James McCONNELL, the Mad Trapper
November 26, 2014:
Battle of Cahill's Lake Ended Mad Trapper's Reign of Terror
Written for The Journal by Harry J. Walker
On a crisp November morning in 1901 two canoes, their occupants shooting to kill, raced over Cahill's Lake.
In one, were two hunters cruising for deer. In the other, a mad trapper and the terror of the Upper Ottawa wilderness.
And so we come to the story of one of the most dramatic episodes that stirred the Ottawa Valley at the turn of the century
and is still re-told around box stoves in hunters' camps.
Trappers are sometimes the victims of the solitary and silent places. Such was the fact that apparently befell James McConnell,
who ran amuck in the wilderness and established a reign of terror from Mattawa almost to Pembroke.
Of all the tragedies that have stained the portages and the blazed trails, none was packed with such vivid drama and tense
action as that in which Messrs. Samuel Tongue and W. Bell were suddenly involved on that November morning in that wild
lake region. The following account of that lake "battle" has been reconstructed from clippings of the district press of
James McConnell lived in that northern territory by hunting and trapping. He was a big, powerful man of about 40 years
of age, and several months before his last maniacal frenzy he had given indications of being mentally unbalanced. On
several occasions he had driven men off the lakes by his strange and dangerous actions. He would fire on hunters without
warning, and had narrowly missed becoming a "killer" by his uncontrolled tendency to shoot on sight at any canoe that
came within range of his rifle.
On this morning, a party consisting of Messrs. Samuel Tongue, W. Bell, E.H. Moore, O.N. Gauvreau and J.M. Deacon were
out on a hunting trip to Lake Talon and, having lost three valuable dogs somewhere between Lake Talon and Antoine Creek,
Messrs. Tongue and Bell returned by way of the Antoine, thence across country to Lake Talon, portaging a light canoe from
lake to lake, searching for the dogs. By some strange mischance they had never been warned about McConnell and his
dangerous antics, and accordingly they were unaware of any untoward hazard until they suddenly faced the menace of his
Intent to Kill.
Having found one dog, they were returning to camp across Cahill's Lake with the dog and a pack in a very small bark canoe,
which was loaded to the gunwales. Tongue was sitting at the stern and Bell flat on the bottom about the middle of the
canoe, with a rifle on each side of him, and the dog and pack in the bow of the canoe. When about one-third of the way
across, they heard a shot and, turning, they saw a man in a canoe paddling towards them about a quarter of a mile away.
It was McConnell, the mad trapper, although they did not know who it was at the time.
They then turned their own canoe about and paddled toward him, intending to inquire if the stranger had seen the dogs.
When the canoes were about 300 yards apart they were dumbfounded to see McConnell drop his paddle and draw a bead
on them with a rifle. It is no easy matter to fire accurately from a canoe, particularly if the craft is swaying under
its own momentum, or subject to even slight wave action. This is what saved Tongue and Bell.
McConnell fired his second shot and the bullet struck the water about five feet from the canoe. There was no mistaking
McConnell's intention. Tongue and Bell swung their canoe around and paddled hard for the nearest shore line.
Under Deliberate Fire.
The two hunters were handicapped in that race against a shooting maniac. Their canoe was loaded almost to the water line,
and at every lurch it shipped water. McConnell was travelling light and rapidly gaining on them. To reach shore the hunters
had to cross directly in front of McConnell, giving him a broadside target. After lessening the gap by another hundred yards,
McConnell stopped paddling, loaded his rifle and took steady and deliberate aim.
Both hunters observed their peril in one side glance at the kneeling figure in the hostile canoe. They did not know which
one of them was in the sights of his rifle, but they felt sure that one was almost certain to receive a bullet. They realized
too, that whoever was hit the fall of his body would likely capsize the canoe.
To guard as far as possible against this eventuality they stopped paddling, gripped the gunwales, and awaited McConnell's
third shot. That required iron nerve.
After what seemed an aeon of suspense, McConnell fired. The madman missed again. His shot was deflected by a wave, 15 feet
in front but in direct line, and ricocheted with a high whine over their heads.
Race for Cover.
As soon as McConnell's third miss had given them a new lease of life they paddled desperately towards the shore, which
was now within reasonable access if McConnell did not load at once. McConnell also took up his paddle. Both canoes were
now travelling almost parallel to each other and about 150 yards apart. Again McConnell gained rapidly, but the shore
was close at hand.
The maniac stopped to reload and the hunters gained precious seconds. There was a tiny rocky eminence about four feet
high which jutted out of the water, and McConnell made for it as fast as he could drive his canoe. Tongue and Bell at
once saw through his strategy. If McConnell reached that rock he could rest his rifle on it while firing, and both men
would be doomed.
Just then Bell and Tongue reached shore. As their canoe grated on the shingle, they looked around for cover. There was
none. The beach was as flat as a billiard table, and the trees were back a hundred yards. There was only one thing to do -
get into action quick with their own rifles and wing McConnell before he could reach the rock.
End of Duel.
Even as Tongue got him in his sights, he hesitated on the trigger "Shall I fire?" He called out to Bell, who replied:
"Yes, shoot, or if he gets behind that rock he will kill us both." Tongue got away his shot just as the bow of McConnell's
canoe was passing behind the rock. Both men flung themselves flat on the sand to present as small a target as possible.
There was no answering shot from the rock. For many minutes neither man dared to move not knowing whether McConnell
was wounded or dead or able to resume action.
But McConnell had fired his last shot and would never again be the terror of the lakes. Tongue's bullet had killed him.
Neither man know this for some days afterwards. They were marooned on that shore as the lakes froze over, and a search
party subsequently found them and also McConnell's body. When found, the body was in three and a half feet of water,
the canoe was upset, and the rifle lay in the bottom of the lake, loaded and cocked. An inquest was held and the jury
gave the following verdict: "That James McConnell came to his death from internal hemorrhage caused by a bullet fired
from a gun in the hands of Samuel Tongue - fired in self-defence".
E-mail Allan Lewis
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