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.
Weekly newspapers in Wellington County have tended to downplay or ignore stories of a nature that would be embarrassing or uncomplimentary to local residents.
Sometimes we can learn far more about such stories in newspapers published 50 or 100 miles from home. But that happened only when the story was a particularly racy one, or unusual in some way.
Those omissions in our newspapers are one of the problems in understanding the histories of our communities. Sometimes other sources can fill in some of the story, particularly in cases that went before a court. But not all of them did.
Recently I stumbled across an interesting example of a story that falls into this category. I was hunting through old Toronto papers looking for material on another topic when I came across the story of the downfall of a Garafraxa girl late in 1868.
The girl in the story was 17, the daughter of well-to-do and respectable farmer in Garafraxa Township. The young lady had been sent to Toronto to finish her education in one of the Queen City’s finishing schools. She completed her course, and returned to the home farm.
According the story, the girl was “good looking and interesting in appearance.” She soon had many prospective suitors, and became involved with a young man in the neighbourhood who was something of a charmer and fast talker.
Members of her family neither liked nor trusted the young man, but she continued to see him. After a few months he asked her to marry him. Soon after, in the language of the Victorian age, she “yielded to his persuasions and fell from the path of virtue.”
All too soon the young man grew tired of the girl, and refused to marry her. She became despondent and morose, to the point that her family became alarmed. They pressed her until she revealed the story of her downfall.
Her father became indignant, and then furious at her lack of judgment and foolish actions. She had been warned many times about cads, and specifically to stay away from that particular young man.
Her father’s fury and reproaches continued for days. Eventually she became so ashamed and depressed that she attempted suicide by hanging herself from a beam in the barn.
By chance, a family member discovered her in the nick of time, seizing her and saving her life. The next morning the girl left home, heading on foot in the direction of Guelph, and then for Toronto where, according to the story, she arrived in a city she did not know, with no friends and no money.
Her father, now frantic, at first did not know where to look for her. At last he obtained a clue. On the last day of November in 1868 he set off in pursuit of her. The following day he arrived in Toronto and enlisted the help of a friend in tracking down his daughter.
Toronto was not a big place in 1868. The two men found her after a few hours, resident in one of the city’s brothels, and confirming his worst fears. In a protracted scene, with pleading and recriminations on both sides, she agreed to accompany her father and return to the family farm.
That, in essence, was the published story. No names were included, but that was not unusual for the time. Such a situation would be the source of immense embarrassment and shame to any respectable family.
Interestingly, there is no mention of the story in any of the surviving Wellington County weekly papers of 1868. The Elora and Mount Forest papers either ignored it or were unaware of the story, and the Fergus paper has not survived for that month.
The original story appeared in the Toronto Telegraph, and the Guelph Evening Mercury copied it verbatim in its issue of Dec. 4. None of the other surviving Toronto papers for that week made mention of the story. The single account seems to be the extent of the surviving record.
There are some interesting gaps in the story. It does not reveal how she managed to pack her clothing and possessions, and then walk away from the farm unnoticed by family or neighbours. What was the clue her father came upon that revealed to him her destination? The girl was not a stranger in Toronto. She had lived there while at finishing school, and surely had some friends or former classmates that she could contact.
Another curious aspect to the tale is that it does not appear that either the girl or her father filed a breach of promise suit against the young man. Such suits, while not common, appeared regularly in local court rooms during this period. But then, perhaps the family wished to avoid further embarrassment and public exposure.
The fact that there is only a single source should cast some suspicion on the story. It reads all too much like the plot of one of the melodramas so popular on the theatrical stage of the time. The details are too general and vague to give credibility to the story. And the story is full of coincidences that stretch its believability. It seems to be a tale warning young women of the dangers and fate that await them if they pursue unwise romantic liaisons.
While the vagueness might help conceal the identity of the family, other facts would help identify them. Not many Garafraxa girls would have attended a finishing school in Toronto in 1868.
The Guelph Mercury republished the story as it had appeared two days earlier in the Toronto paper, even though the Mercury had a correspondent in Garafraxa who regularly contributed news copy.
It is unlikely that the story did not have some basis in fact. My suspicion is the Toronto Telegraph reporter chose to ignore some facts and embellish others to produce a story that read like a morality play, catering to the beliefs of the paper’s readership, with the progression from seduction through downfall and ending with redemption.
It might be possible to identify the girl using assessment and census records, or at least compile a short list of possible names. It would be even more interesting to know her eventual fate. Did she eventually marry the man who had jilted her, or did she marry someone else? Or did she live out her life as an old maid?
The published story of the jilted Garafraxa girl of 149 years ago provides a small and incomplete glimpse of the society of that time. My strong suspicion is that the story is incomplete and highly embellished, and should be read with great caution. And I readily admit that I may be wrong in my opinion.
Historical research is a minefield of incomplete information and doubtful sources. This story is an extreme example. Writers always have biases that reflect their own opinions and the thinking of their times. Historians need to be aware of that, and be reading to question the completeness and reliability of written accounts.
Writing history is akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle, with 95% of the pieces missing, and a few pieces that do not belong at all to the picture. This 1868 story illustrates the point very well.
*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Sept. 2, 2011.