Tragedy visited the 100-room Royal Hotel in Weyburn in 1917 – a tragedy that continues to defy understanding. On April 14 of that year, two Saskatchewan doctors died in their rooms at the Royal within hours of each other. They died from poisoning after drinking wood (methyl) alcohol.
On April 13, Dr. Harry E. Hamill, a 32-year-old physician from Assiniboia, brought one of his patients to the Weyburn mental hospital and then checked into the Royal Hotel. There he met Dr. Neil Roy Stewart, 28 years old. From Eastend, Stewart had recently served overseas as regimental surgeon for the 249th Battalion during the First World War. That evening, as they sat having dinner in the hotel’s café, the two doctors were overheard having a prolonged argument about the effects of wood alcohol on the human body. For some reason, the two decided to drink the stuff. Several hours later they were both dead.
Two weeks later, the coroner’s jury “returned a plain verdict that the men came to their death from drinking wood alcohol,” the newspapers reported, “with no qualification or comment as to whether the act was done with intent or unknowingly.” Testimony revealed that Dr. Hamill had obtained the wood alcohol from the night nurse at the Weyburn hospital in the early morning of April 13, saying that it was for external application for his wife (who was still at home in Assiniboia). It was shown that both men drank a quantity of the liquid at about 3:30 that morning. By noon, Dr. Hammill was found in his hotel room in “a precarious condition.” He lived for only a short time afterward; two hours later Dr. Stewart died. “A good deal of mystery surrounds the affair,” the newspapers stated.
That two trained physicians would take such a risk is astounding. In 1917, when Prohibition was in full force in Saskatchewan, the only way to acquire booze was from a bootlegger (who often spiked his brew with wood alcohol), or by a doctor's prescription. At that time, the effects of ingesting wood alcohol were well known to the medical community and beyond. Symptoms included vomiting and loss of vision, followed by lapsing into a coma. Death occurred within 24 hours.
The two young doctors had everything going for them. Harry Hamill had graduated from medical school at the University of Toronto in 1908. He married Pearl McLaughlin two years later. Dr. Hamill was the first resident doctor for the village of Colgate between 1912 and 1913. Harry and Pearl had a daughter, Elsie, born in Colgate in 1912.
Dr. Stewart had served for more than two years as the physician for Eastend before enlisting in the Canadian Armed Forces on Feb. 1, 1917, only a few months before his death. He went overseas for a short time — only one month — during the First World War. According to the Eastend history book, Dr. Stewart had been granted leave to return and look after the district where he had been greatly missed.
Why did Dr. Hamill and Dr. Stewart drink a known poisonous substance on that fateful night? If only the stone walls of the Royal Hotel could talk.