Guelph man buried lodger under his house in 1946

William A. Callahan was a Guelph resident who owned a house on Devonshire Street.

That street was not the current Devonshire, but rather the portion of Dublin Street south of the railway tracks. In the early part of the 20th century that area of Guelph was a less desirable one due to the operations of a couple of slaughter houses and a soap factory nearby, and the gas works a block away, all of which tainted the air with their smells.

In any case, Bill Callahan was something of a marginal character. He drifted from one job to another, and sometimes rented out rooms to lodgers to supplement his meagre income.

In 1942 he rented a room to William G. Norrish. Four years later that would lead to his downfall.

Bill Norrish was a World War I veteran. He had enlisted before the war even began in August 1914, and later had been gassed while on active service in France. He survived, but the incident effectively destroyed him. He was never strong enough to hold down a regular full-time job, and he became increasingly anti-social and argumentative as the years rolled by.

He was a well known character in the Royal City, but had no friends. Often he would wander away for a few days. His sole support was a minuscule veterans pension. People tended to give him a wide berth, shunning his obscene language and volatile temper.

In mid-March of 1946 he appeared to have wandered away again. At first no one thought this unusual; he had done it many times before, returning home in a few days. But this time he did not re-appear.

Norrish had been in the habit of purchasing his groceries at a corner store on Waterloo Avenue. When the proprietor of the store had not seen him for a week he reported to the city welfare officer Richard Kenyon, that Norrish seemed to have disappeared. Kenyon had not seen him either, and when Norrish did not show up to collect his pension Kenyon referred the matter to the Guelph police.

The city force kept an eye out for Norrish and circulated bulletins to other forces, but did not expend much in the way of resources in trying to locate him. Everyone regarded him as a marginal and eccentric character, not deserving of a thorough investigation. Still, the force kept the file open through the spring and summer of 1946.

Though they never revealed the details, Guelph police received some anonymous information on Aug. 15 indicating that Norrish had been murdered and was buried beneath Callahan’s house. They pulled together all their information, and went to call on Callahan the next day. Initially Callahan refused to let them in the house, but they soon returned with a search warrant. At about 10pm they entered the house and began their search.

The residence had no proper basement, only a crawl space under the floor, between three and four feet high. Several police officers managed to crawl into the space, moving on hands and knees with a flashlight providing illumination.

In one area of the crawl space the officers saw signs of disturbed soil. Scratching away at the area, they noted that the soil was soft. They soon found a scrap of cloth. Moments later they uncovered part of a decomposed body. Gingerly they scraped away the soil, and soon were able to remove the cadaver. With difficulty, they dragged it from the crawl space and out of the house.

Guelph in 1946 was still something of a small town, with a population of about 20,000. Word travelled quickly those days, and soon a crowd gathered outside to watch. By midnight there were some 300 people milling about outside.

One of the officers announced that there would be no official statement, but did confirm that the body had been mutilated, probably with an axe. The paucity of information merely served to push the rumour mill into overdrive. Many stories, few of them with any substance, circulated around the city during the ensuing days.

The following day the police summoned the provincial pathologist from Hamilton, the appropriately named Dr. Deadman. He was on vacation at the time, but agreed to come at once, arriving in Guelph that afternoon and conducting his post mortem that evening.

The authorities continued their policy of silence, refusing to reveal the conclusions of Dr. Deadman’s examination. Interestingly, they announced that there would be no coroner’s inquest.

One new development was the arrest of Bill Callahan, the landlord, on charges of vagrancy. This was an obvious ploy to keep Callahan in custody pending the laying of more serious charges.

With both the police and the crown attorney’s office tight lipped on the matter, the Guelph Mercury tried to find new details in the case. The editor assigned one reporter to interview Callahan’s neighbours. Most did not want to get involved, and said virtually nothing.

Only one, a Mrs. O’Connor, had plenty to say. She said she had lived next door to Callahan and Norrish for almost five years. During that time, she claimed, Norrish had never spoken to her. She said she had never seen him in the company of anyone. She had never seen him talking to his landlord, she claimed, and had never witnessed any signs of conflict between the two men. She did confirm that Norrish occasionally engaged in spells of yelling when no one was around.

Others in the neighbourhood thought that Bill Callahan was “a little odd,” but he was a straightforward, honest man, and “would not hurt a fly,” according to another local resident.

On Aug. 19 Bill Callahan made a lengthy statement which the authorities refused to release to the public. Crown Attorney J.M. Kearns said that Callahan’s case would be remanded without plea until Aug. 26, and reaffirmed that additional charges would follow at that time.

Meanwhile, police mounted a 24-hour presence at the Callahan house, and crowds continued to gather outside the residence, though there was nothing to see.

That afternoon Nathan Tovell conducted a funeral for Bill Norrish. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Meanwhile, in downtown Guelph, Crown Attorney Kearns told reporters police had been conducting an investigation “for some time,” and that the case had not been neglected, as some reports had indicated. Reporters had continued their own investigation, which revealed that the initial comments made by the neighbour, Mrs. O’Connor, had not been completely factual.

It appears that Callahan and Norrish had fought on several occasions, and the police had been called at least three times to resolve disputes between the two men. And other neighbours had frequently heard them shouting and threatening one another.

As well, information from the police began to leak out. They had found an axe and a shovel near Norrish’s body under the Callahan house. Officers admitted that it would have been difficult for one man to drag a body into the crawl space beneath the Callahan house.

Another piece of information came out as well. Norrish’s coat had been found on the bank of the Speed River back in March. It was obviously placed there to mislead people into thinking that Norrish had taken his own life.

Next week: new revelations and Bill Norrish has his day in court.



Stephen Thorning