The Persecution of Pilot Mackey
by Janet Maybee


Francis Mackey was a respected harbour pilot with a spotless record of twenty-four years' service when he boarded Mont Blanc on the evening of 5 December 1917 and spent the night anchored outside the closed submarine nets. The aging French ship had been loaded in New York with a deadly cocktail of highly volatile explosives. A series of mischances the next morning led the outward bound Norwegian vessel, Imo, into collision with Mont Blanc, gashing her forward hold deeply. Fire broke out instantly and as there was no possible way to save the munitions-laden ship the captain ordered the crew to the lifeboats; at 9:04:35 a disastrous explosion devastated Richmond and caused terrible damage across the rest of Halifax. Mackey was vilified in the press, in part because he survived while so many thousands were killed or maimed.

Francis Mackey
Digitally restored
by Joel Zemel.

After the Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry he was arrested along with Captain Aime Le Medec of Mont Blanc and the port's chief examining officer, Commander F. Evan Wyatt. All three were charged with manslaughter and criminal negligence in the death of Mackey's longtime friend, Imo's pilot, William Hayes. A Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice, Judge Benjamin Russell, determined the charges were unfounded and released Mackey from prison on a writ of habeas corpus. However, C. C. Ballantyne, the minister of marine and fisheries, refused to restore Mackey's license. With a wife and six young children to support, the pilot found himself unable to work at his profession. He spent the next four years and his life's savings in frustrating attempts to gain reinstatement. Reasons for denying the return of his license were never given.

During the research which culminated in this article, Janet discovered restricted files in Library and Archives Canada; after sixteen months of negotiation with the Information Commissioner, access was finally granted, and shocking evidence of federal misdeeds came to light. She also had the fortunate opportunity to interview Mackey's last surviving daughter and several grandchildren, collecting many memories, letters and photos. Another valuable discovery was a complete recording of a 1958 CBC interview wherein Mackey recounts that fateful day in his own words. The story unfolds of a man wrongfully imprisoned, wrongfully barred from his profession, and denied any compensation for his losses and the suffering of his family.

Click here to read the article in a separate window. (JavaScript required)

The Persecution of Pilot Mackey is copyright © Janet Maybee 2010. All rights are reserved. Reproduction in part or in whole is prohibited unless permission is obtained directly from the author. This article was first published in The Northern Mariner/Le marin du nord, XX No. 2, (April 2010), 149-173.

PDF file courtesy of Dr. Paul Adamthwaite, Executive Editor, The Northern Mariner/Le marin du nord, Canadian Nautical Research Society/Societe canadienne pour la recherche nautique.

If you wish to comment on this article, click here.

Janet Maybee interview with Don Connolly on CBC's "Information Morning Nova Scotia" - 4 December 2012.
Click here.

SVP Productions. Scapegoat History of the legal proceedings following the 1917 Halifax Explosion. (price does not include shipping) Category: Product #: 9780968492093 5 stars, based on customer reviews Regular price: $46.00. $ 40.00 () Available from: SVP Productions. Currently in stock