Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1840, John Murray had a long and varied career, first in the United States navy between 1857 and the Civil War. He had an avid curiosity and investigative talent that led him to work with the Erie, Pennsylvania police department and the Pennsylvania Central Railroad.
Officers of the Canada Southern Railway knew of Murray’s work and hoped that he could help them with a series of derailments, thefts and fires at both stations and bridges. He agreed to give it a try for three months with the right to return to Erie if he was not satisfied with the work.
In May, 1873, Murray arrived in St. Thomas as head of detectives for the Canada Southern, travelling between Buffalo and Detroit in his work, and frequently as far as Chicago.
Murray investigated the bridge burning first, standing guard overnight in the bushes at the most frequently attacked bridge, catching the arsonists and sending them to prison. There was also trouble at the border with theft from rail cars. The thefts were occurring between places of origin in Boston and New York and their Canadian destinations. Murray narrowed the place of the thefts to Buffalo and surmised that the perpetrators had to be railway employees.
After his career in St. Thomas, Murray was invited to become Ontario’s first provincial detective in 1875, by Oliver Mowat, the Attorney General. He was 35. He remained the “Detective for the Government of Ontario” for 31 years. He solved over 100 cases including the famous John Reginald Birchall murder case of 1890 in Woodstock and the Hendershott murder case of 1894 in St. Thomas.
In 1897, he, along with two other detectives, created the Criminal Investigation Branch. This was a unit that specialized in areas of scientific investigation, and later became the Ontario Provincial Police.
Two years before his death, Murray published, “Memoirs of a Great Detective.” In this book he described his most memorable cases, and inspired the CBC television series, “The Great Detective.” Chapters of this book describe his railway cases, such as “The Box-Car Battle of Sweetman”, and the “Thrashers with the Wheat,” and “With the Help of Jessie McLean.” With the latter case, he solved the burning of a St. Thomas hotel, which was allegedly caused by sparks from a Canada Southern locomotive, but was the result of arson by the hotel’s owner. Murray was able to solve this crime through the observations of Jessie McLean, who had seen the owner of the hotel leave his building hurriedly after the fire began. [i]
He has been described as “a pioneer of scientific crime investigation and… one of the first to utilize forensic science and information detained through autopsies.”[ii] He made use of fingerprints, plaster casts of footprints and consultation with other professionals such as professors of the University of Toronto’s School of Practical Science for chemical analysis of clothing and weapons. Through such techniques he was able to reconstruct crimes.
[i] Murray was florid in his narratives: “At that time one of the features of life in St. Thomas was Jessie McLean. Jessie was as bonnie a Scotch lass as a man could meet in twenty counties. She was good-looking, with peachy cheeks and sunny hair and merry eyes. But, above all, Jessie weighed 250 pounds. She was the biggest girl in St. Thomas… Every man, as he looks back through the years into the little town where he lived long ago, can recall certain sights and scenes that stand out vividly in the vision of his memory. ‘Twas so with Jessie McLean. I can close my eyes and see her still, tripping churchward, 250 pounds of graceful femininity.” John Wilson Murray, Memoirs of a Great Detective.
[ii] Butts, Edward, “John Wilson Murray,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, May 11, 2015