19th century crime took place in rural areas too

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Social reformers, clergymen, and newspapers editors of previous generations all held the belief that vice and crime of all types characterized urban places, and that rural communities enjoyed an idyllic freedom from the baser impulses of human nature.

This notion, I have come to conclude after spending hundreds of hours with old documents and papers, is nonsense. Crime, from drunken binges to serious offenses, was no less likely to occur in rural communities than in urban ones.

The largest rural area in Wellington is the expanse that includes West Garafraxa, most of Erin, and the north part of Eramosa Township. Except for the small village of Belwood and a few crossroads hamlets, there was no place of any size from Fergus on the west to Erin on the east, and from Rockwood in the south to Grand Valley and Arthur in the north. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this area was anything but an Arcadian sanctuary.

Reports of petty vandalism, drunken binges and minor theft came regularly from this area. More serious were the mobs that more than once broke up public gatherings. Several times there were rashes of barn burnings and cases of intimidation of residents. And West Garafraxa leads the 19th century list of homicides in Wellington County, with five.

I doubt there is any single reason for this unsocial behaviour. Isolation and boredom undoubtedly played a role. With no regular constables on duty anywhere in the area, there was little to restrain boisterous men from antisocial and illegal activities.

A while ago I stumbled on an example that illustrates the point very well. On a dull Friday morning in 1872, Feb. 2 to be exact, Bob Sloan set out from his home near Oustic in Eramosa Township with a horse and cutter. A friend, Tom Wilson, was with him. The pair, with no particular destination in mind, headed north, and by noon were in the hamlet of Belwood.

There, they slipped into Wilson Beattie’s Union Hotel for a meal. Preferring the warm and congenial atmosphere of the hotel to the winter weather outside, they repaired to the bar room for the afternoon. Here they bought drinks for others as well as themselves, and carried on until their rowdy conduct prompted Wilson Beattie to remove them from the premises.

Later, they got the bum’s rush from another Belwood hotel, the Victoria House. By evening they had settled in at Bob Little’s Hotel Douglas, where they put up for the night.

Sloan and Wilson resumed their battle with the bottle the next morning. After a couple of hours they concluded that Belwood was too dull. They headed off for Fergus, well-armed with a supply of cheap whiskey. 

When they arrived, after a meandering trip of a few hours, Fergus was bustling with Saturday afternoon shopping activity. They headed immediately for the Queen’s Arms Hotel, which, based on the noise level audible from the street, was the busiest of the Fergus hostelries that afternoon.

Inside, a pair of itinerant Irish musicians offered lively tunes on the fiddle and Irish harp. The bar room was packed with farmers and labourers who had just finished their week’s work. Fergus was in the midst of a boom just then, following the completion of the railway some 18 months before.

The men present, most the worse for liquor, danced around the room. One of them jostled Bob Sloan, and he attempted to pick a fight in retaliation. It appears, though, that no serious fisticuffs ensued. The binge had worn down Tom Wilson. He collapsed, half asleep, into a chair after a few minutes.

After this point, no one could recall very much. Tom Wilson wandered off on his own, and when Bob Sloan awoke, early on Sunday morning, he found himself in one of the bedrooms of the Queen’s Arms.

As he gradually regained his senses, he checked the pockets of his trousers. All he could find was $3 in bills and some loose change. He had left home on Friday morning with $80 in cash and a good watch. Attempting to reconstruct his movements over the previous 48 hours, he estimated that he could have spent no more than $20. He also had a dim recollection of passing his watch to Tom Wilson the previous afternoon, when he tried to pick a fight with the man who had jostled him.

As he sobered up, he came to the conclusion that Tom Wilson was a thief. On Sunday afternoon he laid a complaint, and the unsuspecting Wilson soon found himself in the Fergus lockup for the night. Four magistrates – James Cattanach, Sandy Taylor, Matt Anderson and John Watt – heard the case on Monday afternoon and tried to make some sense of it.

Both Wilson and Sloan produced witnesses, and they could agree on nothing. Several stated that they saw money passed back and forth between Wilson and Sloan, both in the Belwood hotels and at the Queen’s Arms in Fergus. No one could remember seeing Sloan pass his watch to Wilson, or even seeing the watch at all.

Sloan insisted that the only way to account for his missing $60 and watch was that they had been stolen, and that Wilson was the culprit. With no real evidence against Wilson, or anyone else for that matter, the magistrates dismissed the case.

The case of Sloan and Wilson, as far as crime goes, was a minor one. Sloan’s recklessness with his money, in both Belwood and Fergus, offered many opportunities for someone to pick it up from the table. The rowdyism of the two in the Belwood hotels would in itself have been sufficient for an arrest and a couple of hours to cool off in the hoosegow had the binge occurred in a larger centre with a constable on duty.

In any case, it turned out to be an expensive lesson for both Wilson and Sloan – the loss was not just the money and watch, but also their reputations.

A week after the infamous binge, a far more serious crime took place in West Garafraxa. Early in 1871, Hawkins Bilton purchased a farm at Lot 15, Con. 6 of West Garafraxa, a short distance northwest of Belwood. A bachelor, he lived alone, and with considerable struggle had accumulated almost $1,000 after a year to pay down his mortgage.

On Feb. 11, Bilton left home to take up a Sunday supper invitation from some neighbours. When he returned at about 8pm, he discovered that the house had been ransacked, and $700 taken.

An industrious and obliging young man, Bilton was popular with his neighbours. West Garafraxa council discussed the robbery at their regular meeting, held in Beattie’s Union Hotel in Belwood two nights later. A motion by councillors Stephen Piper and Richard McLellan to offer a $50 reward for the arrest and conviction of the guilty parties. This was a considerable sum, equal to a month’s wages for a working man in the 1870s.

Bilton himself topped up the reward offer with another $100. West Gary council publicized the reward offer with newspaper advertisements and posters, but so far as I can discover, the culprit was never identified. 

The robbery was almost certainly committed by someone who knew Bilton. The thief knew when he was away from home, and knew that he had a large some in cash on the premises.

Rowdy binges and robberies such as these two examples did not occur routinely, but they appear in the historical record at least as frequently as they do in any of the villages and towns in Wellington County. Boredom and the absence of constables in West Garafraxa and the adjoining area can explain some of this behaviour.

Changes in agriculture during the last half of the 19th century can also explain a lot. West Garafraxa’s economy was based almost entirely on agriculture after the 1860s, to a greater extent than any other township in the county. We usually think of rural areas as populated by farmers who have worked their holdings for decades and generations. This is true of the successful farmers, who were able to cope with declining commodity prices, increasing mechanization, and heavy debt loads. Many more farmers failed. In this respect the township had a lot of the characteristics of a one-industry community that had fallen on bad times.

Successful farm families were one side of the coin. On the other side were the failures, and the consequent floating and transient population of would-be farmers and farm labourers who never established permanent ties with the community.

The consequence was a great deal of crime and anti-social behaviour. This is a side of our history that has yet to receive very much attention from local historians.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on June 8, 2001.

Thorning Revisited