Guelph man chained father in stable in 1875

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.

Joseph Lowry lived the first part of his life as a respectable and exemplary citizen.

A teacher by profession, he taught in the Guelph area and Eramosa Township in the 1850s and early 1860s. With his wife Eliza he raised two sons. Both Joseph and his brother Thomas, who became a Presbyterian minister, were well read and educated.

In the late 1850s Lowry began drinking heavily, and within a few years the bottle dominated his life, interfering with his duties as a teacher. He taught in Eramosa Township until the trustees dismissed him. To keep the family afloat Eliza took various jobs, first doing domestic chores, and later clerking in stores.

In 1864 Joseph’s conduct and behaviour became intolerable. Taking the boys, by then teenagers, Eliza left her husband. Jobless and a hopeless alcoholic, Joseph succeeded several times in collecting his wife’s wages from her employers. More than once he came to her begging for money. She had to get a court order to keep him away from her employment.

Eventually Joseph became a drifter, homeless and with no regular employment. His wife, sons and brother lost contact with him for months, and sometimes years at a time. He became an emaciated, unwashed bum, eager only to get his next drink.

His son, Joseph Jr., worked for a time in the Fergus law office of J. Fletcher Cross in the early 1870s. Later he found clerical work in Guelph, and moved to a house on Nottingham Street. His mother joined him there early in 1875. She was no longer working, and devoted her time to managing the household.

Joseph Sr. tracked down the home of his estranged wife and son in July of that year. When Joe Jr. answered the door a frightening apparition stared back at him. His father looked like a walking skeleton clad in torn rags. He was filthy from head to foot; nameless substances matted in his hair and beard; mud and manure caked on his clothing. The summer heat enhanced the odours.

Joe Jr. was reluctant to let him in the house due to his filth and smell. When his mother came to the door she put her foot down. If they let him in the house, she feared, they would never get him out. But they felt obliged to do something.

A couple of weeks later, children in the neighbourhood dared their friends to sneak into the Lowry back yard, and peek through a small window in the stable behind the house. In the dim light they could see the outline of a frightening looking man, chained by one leg to a post in the floor.

On July 31 Constable Tom Lynch overheard some of the youngsters talking about the captive, and that evening he decided to investigate. When he opened the door he saw that the children’s story was no piece of fancy.

Old Joe told Lynch a jumbled and confused story. Rather than investigate further, Lynch merely closed the door and walked away.

The next morning Lynch mentioned the case to his boss, Chief Jonathan Kelly. As a law enforcement officer, Kelly was only slightly more competent than Lynch; he fit perfectly the stereotype of the bumbling Irish policeman. Kelly decided to see for himself.

When the chief opened the stable door he saw a horse, and a little beyond found the emaciated form of Joe facing him, rubbing his eyes in the sudden flood of light.

Joe told Kelly a contradictory and garbled tale. He had been chained there for 10 days by his son out of ill will, he said. During his captivity he had received very little to eat, and his son had beaten him several times with a strap, according to his tale.

Chief Kelly sent Lynch to fetch the son from his place of employment. When he arrived, Kelly asked him to release his father, which he did, and all went into the house. The chief was not interested in hearing anything from Joseph Jr. and his mother. He charged the son with assault and illegal confinement of his father.

Young Joseph was a respected figure around Guelph, especially in the legal profession where he worked as a clerk. He was soon released on bail, on his own recognizance.

The story caused an immediate sensation in the city. Chief Kelly gave an embellished version to the Herald and the Mercury.

Joe Jr. visited the editors of both papers, and told them that he confined his father in the stable because he was in no condition to be in the house. He kept him chained because he feared that he would wander, and might cause harm to others or to himself. He had investigated institutions where he might place his father, and expected to be able to send him to one in a few days.

The case came before magistrate’s court and Judge Thomas Saunders on Aug. 4, with Hugh Guthrie defending Joe Jr. and Henry Peterson, the no-nonsense crown attorney, prosecuting.

Old Joe was the first witness. In answer to Peterson’s questions, he testified that he was a helpless victim, and had never done anything to harm his son. The only food he had received was thin soup that his wife brought him once a day. In response to the assault charge, he “thought” that his son had beaten him two or three times with a strap.

On cross examination old Joe contradicted much of what he said in answer to Peterson’s questions. Initially he had been merely placed in the stable, and had wandered into the country, where his son found him. After that Joe Jr. attached the chain to his ankle. Old Joe had no recollection of that, and claimed he had been chained the whole time.

He thought he remembered being washed by his son with carbolic soap, and then said, “Very likely I was glad to be kept from wandering around the country.” He could not remember ever complaining about being chained up.

The next witness was James Carter, a grain dealer who lived next door. He testified that Eliza Lowry had told him a couple of weeks earlier that her husband was confined in the stable. He had seen her three times a day carrying food and water there.

Constable Lynch testified that the chain on Joe’s ankle had not broken the skin or left ugly marks, as he and Kelly had originally told the newspapers. He also admitted that Joseph Sr. was well known to him as a hopeless drunk and an indigent.

Eliza Lowry testified that she was supported by her two sons, and lived with each alternately. She had tried to clean up her husband when he appeared on the door step, but he was too filthy to be allowed in the house. He had wandered off several times, but each time she or her son found him and brought him back. Eventually they decided to confine him physically. She said that all the while she provided him with plenty to eat.

The last witness was Rev. Thomas Lowry, old Joe’s brother, who had been the minister at Brantford’s Wellington Street Presbyterian Church since 1866. He told the court that he had visited Guelph a week earlier to consider what should be done with his brother, and had helped his nephew in the search for an institution for him.

Hugh Guthrie argued that Judge Saunders should dispose of the case summarily. Crown attorney Peterson raised no objection. Saunders said that the prosecution evidence “was not such as to be thoroughly reliable.” He then dismissed the case.

From the perspective of our time, it is obvious that Joseph Lowry Sr. was suffering the advanced effects of chronic alcoholism, no doubt aggravated by malnutrition and bad liquor.

He had reached the point were his mind was not functioning adequately, and there was no hope that he would ever be able to care for himself or earn a living.

It is very likely that Chief Jonathan Kelly pursued the case to strike back at the legal profession, of which Joseph Jr. was a part. More than once the chief had been made to look ridiculous in court room proceedings.

This case provides an excellent illustration of the frustrations people in the 19th century could face in dealing with a relative with an affliction such as alcoholism.

Virtually nothing was available to the Lowrys. And they were in a better position than most families, with the victim’s son a part of the legal system and his brother a respected minister.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 19, 2005.

Thorning Revisited