to European-influenced government in all forms.
Some aspects of the New York Times article were later refuted, but others appeared to be corroborated when subsequent stories in the Globe reported similar details and other potential plots in Ottawa and the Niagara region. In a series of articles, the Globe reported that investigators discovered that two ventilation shafts in the Parliament Building had their metal bars cut to make space for the dynamite. Investigators suspected this had been done in the weeks or months leading up to the discovery. This finding indicated to authorities that the perpetrators had indeed spent time properly preparing for the attack.
In the wake of the discovery, MPPs and civil servants alike described a feeling of general uneasiness around the Parliament. Whether the discovery of the explosives had scared away the would-be terrorists from completing their plan was anyone’s guess and nobody knew for sure what the suspects looked like. Anxiety was heightened in the early morning hours of May 2, when a police officer stationed at the parliament building fired a gunshot at three men trespassing on the grounds. All three of the men escaped but the gunshot alerted everyone in the precinct of their presence. The officer reported the men had been sneaking around the perimeter of the building, clearly attempting to go unnoticed.
The gunshot fired in the early hours of the morning ultimately wrapped up an exciting, albeit scary week for those at the Provincial Parliament. Though the startling discovery foiled this potential disaster, had it been successful, the plot could have easily been a tragic day in Ontario’s history. This explosive tale would be largely lost to history were it not for a few surviving news articles found within the Legislative Library archives.
“DYNAMITE! Startling Discovery Under Provincial Parliament Buildings,” The Globe, May 1, 1884.
“The Dynamite Plot: Further Details Regarding the Latest Outrage The Guards on Duty: A Suspicious Prowler Fired at on Wednesday Night,” The Globe, May 2, 1884, p. 6.
“The Dynamite Discovery,” The Globe, May 3, 1884, p. 8.
“The Dynamite Plot: The Contents of the Cartridge Analyzed by Mr. Shuttleworth It Proves to be Dualin – A More Powerful Explosive than Dynamite Itself,” The Globe, May 5, 1884, p.3.
“Dynamite: The Recent Attempt on the Local Parliament Buildings,” The Globe, May 14, 1884, p. 3.
“The Dynamite Scare,” The New York Times, May 14, 1884.