Smoking in bed claimed Mount Forest veteran in 1920

The Mount Forest ceme­tery contains a section reserved for World War I veterans. The town’s Great War Veteran’s Association established that plot in 1919. One of the graves belongs to a Scotsman, George Couttie. He was not a war casualty. His death was a sense­less and needless one, caused by a cigarette.

George Couttie came from Dundee. Nothing seems to be known of his childhood and early life in Scotland. In 1907, at the age of 25, he decided to migrate to Canada, seeking bet­ter opportunities than could be found in the British Isles. He worked at odd jobs around Ontario for several months, then signed on as a farm hand near Mount Forest.

He was a small man, not much over five feet tall in his stocking feet, but was wiry and tenacious. George seems to have been a good worker when he applied himself to his as­signed tasks. He  liked Mount Forest, and worked on several farms in the area over the next few years, and then as a labourer in town. He was an agree­able young man, and made friends easily. Eventually he found a position working as the local delivery man for the Canada Express Company, de­livering and picking up pack­ages around town.

After the outbreak of hosti­li­ties in 1914, George, like many other men, got caught up in the growing hysteria of war. In the fall of 1915, he joined the army, signing on with the 153rd Battalion based in Guelph.

Due to his short stature, the 153rd should have rejected him. He was under the five-foot-three height the army considered the minimum for a regular soldier. Consequently, he was not permitted to go the Europe with the Battalion as part of the Canadian Expedi­tionary Force.

There were many other volunteers in the Canadian army in a similar position. A senior officer, Lieutenant Col­onel R.L. Burton, believed the height regulation was an absurd waste of good manpower. He persuaded his superiors to per­mit the formation of a unit con­sisting of short men. The result was the 216th Battalion, based in Toronto. They were soon known as the Bantams, or as Burton’s Bantam Battalion.

After training, George and the 216th went to England, then to France, landing in le Havre. The Battalion served well, astonishing scoffers by their abilities in combat, especially in assignments behind the lines. George was wounded, but re­covered. He accompanied the Battalion back to Canada, and was discharged early in 1919.

He returned briefly to Mount Forest, then decided to go back to Scotland for an ex­tended visit with his relatives. His parents were still living, and he had a sister and two brothers in the Dundee area as well. In the fall of 1919 George returned to Mount Forest, and resumed his duties with Frank Hunt, the local manager of the Canadian Express Company.

For accommodation he lived in a room on the third floor of the Grand Central Hotel, which by then, with pro­hibition in force, was home to a handful of more-or-less perma­nent residents.

On the evening of Saturday, Sept. 4, 1920, George went up to his room early. About mid­night another resident of the Grand Central, Dan Cummins, went up to his second floor room. Dan heard some moan­ing and groaning coming from upstairs. He alerted another resident, Lorne Smith, and the two quickly raced up the stairs. The third floor was without electric light, but they had no trouble seeing a figure, clad in a flaming nightshirt, running from room to room in an ob­vious panic.

They quickly identified the figure as George Couttie. By then George had thrown him­self on a bed in an unoccupied room, and was writhing in his futile attempts to smother the flames.

Smith and Cummins tried to pull and tear the burning clothing off George, but failed. Cummins grabbed a couple of blankets, and smothered the flames with them.

Smith, meanwhile, had notic­ed flames coming from Couttie’s room. He found the sheets and blankets on fire, and smoke coming from the bed­stead. He opened the window as wide as he could, then grabbed the burning sheets, blankets and the mattress, and managed to get them through the window. He watched the items flare up spectacularly as they drifted to the street below.

The bed frame and wall were hot, but not aflame. It was a close call for the building.

George Couttie, though, was not in good shape. There were obvious burn marks all over his body, and especially his hands, which he had used in his futile attempts to extinguish the flames. By then he had four additional attendants, all resi­dents of the hotel, who had been attracted by the noise.

One of the men went to fetch Dr. R.A. Perry. After a quick examination the doctor asked a couple of the men carry George to the Strathcona Hos­pital, the forerunner of Louise Marshall Hospital, but then a 10-bed facility owned and operated by Dr. Perry.

The doctor and the nursing staff did their best to comfort George, but the burns were very severe, and covered much of his body, and were especi­ally severe on his hands and arms.

He succumbed the fol­low­ing night, to the combi­nation of shock and kidney failure. He was 38 years old.

The cause of the fire and subsequent death of George were obvious. George was known to take an occasional illicit drink, but on his last night he was perfectly sober. Feeling tired, he decided to turn in before midnight. He was a heavy cigarette smoker, a habit he picked in the army. He seems to have wanted just one more on the fateful night. On the chair beside the bed was a package of Sweet Caporals with one removed, and a hand­ful of matches.

Obviously, George had fall­en asleep, and the lit cigarette slipped from his fingers. He was known to be a heavy sleeper. By the time he opened his eyes again the fire had made much headway. His night­shirt and the bed clothes were engulfed in flames.

R.A. Fowlie, manager of the Royal Bank branch, took charge of affairs. He cabled the family in Dundee. In the reply they asked him to arrange George’s affairs, and asked for a quiet, private funeral.

The service was held in a small room at Gilson’s Under­taking Parlour. Though it was supposed to be private, a num­ber of Mount Forest veterans attended, and George’s large circle of friends and acquain­tances packed the room. Rev. William Cooper of Westmin­ster Church (now Mount Forest United) conducted the service. Burial in the veterans’ plot followed.

George Couttie’s death was a tragic and senseless one. Though he was a modest man, in stature as well as ambition and accomplishment, and one who barely eked out a living for himself, he might have enjoyed four or five more dec­ades of life in his adopted town among people who had readily accepted him as one of their own.

And perhaps the death of the little fellow discouraged at least one other person from smok­ing in bed.  



Stephen Thorning