Julian Sher, author of The North Star | When Canada Helped Lincoln’s Assassins

When Abraham Lincoln’s assassin was shot in the neck on a Virginia farm on April 26, 1865, he hid a bank draft in his jacket pocket. It is signed by Henry Starnes. Ex-mayor of Montreal, MP for Châteauguay and banker friend of the Southerners.

This is not the only link with Canada.

The soldier leading the hunt for assassin John Wilkes Booth was named Edward P. Doherty. A native of Wickham, this son of Irish immigrants had enlisted with the Union out of a thirst for adventure and a distaste for slavery.


Edward P. Doherty

This episode is told in The North Star, fascinating historical account by Julian Sher. “The paths chosen by Starnes and Doherty are somewhat the theme of the book. It shows that we always have a choice to make. It was true at the time of the American Civil War and it is still true today with social injustices, ”explains the journalist emeritus.


The bank draft that John Wilkes Booth carried in his jacket pocket when he died

Unfortunately, this essential book has not yet been translated into French.

The other obvious theme of The North Staris Canada’s little-known role during this dark episode.

The title refers to the image of the nice neighbor, this progressive model who shines in the north. She’s not entirely wrong. Thanks to the “Underground Railroad”, more than 30,000 black slaves crossed the border to gain their freedom. Many volunteers – between 30,000 and 50,000, in addition to the 15,000 French Canadians who had emigrated to New England – also fought with Lincoln’s troops. In her book, Sher talks about unlikely fates like that of Emma Edmonds, a New Brunswick woman who poses as a man in order to join the Unionist army as a nurse and then a spy.

“The positive side, we learned it in school and it’s very good,” says Sher. But that’s only part of the story…”

Officially, Canada was neutral. In fact, his hands were dirty. The clergy – both Anglophone and Francophone – supported the slave states. Almost all the newspapers too. Just like two future Prime Ministers of the country and a chief of police of Montreal, among others…

When Julian Sher was studying history at McGill in the early 1970s, he noticed an amazing plaque in front of The Bay store.

It read: “In memory of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States who stayed in 1867 at the home of John Lovell […] “.

“I was like, ‘What the hell is this? Why did we put this plate here? And why is she still here? “, he recalls.

A few decades later, he found the answers. They are disturbing.

In his last annual address to Congress in 1864, President Lincoln grew impatient with the “assaults and depredations committed by desperate people who are sheltered there”. That is to say, north of the border.

The presence of the secessionists was not explained there solely by geographical proximity. They also found valuable allies there.

Loyal to the British Empire, Upper and Lower Canada maintained commercial ties with the Confederates. To get rich, and sometimes also out of sympathy for the cause.

When the warship Tallahassee docked in Halifax for repairs, a local brass band played Dixie for the crew. “They hate the Yankees as much as we do,” notes a soldier on his arrival.

Jefferson Davis agents enjoy the same hospitality. The Archbishop of Halifax invites them to his home. The secessionist cause deserves “the respect and sympathy of the whole world”, proclaims the man of faith.

The clergy distrusted the egalitarian values ​​promoted by Lincoln. He advocated respect for traditions. He wanted a society where everyone stays in their place…

Julian Sher, author of The North Star

This support is also found in the vast majority of newspapers such as The Gazette, THE Toronto Leader, The Minerva And The Southern Courier. “It’s actually easier to name the few who support Lincoln,” Sher says. It was mainly the World. »

Windsor, St. Catharines and Niagara will also be well received. But it is in the two metropolises that the Southerners concentrate their activities.

“Montreal was like Casablanca during the Second World War: a nest of spies. There were 300 to 500 Confederate agents,” Sher wrote. Toronto was an equally busy haunt. His Queen’s Hotel was overflowing with people selling information and hatching plots.

In 1864, the morale of the secessionists was at its lowest. A third of the army died at the Battle of Gettysburg and thousands of soldiers languish in prison.

Jefferson Davis takes up the pen. He asks Jacob Thompson, former Secretary of the Interior of the United States who rallied to the South, to open a secret office in Canada. A budget of 16 million dollars (in today’s value) is released.

Sympathy for Southerners

This story, the specialists know it. Sher popularizes it brilliantly by bringing his heroes and their enemies to life.

For months, he searched archives in Montreal, Toronto and Washington. “I was looking for documents where the characters deliver their version, in a diary, letters or a book. I wanted to build a story by letting them talk, as if I were interviewing them. »

He also consulted hundreds of photos to describe places like Montreal’s legendary St. Lawrence Hall, at the corner of Saint-Jacques and Saint-François-Xavier streets.


The St. Lawrence Hall. According to legend, it was the only hotel in Canada to serve a mint julep, a popular drink in the southern United States.

It is in this hotel that the secret office will be established. Important southern figures stayed there, such as the former Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson, Senator Clement Clay and a wealthy Mississippian, Luke Blackburn. This good doctor had just returned from a stay in Bermuda where he had voluntarily helped fight an epidemic of yellow fever. Although his work was appreciated there, his quirks were astonishing – he let sick people sweat in their clothes, then undressed them.

In fact, he was collecting samples… These pieces of linen and sheets are placed in a box that he will send back to Canada. His plan: then send them to the enemy. This attempt at bioterrorism will fail. We did not know then that yellow fever was spread by a mosquito, and not by human secretions.

  • The banker, MP for Châteauguay and ex-mayor of Montreal (1856-1858 and 1866-1968) Henry Starnes.  He will also be involved in the Pacific scandal, which caused the fall of the government of John A. Macdonald.


    The banker, MP for Châteauguay and ex-mayor of Montreal (1856-1858 and 1866-1968) Henry Starnes. He will also be involved in the Pacific scandal, which caused the fall of the government of John A. Macdonald.

  • The Montreal branch of the Ontario Bank, of which Starnes was the head


    The Montreal branch of the Ontario Bank, of which Starnes was the head


In Montreal, these Southerners are not short of money. Henry Starnes’ bank opens its doors to them on the Place d’Armes, opposite the Notre-Dame basilica. This ex-mayor of Montreal will launder the money of slavers to finance their dirty war.

As the Union pushes back the secessionists, an elite brigade hatches a plan from Montreal. A guerrilla operation will be launched from the north. The dozen of raiders mount horses, gallop to St. Albans, Vermont, and loot three banks. An innocent is killed.

Upon their return, they were arrested and incarcerated in the Pied-du-Courant prison, where each received friendly treatment, as shown in this photo.


THE raiders photographed in front of the Pied-du-Courant prison while awaiting their first trial.

Montreal police chief Guillaume Lamothe collaborated with the defendants by giving them back the stolen money. It will also help others raiders to flee the law.

Great lawyers volunteer to defend the raiders. One of them is John Abbott, then MP for Argenteuil. Dean of the Faculty of Law at McGill, he would become Mayor of Montreal and then Prime Minister of Canada.

The enthusiasm of Abbott, a conservative, was not atypical. Another Conservative and future Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, also praised the South, says Julian Sher.

He quotes it in his book. “What a brave fight [les sécessionnistes] “, launches an admiring Macdonald, at the Charlottetown conference, the one that will lead to the official birth of Canada three years later.

At the time of the raid, another illustrious visitor is resting at St. Lawrence Hall: John Wilkes Booth. A famous actor, he will play billiards with the local champion, Joseph Dion. He then makes cryptic threats against Lincoln – the original plan was to kidnap him.


John Wilkes Booth, famous actor and assassin of Abraham Lincoln

A year earlier, in November 1863, he had performed the play Marble Heart at the Ford Theater in front of the President. He stared at him aggressively, declaiming his lines.

“Looks like he’s watching you,” remarked a friend of Lincoln’s.

“He’s good, isn’t he?” he replies.

Wilkes Booth will spend 10 days in Montreal in 1864. The following spring, on April 14, 1865, he will return to the same theater to shoot a bullet behind the president’s head.

While the assassin fled south, one of his American accomplices, John Surratt, made the opposite journey. To escape the authorities, he goes to Montreal. He was received by Father Larcille Lapierre, a close friend of Bishop Bourget. The monk organizes the cabala. He disguises the fugitive as a hunter and seats him in a canoe to reach Saint-Liboire, where another priest awaits him. His flight will take him to the Vatican, where he joins the Zouaves.


Jefferson Davis, with his wife, who is having a good time in Montreal after the American Civil War

What is most disturbing about Sher’s book is that sympathy for the Southerners waned little after their defeat. It was here that Jefferson Davis decided to come after his release in 1867. He stayed in Niagara, Toronto, Lennoxville and finally in Montreal with Lovell, an English publisher. Everywhere he was amazed at the “hospitality” of people.

In 1914, the leader of the raiders of St. Albans, Bennett Young, was the guest of honor at a reception at the Ritz Carlton. The Gazette rejoiced that the “wounds of the American Civil War were healed”.

“Black victims of racists should not think the same thing”, ironically Julian Sher.

In 2017, when American cities were toppling monuments to the memory of slavers, he remembered the Jefferson Davis plaque seen during his studies. He called his CBC reporter daughter. “Go see if the plate is still there…”

The story made headlines. And a few years later, thanks to Julian Sher’s book, the whole population can understand the ugliness of what was hidden all this time in front of them.

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