During the second half of the 1860s, Mount Forest passed through a significant boom phase.
In 1865, the population passed the 1,000 mark, sufficient for incorporation as a village. Six years later, the population hit 2,000.
Though there was some small-scale manufacturing, Mount Forest’s role as a market town propelled its prosperity. The big event each month was the cattle and produce market, normally held on the third Wednesday. Market days brought in a huge crowd from Arthur and Luther Townships, and the southern tier of Grey County.
Market days in the late 1860s were usually noisy and boisterous affairs. After weeks of isolation and dull, routine work, most farmers were ready for a little excitement when they hit town. Adding to the volatile mix were single men in Mount Forest employed in the construction trades.
October 21, 1868 was such a market day. Though the weather was cold and wet, hundreds of people were in town that day, crowding the stores and especially the cramped bar rooms in Mount Forest’s four hotels. (That number would swell to nine over the following three years.)
Late in the afternoon, about 4pm, an argument broke out in the bar room of Mrs. Ross’s hotel. With some assistance, the bartender managed to escort the combatants outside and onto the porch, where they soon attracted a considerable crowd. The dispute expanded, and soon a half dozen men were involved, shouting and jostling one another. Perhaps 25 or 30 others gathered around to watch. It appears that few, if any of those present, were sober.
Suddenly, one of the men took a step back, wielded his umbrella, and stabbed it at the initiator of the dispute, a man named Edward Cosgrove. The blow struck him on the temple, and he collapsed to the wood planking of the porch. The assailant straightened himself, tucked the umbrella under his arm, and walked briskly away.
Several men leaned down to examine the victim, Cosgrove. He had a terrible wound to the skull above his eye. It was obvious, even in the dim light of late afternoon on a rainy October day, that he was dead. Bystanders lifted the lifeless body and carried it into the hotel.
Those were the details that, at the subsequent inquest and trial, all witnesses agreed upon. Eventually someone had the idea that a doctor and the constable, John Sheppard, should be summoned. All the men subsequently involved in the case bungled their duties. Had Ed Cosgrove not lost his life, the case could be read as a comedy.
Several of the witnesses named the assailant as Archibald McKechnie. The constable, though, made no attempt at an arrest for several hours, until ordered to do so by the reeve. Sheppard searched all the Mount Forest hotels for McKechnie. Acting on a tip, he overtook McKechnie about four miles from town, walking with a friend, Nicol McIntyre.
There was an inquest, though a poorly conducted one, and as a result charges of manslaughter were filed against McKechnie.
The case came up at the spring assizes of 1869, held in April at the court house in Guelph. John Duggan, QC, handled the prosecution. He presented a pathetic case. He did not call the coroner to confirm the cause of death, and did not present the murder weapon to the court. He truly put together an exceptionally weak case against McKechnie.
Duggan’s first witness was Alex Wilson, who claimed to have seen the affair from across the street. He testified that he saw McKechnie thrust ahead with his umbrella, but did not see it hit Cosgrove, but afterwards he saw the injuries to the deceased’s head.
Under cross examination, Wilson admitted that he did not know McKechnie, but had seen him at the inquest and was certain that McKechnie was the man brandishing his umbrella. He said he got a good look at the assailant because his hat had fallen from his head in the bustle and confusion.
Duggan’s next witness was Cornelius Connor, a merchant who had watched the confrontation from the front door of his store, perhaps 100 feet away. He admitted that the assailant looked like the prisoner, but could not identify him positively. He said he had never seen the man before the affray.
Walter Hornsbury told the court that he had met McKechnie walking briskly down the sidewalk, away from the incident, with his umbrella under his arm. He had no doubt about his identification of the prisoner.
Thomas Phelan followed. He explained that the dispute had started in the bar. A fellow named Anderson boasted to Cosgrove that he could drive oxen better than anyone in Mount Forest. Cosgrove replied, “You are not sober,” and pushed him aside. That got the brawl under way.
According to Phelan, several others were brandishing umbrellas. One blow struck Alex McIntyre, a brother-in-law of the prisoner.
Duggan’s last witness was Constable John Shepard, who had to deal with only a few questions, none of which concerned proper procedures in the case of such magnitude. Duggan did not call the doctor who conducted the inquest.
The defence lawyers, McMillan and Freeman, did their best to show McKechnie in a favourable light.
Alex McIntyre was their first witness. He was a resident of Erin, but was in Mount Forest the previous October for the market day. He said that he had seen the prisoner with his brother, Nicol McIntyre, and several others, an hour or so before the incident. Later, he was present at the brawl, and said that he had received a blow himself with an umbrella. He said that he had not been called to testify at the inquest.
James Kilgour testified that he had seen the prisoner earlier that fateful afternoon, leading a cow from the fairgrounds in company with Nicol McIntyre, his brother-in-law. He testified that the prisoner was universally respected in the neighbourhood.
Nicol McIntyre followed on the stand. He confirmed that he and the prisoner had purchased a heifer and had a great deal of difficulty controlling it. He said that he and McKechnie took the heifer straight home.
He saw no brawl at Ross’s Hotel.
John Robinson was the next witness. He had been a bystander at the brawl, and confirmed the blow to Alex McIntyre, who was standing beside him. He said that he had concentrated his efforts and calming the crowd.
He did not think the prisoner, whom he had never seen before that day, was the man who struck the deadly blow.
Smith Simmons, John McMillan, Duncan McMillan and Duncan McDermid all testified that McKechnie was definitely not the man who struck Cosgrove with an umbrella. All had known him for years.
Josh Turner, of Arthur, insisted that McKechnie was not the assailant. He had a good look at the face of the assailant, he told the court. He was a full-faced man, with a ruddy complexion and a full red beard, and bore little resemblance to the prisoner.
The defence testimony concluded with a couple of character witnesses. The case by then had occupied the entire day. The next morning, the jury took only a few minutes to reach their verdict of “not guilty.”
That ended the case, one of the most unusual homicide cases in Wellington’s legal history.