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Maggie’s murder still looms over Napanee 140 years later

With Halloween upon us, it is the time of year when the eerier bits of our history bubble their way to the surface of our collective consciousness.

The Town of Greater Napanee’s Municipal Heritage Committee used the opportunity to host a History and Hauntings Ghost Tour this past weekend, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, raising $450 for the Royal Canadian Poppy Fund. Paranormal history buff, Lisa Bird, led the group through some creepy tales of the town, keeping them family-friendly. 

One such tale, that of Maggie Howie, is difficult to dilute, as it involves one of the most brutal crimes ever to happen in the town of Napanee.

Tichborne House (white-clad building left), Dundas Street, Napanee, circa 1888. Photo courtesy of Lennox and Addington Historical Society

In 1882, Margaret Howie was a seventeen-year-old kitchen maid working at the Tichborne House, a hotel on Dundas Street in Napanee. Every morning, she would milk the hotel’s red and white cow, and cheerily sing as she worked.

According to the press at the time, a stable hand at the hotel, 23-year-old Michael Lee (known as Mike), became desperately enamoured of the pretty girl. He would often chat with her while she was at her milking. He would do his stable work as fast as he could, in order to spend time in the kitchen talking with her.

At first, she reciprocated, according to her sisters and friends, but as time passed she felt his attentions “boiling over.” Early on in his courtship, Mike prevailed upon Maggie to accept a ring of betrothal. However, as his attentions became untoward, she returned the ring. Hysterical, he forced it upon her again and she kept it.

Maggie’s sister Agnes visited to offer her support. Maggie removed the ring and when Michael would not take it back, she threw it at him.

During that long night, the man’s anger and resentment built. In the morning while sweeping, witnesses say that they saw him go to the bar and draw himself a glass of beer, something he was never known to do before.

When Agnes was leaving for home, witnesses say, Mike spoke to her, displeased she had advised her sister against him. He then went outside and seen by others, standing near the Dundas Street gate with the axe under his coat.

Maggie bid Agnes a cheery goodbye and, as soon as the stagecoach departed, she went back through the hotel, to the kitchen. There, she mentioned to the cook that she was nervous to go to milk the cow as she had spurned Mike the night before.

She seized the pail and went to the barn. The cow was not in its usual stall, but in one at the far end of the barn.

When Jane Shaw, the cook, thought enough time had passed that Maggie should have returned, she ran out to check on the girl. Mike came from within the barn and asked her to leave, so he might speak to Maggie alone. He closed the door, and Jane returned to the kitchen.

When it was time that the milk was needed for breakfast, Jane went again to the barn.  The cow was still in the furthest stall, so she approached.

Maggie lay by the cow with blood gurgling from a deep head wound. With horror, the cook recoiled and ran, agonized, back to the hotel screaming frantically, “Maggie’s dead! Maggie’s dead!” 

The hotel men ran out and found the unfortunate girl, dressed in a common calico dress, blood pooling around her head. Life had fled, although the body was still warm. A blood-stained axe lay nearby.

An alarm was sounded and soon a vast crowd assembled. Fifty men scattered themselves to hunt for Michael Lee, who had disappeared. It seemed he had stopped the cook from entering the barn so he could conceal his crime and make an escape.

Witnesses said they had seen a man cross the rail viaduct headed south. About five miles out of town, he was spotted. Several shots were fired at him before he crashed into the brush. He was found on his knees bashing his head on a large jagged rock, and when the men took him, blood was pouring from the wounds.

The news of the capture of Lee preceded the captors and on Centre Street, an infuriated crowd met them. Shouts of “String him up!” and “Shoot him!” echoed.

Chief of Police James Allen was forced to baton some of the hooting mob, telling them that the prisoner was in the hands of the law. The prisoner, his face smeared with the blood of his self-inflicted wounds, was dragged to the lock-up and a guard appointed to see that he attempted no further personal violence.

Mike Lee was sentenced to hang but later, found to be insane, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He died at Kingston Penitentiary, in 1901 at the age of 44.

Maggie’s body was laid out at the Tichborne hotel for 24 hours before she was returned to her family in Bath.  She is buried in the Cataraqui Cemetery.

Tichborne House employees were convinced that Maggie remained with them at the spot she was killed. Sometime after the Tichborne closed, the office of the Napanee Express newspaper was moved to the spot; the employees reported moved objects, cold spots, and strange sightings of a young woman in a calico dress on the stairs.

The current residents of the building make no comment. However, while you take a window shopping stroll downtown enjoying your pumpkin spice latte, remember, Maggie might be watching, wishing she could join you.

Ted Hsu for MPP
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