Taissumani: April 29, 1932 – The Arctic’s Top Cop Commits Suicide
Alfred Herbert Joy had an illustrious career in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He joined the force in 1909 at the age of 22. He was a staff-sergeant by 1921 and an inspector six years later. Most of his career was spent in the Canadian Arctic and it is said that from 1914 to 1931 he never spent a summer in the south.
In 1921 Joy went to Pond Inlet to investigate the killing of Robert Janes. He became famous in the High Arctic for his amazing sled patrols. In 1926, from his base at the Craig Harbour detachment, Joy began a series of patrols in the Queen Elizabeth Islands.
More than just police patrols, these were also scientific expeditions. Joy mapped, made notes on biology, minerals, archaeology, weather and ice conditions. His longest dogsled patrol lasted 81 days and covered 1,800 miles; he was accompanied by one other constable and a Greenlander employed by the RCMP.
At the end of the 1920’s Joy transferred to Montreal, where he was in charge of the Eastern Arctic subdivision. But he continued to travel to the Arctic in the summer on an annual patrol.
Sometime during this period he became engaged to Miss Carmel Murphy of Ottawa. They planned to marry in 1931, but illness intervened; Joy underwent a serious operation and the marriage had to be postponed.
On Friday, April 29, 1932, the day before his wedding was finally to take place, Joy took the train to Ottawa early in the morning. He checked in to the Chateau Laurier Hotel, then went to see a friend before returning to the hotel. He and Carmel had a number of social engagements planned for the day. When she didn’t hear from him by noon, she called the hotel. When there was no response to the hotel’s page, staff entered his room and found him in bed in a state of semi-consciousness. He was rushed to Ottawa General Hospital, where he died at 7:15 p.m.
The funeral that followed on Monday was one of the largest Ottawa had ever seen.
The procession left the funeral parlour at 8;30 a.m. for St. Theresa’s Church, where, two days earlier, Joy should have been married. Rev. Father Leo Lesage, a personal friend who had been scheduled to officiate at the wedding, now conducted his funeral. The newspapers waxed hyperbolic, describing the crowds that lined the streets as “standing bare-headed as the man who conquered the North was following his last trail.” The band of the Governor-General’s Foot Guard played “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Joy, who had no relatives in Canada, was interred in the family plot of his fiancée. Nearby stands a large memorial erected later by his father, brothers and sisters.
The newspaper tributes were effusive: “He was big, powerful, dominant – yet, withal, reticent, kindly, stern and conciliatory as the occasion demanded. He personified the ‘strong silent man…'”
One paper reported, “The tribute paid to this gallant adventurer was something more than accorded even to a great statesman or famous soldier. It had about it the glamour of high romance, of a tragically terminated love story, of the sudden and untimely termination of a brilliant career as a knight errant of the Arctic.”
In fact, it had more than that. It had a tragic element that the newspapers never reported, if they even knew. Because Alfred Herbert Joy did not die a natural death. He died by his own hand. He had committed suicide alone in his room at the Chateau Laurier Hotel.
I first heard of this suicide in 1978 when I visited the legendary Arctic scientist and explorer, J. Dewey Soper. He had known Joy well and had named a mountain north of Lake Harbour (Kimmirut) after him. Soper was staying at the Ford Hotel in Ottawa when Joy died. To him the reasons were simple: The Arctic was in his blood. He couldn’t bear the thought of having to sacrifice his freedom to live permanently in the South. And a marriage would chain him there forever. He felt he owed marriage to Carmel, who had waited so long, but he couldn’t go through with it. He killed himself.
A northern geologist, Dr. Maurice Haycock, told me a similar story. He had known Joy and, like Soper, attended his funeral.
The RCMP covered up Joy’s suicide. They claim he died of a myocardial infarction – a heart attack – and that is what his death record shows. But there were conflicting reports. The Ottawa Citizen reported death from “congestion of the lungs.” The Ottawa Evening Journal reported the cause as a stroke.
Curious, I tracked down a family member of the late Carmel Murphy through cemetery records. He confirmed the suicide story. He had grown up knowing little about Joy, but thought it odd that someone so famous, and once so close to his own family, was seldom spoken of. Then, in 1987, at the funeral of Carmel’s sister, an elderly family friend insisted on telling those present about “poor Carmel” and of how her fiancée had killed himself on the day before their wedding.
Carmel never married. She died in 1951, aged 49.
Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to email@example.com.