Only weeks before the outbreak of the First World War an American citizen with a strong claim to being the most dangerous man in Canada walked out of Kingston Penitentiary as a free man.
Luke “Dynamite” Dillon had been jailed in May 1900 for masterminding an attempt to blow up Lock 24 on the Welland Canal a month earlier. If he had succeeded, the 75,000 gallons of water unleashed would have created death and havoc in nearby Merritton, as well as shutting the canal down and washing away the Grand Trunk railroad line.
The gates held because the two 35-kilogram satchels of dynamite lowered on ropes into the canal by Dillon’s Irish accomplices, Jackie Nolan and John Walsh, were resting against them at points where the water absorbed most of explosive force. If Dillon had known a little more about canal engineering, the explosion in the early evening of April 21 could have devastated a substantial swathe of the southern Niagara peninsular.
Following his release in July 1914 and return to Philadelphia the unrelenting campaigner for an Irish republic, now in his mid-60s,* reportedly admitted that he had hoped to strike a blow against the British Empire, which was six months into a war against the Boer Republics in South Africa.
Numerous politicians in the United States, all the way up to President William Taft, had joined calls from Irish lobby groups on both sides of the border for Dillon’s early release but their pleas for clemency were ignored by the Canadian government. The three bombers expected to be imprisoned for 15 years for “causing an explosion likely to endanger life” and were shaken by the life sentences handed down at the end of their trial in Welland.
Dillon served his sentence under the name J. Karl Dullman, the alias he used when he first signed into the Rosli Hotel in Niagara nine days before the attack on the Welland Canal. It is not clear exactly when the Canadian authorities realized that they had captured the prime suspect in the 1885 bombing of the British House of Commons. Ontario’s top detective at the time, the legendary Inspector John Murray, would later claim he had uncovered the American’s true identity early in his investigation. But it was not until 1902 that the Buffalo Express publicly identified Dullman as Dillon.
There can be little doubt that Canadian investigators had quickly realized that Dullman was an alias. A little over a week after the attack on the canal the mystery mastermind was wrongly identified by many newspapers as John Rowan in an intriguing article originating from London. The article suggested a fourth bomber, John Merna, had been murdered by his republican comrades just over a month before the attack. Whoever was behind the article, which claimed to be based reports of uneasiness among republicans in Dublin, was well informed. Rowan had indeed arrived in the United States with Merna, Walsh and Nolan in November 1899. But he had returned to Ireland the following month.
And Merna was dead, shot through the heart on March 12, 1900 in the room he occupied above a saloon in Washington, D.C. However, the death had been ruled a suicide. Merna knew only too well how the Irish republican movement dealt with suspected traitors. He and Nolan had long been suspected by the Dublin Metropolitan Police of being members of a death squad responsible for executing suspected informers and spies.
The Canadian authorities had been expecting an attack by Irish republicans since the war with the Transvaal and Orange Free State had begun on October 11, 1899. Almost as soon as the Boers crossed into British-administered Cape Colony and Natal, newspaper reports had been predicting a repeat of the Irish-American Fenian raids of 1866 and 1870.
The reality was the Irish republicans in the United States had far more realistic and limited plans. They were conspiring with members of the Dutch and Boer communities on the Pacific Coast to sabotage the British naval base at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island. Private detectives hired by the British authorities successfully infiltrated the Irish republican community in California and foiled the plot. One of the most successful infiltrators was a woman who to this day is known only as Agent X and who charged $120 a month.
In fact, British consuls across the United States were employing private detectives, including Pinkertons, to spy on known Irish republican sympathisers, with special attention being paid to the Pacific Coast, New York, Chicago and Boston.
Dillon’s organization in Philadelphia was also of great interest but he ran a tight ship. In a movement riddled with informers and spies, there had been very few leaks from Philadelphia since Dillon took charge. Dillon had been born to Irish parents in the English city of Leeds and brought to New Jersey as a young boy. In 1867 he had joined the U.S. Army and served in Wyoming and Montana before being discharged with the rank of corporal in 1870. It was around this time he joined the Clann na Gael, then the main vehicle for American supporters of an Irish republic free of British rule.
He soon became one of the Clann’s leading lights, combining his work for it with earning a living as a shoemaker and later as a bank teller. He was part of a squad of dynamite bombers sent to England in 1884. The “Dynamitards”, as they were known, attacked the headquarters of Scotland Yards’ recently formed anti-terrorism department, the Tower of London, London Bridge, and the exclusive Carlton club in central London with various degrees of success. But it was the bombing of the House of Commons at Westminster in 1885 that got the most attention. Dillon was said to have lobbed a dynamite bomb into the empty debating chamber when the police officers guarding it rushed away to deal with a bomb planted in the building’s crypt by his accomplice Roger O’Neill.
While most of the team in London were quickly arrested or killed through their own carelessness, Dillon and O’Neill escaped back to the U.S. Dillon’s anger over the way the families of the dead and arrested bombers were treated by the Clann leadership led him to accuse them of misappropriating money intended for their support.
The Clann split into two factions and Dillon took his Philadelphia organization into the breakaway fold. When one of his main allies, Dr. Patrick Cronin, disappeared in Chicago in 1889, Dillon went to city to organize his own hunt for the missing medical man. After Cronin’s murdered body was found, Dillon publicly accused the Clann leadership of the killing. “On American soil, no Irishman has the right to deal a murderous blow, even at a political enemy,” he declared.
Dillon showed courage when he went to Chicago. Several of the police officers supposedly conducting the hunt were implicated in Cronin’s murder. Detective “Big Dan” Coughlin was found guilty of the killing but was re-tried in 1893 and acquitted.
Dillon’s campaign to bring the killers to justice led to his being branded a British spy. This could easily have been a death sentence. Ironically, when Cronin first met Dillon he had accused him of being a spy.
The Irish republican movement in the United States at the time was riddled with swindlers and British agents. Dillon was honest when it came to the funds that passed through his hands and trusted very few people when it came to his more violent activities. One of the few men he did confide in was the Clann’s chief administrator, Henri Le Caron. But Le Caron was really British agent Henry Beach. When Beach surfaced as a witness in London at the trial of some leading Irish republicans in 1889, Dillon did not take the news well. He reportedly travelled to France to organize Beach’s assassination but his quarry managed to escape.
Dillon’s suspicious mind and natural caution, which had already saved him from a British prison or death at the hands of his rivals in the Clann, led him to steer clear of the so-called Jubilee Plot to kill Queen Victoria in 1887. The plot turned out to have been organized by British intelligence officials to discredit the Irish Home Rule campaign.
It is not known what led Dillon to employ Dublin men for his attack on Canada. Rowan, Merna and Nolan had all visited the New York in 1894. Merna and Nolan reported by a British agent to have attended an explosives training camp organised by Irish republicans. Nolan then worked in Philadelphia while Merna took a job as a bartender at Joe McEnerney’s saloon in Washington, D.C. All three returned to Ireland in 1896.
Nolan and Merna’s 1894 trip to New York had followed their arrest by Dublin police, and subsequent release due to lack of evidence, for the murder of fellow republican Patrick Reid. Reid and Irish-American Walter Sheridan had been arrested for a bomb attack on Dublin’s Alderborough Barracks in 1893. Reid was quickly released and was murdered within 24 hours as a suspected police informer. Assistant Commissioner John Mallon of the Dublin Metropolitan Police would later write that he believed Nolan and Merna were implicated in Reid’s death to the extent that they supplied the gun used to kill him. Reid and Nolan had also been prime suspects in an 1892 bomb attack on the Exchange Court in Dublin and Nolan’s name was also linked to bombings a year earlier at the General Post Office and the heart of the British administration in Ireland at Dublin Castle. There were whispers that it was Merna who betrayed the Alderborough Barracks bombers and Reid was killed to prevent his treachery being exposed.
After Rowan returned to Ireland in December 1899, Nolan found work at a foundry in Richmond, Virginia. Merna returned to his job as a bartender in Washington and within a few days of his being hired, Walsh was working alongside him and the pair were sharing a room above McEnerney’s Saloon. It was in this room that Merna was found on the evening of March 12, 1900 with a bullet through his heart. Below the body was the .38 British Bulldog revolver usually kept behind the bar downstairs. Amongst his possessions was a piece of paper bearing the address of his brother who was serving in the British Army garrison at Halifax.
During the second week of April Nolan and Walsh were ordered to make their way to Philadelphia. There they were met on April 14 by a mysterious well-dressed man who gave them $100 and two train tickets to Buffalo. There Dillon made contact, having already scouted around the southern Niagara peninsula in March.
What Dillon did not know was that he was being watched by the U.S. Secret Service and Canadian customs officials who thought he was a smuggler. They saw Dillon meet the Irishmen several times before the attack on the Welland Canal. His later claim at his trial that the meetings were innocent was not accepted by the jury. The name “Karl Dullman,” scribbled in a book of union rules found in Nolan’s possession when he was arrested, was also taken to be a sign of guilt.
Nolan and Walsh had managed to get away from the scene of the bombing but were arrested in Niagara about two and half hours later as they were about to cross the bridge to Buffalo. Dillon, who had remained in Niagara while his accomplices planted the dynamite, was quickly arrested at his hotel.
For Walsh, life imprisonment did indeed mean life. He died in the prison hospital of liver disease in 1909. Nolan, who had stabbed a fellow inmate and also assaulted his guards while at Kingston, was not released until late 1915. When he died in 1920 he was buried in Dublin with full republican honours.
After his release Dillon returned to Philadelphia, where he continued fundraising for hardline republican causes in Ireland and arranging refuge for comrades on the run from the authorities on the other side of the Atlantic. These activities earned him visits as he lay on his deathbed in 1930 from the future president of that republic, Eamon de Valera and Dan Breen, a republican who had been such a thorn in side of the British that they offered £10,000 for his capture dead or alive.
Breen was credited with triggering the military phase of the Irish War of Independence when he and Sean Treacey led a group of men who gunned down two Irish policemen guarding a shipment of gelignite explosives in 1919.
Dillon lived to see the British pull out of all but the six north-eastern counties of Ireland in 1922 and the creation of the Irish Free State. But his cherished Irish Republic was not declared until 1949.
In the final days of his life Dillon lamented to Breen that he had never succeeded in killing any British citizens.
“Dan,” he told Breen, “I’ve bombed the bastards and I’d bomb them again, but you have tasted their blood.”
Dillon never set foot in the land in whose name he was prepared to kill so many Canadians on April 21, 1900 – the death toll could have run into the hundreds if his knowledge of canal lock engineering had been just a little better.
* Dillon’s year of birth is usually said to be 1848 but his gravestone gives it as 1850.