The death of Toronto bike messenger Wesley McLean in 1934 has a lesson for the case against Michael Bryant
Mess Media, October 1, 2009
The tragic death of Toronto bike messenger, Darcy Allan Sheppard and the resulting charges faced by Michael Bryant highlights the risks cyclists endure on our roads and the challenge all road users cope with sharing our streets.
But this is not an unfamiliar situation for Toronto. Cyclists and motorists have confronted these challenges for at least a hundred years with little progress.
Seventy-five years ago, in 1934, another Toronto bike messenger was the victim of a selfish and negligent driver whose only concern was himself. Similarly to Michael Bryant, the killer from long ago employed advocates to construct a narrative that blamed the dead victim.
Downtown Toronto streets in the 1930’s were not much different than today. The glory days of cars from the 1950’s through the 1970’s were yet to come. Cyclists, pedestrians, motorists and streetcars shared the roads and cyclists were well represented in the mix.
The streets were filled with hundreds of bicycle messengers too. They worked for telegraph companies, courier companies, department stores and drug stores. In 1937, the Tamblyn Drug Store chain boasted of employing over 300 Toronto bicycle messengers in their drug stores alone.
The hard working couriers worked long in to the night, confronting the risks and dangers of Toronto’s streets. In 1937, the Toronto Messenger Boys’ Association went as far as petitioning Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn for protection. Among other requests the messengers sought to have their work week reduced from 80 hours per week to 60 hours per week.
Throughout the 1930’s, robberies of bike messengers were an epidemic in Toronto and traffic deaths were routine. As motorists and cyclists coped with challenges sharing the roads, an anonymous telegraph bicycle messenger described the tension in a letter to the Toronto Star.
Having heard so much controversy on the subject of bicyclists and motorists I would like to voice my opinion as one who rides a bicycle for ten or more hours a day as a telegraph messenger.
The messenger described the streets as a place where motorists view messengers “to be a reckless wilful lot” and that
a motorist somehow gets it into his head that he has exclusive rights on the road and to stop or slow down for a bicycle is a sheer waste of time.
This riles the boy on the bicycle to the extent that if he is not given his rights on the road he will take them anyway at the risk of danger to everybody.
However the anonymous messenger did recognize that solving the problems meant sharing the roads and that
if motorists will remember to show courtesy to us we in return will show courtesy to them.
A bike messenger died every year on the streets of Toronto in the 1930’s, most of them unnecessarily.
In October of 1934, Toronto bike messenger, William Fox was riding his bike east on Annette Street near Clendennan at about 9:30 pm. He was rammed from behind, tossed high in the air and landed on his head. Fox died from his injuries and the 62 year old driver was arrested and charged with criminal negligence.
About a month later, on November 23rd, Toronto messenger Wesley McLean was riding home around 10:30 pm after a long hard day at work. McLean worked for Canadian National Telegraph (CNT) alongside Bob McLeod and George Crompton. All three messengers were enthusiastic racers and members of the Maple Leaf Bike Club. McLeod had recently returned from the 1934 British Empire Games (Commonwealth Games) where he was Canada’s hero of the games, surprising the world by beating a very strong field to win the premier cycling event of the games – the 10-mile race.
McLean, McLeod and Crompton traded victories over the years. McLeod and Crompton would go on to represent Canada at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and McLean may have joined them if it were not for the tragic events of that night.
McLean rode home, east along Harbord Street. As he approach Shaw St, a north bound car, driven by Harland Freemantle flew through the stop sign crashing in to McLean and either dragging or hurling him more than 50 feet. Freemantle was charged with manslaughter and released on $5,000 bail supplied by his father.
McLean died from his injuries that night. With no family to identify him, Canada’s cycling hero, Bob McLeod identified his best friend’s body. He would later name his son, Wesley in memory of his friend..
The case seemed quite simple. Freemantle’s car hit McLean with such force that he had to have been traveling quite fast and therefore must have ran the stop sign. McLean faced no stop sign and had the right of way.
At the trial, witness, Charles Higgs, testified that Freemantle’s car was travelling at about 30 miles per hour and that the car went straight through the stop sign without slowing down, crashing into McLean. At that time there were no breathalyzer tests so Freemantle denied that he was drinking.
It seemed a clear case of vehicle manslaughter but Freemantle’s family had the wealth and means to put forth a vigorous defence and McLean was dead without a voice.
Along came the spin – blame the dead bike messenger for his own death.
Like many of today’s bike messengers, Wesley McLean rode a fixed gear bicycle with no hand brake. The bike is stopped by pedalling backwards and an experienced fixed gear rider has no problem stopping quickly when needed.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Freemantle’s defence team claimed that he stopped his car, looked both ways for traffic and began accelerating when McLean came out of nowhere. The defence brought in an automotive engineering expert, Clarence Hastings, who claimed (incorrectly) that because McLean’s bike was a fixed gear he could not brake and a person riding “at any speed would have to rely on steering to avoid an accident.”
In other words Freemantle claimed without evidence that experienced bike messenger and champion racer, Wesley McLean couldn’t stop his bike and therefore rode it into the path of an oncoming car.
The supposition was enough for the jury to acquit Freemantle of manslaughter but convict him of criminal negligence in McLean’s death.
The judge, Justice Henderson sentenced Freemantle to four to six months in prison, commenting that the jury may have been swayed by the spin.
The jury has taken a merciful view of your case,
Justice Henderson stated.
In my opinion the evidence very well warranted a conviction of manslaughter. Your reckless disregard imposed a duty on the jury and now imposes a duty on me.
Seventy-five years later, following in the footsteps of Harland Freemantle, Michael Bryant and his elite PR and legal firms are making good use of supposition to spin a narrative that distracts the media, the public and a potential jury from damning evidence.
Let’s hope the justice system and the media recognize the fundamental duty that the killing of Darcy Allan Sheppard has imposed upon them.