Guelph Township man killed in 1894 bar room brawl

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.

Despite its regal name, Guelph’s Imperial Hotel was a bit of a dive in the 1890s. The Royal City had boasted more than 20 hotels in the 1870s, but the number dwindled as drinking habits changed over the following decades.

The Imperial, on Cork Street, had survived several name changes while maintaining a niche at the low end of the market. In the 1890s, under proprietor Fred Borsch, the Imperial did a steady if less than robust trade, catering to thirsty labourers and farmers. Fights and brawls were the entertainment there.

A young man named John Johnson was the unfortunate casualty of one of those altercations in 1894. Five years earlier, in 1889 he had left Guelph Township to work in the lumbering industry in upper Michigan. In the spring of 1894 Johnson returned to the Guelph area, and secured employment with the Hood family, just north of the city, as a farm labourer. He had grown up on a farm: his father, “Curly Jack” Johnson, worked for farmers in Guelph Township for much of his life.

With field work and harvesting finished in late November, the Hoods laid off young John. On the morning of Nov. 24, 1894, a Saturday, he decided to go into Guelph and visit with fiends. With employment prospects in Guelph poor that fall, he was considering a return to the Michigan forests.

He called on an old friend, Jimmy Kennedy, who worked in the construction trade. They talked a while, had a couple of drinks, then headed downtown to the American Hotel on Wyndham Street, where they drank whiskey all afternoon.

Most men still worked a full day on Saturdays in 1894. Late in the afternoon Jim and John decided that they might encounter more of their friends at the Imperial, celebrating the end of their work week.

By then John had consumed a lot of whiskey and eaten very little. With each gulp he became more quarrelsome and morose, fretting over his lack of progress in the 27 years of his life. He muttered that he was ready to fight anyone.

The two were in the Imperial only a short time when John Cass, a 20-year-old carpenter who worked in a small shop with his father, walked in. In a foul mood himself, he stepped up to the bar. Johnson, who he did not know, made some rude remarks to him.

Within seconds the two were exchanging loud insults. Kennedy managed to pull Johnson away and drag him outside before the situation escalated further.

Johnson, though, refused to leave without a fight. He pushed Kennedy aside and staggered back into the hotel, where he threw his coat on the floor.

Anxious for a fight, Johnson slurred that he was a better man than Cass, or anyone else in the bar, and slapped Cass on the side of the head. Not anxious for a brawl, Cass started to walk away, but Johnson followed him, continuing his taunts and slapping Cass on the head a second time.

Cass turned, and his fist immediately encountered Johnson’s face. He then roughly shoved Johnson to the floor. The fight was on.

Everyone in the crowded bar room gathered around to watch and urge on their favourite.

The two tussled on the floor, but the whiskey-saturated Johnson was no match for Cass. By now in full rage, Cass pummelled away at Johnson’s face.

Jimmy Kennedy managed to elbow his way through the crowd, and tried to drag his friend away. Several onlookers told him to stop and “let them fight it out,” but with the help of a few others in the crowd, including carpenter Alex Barclay, Kennedy succeeded in separating the combatants.

Though most in the room were rough working men and farm labourers, they gasped when Kennedy and Barclay pulled Cass off his opponent. Johnson lay motionless, his face entirely covered in blood.

Proprietor Fred Borsch at once closed the bar. Many present, including Cass, wandered away. Borsch urged all who remained into an adjoining sitting room. Kennedy and Barclay carried Johnson to a chair in a small ante room and locked the door. Alex Barclay ran off at once, and returned in a few minutes with Dr. Herod, whose office was nearby.

Dr. Herod noted a slight pulse for a few minutes, but realized that there was no hope for his patient. He noted that the neck was badly swollen, and that there were several severe cuts on the face and head. The doctor found $57 and change in Johnson’s pockets, probably his entire life savings, and a gold watch.

Word of the death spread quickly through the downtown area of Guelph. On hearing the news, John Cass immediately turned himself in to Constable Elliot. Later that night, Police Chief Randall secured a warrant for Alex Keating, a labourer, and arrested him as an accomplice. Cass, who had grown up in Guelph and had never been in trouble before, drew much public sympathy over the ensuing weeks.

As was usual in such cases, an inquest was convened quickly to hear the evidence of the coroner and the various witnesses. Due to the time of the homicide, on Saturday evening, the session did not get under way until Monday, before a jury of 15.

The jury took many hours of deliberation to reach their conclusions, and interestingly, their verdicts set a new course locally for such cases. There was no unanimity on any of their decisions.

No one was surprised to hear the foreman say that the jury decided that John Cass should be held for trial on a charge of manslaughter. But many of the jurors were not comfortable signing a verdict of manslaughter because Cass had been provoked and attacked.

Two jurors refused outright to support the charge of manslaughter. They thought Cass’ actions were entirely justifiable, and that Johnson died from the injuries he suffered when, in his advanced state of intoxication, his head hit the floor. The coroner had testified that the fall was the probable cause of death.

The evidence against Alex Keating was a little more ambiguous: he appeared to have interfered with those who tried to break up the fight. Three of the 15 jurors did not support the charges against him. Argument over his responsibility for the death occupied much of their deliberation time.

The bulk of the jury’s verdict concerned the conduct of the two hotels in the case: the American and Borsch’s Imperial. They were particularly critical of Fred Borsch, stating that “…his treatment of the deceased prior to his death was of such a character as to show his unfitness for the position of landlord of a hotel.” The jurors believed that Borsch was fully aware of Johnson’s intoxication when he entered the hotel, but nevertheless continued to ply him with whiskey.

The landlord of the American Hotel, Tom Ellis, also came in for criticism, for allowing Johnson to drink to excess while he was ensconced there for most of the afternoon on the last day of his life.

Only 11 of the jurors supported the findings against the hotel keepers, and the foreman expressed doubt about whether they should form part of the official verdict. In the opinion of the crown attorney they were valid, and he asked the foreman to sign that part of their written decision.

(Next time: the conclusion of the Johnson case.)

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Jan. 13, 2006.

Thorning Revisited