Fist fights, mob justice, other crime common in 1860s Elora

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.

Over the years I have been in the habit of making notes on criminal activity in Elora that I come across while researching other subjects. 

The other day I sorted some of this information, and was amazed at the frequency of violence and crime in the 1860s.

The violence of 1860s is particularly fascinating because the participants were frequently the leading men of the village, not the illiterate labourers and itinerant workmen that we might expect.

Two names show up in news stories and court records more frequently than others: Andrew Gordon, the harness maker and one-man temperance crusader, and John Bain Jr., whose family ran a woolen mill and a hotel (first the Commercial and then the Elora).

The fines paid by Andrew Gordon over the years for his impulsive behaviour would amount to a small fortune. An ongoing feud with one of his apprentices, James Anderson, resulted in a $4 fine in 1861 when Gordon struck the young man over the head with a pair of boots, causing a severe injury. When the verdict was pronounced, Gordon remarked in court that it was “cheap enough for the satisfaction.”

Gordon’s court appearances resulted most frequently from fist fights on the street. He seemed to believe that a solid uppercut to the jaw was the best way to emphasize his point in an argument. 

Occasionally he found himself in deeper trouble. During an election campaign he greeted a coach of visiting dignitaries by brandishing a pistol at them at the north end of the Victoria Street bridge. The threatened party included John Sandfield Macdonald, the first premier of Ontario.

It would appear that Mill Street fist fights became something of a spectator sport during the 1860s. When constable Rowley Wood intervened in a fight between Gordon and James Cowie in 1864, spectators loudly voiced their disapproval – until Gordon turned on the constable. When the affair got to court, Gordon was fined $2 for disturbing the peace. The charge of assault against the constable was dismissed, and Wood resigned.

At the time these minor charges were tried by local magistrates, and the relationship of the accused to those hearing the cases, rather than the evidence, had the major influence on the verdicts. It was particularly interesting when one of the magistrates was himself on trial – a circumstance that occurred more than once.

Andrew Gordon could put on a fine display of bravado, but as a fighter he was easily outclassed by John Bain Jr. The elder Bain had been a professional prize fighter in his youth, and he provided his son with a thorough training. It was a handy skill to have when dealing with boisterous bar room patrons in Bain’s Hotel, but once they went too far. In 1865 they bounced a troublemaker out of the bar and onto Mill Street so vigorously that the poor wretch died. Both Bains were tried for manslaughter, and both were acquitted.

Obviously, the fight of the decade would feature Gordon against Bain. This occurred in 1862. Round one was at a Mechanics Institute meeting, when Gordon took exception to a remark by John Bain Jr. A few days later Gordon and Bain Sr. accosted each other on the street. The younger Bain approached, tapped Gordon on the shoulder, said, “I can lick you any day,” and proceeded to make good on his boast. The affair cost Gordon $4 (equivalent at the time to three or four days worth of wages) and Bain $1.

Not all crime of this period consisted of fist fights. Break-ins were reported regularly. Stores, particularly those selling jewelry and watches, were frequent victims. Hotel keepers had to keep close watch on their cigars and liquor. There were thefts of clothes from clotheslines, but break-ins at residences were comparatively rare.

Enforcement of liquor laws proved to the most troublesome problem for the authorities. It would seem that few took liquor laws seriously. Bar rooms openly flouted the law by opening on Sundays. Numerous cases got to court, but usually no one was willing to testify against the local publicans. J.M. Fraser of the Elora Mill and Distillery scoffed at the excise tax. Revenue agents seized his illegal whiskey several times, and once physically occupied the distillery to keep Fraser out of production.

Examples of family violence show up occasionally in the 1860s. In 1861 William Crawford, a 44-year-old labourer, was fined $1 for striking his wife. Two years later a delegation of neighbours visited an abusive husband and told him his conduct was unacceptable, that his behaviour would be closely monitored, and that he would be harshly dealt with in the future. This threat of vigilante justice was openly reported in the newspaper. I have seen other examples of these circumstances in the 19th century.

Mobs dispensed justice more than once. In 1867 a group of citizens in Salem seized a child molester. He was taken to the stave factory and whipped. This application of Lynch Law took place after the parents of the children refused to prosecute the man in court.

It appears that mob justice was more frequent in rural areas than in town. In 1872 Daniel Cornish and his wife were dragged from their Pilkington farm home and painted with tar. I do not know what led to this incident, but two of the perpetrators were identified, tried and convicted. 

Later the same year, a mob prevented the sheriff from serving an eviction writ on a widow in Maryborough Township. This scene was repeated several times in later years, when depressed agricultural prices forced farmers off their homesteads.

Incidents involving fist fights between Elora’s leading men decline drastically after 1870. It is probable that the major reason was that the men grew older. Elora in the 1860s was a young town; few people were over 40 years old. As these men settled down to raise families, their attitudes to crime and personal responsibility changed drastically.

The most common crime in the 1870s was vandalism. Typical incidents involved broken windows, senseless destruction of property, and break-ins where little or nothing was stolen. 

There were also problems with gatherings of youths on the streets harassing and insulting pedestrians. The explanation may simply be demographic: large families produced a boost in the adolescent population in the 1870s.

My impression is that both petty and major crime declined significantly after 1870, though I don’t have all the data to prove the point conclusively. Economic conditions do not seem to be a factor in the number of reported incidents. Elora enjoyed a boom in the early 1870s, but by the end of the decade unemployment exceeded 20% of the workforce. There does not seem to be a change in reported incidents.

I have only looked at the tip of an iceberg so far. My data is incomplete, and I have little information on the period after 1890. Very little historical study has yet been made of crime, policing, and attitudes to authority in Ontario’s small towns. Was Elora’s experience similar to that of Fergus and other places? I don’t know. It is obvious, though, that a mountain of local historical research has yet to be done before we fully understand the way our communities have evolved.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Nov. 22, 1995.

Thorning Revisited