Mystery Man – The Strange Case of Richard C. MacGregor

November 27, 2014 by Legion Magazine

Mystery Man – The Strange Case of Richard C. MacGregor

By Leslie C. Morrison

December, 1949

 

Out of the First World War came many strange stories of men who, after being reported missing, presumed killed, were discovered several years later very much alive, but living under a different identity.

 

One of the most amazing is that of ex-Private Richard C. MacGregor of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It is a story of a country-wide investigation continued over a period of twelve years to establish, against almost insurmountable odds, one man’s identity. That it finally culminated in success makes it worthy of being listed in the government’s archives in Ottawa as one of Canada’s most interesting documents.

 

HOW THE CASE STARTED

 

It all begins early in 1937 when a gray-haired man in his middle sixties visited the office of James Ellis, District Pensions Advocate for the then Department of Pension and National Health in Regina. The visitor requested assistance in obtaining a soldier’s pension. He said his name was Duncan McGregor and that he had served overseas with the 8th Canadian Infantry Battalion, C. E. F. He seemed to be very confused. He had no army discharge certificate and could give no coherent information regarding his past life. He couldn’t even remember his regimental number.

 

Sympathetically interested in the case, Mr. Ellis contacted several former members of the 8th Battalion, and all stated that he could be a Lieutenant Duncan McGregor who had served with them in France and had been reported killed in action in 1917.

 

The investigation was proceeding fairly smoothly when the deceased officer’s brother, J. A. McGregor, a resident of Moose Jaw, Sask., came into Mr. Ellis’ office and announced that the applicant was definitely not the man he claimed to be.

 

“I had a talk with him,” Mr.McGregor related, “and although he described vividly my father’s business office in Rapid City, Manitoba, even to the details of the furniture and the pictures on the wall, he was not my brother. Duncan had part of one of his thumbs missing. This man had no such distinguishing mark.”

 

On the basis of this information, Mr. Ellis had no other recourse but to discontinue his preparation of the applicant’s claim for pension under the name of Duncan McGregor.

 

(Yet how the applicant was able to describe so accurately the details of his alleged father’s office remains one of the most baffling mysteries of the entire case.)

 

Despite the accumulated evidence proving conclusively that the applicant was not Duncan McGregor, Mr. Ellis still felt convinced that he was a veteran, that he had served overseas and was genuinely in need of assistance. He continued for several months to make exhaustive enquiries, but in the meantime the applicant had left Regina, leaving no forwarding address, and the District Pensions Advocate was finally compelled to close the case.

 

TWO YEARS LATER

 

The thread of this story is picked up again two years later when, on April 12th, 1939, the applicant presented himself at the office of the District Pensions Advocate in Saskatoon, Hugh Aird. He again stated his name was Duncan McGregor, but this time said he had served in the 45th Battalion, C.E.F.

 

Asked for his discharge papers he replied that these, along with other personal documents, had been destroyed some years ago in a fire. He had no recollection of where he had been discharged, and his confused statements suggested he was under some mental cloud.

 

At a later interview, however, he declared that his full name was Richard Duncan MacGregor (note the difference in the spelling of the surname), that he had homesteaded in the Cloverdale district near Prince Albert in 1913, and that he had enlisted in the 53rd Battalion in Prince Albert shortly after the outbreak of World War I. He also furnished the names of three persons in the Cloverdale district, who, he said, would be able to identify him.

 

Mr. Aird promptly made enquiries and learned that the only MacGregor who had enlisted in Prince Albert at about the time stated by the applicant was a Richard C. MacGregor, regimental number 440544.

 

Head Office of the Department of Pensions and National Health in Ottawa was immediately notified and within a few days replied that Private Richard C. MacGregor had proceeded overseas in 1916, had been wounded in France, hospitalized, returned to duty and, on November 14th, 1917, had been reported missing, believed killed.

 

APPLICANT’S STORY

 

The gist of the applicant’s story was that he had been in a hospital in London, England, when the Armistice was signed, had later gone to Liverpool to live with a friend (a Mr. Flynn), had borrowed money from him to pay his passage back to Canada, and had arrived in Winnipeg in the fall of 1919.

 

Mr. Aird then wired the Liverpool police, but no trace of a Mr. Flynn answering the description given by the applicant could be found.

 

In the meantime interviews were conducted with several people in the Cloverdale district who, the applicant claimed, knew him when he had homesteaded there prior to the war. All stated they remembered a Dick MacGregor, but failed to produce satisfactory evidence to Mr. Aird that the applicant was definitely that person.

 

Like Mr. Ellis in Regina, the Saskatoon District Pensions Advocate felt intensely sorry for the old man and was sincerely anxious to help him. He questioned him patiently, but with the exception of a very confused recollection of Sanctuary Wood, the applicant could recall no incidents connected with his service in the army. Neither could he furnish the names of any of his comrades, the name of the hospital in London where he had been treated, nor the name of the ship on which he came back to Canada.

 

Despite the lack of concrete evidence and the applicant’s incoherent and often contradictory statements, however, Mr. Aird felt practically convinced that he was the man he claimed to be.

 

For over two years he continued his investigations. Finally, with a sad shake of his head, he closed the files. But always he kept hoping that some day, somehow, some clue would turn up which would lead to solving the mystery and thus bring some measure of comfort and happiness to a lonely old soldier whose mind was shadowed by the sufferings of war.

 

That the District Pensions Advocate’s faith in his client was justified is shown in the final phase of this human drama.

 

THE THIRD PHASE

 

Eight years passed, including the period of the Second World War, and during that time nothing further was heard from the man claiming to be ex-Private Richard C. MacGregor of the 53rd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-18. Also during that time the name Department of Pensions and National Heath had been changed to Department of Veterans Affairs, and Mr. Aird had been transferred as Pensions Advocate to the Vancouver district.

 

First news that the old soldier was still pleading his cause came in February, 1949, when Mrs. Mary Herbert of the Rehabilitation Branch, Provincial Department of Social Welfare, Saskatoon, reported that he had applied for an old age pension but was unable to prove his age. Because he had stated he had served in the First War and that D.V.A. was unable to help him, she wrote to R. R. Knight, Member of Parliament for Saskatoon, requesting him to take up the question of granting Mr. MacGregor War Veterans’ Allowance.

 

Mr. Knight referred the matter to the Minister of Veterans Affairs in Ottawa, the Hon. Milton Gregg, V.C., who took a sympathetic interest in the case and ordered an immediate re-investigation by the Saskatoon district office.

 

S. Cuddy, in the office of the Chief Executive Assistant, D.V.A., Ottawa, was assigned to the job of directing the new investigation. He immediately enlisted the aid of the Department of National Defence, the R.C.M.P., and the Department of Mines and Resources. In addition, he secured the co-ordinated support of every D.V.A. district in Canada, from Halifax to Vancouver.

 

Assigned to the case in Saskatoon were Gordon H. Smith, D.V.A. assistant district administrator, and Ronald R. Macgillivray, district solicitor. For weeks they worked indefatigably, poring over musty files, writing scores of letters, and interviewing possible witnesses.

 

FIRST LEADS

 

One of their first leads came when they obtained from Mr. Cuddy photostatic copies of Private MacGregor’s service documents containing a description of his physical condition and wounds, also his signature. Later they were successful in obtaining from one of his former neighbours in the Cloverdale district a photograph of MacGregor taken in 1914.

 

From the Lands Division, Department of Mines and Resources, they secured his application for a homestead, and from the Surrogate Court at Prince Albert a copy or his will, probated in 1919 and containing the names of the beneficiaries and witnesses.

 

The will was sent to D.V.A. Head Office, and a copy of Private MacGregor’s signature, together with a sample of the applicant’s signature, was submitted to R.C.M.P. handwriting experts. Unfortunately these exhibits failed to bring out anything conclusive as to the positive identity of the applicant.

 

The applicant was also given a very thorough medical examination by D. V. A. medical officers in Saskatoon, but this too brought disappointing results. On Private MacGregor’s attestation papers it stated he had hazel eyes and was five feet six inches tall. The applicant had blue eyes and was five feet three and a half inches tall. There was also a great deal of confusion in the comparison between the vaccination marks and shrapnel wounds recorded on the Army file and those on the body of the applicant.

 

However, this did not discourage the two D.V.A. officials unduly as they realized that medical examination methods in the First World War were not as thorough as they were in the last conflict, and that a careless orderly room clerk could have made the wrong identification entries.

In the meantime, enquiries to establish the applicant’s real identity were being conducted in all parts of Canada and England, and scores of witnesses interviewed. In Ontario, ex-Sergeant W. J. St. Michael of the 53rd Battalion (MacGregor was transferred from the 53rd to the 52nd shortly after his arrival in England) testified that he had known MacGregor, but this information was not very helpful.

Of the beneficiaries to Private MacGregor’s will all were dead, and the farm property had been sold for taxes. Of the four witnesses, two were dead and the other two had no recollection of MacGregor as an individual.

 

FIRST REAL BREAK

 

The first real break came when Mr. Smith and Mr. Macgillivray located in Saskatoon Jim Detlor, a former neighbor of MacGregor’s at Cloverdale.

“He’s not dead, “ he said, “because I saw him in 1940. He came to my house. I didn’t recognize him at first. Then he asked me if I recalled the time when he had cooked a woodchuck for our dinner. Right away I knew it was Dick MacGregor.”

 

Confronted with the applicant, Mr. Detlor said: “Yes, that’s him all right. I’ll swear to it.” He also gave the two D.V.A. officials the names of several people in the Cloverdale district who, he declared, would substantiate his statement.

 

Feeling that at long last they were now on the right trail, Mr. Smith and Mr. Macgillivray quickly proceeded to Cloverdale. Here they interviewed four of MacGregor’s old neighbours, Charles Backler of the Prince Albert Herald; Louis Hendrickson, a farmer; Mrs. Mamie Ferris and Mrs. Marie Young.

 

All stated that they had seen and talked to the applicant within the past ten years and were convinced that he was Dick MacGregor, their old friend. What convinced them most, they said, was not so much his personal appearance but rather his recollection of certain incidents in his homesteading life, and particularly his tone of voice and manner of speaking.

 

FORMER SWEETHEART RECOGNISES LAUGH

 

Elated, but anxious to obtain more evidence, Mr. Smith and Mr. Macgillivray then arranged an interview with Mrs. John D. Hodgson of Leoville, Saskatchewan, formerly Phoebe Cheney and once engaged to MacGregor.

 

(It should be noted that Mrs. Hodgson had been contacted earlier but had failed to recognize the applicant from his 1949 photograph. She declared, however, that she would know him by his laugh which, she had said, was a distinctive one).

 

On the way to Prince Albert, where the new interview was to take place in the presence of the applicant, Mr. Macgillivray asked the old man if he remembered a Miss Phoebe Cheney. (He pronounced it “Cheeny”). The applicant shook his head.

 

Then the district solicitor pronounced it “Chainy”. Instantly the old man’s eyes brightened. “Why, yes,” he grinned, “she was the girl I was going to marry. She used to live in the Wandsworth district.”

 

The two D.V.A. officials looked at each other and smiled. There was no doubt now regarding the applicant’s identity.

 

At first neither Mrs. Hodgson nor the old soldier recognized each other. She questioned him for some time concerning their earlier days, but it seemed that the applicant’s memory had once again gone blank.

 

Suddenly he laughed. “That’s him! That’s Dick MacGregor all right,” Mrs. Hodgson exclaimed animatedly. “I’d recognize that laugh anywhere.”

 

Later, on his way back to Saskatoon, the applicant remarked to the D.V.A. officials: “Phoebe’s certainly changed a lot since I knew her as a young girl.”

 

OLD COMRADE ALSO RECOGNISES MacGREGOR

 

The following day the three travelled to the small prairie town of Leask to interview Harry Hasselwood who had known Richard MacGregor before the war and had served with him in the 53rd Battalion at Camp Hughes, Manitoba.

 

After about an hour’s conversation, Mr. Hasselwood announced that he was absolutely positive that the applicant was Dick MacGregor. He based his identification not only on his features and stature but, like Mrs. Hodgson and the other witnesses, on the sound of his voice and particularly his distinctive laugh.

 

Satisfied with the results of their investigation, the two D.V.A. officials concluded their reports on October 11th of this year and forwarded them to Ottawa.

 

Within a very short time they were happily informed that the War Veterans’ Allowance Board had accepted the evidence submitted and that the applicant, ex-Private C. MacGregor, had been awarded War Veterans’ Allowance, effective from June 17th, 1949

 

TRIBUTE TO TEAM WORK

 

Thus ended successfully the longest investigation on behalf of one veteran in the annals of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

 

Its happy climax is a tribute to the co-ordinated teamwork of all the D.V.A. districts involved in the solution of the case and to the splendid co-operation of the R. C. M. P., Department of National Defence, and other federal and provincial departments.

 

Special credit is due to S. Cuddy, office of the Chief Executive Assistant, D.V.A., Ottawa, who was in charge of the case from February, 1949, till its successful conclusion, and also to Mr. Smith and Mr. Macgillivray of Saskatoon whose tireless efforts and resourcefulness established the applicant’s identity.

 

Mention should be made, too, of the ground work undertaken by Mr. Aird, and his continued sympathetic support from Vancouver which helped so much in bringing the case to a happy ending.

 

The following D.V.A. district offices were involved in the case: London, England, Halifax, Toronto, North Bay, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon. Over 20 persons were interviewed in the Winnipeg district alone.

 

As for ex-Private Richard C. MacGregor, he is now living in retirement in Saskatoon. There are still many incidents in his past life that he cannot recall, but he has the satisfaction of knowing that he has won his long, hard-fought battle to establish himself as a soldier who served his country faithfully in its hour of need. He has the comforting knowledge, also, of knowing that he will be taken care of by the Department of Veterans Affairs for the rest of his life.

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