Angry mob tarred and feathered Orangeville man in 1922

Archie Nesbitt was a labourer who toiled at a number of jobs in the Erin area in the first years of the 20th century.

He married and eventually fathered seven children. In 1916 he decided to seek better employment opportunities, and took a job in Orangeville. His family followed once he had found secure employment.

At the time of the move Nesbitt was about 50 years of age and his wife a couple of years younger. The family was widely spread in their ages. In 1922 the oldest children were in their 20s. Four were under 12, and the youngest was born in April of that year.

The marriage, though, had seen better days. Mrs. Nesbitt was seeing a great deal of another man, a fellow named Sidney Irwin. Over time she grew bolder in the affair, doing nothing to hide it, and even entertaining her new swain when her husband was home.

Archie had suspicions that the youngest child was not his, but he bit his lip and said nothing. Sidney’s brazen presence in the household, though, was too much. He began spending most of his spare time with cronies he worked with, and several times he slept at their houses rather than return to his own home.

One of those occasions was on a Sunday, May 14 of 1922. Archie stayed with friends that night, and woke the next morning with a hangover. Rather than go to work, he wandered back to his own house at about nine in the morning. He confronted his wife, saying that he intended to kill himself, and showed her a small vial of carbolic acid he had procured a few days earlier.

Mrs. Nesbitt later testified that she pleaded with Archie not to carry out his threat, and that she “looked on helplessly” as he poured the contents of the bottle into a tea cup and swallowed it in a couple of gulps.

Archie then wandered from the house. Mrs. Nesbitt called a doctor on the telephone, and then went frantically around to neighbours, informing everyone she saw about her husband’s actions.

Meanwhile, Archie made it as far as a back lane near his home before collapsing in agony. Neighbours discovered him there in a semi-conscious condition. Doctors Kyle and Rooney did all they could to revive him. Their efforts were in vain. Archie Nesbitt was dead before noon.

Dr. Rooney, who was also the coroner in Orangeville, immediately took steps to hold an inquest. He was efficient: the inquiry took place that night. Jury members heard medical evidence, visited the scene of the events, and viewed the remains before adjourning until the following Wednesday evening.

The case, by then, had created a sensation in Orangeville and in Erin, where the family had previously lived. Dr. Rooney booked Orangeville’s public library auditorium, and a full house packed the room to hear the conclusion of the inquest. Both the doctor and Crown Attorney J.L. Ireland stressed the point that Mrs. Nesbitt had been in the company of another man during the night prior to Nesbitt’s suicide.

The jury’s verdict was no surprise. They found that Nesbitt had died from drinking carbolic acid obtained at a drug store on Broadway, and that “he was driven to take his life by the action of another man being too familiar with his family.”

Archie’s funeral took place on the afternoon of the second session of the coroner’s inquest. It was well attended. Archie Nesbitt had been a popular man, and was well liked by his co-workers, who all had sympathized with him in his difficult domestic circumstances.

Sid Irwin lost no time in establishing his permanent residence in the Nesbitt household. He and Mrs. Nesbitt had no hesitation in ignoring the unkind remarks and stares of those they encountered each day. They may have expected public censure to fade away over time, but precisely the opposite was the case.

On Thursday, May 25, a large mob assembled outside the Nesbitt house. More than a few were fortified with illicit booze, and most had been carousing after work. Many of them had known Archie well, and believed that he had deserved a better deal in life than he had been dealt.

The men were in an ugly mood, demanding to see Sid Irwin. Fearing for his life, Sid took refuge in the attic of the house. Mrs. Nesbitt was not so easily intimidated. She appeared from time to time in the doorways and windows of the house, menacing the restive crowd with a shotgun.

Finally, a bold member of the crowd walked up to the house and challenged Mrs. Nesbitt. The shotgun, it turned out, was not loaded.

Realizing that they faced no real danger, the mob advanced on the house, burst in and soon discovered Sid Irwin, trembling in his attic hiding place. Some strong arms seized him, and soon he was outside.

The mob quickly relieved him of all his clothes, and a couple of volunteers covered him liberally with tar. Others ripped open a half dozen feather pillows, shaking the contents over Irwin.

Most of the feathers, it turned out, were white. Observers described Irwin as looking like a snowman. The mob forced him to walk up and down Broadway and some of the other principle streets of the town.

Eventually, their wrath spent, the mob released Irwin. By then their mood was more generous. The ringleaders gave him one week to get his affairs organized and to leave town permanently.

Participation in the mob quickly became something of a badge of honour in Orangeville. Some of those who took part openly boasted of their actions, and claimed the authorities would do nothing against them.

A significant portion of those who participated in the tar-and-feather episode were single men, and recent migrants to Orangeville, which had attracted them because of the availability of employment.

Their boasting of the episode, and their success in sending Irwin out of the community, greatly annoyed the Orangeville constable, who had managed to keep himself from any significant involvement in the affair.

Now, it seemed, both his very authority and the legitimacy of law and order in Orangeville were under question. Orangeville’s council appealed to provincial authorities for help. The Ontario Provincial Police responded to the request by sending an investigator, Detective Miller, to the town. He spent several days in late May and early June questioning local people and conducting an investigation.

For the first time, the ringleaders of the mob sensed the strong arm of the law. Miller seemed to be a humourless and conscientious man, as he questioned many of those involved in the case, as well as witnesses to the affair.

The ringleaders were particularly alarmed. Some of them quietly quit their jobs and slipped out of town. One of them wrote out a statement, and got many of the mob to sign it. The document read, in part: “We, the undersigned, were at the Nesbitt house on Thursday night, but we did not intend to do any damage or interfere with anybody … ”

Those who signed the document merely incriminated themselves by admitting their participation in the mob. Detective Miller smiled slightly when presented with the statement on June 6. He folded it carefully and put it in his pocket. A short time later he boarded a train back to Toronto.

It appears that Detective Miller and his superiors let the matter drop, but fears continued through the summer that arrests were imminent. By then more participants in the mob had quit their jobs and discretely left Orangeville, no doubt resolved to take no part in mob justice in the future.


Stephen Thorning