Today, Canadian police and courts take a dim view of the brandishing and use of firearms.
That was not always the case. It is likely that today’s attitude arose during the years of prohibition during the 1920s, when criminals in the illicit liquor trade readily resorted to the use of firearms. Their cavalier use of guns inspired other criminals, which led in turn to a crackdown.
A generation earlier, though, guns seemed to be a normal part of everyday life. No one thought anything of someone walking around with a rifle, only assuming that the person was either going hunting or returning from an expedition. There were no age regulations on the ownership or use of guns, and no registration of firearms.
Given such a lax regulatory regime, it is surprising that there were so few accidents and deliberate shootings. It would seem that the vast majority of people had a healthy respect for guns, and used them wisely and carefully.
Nevertheless, there were exceptions to those generalities. Three of them were reported in July of 1897. The first of them involved a brakeman on the afternoon Grand Trunk train from Palmerston to Guelph on July 22, 1897, a Thursday. Initially, that run promised to be a routine one, until a brakeman, Scotty Kemp, stepped onto the train a few moments before it departed Palmerston.
Kemp was in no condition to be of any help to the railway that day. He was roaring drunk, and could barely stay on his feet, even before the train began movement. Rather than attend to any official duties he made himself a continual nuisance to the passengers.
As the train headed toward Guelph, Kemp staggered from one end of the coach to the other, muttering obscenities under his breath, and bumping into one passenger after another. Several times the train lurched, and passengers would suddenly have Kemp sitting in their lap. He would slur out an apology, and then offer the passenger a drink from a bottle in his jacket pocket. When the passenger refused, he would help himself to a long slug, then wipe his mouth with his sleeve.
Kemp continued to mutter to himself, mumbling threats to his wife, who had recently left him, and vowing to settle the score when he caught up with her. The conductor of the train, apparently something of a coward, did not go near Kemp.
Usual practice was for the train to stop at the Grand Trunk’s Guelph Junction station, near Alma Street in the western part of the city, and then run in reverse to the downtown Guelph station. When the train stopped at Guelph Junction, Kemp thought he had some duties to perform on the ground. He stepped onto the open platform of the car.
One of the passengers, a travelling salesman named Flemming, feared that Kemp would fall between the cars, and be injured or worse. He told Kemp to remain in the coach. Infuriated, Kemp roared that he was an experienced railroader, and emphasized his point by pulling a .32 caliber revolver from his pocket and brandishing it in the air.
Several women screamed, and passengers slunk low into their seats. Fleming reacted quickly, springing from his seat and knocking the gun from Kemp’s hand. He followed up with three blows to Kemp’s head, knocking him out. When the train arrived at the Guelph station the conductor, now emboldened, handed his woozy brakeman over to the Guelph police.
Scotty Kemp had his day in court the next morning. He tried to claim that the gun was not his. The magistrate paid no attention to Kemp’s rambling explanation. He fined the accused $5 and costs, and ordered the pistol confiscated. Kemp probably faced stiffer consequences when the railway’s division superintendent held his hearing into the incident.
The following Wednesday was a rainy day. Tom Waldron and George Mallot both “coloured men,” in the terms of the newspapers of that day, were hired men working on the Howitt farm near Guelph.
The two decided to go hunting that afternoon, using an old muzzle-loaded gun that they had picked up somewhere. Preparing for the their hunt, they decided to clean the old gun. Mallot was frustrated when he could not push the ramrod all the way down the barrel.
Then Waldron took a turn, with no more success. He then closed one eye and looked down the barrel, trying to see the obstruction. It was unfortunate timing. The powder in the gun exploded. Waldron lost an eye, some of the skin on his cheek, and most of his left ear.
Rather than hunting, Waldron spent the afternoon and evening at the Guelph General Hospital, where he was patched up. Unbelievably, he sustained no life threatening injuries. He later admitted that he had been foolish in the way he checked for an obstruction in the gun. It was not the first time that someone “didn’t know the gun was loaded.” And it would not be the last.
The third incident of July 1897 involved Albert Howse, who farmed on Lot 12, Concession 3 in the southern portion of Pilkington Township. He was normally a quiet, even-tempered man, but over the spring and summer of 1897 he became infuriated at repeated small thefts of oats from his barn.
About 3am on the morning of July 29, he heard a noise coming from his barn. He woke his hired man, and sent him to guard the rear of the barn while he loaded his shotgun. He then took up a position at the front of the barn, and waited until the trespasser made his exit.
Howse did not wait long until he saw a man leave the barn with a bag of grain on his shoulder. He called for the man to stop, but the thief dropped the bag and began running. He ignored repeated shouts from Howse, who threatened to shoot him. As the thief climbed over a fence, 60 or 70 feet away, Howse shouldered his shotgun and fired.
The shot caught the thief in the upper leg. He limped a few feet, the fell to the ground. When Howse approached the man he recognized him at once. It was Adam Mihm, a neighbour, who was a mason and a part time farmer, with four acres of land. He usually had a few head of cattle to fatten for market.
Howse took the wounded man into his own house, and dressed the wounds, while his hired man went to a neighbouring farm to retrieve a brother of Howse, who was a constable for Pilkington Township.
With Mihm more or less patched up, Albert Howse loaded him in a wagon and headed for Guelph. At 7am he handed the prisoner over to the Guelph police. A constable looked at the wounds and took Mihm to the General Hospital. A short time later, Howse was sitting in the office of Crown Attorney Peterson, explaining the incident to him. Mihm was no stranger to Peterson. Several years before he had prosecuted him, unsuccessfully, for stealing grain.
Initially, doctors believed that Mihm’s injuries were very serious, and they considered amputating the injured leg. After a few days he showed signs of recovery, though the doctors were unable to remove all the pellets.
Meanwhile, Peterson sent High Constable Merriwether to make a search of Mihm’s barn. He found about 40 sacks of grain, all with different labels, most with the names of farmers in the area. At the time Mihm’s livestock consisted of a horse, two cows, and a handful of pigs.
With Mihm on the mend, Peterson decided that he would not lay charges against Albert Howse. He reasoned that Howse had used reasonable force in defending his property after being the victim of repeated thefts.
In Peterson’s view, Howse had acted properly by bringing Mihm in to the authorities, and offering a full explanation of the incident. The fact that his brother was a constable no doubt played in his favour, as did Peterson’s previous experience with Mihm. Had the injuries been more serious or fatal, the case would have had a different outcome.