The man who made headlines

What happened when a Cranbrook newspaperman went bad.

A young Thomas Simpkin: dapper

A young Thomas Simpkin: dapper

Jim Cameron

Thomas Simpkin … Thomas Simpkin … let’s see now, where have we put him?  Come on out Thomas, we know you’re in there.

Aha! Here you are, you nasty fellow, amidst all those piles of dusty old newspapers. And did we say “nasty”? Heavens, that’s an understatement by half. And did we say “under” the newspapers? We meant actually “in” the newspapers, in more ways than one.

Heck, you helped print a bunch of them; set the type, took your paycheck and went home to your wife and children somewhere here in Cranbrook back in … ah, yes, 1915, or perhaps late 1914? Just before that illustrious old Prospector newspaper — late of Fort Steele, less later of Cranbrook — closed up shop, which is very likely why you moved on to Calgary shortly thereafter. Just two children then, the third would come in a year or so.

It is fitting that we find you in a stack of old newspapers, very fitting indeed.

Speaking of newspapers, an article on Page three of the April 30, 1920, local Herald reads, in part: “Just prior to the suspension of the Cranbrook Prospector, a Thomas W. Simpkins [sic] was employed on that sheet. With the typographical men he was always looked upon as being an ‘odd one’ …”

Page three, mind you, almost not worth a mention. In fact, the editor would have likely preferred not to mention it at all — no sense in drawing attention to newspapermen gone bad. Then again it was news, news with a local spin and news is news even if it’s bad news or, perhaps, more so if it’s bad news.

Now, let’s have a quick glance at your curriculum vitae, Mr. Thomas William Simpkin: Born Aug. 22 1879, Mile End London. Father died 1883, leaving a penniless wife and four children under the age of six, of which you were one. Raised in Dr. Stephenson’s Children’s Home & Orphanage and trained as a typesetter, as was your father before you. Immigrated to Canada in 1912, married Maude Shelley in Winnipeg and travelled to Cranbrook, B.C. where you gained employment with the local newspaper on 9th Avenue. The paper folded, you moved to Calgary and worked at various newspapers there. Joined the Canadian Army in 1916 and deserted soon afterwards. Reemerged in Duluth, Minnesota, September, 1916 — thereupon employed in several printing plants and then, Mr. Simpkin?

Hmm, and then it appears things began going rather badly. Of course there were always problems with the world in general that you desired to correct; profiteering, the League of Nations, the multi-millionaire financiers, money in general, it would appear.

Religion didn’t seem to help, nor did spiritualism, even your conversations with those from “the other side”, and then, well, and then you were placed in the Minnesota State insane asylum. You escaped within the year by tying bed sheets together and climbing down three stories to freedom; freedom of the asylum but not of your demons.

You managed to travel to Richmond, Virginia, to find work as a mechanic with a stationery company under the alias of Thomas Shelley. Your diagnosis of stomach cancer in 1919 and the three operations that followed certainly didn’t help things, nor did the time you spent in the Eastern State Hospital for the Insane in Williamsburg, Virginia, where you claimed to be a newspaper editor and an actor, a comedian in fact, while your destitute family was deported to England.

And then you finally ended up in New York City. Stuyvesant Square in Manhattan to be exact, St. George’s Episcopal Protestant Church to be precise. You chose that particular grand old edifice because that was where wealthy industrialist and financier J. Pierpont Morgan worshipped regularly as did many of his relatives and it was him that you were planning to kill on that frosty Sunday morning of April 18, 1920, as you sat in a pew towards the rear.

J.P. Morgan had been dead for lo these seven years, mind you, but it mattered not, for in your mind, Thomas Simpkin, it was time to kill someone.

And so, as the gentlemen of the congregation began to take up the collection you arose, aimed your revolver and started firing as you walked down the aisle. Your first bullet struck and mortally wounded the well known surgeon Dr. James Markoe as he carried the collection plate. Ironically, he was the former physician and good friend of the deceased J.P. Morgan. Your second shot grazed the cheek of usher J. Morgan Jones and your third barely missed Herbert Satterlee, J.P. Morgan’s brother-in-law.

Fleeing from the church you were pursued by a group of male churchgoers and, in the resulting melee, managed to fire one more shot with your revolver trapped inside your coat pocket, setting the cloth on fire and slightly wounding Dr. George Brewer.

And then it was done, for you at least, although the reverberations carried on for some time as they tend to do when good citizens of high-standing are assassinated in a church for no apparent reason. You were sent to Mattawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where you died a few years later.

As to your legacy, Thomas William Simpkin, it remains in the fact that within one month a N.Y. Grand Jury advocated changes in lunacy laws to allow that a person judged insane  in any sister state also be presumed insane in New York State and further that verdicts involving lunatics be changed to read “Guilty, but Insane.”

Then, too, there is your local legacy: You lived here, worked here, walked the streets, set the lettering of those old newspapers stored in local vaults. It is safe to say, Thomas Simpkin, that, if nothing else, you managed to make some headlines.

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