Maltreatment of immigrant child caused sensation in 1876

From the 1870s until well into the 20th century, several organizations sent orphaned and destitute children from the slums of British cities to Can­ada.

Those organizations placed the youngsters in new homes, most often with farm families. Overall, those children were well treated, and were accepted as members of their new fam­ilies.

For a significant number, though, the story was not so happy. Some youngsters were starved and overworked. The agencies that had placed them did not follow up on the place­ments. As a result of mis­treat­ment, some of the youngsters ran away, and became part of the floating population of un­skill­ed workers moving about the country. At other times, neigh­bours intervened on be­half of the youngster. A case in old Maryborough Township in 1876 provides a good example of the latter.

James and Emily McKague (there are several variations to the spelling of the name) farm­ed on Concession 11 of Mary­borough, immediately west of Drayton. In 1874, they arrang­ed to adopt a 10-year-old girl, Elizabeth Robinson, known as Lizzie, from an orphanage in Niagara-on-the-Lake that was part of a network for bringing poor British children to Can­ada. By all accounts she was a bright and obliging child, but within months there were rum­ours circulating in the Drayton and Moorefield neighbour­hoods that the McKagues were mistreating her.

The situation reached a head in February 1876, When Hiram and Nelson McKague, broth­ers of James, preferred charges against James and Em­ily for “starving, whipping, and otherwise maltreating” young Lizzie, who was then 12 years old. James and Emily were in­furiated when the constable called to take Lizzie into pro­tective custody. When they re­fused to co-operate he returned with a search warrant, and a warrant ordering them to re­lease the girl.

They had hidden her in a closet, but the constable found her and took her to his own home, where he and his wife gave her the first decent meal she had eaten in a long while, and then provided her with a bath. The constable asked Dr. S.T. Carter of Rothsay to ex­amine the girl and to testify at the magistrate’s court when the charges were heard.

News of the charges created a sensation, guaranteeing a large turnout of spectators for the trial before the local magis­trates on Feb. 29, 1876. After months of rumours, which most people seemed inclined to be­lieve, there was a great deal of sympathy for the girl. Several neighbours pooled together and hired the Elora law firm of Drew and Jacob to act on her behalf.

Despite a bad winter storm, an overflow crowd packed the dining room of the British Hotel in Moorefield to watch the proceedings.

The room was “crowded to suffocation” ac­cording to one report. All the local J.P.s were present to hear the testimony. J.D. Johnston was the presiding magistrate, and sitting beside him were six other magistrates: Joseph Mad­ill, R.S. Moore, James Walker, Dr. S.P. Emes, John Landerkin, and Rev. George C. Moore, the hard-drinking, lecherous Bap­tist minister who would have his own day in court four months later. (That story re­cently appeared in this column in the Jan. 16 issue.)

Everyone settled in at 2pm for what promised to be a long court session. And it was, eventually stretching out to 10 hours. The first witnesses de­scribed Lizzie’s background and how she came to be in the McKague’s care.

The most telling testimony came from Dr. Carter. He de­scribed dozens of lacerations on Lizzie’s back and thighs, undoubtedly the result of beat­ings, some obviously recent, and others showing evidence of healing. There were bruises and contusions all over her body, and she had a black eye when he examined her, he told the court.

Lizzie herself told the mag­is­trates that she was beaten daily by the McKagues. On wash days, Emily would make her work naked while beating her with a piece of harness, sometimes until blood ran down her legs. On one recent occasion, she said, Emily had given her a supper consisting of a single cold potato. That night she tried to sneak a piece of bread, but Emily awoke and gave a black eye as well as kicking her.

Several of the McKague’s neighbours came forward to offer testimony that supported Lizzie’s account of her treat­ment at the hands of James and particularly Emily. In her de­fence, Emily told the magis­trates that Lizzie was disobe­dient and uncooperative, and a compulsive thief.

After the lawyers for both sides had offered their sum­mar­ies to the magistrates, Rev. George Moore spoke up, de­fend­ing the McKagues and admonishing young Lizzie. He chastised her for her poor be­haviour to Emily and her lazi­ness, and stated that a single po­tato made an excellent sup­per, one that he frequently rel­ished himself.

The minister’s uninvited interjection provoked an uproar among the people watching the proceedings. Some men shout­ed threats to Moore, and others demanded that he be charged him­self. Eventually J.D. John­ston was able to restore order, after which he threatened Rev. Moore with arrest for contempt of court if he persisted in dis­rupting the proceedings.

After listening to hours of testimony the magistrates deli­b­erated only briefly before an­nouncing their verdict. They found James McKague not guilty, placing all the respon­sibility for the mistreatment on Emily’s head. They fined her $1, plus $14.40 in court costs, part of which was for the care of Lizzie while she was in the custody of the constable.

The size of the fine out­rag­ed those present, who resumed their shouting, denouncing the magistrates for 10 or 15 min­utes after Magistrate Johnston adjourned the session. The dis­satisfaction with the sentence con­tinued amongst the public for a couple of weeks. Mary­bor­ough residents considered the case and its outcome a prac­tical failure of the justice system.

Several prominent citizens denounced the system of mag­is­trates, arguing that most of them used their position to pro­tect their friends and other pro­minent people from the full sting of the law. Magistrates were supposedly appointed bas­ed on their place in the com­munity and their judgment, but in practice the system seldom work in a fair manner. News­paper comments across Well­ing­ton agreed with those senti­ments.

More important than the minuscule fine was the fate of young Lizzie. The magistrates ordered her to be removed per­ma­nently from the McKague household. She would be re­turn­ed to the orphanage at Niag­ara. Soon, the magistrates hoped, she would be adopted into a more appropriate house­hold.

Amongst the fallout from the trial was a further decline in the reputation of Rev. George Moore, who seemed to defend and approve of the ill treatment of a young girl. A stringer for the Elora Observer, signing his report as Rothsay Corres­pon­dent, urged Rev. Moore to re­tire to his farm, which was popularly known in the area as Blarney Castle, remove himself from the public stage, and write his memoirs.

Most people regarded the reverend gentleman’s own down­fall soon after the Lizzie Robinson case as a fair turn of events, if not some sort of divine retribution. All in all, those events from 1876 offer a most interesting view of the jus­tice system as it was prac­ticed 133 years ago.

As for Lizzie Robinson, we can only hope that she was not traumatized permanently by her mistreatment and the trial, and that she went on to live a happy and useful life following the sad events of 1876.


Stephen Thorning