The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey

It is time to lift the weight of defamation carried for too long
by a man and a family who did not deserve such a burden.
It is time to tell Mackey’s truth.

Book Cover

2016 winner of the
Robbie Robertson Dartmouth Book Award

About The Book

On December 6, 1917, Halifax harbour pilot Francis Mackey was guiding Mont-Blanc, a French munitions ship, into Bedford Basin to join a convoy across the Atlantic when it was rammed by Belgian Relief vessel Imo. The resulting massive explosion destroyed Halifax’s north end and left at least two thousand people dead, including pilot William Hayes aboard Imo.

Who was to blame? Federal government and naval officials found in Pilot Mackey a convenient target for public anger. Charged with manslaughter, he was imprisoned, villainized in the press, and denied his pilot’s license even after the charges were dropped. Despite Mackey’s vindication in the courts and the support of fellow pilots and the shipping community, the minister of marine ignored all pleas to have this highly qualified pilot back in service in the harbour. Why did Francis Mackey have to spend four years and his life’s savings in a battle to regain his license and salvage his reputation?

Through interviews with Mackey’s relatives, transcripts, letters, and newly exposed government documents, author Janet Maybee explores the circumstances leading up to the Halifax Explosion, the question of fault, and the impact on the pilot and his family of the unjust, deliberate persecution that followed. With every anniversary of that terrible event there is bound to be a newspaper article or television report including a reference to the pilot as responsible for all that death and destruction. His six children were all deeply affected and to this day his descendants are troubled. One grandchild recalled growing up aloof from the details of the story, yet reacting with strong emotion, unable to accept hearing and having to believe that Grandpa had committed some unforgivable act.

2017 marks the hundredth anniversary of this tragedy, and the potential for the creation of more books and films and websites is therefore extremely high. There is an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past, and for this unfairly punished pilot to have his good name restored. This story needs to be told widely so that the damage does not continue into another century.

The book is published by Nimbus Publishing Ltd. in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

About The Author


Retired teacher Janet Maybee did not set out to write a book when she bought a north-end Halifax house in 2007. It was an Explosion survivor, and in seeking information about its history she met two women who had grown up there. They produced a huge collection of photos and one was identified as Francis Mackey, pilot on the ill-fated Mont Blanc on the morning of December 6, 1917. "He was our step-grandfather," they explained. "He often visited us, and his second wife, our grandmother, came to live upstairs after he died in 1961."
Intrigued, Maybee set out to meet Mackey's last surviving daughter and then grandchildren in Montreal, collecting stories never before made public. Research in Library and Archives Canada turned up hidden information that convinced her Mackey had been wrongly accused of causing so much death and destruction. To keep a promise that Pilot Mackey's name would be cleared, the first step was an article published in Northern Mariner, April 2010. Then began the creation of a book full of photos, maps and Mackey's own words in hopes of having the true story known as the hundredth anniversary approaches.
It is time to lift the weight of defamation carried for too long by a man and a family who did not deserve such a burden.

Janet Maybee's original journal article "The Persecution of Pilot Mackey"
was first published in The Northern Mariner/Le marin du nord,
XX No. 2, (April 2010), 149-173.

Read Article

Local Media Coverage

Check out this article by Lynn Curwin
published on June 15th 2016 by The Truro Daily News

Read Article

Click the link below to read Maurice Rees' article
published in the June 2016 edition of The Shoreline Journal

Read Article

Here is another great article about the book and the author,
written by Andrea Nemetz for Local Xpress.

Read Article

Explore Mackey's Story In Detail with this Interactive Web Map

View Map

Follow the link above to view an online story map based upon the content of the book, but focusing specifically upon the sequence of events that occured in the hours before and after the Halifax Explosion.
Browse the map scenes while listening to the accompanying audio clips.
This interactive web map was awarded third place in Esri's 2015
international story map competition for culture/history/events.

© Gordon Campbell 2015

Critical Acclaim for Aftershock

"In Aftershock, Janet Maybee sets out to tell the true story of Francis Mackey, the pilot of the Mont Blanc, who has too often been held responsible for the tragic Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917. With considerable zest and passion, Maybee explores the reasons for Mackey's persecution at the time and thereafter the denial of his pilot's licence, the lingering effects on him and his family, and the many attempts to restore his reputation. Aftershock often reads like a fine detective story."

Gerald Hallowell
retired senior editor, Canadian history, at University of Toronto Press; editor of The Oxford Companion to Canadian History (2004); author of The August Gales, Nimbus 2013.

"Would we all be so fortunate, one hundred years from now, to have such a knowledgeable and passionate advocate, as Janet Maybee is for Francis Mackey. With a solid foundation of ground-breaking research, a keen curiosity to uncover the truth, a clear dedication to justice, a compassionate humanity fully engaged, and an eloquent prose style (with wit firmly in place), Janet Maybee has succeeded admirably in what she promised Francis Mackey’s daughter: she has told his story clearly and has unequivocally shown that he was not to blame for what happened in Halifax on 6 December 1917. Indeed, he did all he could to avoid the tragic outcome.

In the telling of Mackey’s story, woven with the story of her own discovery of it and pursuit to understand it better, Janet Maybee has also demonstrated how the past is never “then” – but continues to be part, a vital part, of “now.” Aftershock is a fascinating, deeply moving and profoundly instructive narrative that must bring us all to the sobering realization that the more things change, the more they stay the same; and the questions asked, or not asked, about the causes of the Halifax Explosion are still eerily relevant today.

By learning more about Mackey as a person and harbour pilot, hearing from his descendents about the impact of these events on their lives, Janet Maybee gives us emotional and psychological layers that almost always are ignored in the “sound byte” society in which we live. The catastrophic physical damage of the explosion has always received primary attention, and rightly so; but by reading the story of harbour pilot Francis Mackey, we learn so much more about the intimacies and consequences of this event and how its impact has rippled out in time. "

Sandra Barry
is a poet, independent scholar and freelance editor. She has written extensively on literary and historical subjects, including Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia’s Homemade Poet (Nimbus).

"Janet Maybee has unquestionably restored the public honour of the Mackey family for all time. But never were they at all without decency, humanity and honour. Janet Maybee has the academic background to produce learned narratives and she does that here. But this is "Janet unplugged," and she is scathing in her denouncement of those who kept the censure and controversy going on and on long after Mackey and the other two charged had been cleared by the courts. Indeed, Mackey was characterized in a very negative slovenly way as late as a Canadian 2003 television movie, even after an academic study had determined the accused were victims and in no way culpable."

John Griffith Armstrong
Author of The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy : Inquiry and Intrigue. UBC Press 2002.

"In Aftershock Janet Maybee has presented a facet of the Halifax Explosion not hitherto much explored, namely the apportioning of blame for the catastrophe. To say she has discovered the man who became its scapegoat is to diminish the effect of this book, for it reads almost like a thriller: its clarity, detail, supporting documentation, and illustrations are all couched in prose that is a joy to read.

Several years ago the author came into possession of a house in Halifax's north end that unbeknownst to her had been in the family of her subject, Francis Mackey. Mackey was the harbour pilot in charge of the Mont Blanc and its death-dealing cargo on that December morning almost one hundred years ago. Intrigued by this connection, she began seven years of research that have resulted in this excellent account of the pilot’s perspective on what actually happened, the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of Mackey, and the ongoing misinformation that still tarnishes his name and reputation. Reading this riveting account of what was clearly a miscarriage of justice, one is grateful that Maybee accomplished her task when she did, for she was able to interview some of Mackey's relatives who provided invaluable information and have subsequently passed on. That her book squeaks in before the 100th anniversary of the explosion is also fortunate: her exhortation to readers to refute claims of Mackey's guilt that are bound to surface come December 2017 is most compelling. Part of the "aftershock" of reading her account is realizing that for nearly a century he has been maligned. This book rights a dreadful wrong: it is difficult to imagine a more able champion of the stoic Francis Mackey than Janet Maybee.

Having myself done research into matters arising from the explosion when I was writing a book on Archibald MacMechan, the Dalhousie professor tasked by a Halifax newspaper to compile an account of the explosion in its immediate aftermath, Maybee's book is of particular interest. Two of MacMechan's daughters, whom I interviewed in the early 1970's, were adamant that their father puzzled over and was deeply hurt by an unanswered question for the remainder of his life: his quite substantial collection of information amassed through his interviews with survivors and his first-hand observation of the devastated city through which he assiduously walked was shelved and never published as had been the understanding when he undertook the project. The office he had been assigned at the newspaper was summarily closed to him. He was never given a reason. This detail leapt to mind as I read Maybee's book, and it suddenly seemed more significant and more sinister. Why, indeed. "

Dr. Janet Baker
retired professor of English at Saint Mary’s University, author of Archibald MacMechan, Canadian Man of Letters, Roseway Publishing, 2000.


How would you like to be remembered as the person responsible for a disaster that destroyed half a city, killed 2,000 people and left another 12,000 injured?

Such is the case of Francis Mackey, the Halifax Harbour pilot who was aboard the French munitions ship Mont Blanc on the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, when it collided with the Norwegian ship Imo. Mr. Mackey was able to escape the fire and explosion that destroyed much of Halifax and Dartmouth, but his actions in those crucial moments before the collision became the focus of the investigation. Even though he was confident he had done everything right, Mr. Mackey became embroiled in a legal nightmare. He lost his pilot’s licence, was charged with manslaughter and became the target of anger in the court and in the press. He was eventually cleared of the charges and fought to get his licence back, but a Halifax author says Mr. Mackey and his family were never able to shake the perception that he was responsible for one of the most devastating disasters in Canadian history.

And now, nearly 100 years after the Halifax Explosion, author Janet Maybee is crusading to clear Mr. Mackey’s name. In a new book called Aftershock: The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey (Nimbus Publishing) the author seeks to change history’s perception of Mr. Mackey.

“The real villain was the war itself,” Ms. Maybee told me last week. “That ship should never have been allowed to come into the port in the first place.”

Perhaps if he had been killed too, he might have been remembered as a hero. But because he survived, he was forced to stand before the courts and society and take the blame. And as the story of the two ships colliding in the harbour is told and re-told in books, movies and on the Internet, Mr. Mackey is portrayed as a bumbling fool who abandoned the ship and ran away.

Ms. Maybee admits she has become rather obsessed with Mr. Mackey’s story. She was obviously familiar with the story of the Halifax Explosion, but it took on a new meaning when she purchased a house on Cabot Street in Halifax that had been damaged in the explosion and repaired. But upon further investigation, she found out that the house had been occupied by Mr. Mackey’s widow after he died in 1961. She got to talking with Mr. Mackey’s friends and relatives, including one of his daughters. From there, she embarked on a major research project in Halifax and Ottawa, poring through old records and information previously withheld from public view. The result was “The Persecution of Pilot Mackey “ for Northern Mariner, the journal of the Canadian Nautical Research Society. From there, she decided to turn her research paper into a book. The 130-page paperback contains many photos of Mr. Mackey, his family and the devastation of the Halifax Explosion. There are also maps that detail what happened on that morning of Dec. 6, 1917.

Mackey was confident that he had done everything he could, but the politicians, ship owners, the justice system, surviving victims and the newspapers were looking for someone to blame. After an Inquiry, Mr. Mackey was charged with manslaughter and his pilot’s licence was revoked. The charges were later dropped and he eventually got his licence back, but he was never compensated for four years’ lost pay. He stayed in Halifax until his death in 1961, living with the horrible memories of that fateful day and carrying the weight of blame on his shoulders.

Ms. Maybee is hopeful her book will shed new light on Mr. Mackey’s tale and how a respected man was blamed for disaster, mainly because he managed to survive it.

Alan Cochrane
Moncton Times & Transcript, December 1, 2015.

"It’s a rare occasion when an author is able to use a book as a tool to right a historic wrong. But this is what Janet Maybee has set out to do in her new book, Aftershock: The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey.

A research associate at the Museum of the Atlantic, Maybee contends that the man who was blamed for the terrible 1917 explosion -- which killed and injured thousands and leveled entire swaths of the city -- was wrongly persecuted and vilified in the wake of the tragedy. Maybee accuses officials of the day of ignoring and even covering up key facts of the tragic accident, which saw a French munitions ship and a Belgian relief vessel collide in Halifax harbour, resulting in what was, at the time, the largest ever man-made explosion.

The author conducted many interviews with the family of Francis Mackey, the harbour pilot blamed for the disaster. She also mined the family’s personal archives for never-before-seen photographs that along with historic images and unique maps, place the Halifax explosion in a very human context.

This book is certainly worth reading for anyone who is interested in a fresh angle on one of Canada’s worst disasters."

Mark Collin Reid
editor, Canada’s History Magazine

Click here to read another review
from The Miramichi Reader

Click here to read an excerpt from the
book as printed in Halifax Magazine

Learn More

Aftershock features 27 colour images, more than 70 black and white photos from Mackey family and archival sources, copies of letters and documents never before made public, and the pilot's own stories from his writings and transcribed from a CBC recording.

Additionally, a series of maps created by NSCC/COGS Cartography graduate Gordon Campbell has been included, and serves as a valuable visual reference for the reader. The maps highlight locations mentioned in the book, the ships and features of the harbour, and Pilot Mackey's journey in the hours preceding and following the Explosion.

The Foreword by Peter MacArthur, CFO of the Atlantic Pilotage Authority, provides a brief history of the pilotage service in Halifax and particularly its operation in 1917 in contrast with the present day.

with peter

Peter MacArthur and Janet Maybee

Visit the  Atlantic Pilotage Authority  website

pilot boats

photo © Sandy McClearn,


For more information about the Halifax Explosion:

Visit the  Maritime Museum of the Atlantic  website

Visit the  CBC's Halifax Explosion  website

Visit the  Nova Scotia Archives  website

Visit the  Halifax Professional Fire Fighters Association  website

here is a list of resources
from the  Halifax Public Libraries  website

Learn more about  CSS Acadia 

Where can I find a copy of AFTERSHOCK?

The book is available from quality booksellers everywhere.

Purchase online from Nimbus Publishing

Correspondence intended for the author will be forwarded, and happily received.
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