How a Dismembered Montreal Sex Worker Became a Sensation, Then a Ghost, and Now a Fading Legend
Why Mary Gallagher’s brutal murder became a Montreal ghost story.
There's nothing to see at the spot where 242 William Street once stood: just an empty lot, across from the modern École de technologie supérieure, in Montreal's Griffintown district. The odd row of narrow duplexes and brick mixed-use buildings lining nearby side-streets are only shadows of what used to be a bustling, crowded, chaotic working-class, largely Irish neighbourhood that grew north of the Lachine canal in the 19th century.
Griffintown was not an atypical 19th Century industrial slum. It was filled with warehouses, flour mills, smelting works, taverns and stables, and populated by a countless number of families, labourers, transients and prostitutes. And none of them would go on to achieve more notoriety than Mary Gallagher, an aging drunken woman who would end up with her head in a bucket and her body in a wash of blood one June morning in 1879.
The story of Mary's murder has long outlived both her and the neighbourhood in which she lived and died. It's unique in Montreal lore, a legend that grew out of all its component parts: the ghastly nature of the crime itself, the sensation it created at the time, the vividness with which the local Irish population recounted the story to new generations—all of these were the building blocks of an industrial-era folktale borne out of the streets. The same streets Mary was said to prowl every seven years, searching for her missing head, if the ghost story is to be believed.
The crime itself was unusual for several reasons, not least of which was its brutality. It was also rare: according to one authority on the case, the last murder committed in Montreal was committed in 1877, two years prior.
Adding to the story's longevity is the identity of the murderer: not an outraged husband or lover, or a violent thief or john, but a friend and fellow prostitute named Susan Kennedy (sometimes known as Susan Kennedy Mears or Myers) with whom she'd spent the morning drinking whiskey.
Here's what happened.
Sometime between 6 and 7 AM on June 27, 1879, Mary Gallagher and a companion, Michael Flanagan, arrived at the home Susan Kennedy shared with her husband, Jacob Mears (sometimes spelled Myers or Meyers) at 242 William Street, at the corner of Murray. Kennedy said the two had been drinking but didn't appear to be drunk.
Mary was in the habit of dropping in on the Mears', Kennedy would testify later, but rarely with company. Jacob Mears was said to be furious at her showing up with a man in tow and left, leaving Kennedy alone with Gallagher and Flanagan. Kennedy soon went out to procure a bottle of whiskey. The home was on the second floor of a two-storey building, and consisted of two rooms: a front bedroom facing William Street and a back room with chairs, table and slop bucket.
Before long, Kennedy returned with a bottle. The three went through most of it and Flanagan, feeling woozy, went into the front room to lie down. Kennedy went in after him, where, Flanagan told the coroner's inquiry, they talked for about 15 minutes until they were interrupted by Kennedy's husband, Mears.
"Oh, you are in a room with a man!" he yelled at his wife, per Flanagan. "Shut your mouth, I am only talking to him," she barked back. He said he would not be in a house where whiskey is being drunk and stormed off once more.
The Montreal Weekly Witness described the happy couple this way: Mears was "an inoffensive man who is rarely, if ever, under the influence of liquor" and "would be rather handsome if behind [his face] intelligence shone instead of stupidity." His wife, however, is "a tall, powerfully built woman and when under the influence of liquor talks in a silly manner, and some believe her to be insane." She is "evidently regarded with terror" in the neighbourhood and is well-known to police. "Several policemen stated she was a most difficult character to arrest." As to her looks, "her countenance, although now defaced with drink, has from appearance not been altogether devoid of beauty." At the time of the murder, Kennedy was in her mid-twenties.
Flanagan testified that he and the two women then finished what was left of the whiskey before he collapsed in the front room. He said that at the time he turned in the second time, the conversation between the two women remained friendly.
That's when everything gets hazy.
Flanagan said he woke up a few hours later, around 2 p.m., and asked for a drink of water. Kennedy fetched him one. He then asked her if they should go out for a beer. They argued briefly about money, and Flanagan got up to leave. On his way out, he says he saw Gallagher in the other room, "lying upon her breast. Her feet were turned towards me." He saw no blood, either on the floor or on Kennedy, and hurried off without speaking further to her, being "in too great a hurry to get something to drink." He said Kennedy seemed calm but quiet.
Kennedy told a different story. She said she went into the bedroom after Flanagan, and fell asleep on the floor beside him. At some point, she heard Gallagher invite another man into the house, and the pair drank some more. Kennedy said she vaguely knew the stranger, but could not recall his name. After falling back asleep, she woke up and heard the two arguing: "He called her an old grey-haired rot. He said she took him to an ( sic) hotel one night to sleep, and that he had thought her a much younger woman," Kennedy told the coroner's inquiry. (Although initially believed to be around 60, Gallagher's estranged husband said she was in fact only 38.)
Kennedy went back to sleep. When she woke up, the young man was gone and Gallagher was dead.
"When I saw her I got such a fright that I fell upon the floor," she said. "She was lying on her breast. Her body was next to the door with the feet pointing to the street. Her head was in the tub, also one of her hands. (pause) I am not sure but that this hand was on the floor. I went to call the police but I was too weak." She added that Flanagan saw the body after he'd woken up and ran off.
Her husband arrived soon after, saw the gore and then fled to get the police.
When the police arrived, Kennedy, whose clothes were stained with Gallagher's blood, swore she was innocent. She said she tried to clean up the blood that had pooled on the floor but slipped and fell in it. She also insisted Flanagan was innocent.
According to a policeman quoted in the Weekly Witness, Kennedy told them that "a man came into the house Friday morning and gave her (Kennedy) some money, which, arousing the jealousy of the deceased, the latter and the man had a quarrel and the man killed her. She said she saw the man wash the blood from his hands and clear out. Before going he warned her not to tell the police. She did not know the man's name, and was glad he had escaped because he was a good-looking fellow."
By then, a crowd had formed outside the house and police struggled to manage it. The Weekly Witness reporter eventually got inside 242 William and saw a "repulsive sight" that "will never be forgotten."
"The headless trunk lay prostrate on the breast. The jags in the neck showed that a score at least of blows had been struck by some clumsy hand before the head had left the body. The maimed arm lay underneath the body, while the legs were extended in a perfectly natural position. A thin cotton dress with apparently little underclothing were on her. In a large bucket or wash tub nearby were the ghastly head and severed right hand. The grey hair could hardly be distinguished owing to the clots of blood on it, while several gashes across the forehead would indicate that she had received the first blow to the head. The blood had evidently been washed up."
Police eventually found Jacob Mears' hatchet, which he usually used for cutting firewood, covered in blood and bits of flesh and hair, inside the apartment. Flanagan and Kennedy were both arrested and tried for murder.
Following a trial by jury, well-attended by the public, Kennedy was found guilty. The evidence against her was pretty strong: one witness said the two women were heard arguing between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., while Flanagan was passed out. Kennedy, the witness said, had been standing by the window "insulting passers-by." When Gallagher tried to pull her away from the window, Kennedy said words to the effect of, "If you don't leave me alone I'll split your head open with an axe." The Mears' downstairs neighbour said she also heard what sounded like a body falling to the floor, chopping sounds and Kennedy saying, "I've wanted revenge for a long time, and I finally got it."
After deliberating for an hour and a half, the jury pronounced her guilty though recommended clemency. That did not sway presiding Judge Monk, who said Kennedy "should not expect any pity on the parts of men." He urged her to beseech God and beg forgiveness for her crimes, and sentenced her to hang on Dec. 5 of that year.
Kennedy, however, did not die that day. Her death sentence was commuted, and she was released from prison after 16 years. No one knows what happened to her after that.
Flanagan was not so lucky. In an extraordinary coincidence, on Dec. 5—the day Kennedy had been sentenced to hang—Flanagan was working aboard a boat in the Peel Basin when he missed his footing and fell into the water. He disappeared beneath the ice and drowned.
As for Mary Gallagher, she was buried in a pauper's grave. But she lived on in the imaginations of generations of working class Irish who grew up in Griffintown, and remains a linchpin in the memory of the Griffintown Irish community.
Alan Hustak, a former reporter for the Montreal Gazette and author of The Ghost of Griffintown: The True Story of the Murder of Mary Gallagher, says it is not only the particularly gruesome facts of the case, but also the time and the place within which the murder took place that has helped the story survive for so long.
"This murder was extremely unusual," he says. "Men murder women and women murder men, but the idea of one woman chopping off the head of another… you really can't forget that, right?"
The fact that both perpetrator and victim were alcoholic sex workers probably added to the public interest. Not that they would have been unusual for the time, says Mary Anne Poutanen, a historian at McGill University who has studied 19th Century prostitution in Montreal.
As in most industrial age cities, urban prostitution was common, especially, though certainly not exclusively, in crowded slums like Griffintown. "Prostitution is all over the city," she says. "From the streets where judges lived to every part of every class of neighbourhood. It's everywhere."
There was no official red-light district, Poutanen says, but there were areas where brothels and street-walkers were concentrated. They were often in poor and immigrant-heavy neighbourhoods, where men, unattached by family and without close acquaintances, could find temporary companionship in the arms of a woman, and a partner with whom they could enjoy a drink.
"There was a lot of alcoholism" among 19th Century sex workers, says Poutanen. "But you have to think about the importance of alcohol culturally, in daily life. It was safer to drink than it was to drink the water. But clearly … some women had huge problems with alcohol."
So, says Hustak, "You had the shock value, and then you have the whole Irish tradition of banshees and ghosts. You have a cultural element to it." Flanagan's coincidental and untimely death accentuated the supernatural part of the story. "The whole story took on a whole different ghostly [aspect] within the Irish community."
It did not take long before locals began swearing they saw Mary Gallagher's ghost wandering around the intersection of William and Murray, looking for her head. Everyone in the tightly-knit neighbourhood knew the story of the murdered prostitute, and Irish parents would use the story as a way to threaten their children: eat your cabbage, or Mary Gallagher will come and get you. Eventually there arose a tradition that Mary would appear every seven years on the night of her murder, headless.
One Griffintown Irishman, Denis Delaney, told Hustak that as a child he was regularly warned against Mary's ghost. If he was going by William and Murray, he'd walk on the opposite side of the street where 242 William once stood because Mary Gallagher might get him. Despite his precautions, Delaney told Hustak that he'd seen her ghost three times over the course of his life, the first when he was four years old.
"Denis was a real character and over beers one time he told me he had Mary Gallagher's necklace," he says. "He told me that one night [in 1956] he was walking down the street and this apparition appeared and it pointed to a tree. So he went to the tree and he pulled out this necklace and when he turned around, the apparition was gone and he knew immediately that it was Mary Gallagher's necklace. I have to tell you that Denis drank a lot and had a great imagination and was Irish."
There are next to no Irish left in Griffintown these days though, and most of the row houses and duplexes that were home to thousands of families, workers, soldiers and prostitutes have been knocked down or left to rot. Griffintown's relentless decades-long decline is blamed on Montreal's autocratic mayor Jean Drapeau, who revolutionized the city in the post-war years and decided that Griffintown, like other low-income, inner-city neighbourhoods, had to go. The area was re-zoned and starved of oxygen, until it withered almost to extinction.
But in the past few years Griffintown has been undergoing a radical rebirth, with glass tower condos mushrooming into the sky. New industries, including hip, expensive boutiques, are moving in. But Griffintown still lacks any kind of street-level warmth or sense of community. Mary Gallagher's world is receding ever further into the past—but it hasn't been entirely forgotten just yet.
"Mary's story has survived because you could still stand on the corner [of where the murder took place,]" says author and musician Gern Vlchek. "But I don't know how much longer it will."
Vlchek wasn't born in Montreal but spent two decades living in its southwest, an area encompassing Griffintown and other traditionally Irish and French-Canadian working class neighbourhoods like St-Henri, Little Burgundy, Point St-Charles and Verdun. His keen interest in his adopted city's history, though, informed the song-writing of his previous band, the United Steelworkers of Montreal; they even recorded a song called The Ballad of Mary Gallagher. (Vlchek didn't write that song, though. Their guitarist discovered the story on a custom placemat at one of Montreal's Irish pubs and decided to put it to music.)
Griffintown, he says, "was a very historically present place. The history, up until about eight years ago, would slap you in the face, it was there. You didn't, but you could almost expect to see the blood of Mary Gallagher on a sidewalk 100 years later, y'know?"
When asked if he thinks people will still remember Mary's story in 50 years, Vlchek says, "It's hard to say. Normally, these kinds of things would be enshrined in some local bar, but there are no local bars down there."
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Lead illustration by Ethan Tennier-Stuart.