Bare knuckles, pistols, lynching: Elora crime 150 years ago

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.

One of the goals of historical research is to capture a sense of everyday life at various times in the past, in order to gain an understanding of the sorts of things a community considered to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Definitions of criminal activity have remained largely unchanged since the 19th century, but the way laws have been applied has changed dramatically over the past century. This point struck me forcefully recently when I was looking over some of my notes on Elora during the 1860s and 1870s.

Except for major crimes such as manslaughter, local magistrates presided at trials 150 years ago.

In Elora, there were eight or 10 of these, and three sat at most trials, though on occasion a full turnout would be present. Under this system the leading men of the community established standards of acceptable behaviour.

Several of Elora’s magistrates frequently found themselves the defendants in charges of criminal assault.

This reflected a very casual attitude to fisticuffs and physical violence. The shortest tempers were those of J.M. Fraser, owner of the Elora Mill, and Andrew Gordon, the saddle and harness maker.

Fraser’s temper was legendary. In an argument, he was prone to emphasize his point with a right hook. Gordon had an even shorter fuse. On one occasion, over some minor shortcoming, he knocked out one of his apprentices with a boot. More than once, he brandished a pistol in the face of a political opponent on the main street.

Actions such as these by ordinary citizens would usually be overlooked, but the victims of Gordon and Fraser often sought to make an example of them. Their trials would draw a full turnout of their fellow magistrates, who took great delight in finding them guilty. They would then levy a very modest fine. The fact that violence by Fraser and Gordon was regarded with amusement rather than disgust helped set the tone for public behaviour.

Policing in the 1860s and 1870s was rudimentary at best. Elora employed a part-time constable, but his work was often undermined by the magistrates, and for long periods the position remained vacant. The constable rarely intervened in any incidents. Instead, charges were laid after the fact – only when a complaint was laid by the victim, or in the case of a fist fight, the loser.

In the case of fighting, charges were the exception rather than the rule, even when the incidents were reported in newspapers.

The Elora Observer reported in 1860 that “a teamster of the name of Geo. Forbes made a supererogatory application of his muscular energies to the head and face of Mr. Thos. Beck.”

And, in the same issue, the paper recorded a street brawl in Salem that involved a number of women as well as men. Both occurrences were chalked up to excessive drinking; no charges resulted.

The problems of break-ins and vandalism are not new in Elora. Indeed, they reached epidemic proportions in the 1870s, and the magistrates took a much dimmer view of these than they did of punch-ups on Mill Street and brawls in local bar rooms.

A favourite target of thieves was clothing hung out on lines to dry. The perpetrators of these thefts were seldom identified, and it is therefore impossible to determine whether or not these incidents were practical jokes.

Stores and bar rooms, rather than houses, were most often the targets of break-in artists. Money, of course, was often the object, but Elora’s bar rooms lost liquor, cigars (in one hotel burglary, the thieves ignored a large sum of money under the bar) and watches whenever they were seen by burglars.

Although all stores and businesses kept their doors tightly bolted when they were not open, few thieves encountered difficulty in breaking through the loose fitting windows or prying open a back door. Most of the perpetrators, if they were caught, were identified as vagrants and transients.

Sometimes, more professional operators appear to have been at work. Safes at the Potter foundry and the Great Western Railway station were blown open with gunpowder in the 1870s; these crimes remain unsolved.

There was no Young Offenders Act in the 1870s. Juveniles and even young children felt the full force of the authorities when they ran afoul of the law.

Two orphaned children about 10 or 12 years old were sentenced to three weeks’ incarceration for the theft of bread tickets from an Elora bakery – even though the crime was motivated by hunger rather than criminal intent.

Citizens resolved some problems themselves, without recourse to either the magistrates or the law.

In 1870, a group of Salem parents lynched and beat up a child molester. The incident was reported in detail in the local papers, but no charges were laid.

A couple of years later, a group of neighbours called on an Elora labourer and informed him that they were aware of his excessive drinking and his abuse of his wife and children. They departed with a warning that his activities would be monitored closely, and that he would be dealt with harshly if he did not reform his habits.

Animal control provided a continuing set of problems through 19th-century Elora. Although the village council passed several bylaws to control animals, enforcement was effectively nonexistent. Roaming cattle and marauding hogs became the enemies of anyone attempting to maintain a garden, and most people erected sturdy fences around their properties out of self-defense.

Dog control was a source of both amusement and panic, in an era when rabies was not fully understood and doctors could do nothing for its victims.

When rabies was suspected in the neighbourhood, an armed posse would patrol the area, shooting all dogs found at large. There seems to have been no shortage of dogs with only a tenuous, if any, attachment to an owner.

Bill Culloden, editor of the North Wellington Times (and brother-in-law of David Boyle), after being bitten several times by dogs and losing his pants and underwear in one episode, adopted a policy of shooting strays on sight. More than once he was seen outside his office at the corner of Colborne Street, blazing away with a rifle at a retreating quadruped.

Most households at the time seem to have been well armed, with both rifles and pistols.

Many local men passed through the Elora Rifle Company at some point in their lives, and the village therefore had an abundance of citizens familiar with the handling of firearms.

Hunting was a popular activity, particularly among young men who preferred a Sunday morning in the outdoors to an interminable sermon in church. Few were reluctant to use firearms in town; more than one would-be burglar dodged pistol shots from an outraged property owner.

Cases of juvenile delinquency and vandalism caused the most problems with the Elora justice system of the 1870s.

The magistrates took a much more lenient view of antisocial behaviour when their own children or relatives were involved. Constables resigned twice over the refusal of the magistrates to convict offenders.

When employment prospects were poor, gangs of youths would loiter on Mill and Metcalfe Streets, making suggestive comments to women and general insults to all pedestrians. George Barren, one of the local magistrates, became incensed at the refusal of his peers to enforce standards of behaviour, claiming that the sons of some well-placed families could cause disturbances with impunity.

There are dozens more anecdotes such as these. Each by itself can be interesting or amusing. Taken together, they help construct a picture of public behaviour and order in Elora in its early decades.

By the standards of today, it was a rough and, at times, lawless society, but the Elora of the 1860s and 1870s was still a young community, still retaining some of the characteristics of a frontier town.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on April 13, 1993.



Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015