Father-son stabbing incident turned into a farce

Samuel Soper was one of the better known men in 19th century Eramosa Township and Rockwood. He and his family farmed at several locations over the years. In 1889, Sam was living in Rockwood, across the street from the old town hall.
The date of Sept. 28, 1889 was a memorable one for him, and not in the good sense. During the afternoon he had a long and bitter argument with one of his sons. About 7pm another son, Wellington Soper, returned from some business in Acton. Sam resumed the argument with Wellington. The altercation quickly escalated to shouting, shoving, and then fisticuffs. It ended when Sam grabbed a knife and stabbed his son twice – a severe wound to the shoulder and another to a wrist.
The gash to the shoulder cut an artery. The wound immedi­ately began gushing blood. Another member of the family rushed out to fetch Dr. Dryden, who lived nearby. The doctor was soon on the scene, and managed to stop the profuse bleeding, but Wellington had lost so much blood that he faint­ed while Dr. Dryden ap­plied bandages.
He told the other members of the family that Wellington would certainly have bled to death without medical atten­tion. The other cut, to the wrist, was largely superficial, and presented no great danger.
While the doctor worked on the patient, Sam continued to stride around the house, mutter­ing to himself. By then, several neighbours were in the house, attracted by all the excitement. Talk soon turned from Well­ington’s injuries to Sam’s re­sponsibility for the stabbing. Sensing that they might try to hold him, Sam quietly packed a bundle of clothing, a few per­sonal items, and his violin. He slipped from the house when no one was watching.
The neighbours all recalled Samuel’s threats in recent weeks to do violence to various member of his family, and even a few remarks that he would kill them for various insults and actions. Samuel may have been suffering from alcoholism, though there is no mention of drinking as a cause of the alter­cations with his sons. Alter­nately, he might have become mentally unbalanced.
Of course, the threats may have been merely figures of speech to help him deal with a family that had become dysfunctional. In any case, those threats, after the stabbing, now loomed very large.
Adding to Samuel Soper’s woes was the fact that he had told several Rockwood resi­dents earlier that day that he planned to leave the village that night. That made the stabbing appear to be premeditated.
The stabbing took place on a Saturday night. As might be imagined, the story spread like wildfire among farmers in the village that evening for their weekly shopping. The next morning the incident over­shad­owed all the sermons in area churches. It was the most exciting thing to happen in the quiet village for years.
Soon after Sam made good his escape on Saturday night, neighbours formed a vigilante search party. Armed with shot­guns and clubs, they set out in all directions, determined to track down their quarry and capture him at any cost. They returned home later that night, having found no trace of Sam. They resumed the search the next morning. Several missed church services in order to keep up their pursuit. They turned up not a single lead.
A few stragglers resumed the search Monday morning, but their enthusiasm had dwin­d­led by then, and they soon gave up.
That evening Samuel Soper returned to his own house to get some fresh clothing and a little food. Members of his family gave him a wide berth as he gathered a few items. He told them he was walking to Guelph to give himself up, but instead he headed for a nearby swamp.
After Sam left one of his sons told a neighbour of the visit, and the neighbour im­me­diately found the local part time constable, Henry Carter. He had no trouble following Sam, and found him about three miles from his home early on the morning of Oct. 1.
During Sam’s brief visit to his home, most of the search party, as well as a good portion of Rockwood’s population, was attending a performance of the play Queen Esther at the town hall, directly across the street from his house.
Samuel offered no resis­tance, and seemed almost hap­py that his adventure was over after three nights spent in the outdoors. But when Constable Carter brought him to Guelph he had an astonishing explana­tions for his actions.
He had grabbed the knife in a sudden fit of rage, he said, and had intended only to threaten his son, not stab him. On the night of the incident, he explained, he had left his house to turn himself in to the local justice of the peace, Henry Strange. A servant answered the door, and explained that Strange was in Toronto on busi­ness for a few days.
Samuel explained that he then went off in search of a magistrate who would commit him for trial, and had spent more than two days in a fruit­less search until he was discovered by Constable Car­ter.
It was an absurd story, but Samuel Soper told it with earnestness and an air of sincerity. He charmed the re­porters who reported on his arrest, and impressed everyone with his mild manner. The ease with which Carter found and arrested him made the futile efforts of the vigilante mob seem ridiculous. Newspapers across the province reported the incident as if it were a farce.
In the meantime, Welling­ton Soper recovered quickly from his wounds. Dr. Dryden had feared that infection might set in, causing a lengthy and painful recovery, or in the worst case, death. But the wounds healed quickly and without complications. Well­ing­ton was up on his feet within two days, and doing light chores within a week of the incident.
By then the excitement in Rockwood had cooled down. Members of the search party became the butt of jokes over their bungled efforts in trying to track their quarry, who, though not elderly, was past the prime of life.
It appears that Samuel Soper never stood trial for the stabbing. Now, more than 118 years after the incident, we can only speculate on the reasons. Perhaps Wellington refused to support any charges against his father.
Equally plausible is the ap­proach to criminal cases taken by Henry Peterson, the crown attorney for Wellington.
Peterson had no sense of humour, and was loath to pur­sue a case where a conviction seemed doubtful. The Soper stabbing case was one of those sticky domestic affairs that invariably proved troublesome in assembling a case and securing reliable and consistent witnesses.
Even with Wellington Sop­er’s full co-operation, securing a conviction on criminal char­ges would be difficult, in view of Samuel’s defence that he was merely threatening his son with the knife, and that the stabbing was purely accidental and very regrettable.
The Soper case was a rare example of violence in the normally tranquil village of Rockwood. It was an incident that was remembered by local residents for decades after­wards.

Stephen Thorning