Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Death at Weyburn’s Royal Hotel

Royal Hotel, c. 1910. Source
  
The 100-room Royal Hotel in Weyburn has been struck by misfortune several times since it was built in 1900, but none worse than the tragedy that occurred in 1917 – a tragedy that continues to defy understanding. On April 14th of that year, two Saskatchewan doctors died within hours of each other from poisoning after drinking wood (methyl) alcohol. For more information, click here  and here.

On April 13th, Dr. Harry E. Hamill, a 32-year-old physician from Assiniboia brought one of his patients to the Weyburn hospital, and then checked into the Royal Hotel. There he met Dr. Neil Roy Stewart, 28 years old. Formerly practicing at Eastend, Saskatchewan, Stewart had recently served overseas as a medical officer for the 249th Battalion during the First World War. That evening, as they sat having dinner in the hotel's café, the two doctors were overheard having a prolonged argument about the effects of wood alcohol on the human body. For some reason, the two decided to drink the stuff. Both died of poisoning in their respective rooms at the Royal several hours later. 

Dr. Hamill had obtained what was known as Columbian Spirits (methyl or wood alcohol) from the night nurse at the Weyburn hospital in the early morning hours of April 13th, saying that it was for external application for his wife (who was at home in Assiniboia).

“A good deal of mystery surrounds the affair.” - Saskatoon Phoenix, April 16, 1917

That two trained physicians would take such a risk is astounding. In 1917, the effects of ingesting wood alcohol were well known to the medical community, and beyond. There had been hundreds of documented cases of poisoning resulting from drinking this substance. (For another account of deaths in Saskatchewan caused by drinking wood alcohol, see my blog post, "Tragedy at Blaine Lake: The Commercial Hotel" here.)  Several studies, including Dr. Casey A. Wood’s “Death and Blindness as a Result of Poisoning by Methyl or Wood, Alcohol, and its Various Preparations,”1906, clearly outlined the dangers of ingesting or inhaling wood alcohol. Read it here. (Article republished as a 15-page booklet in 1912 by the American Medical Association.) Symptoms included vomiting and loss of vision, followed by lapsing into a coma. Death occured within 24 hours. 

Wood alcohol was developed for a wide variety of industrial uses, including as a wood varnish. At the turn of the 20th century, a refined grade of methyl alcohol was developed for therapeutic rubbing purposes. The purification process made the smell and taste more agreeable, but did not minimize the deadly effect of the poison. Manufacturers gave fancy names to the product, such as “Columbian Spirits,” Eagle Spirits,” or, for the lumbermen of the Northwest and Canada, the poetic designation of “Greenwood Spirits.” It did not help that the packaging of these products often resembled liquor bottles. 

The Doctors

Not much is known about the two doctors who drank, and died from, this poison. The newspapers reported that the jury "returned a plain verdict that the men came to their death from drinking wood alcohol with no qualification or comment as to whether the act was done with intent or unknowingly."  Source

Dr. Hamill and daughter Elsie, Colgate, 1913

Harry Hamill was born 29 March 1884 in Meaford, Ontario. He graduated from medical school at the University of Toronto in 1908, and married Pearl McLaughlin two years later. Dr. Hamill was the first resident doctor for the village of Colgate, Saskatchwan between 1912 and 1913. Harry and Pearl had a daughter, Elsie, born in Colgate in 1912. (Pearl went on to marry Harold Jenkins in 1922 and had another daughter, Patsy.) Source: Prairie Gold: R. M. of Lomond #37 [including Colgate SK], 1980, pp. 189, 414.

Dr. Neil Roy Stewart was born in 1889 in Emerson, Manitoba. He served as the physician at Eastend before enlisting in the Canadian Armed Forces on February 1, 1917, only a few months before his death. At the time of his enlistment, he named his next of kin as his father, W. B. Stewart of Weyburn. Unmarried, Dr. Sewart had practiced at Eastend. He went overseas for a very short time - perhaps only a month - as a medical officer during the First World War. According to the Eastend history book, Dr. Stewart had apparently been granted leave to return and "cover his own district." Source: Range Riders and Sodbusters, Eastend Historical Society, 1980. Stewart's military records do not shed any light on the reasons for his abrupt return to Canada from overseas. Source: Library and Archives Canada, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 9320 - 40. 

A number of questions come to mind. Did Dr. Hamill and Dr. Stewart know each other before they met at the Royal Hotel on that fateful night? Why did Dr. Stewart return from WWI after such a short time overseas? Was the drinking of wood alcohol premeditated? Were the two men on a drinking binge, and if so, would the night nurse at the Weyburn hospital give a bottle of Columbian Spirits to a drunk doctor - ostensibly for his wife? Perhaps.  

The alcohol part is a bit easier to figure out. Prohibition was in full force in Saskatchewan in 1917. The only way to acquire booze was from a bootlegger (who often spiked his brew with wood alcohol), or by a doctor's prescription. If a physician was an alcoholic, or if he was battling other demons, wood alcohol might have been tempting, but surely he would have had access to safer sources of liquor through his profession.

History of the Royal Hotel

The first section of the Royal Hotel was under construction by William Fisher in August of 1900, when seven inches of rain flooded the town, leaving the building in ruins. The foundations were undermined by the flood waters, and the stone walls collapsed into the cellar. Fisher sold the ruins to to Dan Pretty who rebuilt the hotel on the same site. Source: Isabel Eaglesham, The Night the Cat Froze in the Oven; A History of Weyburn and Its People. Weyburn: Weyburn Review Ltd., 1963; 1970.

By February 1902, things were off to such a good start at the Royal Hotel that owners Tom Robinson and his brother-in-law Harry Walsh held a ball to celebrate. “The attractive dining room was specially prepared for dancing, being well lighted and having the floor waxed to perfection,” the Regina Leader reported. “An elegant repast was served at midnight and dancing kept up until daylight.”  It was deemed one of the most pleasing social events which had ever taken place in Weyburn. Source

Postcard of the Royal Hotel, c. 1910. Source

In 1912, the Royal Hotel’s future looked so bright that the McRoberts brothers, formerly of Moose Jaw, purchased it for the princely sum of $175,000. Source: Financial Post of Canada, November 30, 1912. The McRoberts had big plans for the Royal, only to have them dashed when Prohibition was introduced in 1915. When the Canada Census was taken in 1916, J. L. (Jerry) McRoberts and his wife Lucia (Lucy), ages 60 and 39 respectively, were living in the hotel along with their children Ruth (17) and Jerry Jr. (9). In spite of the devastating impact that Prohibition had on many Saskatchewan hotels, the Royal must have been doing alright, as, according to the census, it had fifteen staff members, including four chambermaids, two waitresses, two Chinese cooks, a waiter, a Japanese porter, two Japanese bell boys, a dishwasher, a cashier, and a bookkeeper.

The Governor General of Canada, Duke of Devonshire, visited Weyburn in September of 1918. Luncheon was served at the Royal Hotel where Lucy McRoberts was a “very gracious hostess.” Mrs. McRoberts sold the hotel to Wilbur Thompson, who then sold it to Alexander Mrygold and his three sons, Joseph (Joe) Mike and William (Bill) in 1948. The Mrygolds, natives of Austria, arrived in Weyburn in 1910. The family operated the Royal Hotel throughout the 1950s and 1960s, selling it in 1971 to Harry and Irene Winckless from Manitoba.

Royal Hotel, 1946. Everett Baker photo.  Source

The Mryglods spent a great deal of time and money renovating the Royal Hotel. In 1953, they completely remodeled the large lobby. The hotel was the largest in the city, with 100 rooms. In addition to hotel services, the Royal also housed 25 to 30 permanent residents in rooms and suites. A number of business places, including several oil exploration companies, had office space on the premises.  Source

Fire of 1954

Misfortune struck the Royal Hotel again in 1954 when a fire of unknown origin caused $146,000 damage. The fire occurred just as the Mrygolds were finishing a complete renovation project. Only two rooms in the entire hotel had not been rebuilt when the fire struck.  

The fire started in a room on the top floor of the 3-storey stone structure and spread quickly into the attic and from there throughout the entire building. Initially, hotel staff attempted to put out the fire with hoses stored in the hotel. Eventually, firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze, but not before four members of the volunteer fire brigade were injured in the seven-hour long battle against the flames. 

The Saskatoon StarPhoenix reported that, according to eyewitness Murphy Polsky, a travelling salesman from Winnipeg, "there was no panic when the fire broke out. There were few people in the building since many were attending an exhibition hockey game being played at the time. Mr. Polsky said he was just going back into the hotel when he saw a woman come down the stairs to give the alarm. He said this was the second time in a week that he had been staying at a hotel in Saskatchewan that had caught fire. He was registered at the Kings Hotel in Shaunavon last Thursday when he was routed from his bed by the blaze. ‘Once more,’ said the Winnipeg traveler, ‘and I’m going to quit.’" Source

Royal Hotel, 2006.  Joan Champ photo
 
Joan Champ photo, 2006

© Joan Champ, 2014


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7 comments:

  1. Loved reading this article and learning about the mystery regarding the deaths of the two unfortunate doctors. I worked at the Royal Hotel in the late 1960s as a teenaged girl operating the old switchboard (the type with the wires you plug in to connect calls). My boss was Joe Mryglod. His mother was the janitor and worked very hard cleaning the hotel. His brother Bill gave the toast to the bride at my wedding. I have fond memories of the Mryglod family and my association with them.

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    1. Thanks so much for reading my blog, and for sharing your association with the Royal Hotel. It is the personal stories that really make the history of anything come alive.

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  2. I read your blog.I thought it was great.. Hope you have a great day. God bless.

    Rica
    www.imarksweb.org

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  3. Interesting article that I found looking for the history of this hotel. My grandmother was a cousin of the Mryglod brothers. I found a letter Alek Mryglod wrote to her on the hotel's stationary.

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    1. Thanks for reading my article. So cool that you have a letter from Mr. Mrygold on the hotel's letterhead!

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  4. Delvin Milford remembers watching the fire from the sidewalk when he was a boy.

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  5. This was a very interesting read. Thanks for the story.

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