The headline in the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder for October 14, 1892, made it brutally clear:
James Slavin Was Found Guilty Today of the Murder of J. R. Davey. Sentenced to be Hanged on the 16th of December.
On September 6, 1892, Slavin, an often drunken, unemployed brawler, shot and killed Special Constable John Robert Davey on the corner of Ninth Street. Slavin also wounded Louis Lafave, Davey’s friend. Within minutes Slavin was seized by an enraged crowd.
In what some might see as a supreme bit of irony, John Davey had been on the job as a police officer exactly one day.
Constable Davey was buried in St. Columban’s new cemetery three days after his murder. His funeral was a large affair attended by civic, police and military officials. He left behind a wife and three sons.
Slavin was duly hanged two months later in the walled courtyard of Cornwall Goal, his body unclaimed and buried in the Goal grounds.
The years passed. Cornwall grew. Other events, other incidents, other issues occupied people’s minds. Eventually, there was no one left who recalled the death of Constable John Davey.
In time, no one even remembered where Davey lay buried.
Until 2010, when Cornwall police sergeant Thom Racine found out about him.
Thom Racine laughingly described himself, during an interview with The Morrisburg Leader as a “born and bred sports guy. Anything I’d ever done up until then had a sports angle to it.”
An officer with the Cornwall police since 1981 (he was also born in Cornwall), Racine has spent much of his life devoted to sports and to encouraging people to stay active.
He is a very well known figure in South Dundas.
Currently, Racine is in his second year behind the bench of the Morrisburg Junior B Lions hockey team.
How did this sports-minded man come to take on the role of historian, writing Constable Davey, A Future Lost, based on the events surrounding Davey’s tragedy?
“About six years ago, my son came home from school talking about World War II. He was deeply interested. In a kind of spontaneous reaction, I said, why don’t we go to Europe and see what it was all about? That vagabond journey, which took us to cemeteries and memorials honouring soldiers, seemed to put the history hook into me.”
That “hook” as Racine calls it, truly dug in.
He soon began including historical anecdotes in his regular column in the Seaway News.
However, it was not until he was asked, in 2010, by Police Chief Dan Parkinson to write a history of the Cornwall Police, that he learned of the death of John Davey, and the execution of James Slavin.
“Davey was a man who may have been recognized for two or three days after his tragedy then forgotten,” Racine explained. “He was a genuine kind of everyman. Davey was no “sitter”: he was a man who got out and got involved in his community. He had served with the militia, run a business, taken part in civic affairs, and he volunteered to be a Special Constable for a dollar a day, if you made an arrest. And Davey gave his life in the line of duty. I really felt that that should be recognized and acknowledged.”
“Derailed”, as he called it, from the task of writing the history of the Cornwall police, Racine began to focus on the life and times of John Davey.
His book, Constable Davy, A Future Lost, was the result.
However, Racine did not stop with simply writing the book.
“John Davey was a hero,” Racine said. “As the Ontario Police Memorial in Queen’s Park says, he was a hero in life, not death. He died trying to help someone else. There is a quote I like. ‘A hero is no different from an ordinary man, except for five minutes.’ John Davey deserved to be honoured.”
Racine set out to ensure that a man who had died over a century earlier would finally be recognized by his hometown, his province, his nation.
He got the Cornwall Police on board with his efforts. He researched old files and newspapers. He talked to area historians, searched church records, looked through jail accounts. He traced members of Louis Lafave’s family. He blind e-mailed Davey descendents seeking to put together a picture of this husband, father, soldier, police officer and good citizen.
Now scattered all over North America, many of the Daveys had no idea of their past and John’s heroism.
The week of September 23, 2011, his book just out, Racine saw Constable John Robert Davey receive the recognition of government and community that had been a hundred years in the coming.
Davey’s name was already on the Queen’s Park Memorial. But just days before special Cornwall ceremonies, Racine learned that petitions to the Ottawa Police Memorial had finally been approved. On September 25, Davey’s name would be engraved on the memorial and honoured in Ottawa.
Ceremonies in Cornwall were held around Davey’s refurbished grave: a street was re-named in his honour. The pipes of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, and solemn lines of police officers in dress uniform gathered to give John Davey his due.
“It was a lump in your throat moment for me,” said Racine. “I think what hit me the most was the pride of the Davey family members who had come to Cornwall from all over North America to honour this hero in their family. I will always remember the face of seven-year-old Violet Davey, when police chief Dan Parkinson handed her the folded Canadian Flag from her great-great-great grandfather’s grave, her look of stunned awe and deep pride.”
Also with Racine for the ceremony was 15-year-old Cornwall artist Dominic Cyr.
“Dom’s brother Patrick played with the Lions and I’d see him sitting at games,” Racine said. “His dad told me he was a talented artist. I threw him the challenge of creating a drawing of Davey and later of his killer, Slavin, from descriptions and old photos. His work was wonderful. Dom’s sketches and drawings now illustrate my book and the Cornwall street sign. He has a gift that will work for him forever.”
Racine’s book is a colourful, deeply researched history of a brave man, his time in history, his contribution to the world through his descendents. It is also the story of the efforts of a lot of people to see this man formally honoured by his town and nation.
Thom Racine is at work on other books now (including that neglected history of the Cornwall police).
“I will say that I miss spending time every day with John Davey,” he said quietly, at the end of the interview. “In some ways I didn’t know what to do when we at last went to print, and I finally had to leave him.”