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HOUDE, FRÉDÉRIC – Volume XI (1881-1890)

b. 23 Sept. 1847 at Saint-Antoine-de-la-Rivière-du-Loup (Louiseville), Canada East


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McCABE, WILLIAM, teacher and businessman; b. 12 June 1835 in Hallowell (Picton), Upper Canada, son of John McCabe and Catherine —; m. Leonora L. Rose, daughter of Thomas Dow; d. 23 April 1903 in Toronto.

William McCabe was the eldest child in an Irish Protestant family. His father, who fought in the rebellion of 1837–38 on the government side, died in 1839, leaving his young widow pregnant. The ensuing privations of William’s childhood seem to have influenced his life greatly. The family, however, had sufficient means to send him to the Picton Grammar School until he was 17. He then taught until he had enough money to go to Victoria College in Cobourg.

Graduating in 1853, McCabe returned to teaching, and he eventually became headmaster of the Whitby Grammar School; from 1863 to 1868 he was head of the united public and grammar schools in Oshawa. Active in the provincial teachers’ association, he served as its president. While teaching he found time to study law with Adam Crooks* in Toronto, and obtained an llb from the University of Toronto in 1863. “Possessed of almost preternatural cleverness,” he next turned his attention to advanced mathematics under Professor John Bradford Cherriman. It may be that his competence in applied mathematics and his time with Cherriman, who would become federal superintendent of insurance, led him to recognize his own abilities in the field of insurance.

McCabe entered the business as the Toronto agent of the Union Mutual Life company of Maine. In 1869 he left Canada to become an agent for the Craftsmen’s Life Insurance Company of New York City; later he was a superintendent of agencies for the firm. It was probably through this work that he came into contact with American businessmen who interested him in land speculation in Florida. McCabe evidently maintained a Canadian residence, however; in the census of 1871 he appears as an “insurance inspector” in Oshawa.

McCabe returned to Toronto later in 1871 as general manager of the newly formed Confederation Life Association, which prospered under his direction. He married the daughter of a Whitby banker and in 1873 the couple had a child. Following Mrs McCabe’s death about two years later, William resigned from his position and for the next five years travelled “for business and pleasure.” He spent some time in London, England, where he attended the University of London and in 1875 became a fellow of the Institute of Actuaries. A few years later he was made a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.

In 1881, partly in response to new federal regulations that favoured Canadian companies, the North American Life Assurance Company was formed in Toronto with former Liberal prime minister Alexander Mackenzie* as president. McCabe was made its first managing director, a position he would hold until his death. To differentiate itself from established companies, the firm tried a new marketing approach. It offered payment of claims within 24 hours of proof of death and promoted “industrial” insurance, which provided coverage in smaller amounts than usual with premiums paid in instalments. The tontine form of insurance, in which the longer-lived members of a pool benefited, was also introduced, and became popular with the moneyed class in Toronto. All in all the approach was successful and the North American rapidly advanced to the front rank of Canadian life-insurance companies.

In turn McCabe emerged as one of the foremost professional managers in Toronto. In 1881, when city treasurer Samuel Bickerton Harman* was organizing the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario, he put McCabe on its council; McCabe served as president in 1884–87. In his field he remained interested in the theoretical aspect of life insurance all his life, delivering a number of papers to actuarial gatherings. A founder of the Actuarial Society of America in 1889, he served on its council. He was, as well, a corresponding member of the Institut des Actuaires Français, consulting actuary to the Commercial Travellers’ Association of Canada, and, at his death, president of the Canadian Life Insurance Officers’ Association.

Despite his preoccupation with insurance, McCabe was involved in other activities. Consistent with his interests in Florida were the properties he owned throughout Ontario, among them a summer home and a fruit-farm near Bronte (Oakville), which he bought in 1886. In religion he was an Anglican. He rose to the office of district deputy grand master within the masonic lodge, and for several years was governor of the Victoria Industrial School for boys in Mimico (Toronto). A Liberal, he was active in the politics of municipal reform in the mid 1890s as a leading member of the Ratepayers’ Association.

McCabe suffered from chronic digestive upset, the result, one obituary stated, of overwork. To guard his health and look after his holdings in Florida, which included an orange plantation, he spent part of his winters there. He had just returned from the south in 1903 when his complaint turned serious. He died two weeks later, and was survived by his mother, daughter, and two sisters, all but one of whom had lived with him at 30 Spadina Avenue. He left an estate valued at about $150,000.

A man of great energy and competence, McCabe was dogmatic, forceful, and often tactless. He worked hard for his material wealth and was, as one contemporary neatly put it, “tenacious of his rights.” He was respected in the insurance industry, but was not much loved. McCabe had come a long way from being penniless in Picton; what satisfaction he achieved from his later accomplishments is less clear.

Philip Creighton

A number of articles and comments by William McCabe appear in the Actuarial Soc. of America, Papers and Trans. ([New York]), 1 (1889–90)–6 (1899–1900), and its Trans., 7 (1901–3). McCabe is also the author of “The history of life insurance in Canada,” in Canada, an encyclopædia (Hopkins), 5: 325–38.

AO, F 2132, MU 2386, McCabe to James Reynolds, 6 June 1874; RG 22, ser.305, no.16107. Mount Pleasant Cemetery (Toronto), Burial records and tombstone inscription, plot T, lot 25. NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Oshawa, div.2: 20 (mfm. at AO). Daily Mail and Empire, 24 April 1903. Free Press (Whitby, Ont.), 22 Feb. 1978: 7. Monetary Times, 22 Oct. 1880: 474–75; 24 April 1903: 1484–85. World (Toronto), 24 April 1903. Actuarial Soc. of America, Papers and Trans., 1, no.1: 4, 11–12, 22–23, 29, 38–39; Trans., 7: 500. Armstrong and Nelles, Revenge of the Methodist bicycle company. Directory, Toronto, 1871–1901. Institute of Actuaries, List of members . . . (corrected to 31 December, 1902) (London, 1903), vii [issued with its Journal (London), 37 (1903)]. Whitby Presbyterian Church, As all our fathers were; the Presbyterian Church, Whitby, 1833–1975 ([Whitby?, 1975?]; copy at Presbyterian Church Arch., Toronto).

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Cite This Article

Philip Creighton, “McCABE, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 23, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mccabe_william_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mccabe_william_13E.html
Author of Article:   Philip Creighton
Title of Article:   McCABE, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   September 23, 2023