Insanity verdict in 1871 Eramosa homicide case

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.

Nineteenth-century medical advancements touched every area of human health, but in matters regarding mental health, progress lagged behind.

Still, the lunatic asylums of 1800 gradually disappeared in favour of institutions where medical authorities at least attempted treatments. Precise diagnosis, let alone cures, continued to elude mental health specialists, but gradually, toward the end of the 19th century, an awareness of the issues and problems filtered through society.

The most tragic case of mental illness in Wellington that I have come across is one from Eramosa Township.

Early in the morning of Feb. 3, 1871, Charles Willoughby woke, declared that he was burning up, and demanded that his wife bring him a glass of water.

When she refused and rolled over, Willoughby jumped up, grabbed an axe from the adjoining kitchen, and struck her in the face, causing a frightful wound that killed her almost instantly.

Charley Willoughby moved to Eramosa about 1850, to a farm on Lot 6, Concession 6, a little more than a mile east of Rockwood. Through marriage he was related to two families, the Maudes and the Dunbars, who lived nearby.

He had a wife, and the couple produced four children before his wife died. After her death he soon remarried. Margaret, his second wife gave birth to two more sons.

Willoughby’s mental problems developed after his eldest son died suddenly, and shortly after the second marriage. In his grief he came to the conclusion that his wife had poisoned the boy.

Over the next few years he developed a reputation as an unpredictable and generally unpleasant character. He cultivated minor spats with most of his neighbours. He seemed to have spells when he was mean-tempered, then would appear normal again for a period of weeks.

More than once, neighbours recalled seeing him huddled under a tree, crying and talking to himself. The bad spells were worse when he was drinking, but there is no evidence that Charley was anything more than an occasional imbiber.

The bad spells occurred with increasing frequency in the late 1860s. His second wife left him for a short period due to unendurable abuse. Several times he had threatened to kill her, and he continued the threats after she returned. About a year before her death, neighbour Bill Maude had to come to save Margaret from Charley’s rage.

His second son, as he grew to maturity, battled constantly with his father, and left home at 17 because he could endure the conditions no longer. By this time, neighbours often saw Willoughby jumping and running aimlessly about his fields. People steered a wide course when they saw him coming – there was no predicting what he might do or say.

By 1870, Charley’s delusions worsened. He became certain that his wife was seeing other men, though she seldom left the farm. Over the years he had developed a suspicion that his wife was poisoning him. He frequently complained of pains, declaring that he “was burning up.”

Dr. McGarvin of Rockwood recalled that Willoughby had come to see him 10 or 12 years earlier to ask that the doctor not sell his wife any poison. By 1870 he was convinced that his life was in danger. On at least two occasions he took samples of food to doctors for analysis.

Despite his troubles, Charley Willoughby retained a good head for business, though no one would suspect it by looking at his house.

It was little more than a shanty, consisting of a kitchen with two bedrooms leading off it, and separated by a thin partition. He and his wife slept in one room, and the four remaining children, ranging from 21 to 11, in the other.

Other farmers had built new houses, or were planning to build them, but Willoughby continued to live in pioneer conditions, refusing to spend money on comforts for himself or his family.

At the time of his arrest, he had more than $100 in his pocket and another $500 in a locked truck, considerable sums in the era of dollar-a-day wages.

On the fateful morning, a single scream from her stepmother awakened Sarah, the eldest daughter. She and her sister Mary immediately went to the other bedroom, but Charley blocked their way, saying he would kill them if they opened the door. He then asked Sarah to kill him.

When she refused, he threatened to kill her. Sarah and Mary made a move to leave the house, but Charley pushed them back into their own bedroom, closed the door, and pushed a small table against it.

With the children barricaded, Charley took out a razor and attempted to cut his throat. He seemed to lack the will to do the job with fatal results. Then he chose a different course.

He picked up a clothesline, and went to the barn to try to hang himself. He tied a noose around his neck, but then extricated himself. Afterwards, he said that he “couldn’t stand it.”

When Charley went to the barn, Sarah and Mary pushed their way out of the bedroom and ran to the Maude farm next door. When Bill Maude heard Sarah’s story, he sent his son to fetch Robert Dunbar, who lived nearby.

The group returned to the Willoughby house, where they found Charley sitting in a chair.

He admitted killing his wife, he said, over in his rage over her refusal to bring him water. He told them he wanted to go out and throw himself down the well.

Then he offered Bill Maude $100 to shoot him with a rifle, and a few minutes later he asked someone to fetch Dr. McGarvin to bleed him to death.

Meanwhile, Robert Dunbar went to Rockwood to see Henry Strange, a justice of the peace, who issued a warrant for Charley’s arrest. Shortly after noon, the authorities had him ensconced in the old Guelph jail.

The Rockwood coroner, Dr. Jim McCullough, convened an inquest at 3 pm the same afternoon in Jack Stull’s Commercial Hotel in Rockwood. With Willoughby in jail in Guelph, lawyer James Watt acted on his behalf.

With a break for supper, the jury heard evidence for about eight hours from neighbours, the children, and the coroner. It took them a half hour of deliberation to come back with the verdict that Margaret Willoughby had died from a blow with an axe “inflicted by Charles Willoughby willfully.”

Charley seemed perfectly rational in the hours after his arrest, but the authorities took no chances. The jail surgeon ordered a round-the-clock guard lest he make another attempt at suicide. During the six weeks leading up to the trial he usually seemed calm, but had spells of moaning and yelling, particularly at night.

There is no record of who arranged or paid for it, but Charles Willoughby received a first-class defence during the trial, with took place in Guelph on Mar. 22. Charley’s counsel consisted of Donald Guthrie, at the time the ranking lawyer in Guelph, and Hon. J.H. Cameron, a former cabinet minister and one of the two or three best men in Canada in a court room.

The jury heard most of the evidence first given at the inquest from witnesses sworn in by prosecutor Henry Peterson. J.H. Cameron called several additional witnesses, all neighbours who described Willoughby’s long-standing mental instability.

For his key witness, Cameron brought forward Dr. Joseph Workman, superintendent of the provincial mental hospital in Toronto, and the leading mental health expert in Canada.

Dr. Workman believed that Willoughby’s delusions were permanent, but he did not rule out some physical ailment as the cause. He cited other similar cases he had encountered during his career.

Hon. J.H. Cameron’s address to the jury was a lengthy one. He argued that Willoughby was insane, backing his argument up with Dr. Workman’s testimony, and with abstracts from a pile of published articles.

The judge supported Cameron’s argument in his address to the jury. The jury deliberated about 20 minutes before returning with a verdict of “Not guilty, on the ground of Insanity.”

Charles Willoughby was committed to the provincial hospital, but I do not know of his ultimate fate.

This is the earliest local case I have encountered where everyone in the court room readily agreed to the verdict of insanity.

At least three doctors were familiar with Willoughby’s erratic behaviour, and his “spells” were known to virtually everyone in the community.

The general practitioners of that era, though, knew little or nothing about mental illness. Biochemical or glandular imbalances, or even a tumour, could have been at the root of Charley’s problems, but the medicine of 1871 could not diagnose these ailments.

Nevertheless, had Charles Willoughby been committed to Dr. Workman’s care sooner, the tragedy of 3 Feb. 1871 might have been avoided.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 18, 2002.

Thorning Revisited