Policing in small towns during much of the 19th century left much to be desired, at least from the point of view of law-abiding residents.
Outside Guelph, no town in Wellington County had a full-time constable until the last quarter of the century, and even then, the duties were often combined with other functions, such as snow shovelling and watching for the outbreak of fires.
Fergus council decided in 1890 to join the ranks of towns with a full time constable and night watchman. The man they hired, Edward Gill, soon found himself in difficulty after drawing his revolver during a confrontation with some idlers on the street. A bench full of local magistrates fined him $20, equal to several weeks’ wages for him. That story appeared in this column in 2005.
Surprisingly, Gill stayed on in his position, but his troubles were not over. Many men had never been admonished for loutish and obnoxious behaviour, even when it strayed over the bounds of legality. They were resentful of any intervention by a police officer. The system of local magistrates further aggravated petty lawlessness, since those who were related to a magistrate frequently considered themselves above the law.
That was the climate in which police officers such as Ed Gill had to work. They tended to turn a blind eye to all sorts of minor offences, concentrating instead on major crimes and their duties as watchmen, but nevertheless they frequently ran afoul of those who considered themselves exempt from the law.
After that 1890 trial, Ed Gill had several ugly confrontations in his first years as the Fergus constable, but over time he built support among councillors and a grudging respect from most citizens. But in May 1894 there was another major incident.
On May 23 of that year, Gill left his house between 8 and 9pm as usual. He had no specific hours, but he liked to be on duty to deal with cases of drunkenness that were frequent in late evening, and to begin his regular patrols of downtown Fergus looking for any signs of a fire. Nearing midnight, while patrolling some of the back streets, he heard noises from St. Andrew Street. He went downtown immediately, and discovered a crowd milling around the corner of St. Andrew and St. David Street. Someone had stretched a barricade across the street near the corner, which was well lit by a sputtering carbon arc electric streetlight.
The crowd seemed to be doing little other than yelling loudly and making noise. One young man was attempting to play a trumpet. The next day was May 24, then the biggest holiday on the summer calendar, and the assembled group obviously had begun the celebrations early.
Constable Gill watched for a few minutes, then shouted for silence, and told the assembled group to go home. A couple of derisive voices told the constable to go to blazes, and that they would go home when they pleased.
The accounts of what happened next varied somewhat. According to Ed Gill, the trumpeter blew his horn loudly next to the constable’s ear. Gill told him to stop or he would confiscate the horn, which he soon did. Then, according to Gill, a man named George Morrice punched him in the face, and another man, James Douglas, delivered several more blows. A third man, Adam Madill, began striking Gill, who responded by wielding his night stick, and landing several blows on his attackers.
Meanwhile, the crowd pressed in, and several people began kicking at Gill. Morrice grabbed Gill’s nightstick, and the two others pounced on his back. Soon he was on the sidewalk, fending off blows and kicks. The constable managed to get a hand on his revolver, which he fired into the air. That is the way Gill told the story.
The gunshot had the effect of scattering the crowd. Gill, sore from all the punches and kicks, managed to get to his feet, and staggered to the corner of St. Andrew and St. David Streets, where he encountered two Fergus men, Bob Munro and Tom Kerr. They lived nearby, and had come out to investigate all the noise.
Gill was complaining of severe pains. The men accompanied him to the home of Dr. Johnson. By then, it was past 1am. The Doctor confirmed that Gill’s injuries were consistent with his account of the affair. None were serious, but he had a number of painful bruises all over his body.
Munro and Kerr took Gill to his home. The next morning, the constable laid charges of assault against George Morrice, Jim Douglas, and Adam Madill. All were from respectable families.
Justice moved swiftly in 1894. Rumours and stories of the melee circulated through the holiday crowds in Fergus on May 24, ensuring a standing-room-only hall when the matter appeared before a bench of Fergus magistrates on May 26 at 2pm.
Many people regarded the trial as a late bit of Victoria Day holiday entertainment. A bench of seven magistrates from Fergus and area turned up to hear the evidence. They included Frank Cassidy, merchant Robert Steele, and farm implement manufacturer George Beatty.
The trial lasted over six hours. Gill was the first to testify, giving his account of the evening in detail. Questions from the defence lawyer and from the magistrates did not dispute his evidence, but whether or not Gill had been sober. He had a reputation as a bit of a boozer, but insisted that he had not been drunk on the night of the assault.
Dr. Johnson followed Gill on the stand, and again the questions concerned Gill’s sobriety. The Doctor stated that he could not smell liquor on Gill’s breath, but that he might have had some earlier in the evening. He described Gill’s behaviour as excited and agitated.
Tom Kerr was the next witness. He stated that he had attempted to defuse the confrontation between Gill and the mob, and suggested that the attacks by the three men had not been as severe as Gill had portrayed them. He had urged Gill to put a couple of the ringleaders of the mob in the lockup overnight.
George Morrice admitted to being part of the assembled mob. He stated that Constable Gill had approached him sometime after midnight and told him to “move on.” As he started to comply with the demand, he claimed that Gill had spun him around and struck him in the face. The two began to struggle, he claimed, and fell to the street as they grappled. Douglas and Madill intervened, claimed Morrice, grasping the constable from behind, and pleading with him not to kill Morrice.
Gill then threatened to shoot if Douglas and Madill would not take their hands off him. They pulled the constable to his feet and let him go, said Morrice. Gill then pulled out his revolver and shot at Douglas, but missed. That was sufficient to scatter the crowd.
Morrice, who was bleeding, went to a nearby pump to wash his face. Gill came up and threatened him with the revolver, Morrice claimed.
In answer to cross examination, Morrice insisted that neither he nor the others hit Gill, with either fists, sticks, or feet. Douglas, Madill, and another participant in the mob, William Gow Jr., confirmed the evidence offered by Morrice.
The evidence concluded with two further witnesses who had not been part of the mob. They offered slight variations on what had been heard before. Both suggested that Gill had been the instigator of the confrontation as much as its victim.
The magistrates deliberated for more than an hour before calling the court back into session. Their verdict was to dismiss the assault charges against Morrice, Douglas and Madill. They levied costs of the trial against Constable Gill. It would appear that the magistrates considered Gill the author of his own misfortune, and that his confrontational approach to the incident was inflamed by liquor.
Despite having to pay the costs of the trial, and the implicit censure by the magistrates, Gill remained on the job, perhaps a little wiser, as a result of the experience, in the ways of managing an unruly mob.