Fate of Minto murderer remains a mystery

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.

There have been perhaps 25 or 30 murders in close to two centuries of recorded history in Wellington County.

With a couple of exceptions, all of these resulted in the arrest and trial of a culprit. One exception was the Scroggie homicide in Minto Township in 1868, styled by the press of that era as “The Minto Murder.”

The episode began on a Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 7, 1868. Jim Shaw, the owner of Lots 34 and 35, Con. 1 of Minto, had organized a logging bee on his land. He had hired a number of men from the neighbourhood to do the work, and this was the last day. After the noontime dinner, Shaw promised the men some whiskey at the conclusion of the job.

The crew assembled by Shaw included John Scroggie and John Mawhinney. Not a great deal is known about either man. They were both about 30.

A bachelor, Scroggie worked as a farm labourer for John Campbell, who was a brother-in-law of Mawhinney, and who farmed on Con. 1 of Minto. According to one characterization, Scroggie was a man of “loose and dissipated habits.”

Mawhinney had come to Canada after working for a time in the United States. He first lived in Wallace Township, to the south of Minto. Early in 1867 he moved with his wife Lucy and their children to a farmstead on Lot 36, Con. 1 of Minto, near his brother-in-law, John Campbell.

As promised, Jim Shaw brought a keg of whiskey into the newly-cleared field on that ill-fated October day in 1868. He joined Scroggie, Mawhinney, and half a dozen others in making short work of it. With the keg emptied, everyone went home, perhaps unsteadily, but in good humour.

Scroggie accompanied Mawhinney to the latter’s house, probably with the intent of continuing their celebration. Both men had reputations as heavy drinkers.

When Mawhinney’s back was turned, Scroggie placed his hand on Lucy Mawhinney’s shoulder and whispered some improper suggestions to her. Mawhinney saw and overheard. Seething with rage, he lunged at his impudent guest. Scroggie outweighed Mawhinney by a good margin, and soon tossed him to the floor.

When he shook his head and arose, Mawhinney went after his Lucy, rather than Scroggie, striking her several times and berating her for not hitting Scroggie with a stick. While this scene of domestic disharmony transpired, Scroggie quietly tiptoed out the back door, and made his way home to the Campbell farm.

A half hour later there was a commotion outside. John Campbell looked out, and saw the form of his brother-in-law, carrying a musket with a bayonet fixed on it. Still in a furor, Mawhinney demanded that Campbell push Scroggie out the door.

“I will butcher the bastard,” he yelled, according to witnesses at the subsequent inquest.

Campbell tried to calm down his brother-in-law. His efforts proved futile. Mawhinney broke his way into the house. Campbell reached for the musket, but Mawhinney pulled it away, then struck Campbell with the butt end of it, knocking him to the floor. Mawhinney’s father, who also lived in the house (his daughter was John Campbell’s wife) heard the commotion from the adjoining room, where he had been asleep. When he walked through the door, his son hit him with the musket butt, briefly knocking him out.

John Scroggie, well the worse for liquor, was slumped in a chair the whole time. He did nothing to intervene, and offered no resistance when Mawhinney approached him with the gun. The assailant raised the weapon, and drove the bayonet into Scroggie three times, once in the lower abdomen, and twice near the heart.

One of the thrusts completely penetrated his body, and two of them would have been fatal by themselves, according to the coroner.

Mawhinney then hit Scroggie over the head with the gun, once with the butt end, and a second time with the barrel. He was stooped over, looking at his victim when his wife Lucy arrived. He said good night to her, then stepped out of the house and into the darkness. It was a few minutes before 9pm.

According to their later testimony, none of those present realized for several hours that John Scroggie had been stabbed. The next morning, John Campbell, finally comprehending the seriousness of what had transpired, went to inform a justice of the peace in Wallace Township, seemingly not realizing the incident had occurred in Wellington County.

It was late afternoon the next day before the proper authorities in the correct jurisdiction had been notified, and messages sent out for the apprehension of Mawhinney.

Dr. Cowan, of Harriston, conducted the inquest on Oct. 8, less than 24 hours after Scroggie died and immediately after performing the autopsy. Most of the evidence against Mawhinney came from his relatives, including his wife. The hastily assembled jury, composed of 12 Minto men with John Prain, a future reeve of Minto, as foreman, returned a verdict of willful murder after a brief deliberation.

John Mawhinney took full advantage of the long delay in reporting the crime. A man meeting his description, disheveled and dirty, was reported in a bar room in Mitchell. He ran to the station when he heard the whistle of an approaching train.

The authorities had doubts about the report. Mawhinney had left the scene of the crime wearing little clothing and possessing no money. Both, of course, could have been supplied by sympathetic friends. County and provincial constables scoured Minto for several weeks looking for the desperate man.

Five days after the murder, two constables staked out the residence of Richard Dalley, next door to the Campbell farm. When some dogs heard the constables, the lamp in the house went out. The constables moved in immediately, and discovered four men inside, with some quilts on the floor where someone had been sleeping. Mawhinney, if he had been there, had slipped away into the night.

Within days rumours started to circulate that Mawhinney, overcome with remorse, had committed suicide. No real evidence ever showed up to support this theory.

In the days after Dr. Cowan’s inquest and the issuance of a warrant for John Mawhinney’s arrest, no new leads or information surfaced, other than the mysterious middle-of-the-night gathering at the Dalley farm.

Reeve James Connell called a special meeting of Minto council to discuss the situation. Council voted to offer a reward of $100 for information that would lead to Mawhinney’s arrest and conviction. Advertisements announcing the reward appeared in most of the papers in Wellington County and in the Listowel Banner.

The fate of John Mawhinney is one of the unsolved mysteries of Wellington County. The story of the murder quickly entered local folklore. The witnesses to the crime were all related to the culprit, and their evidence was probably coloured, if not entirely suspect. Their accounts of the incident left many questions unanswered.

Why, for instance, did John Scroggie’s body show no signs of resistance to the attack? And why had there been such a lengthy delay in reporting the crime?

By the end of 1869 the excitement over Scroggie’s murder had died down, though constables came to the area several times to sniff around. They uncovered nothing. Did John Mawhinney flee to the United States, commit suicide, or live hidden from view and sustained by friends in the dense bush that still covered over half the township?

There were plausible arguments to support all three theories, but no irrefutable evidence for any of them.

Lucy Mawhinney continued to live on the homestead with the children after her husband apparently vanished, attempting to scratch out a meagre living. In March 1869 Minto council considered and approved a petition from a dozen of her neighbours for her 1868 property taxes to be remitted. She filed a similar request for her 1869 taxes, which council granted.

After that, she disappears from the historical record. Did she rejoin her husband at some undisclosed location? No one knows.

It is the final unanswered question of this mysterious Minto murder of 1868.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on May 4, 2001.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015