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.