It’s easy to miss the ghost-white plaster hand that rests under a plexi-glass box at D’Arcy McGee’s in Ottawa, Canada, where it sits at the top of a small flight of stairs that constitutes the bar’s entrance. The “death hand,” as it is known, frequently goes unnoticed among the swarms of politicians and government workers drinking pints after a long day on Parliament Hill.
But the hand itself is no random curiosity; it’s a re-creation of the hand of the pub’s namesake, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, an Irish-revolutionary turned a Canadian father of the confederation. It was cast after his assassination in April 1868, just months after Canada officially became a self-governing dominion under British rule, which he had helped lay the foundation for.
By the time of McGee’s killing, death-masks had become common in the Victorian era to either commemorate the dead or help solve crimes, serving, in many cases, the same function as crime-scene photography. But McGee was shot in the head, making his face unrecognizable, forcing castmakers to cast the next best thing: his hands.
The one at D’Arcy McGee’s is actually a copy; the original sits, not far away, at the Bytown Museum, which took possession of it in 1920. Which is fitting in its own way, as D’Arcy McGee’s itself isn’t very old, having been established in 1996, with the entire bar designed and built in Ireland, before it was sent to Canada to be refabricated, not unlike McGee himself.
McGee was born in Ireland in 1825, later coming to the United States as a teenager and first making his name as a newspaper editor. In 1845 he returned to his homeland, only to flee again after a warrant was issued for his arrest following his involvement in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848.
Back in the U.S., McGee again took up writing and editing, before moving to Canada in 1857, where he became a Canadian nationalist, and, eventually, member of Parliament.
But just a year after he was elected into office, on April 7, 1868, he was assassinated. An Ottawa journalist named Patrick J. Whelan was later convicted and hanged for the crime, with several witnesses saying that Whelan had professed his hatred for McGee, and had planned to one day kill him over political disagreements. Whelan, for his part, admitted to being present at the assassination but denied pulling the trigger. He was hanged on February 11, 1869, before a crowd of thousands.
McGee’s wife considered him ugly by the standards of the time, which he made up for with his pen, as a prolific writer and poet. That also makes McGee’s hand, and not his face, an appropriate legacy, even if most drinkers at D’Arcy McGee’s may not notice it at all.