Drowning of infant caused a sensation in 1888

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.


Some of the most horrifying and tragic stories of the 19th century involve unwanted children. Formal adoption procedures, as we know them now, did not exist.

In the happiest cases, an unwanted child would be taken in by a childless couple or a relative and raised as their own. Occasionally the mother’s parents would take care of an unwanted child, passing a grandchild as one of their own children.

But in many cases those alternatives did not exist.

Backroom abortionists practiced here and there, but we only know about them when they botched a case and the matter came to the attention of the legal system. Some were midwives; all too often they were incompetent or drunken doctors.

In the worst cases a mother, desperate about what to do, would kill or abandon the child.

The body of one such child was found about 135 years ago beside an Elora street, not 500 feet from where I sit as I write these words.

The most sensational example I have run across was that of Jane Breese, a widow in her late 30s with a couple of children at home, who lived on Concession 7 of Eramosa Township, roughly half way between the hamlets of Oustic and Mimosa.

In late March of 1888, Mrs. Breese was admitted to the Guelph General Hospital as a charity case. Her pregnancy and the birth of her child were difficult. As she was recovering she told the doctors that Alex Burnet, proprietor of the Rossin House hotel in Hereward, a hamlet in East Garafraxa a few miles northeast of Belwood, was the father.

She claimed that Burnett “had got the better of me,” and had promised to marry her, but had wanted nothing more to do with her when he learned she was pregnant.

When she returned home her neighbours urged her to take the baby to Burnet and leave it with him. On May 26, 1888, she decided to follow that advice.

George Shepherdson, a neighbour who did casual work for various farmers in the area, offered to take her and the child, less than two months old, in a borrowed carriage. They set off in the early afternoon on the trip of nine or ten miles to Hereward.

When they arrived at the Rossin House at about 4pm, Jane Breese took the baby and its basket into the hallway of the hotel, laid it on the floor, and called out, “Burnet, there’s a present for you.”

When Burnet saw what was in the basket, he called out to Jane, “You had better take this child away,” but by then she was climbing back into the buggy and George drove off.

Burnet, who was a widower, had his 14-year-old son John bring a team and wagon, already hitched up, from behind the stable. Together, with the child in the basket, they set off in pursuit of Jane and George. They headed them off a little more than a mile down the road.

John Burnet stepped down with the basket, and attempted to put it in the buggy, but Shepherdson threatened him. His father took over, exchanged some harsh words with Shepherdson, and placed the basket on the wiffletree of the buggy.

The Burnets quickly turned their wagon around and headed back to the hotel.

According to George Shepherdson’s later testimony, Jane Breese was nearly hysterical as they resumed their trip back home, reunited with the baby.

“George, what will I do?” she kept repeating. A couple of times she threatened to drown herself. Then she asked George three or four times to drown the child. George refused, “afraid the law would come on to me.” Jane insisted that “it would all be on my back.”

Eventually she persuaded George to drown the child.

George later admitted that he stopped the buggy, took it to a nearby creek, drowned it, and buried it in an adjoining swamp. As he was returning to the buggy, Sam and Mary Ann Near, who farmed nearby, walked past on the road.

They later testified they thought there was something very suspicious about the stopped buggy.

George and Jane then proceeded to Belwood, where they arrived at about 6pm. Jane went to David Johnston’s store, saying that she wanted to buy a dress. Then she looked at some fabric, but left the store without purchasing anything.

The pair went on to Blyth’s store and made a few purchases. Margaret Blyth was very suspicious. She had seen the buggy earlier in the day, with Jane holding a child in a basket. Now she was using the same basket to hold her purchases. There was some baby’s clothing in it, but no sign of the child. And Jane gave her name at the store as “Mrs. Shepherdson.”

After a couple of hours in Belwood, George and Jane headed back to their homes, arriving at about 10pm.

Over the next few days rumours spread over the area that George and Jane had killed the child. Ed Mooney, a part-time constable in Erin Township, believed there was sufficient evidence to lay charges. He consulted with John Reed, a Justice of the Peace, and together they went over to arrest George and Jane on June 2, a week after the homicide.

George Shepherdson immediately broke down and confessed the whole affair. He told Reed and Mooney where the body could be found, under a cedar block in a swamp on Lot 12, Con. 9 of East Garafraxa.

Ed Mooney found the body immediately. Reed at once called an inquest, which met later that day in the town hall at Belwood to view the body. The rumours brought out an overflow crowd of spectators.

Dr. Mennie, the coroner, assisted by Dr. Abraham Groves, performed an autopsy.

The jury reconvened on June 4. George Shepherdson freely testified to all the events, admitting that he killed and buried the child on the urging of Jane Breese.

For her part, Mrs. Breese said little. When asked, she said, “I have nothing to say at all. I never laid hands upon the child. I am weak minded. They can do nothing to me. It was bought on by sorrow and fretting.”

The jury then retired, and in 20 minutes returned with their verdict. They unanimously agreed that George Shepherdson and Jane Breese were guilty of the murder of the child.

Dr. Mennie asked both if they had anything to say. George relayed his story again, and Jane now spoke at length. She said she had been seeing Alex Burnet for several months, and that he had promised he never would deceive her. She blamed him and his refusal to support the child for the whole affair. Several times she explained that she was simple minded, and did not always realize what she was doing.

The two were held in jail until their case came up before Justice McMahon at the Guelph fall assizes on Nov. 6. The trial took most of the day, which made it a long one by the standards of the time. Jane sat immobile, sobbing from time to time, and George seemed to be focussed on something else, paying little attention to the court proceedings.

All the evidence was a repeat of what had been said at the coroner’s inquest the previous June. Rather, the case turned on medical evidence and the mental soundness of the accused, offered by Drs. Mennie, Groves, Herod, Orton and McKinnon. The defence was that George Shepherdson was “irresponsible for his acts,” and that Jane Breese suffered from “puerperal mania.”

Crown Attorney Henry Peterson, unlike most prosecutors of his time, had a great interest in the emerging field of mental health, and placed a great deal of weight on the medical testimony, even though it was partly contradictory.

Dr. Mennie did not have a lot of regard for the concept of mental illness, while Drs. Abe Groves and Henry Orton particularly had a strong interest in the subject.

Judge McMahon was not so sympathetic to the accused in his summation. He claimed the evidence showed they had committed a horrible crime and then covered up the evidence.

The jury, though, paid more attention to Henry Peterson’s summation, which more or less supported the insanity pleas, and to the testimony of the doctors. It took them only about a quarter of an hour to return with a verdict of “not guilty, on the plea of insanity.”

With that verdict, the judge placed Jane and George in the custody of the provincial asylum, where they would remain until “the authorities think it safe to release them.”

So ended one of the most tragic cases in the history of Wellington County.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 11, 2006.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015