Maryborough man jailed after 1892 shooting

Last week’s column described the events surrounding a shooting in Maryborough on Apr. 16, 1892, when John George fired a shotgun at Daniel Eby in a dispute over the lot line between their adjoining farms.

Nine pieces of buckshot lodged in Eby’s body. Initially, doctors could find only one of them, and they feared that infection from two, in Eby’s nose and throat, could prove fatal.  Two days after the shooting, Eby was still under constant doctor’s attention, and George was securely ensconced in the jail at Guelph, awaiting his trial on a charge of attempted murder. During the week after the shooting more information on the shooting incident emerged.  Much, as is usual in such cases, was contradictory.

Initially, those who witnessed the affair and spoke to reporters claimed that no words had been exchanged between George and Eby.  Later, it appeared that George had warned Eby and the neighbours who turned out to help him that fateful morning, not to touch the lot line fence which Eby intended to move.  When they ignored him, George went back to his house to retrieve his shotgun.  Before firing, George had warned that he would shoot the first man who touched the fence. The victim of the shooting, Daniel Eby, recovered slowly, and did not succumb to infections as the doctors had feared.  By the beginning of May he had improved to the point where doctors predicted a full recovery, and a week later he was up and around, tackling light chores on the farm.

John George, meanwhile, lingered for more than a month in jail. Bail had been denied pending the fate of Eby.

Had he died, George would have faced murder charges. While he sat in jail, George’s  brother went to the farm to finish the ploughing and put in the crop.  With Eby’s recovery certain, George was released on bail in mid-May. Judge Chadwick and a jury heard the charge of attempted murder in Guelph’s county court on June 17, 1892.

The case occupied most of the day. Crown Attorney Henry Peterson called all the farmers who had witnessed the incident. All of the work party helping Dan Eby on the morning of the shooting testified: Henry Fenton, John Wilson, Graham Jackson, Alex Robb, George Boyle, John Cadwell, and Rolen Rolls.

John George hired H.P. O’Connor, a lawyer from Walkerton, who was also the MPP for South Bruce, as his counsel.  An excellent trial lawyer, O’Connor gave an eloquent plea on behalf of his client.  The jury returned its verdict after almost four hours of deliberation. Perhaps influenced by O’Connor’s eloquence, they found John George guilty of shooting with intent to do bodily harm.  Judge Chadwick considered the matter overnight, and passed his sentence the next morning: three months in the Central Prison. Crown Attorney Peterson did not dispute the verdict or sentence.  After two months, tempers had cooled considerably, and Eby’s recovery from his wounds led people to consider the incident less serious than they had initially. Only a few people argued that the sentence was too light. Judge Chadwick produced greater controversy with his decision to disallow travel expenses and costs for the prosecution witnesses, especially the farmers who were present that morning and saw the shooting.

They had to bear the cost of transportation from Maryborough to Guelph, and at least a night’s accommodation while there.  As well, they lost a couple of days of time to work their farms. The background to the dispute that led to the shooting was more complicated than appeared initially.  At the time of the shooting, John L. George owned the farm known as the west half of Lot 6, Concession 6 of Maryborough. Members of the Eby family occupied the properties on either side of the George farm: the East half of Lot 5 and the west half of Lot 6. All three farms fronted on the Concession 6 road, but because the front portions of the farms were wet and swampy, the access to all was through a private laneway, 30 feet wide, along the back property line. Such arrangements, in the early years of the township, were common. Council in the 1850s faced a huge mileage of roads to construct and maintain and few resources to undertake the work.  Until proper roads were in service, farmers used the easiest way they could find to access their properties. More than one farmer had an ulterior motive in using such access. Such settlers built and cleared the land at the rear of the farm first.   From the road the property appeared to be unoccupied, and owned by an absentee  landowner. In the 1850s, the assessor noted several times that he had to trudge the back property lines, rather than the roads, to find all the occupied farms.

The private roadway at the back of the Eby and George farms remained in use longer than most such arrangements. In fact, it was formalized in documents registered at the Land Records Office.  Those documents attached a 30-foot strip across the rear of John George’s farm to the neighbouring Eby property, and in return attached a strip of land of equivalent area from the Eby farm to the George farm.

The difficulties in 1892 led in large part from the fact that the agreement was registered for the Eby farm, but not the George farm.

When Eby and George agreed to abolish the rear roadway in 1891 and access their properties directly to the Concession 6 road, Eby expected the property lines to revert to their original positions.

John George assumed that the fence along his boundary line with the Eby farm was already in the correct position, and that the access across the rear of his farm was merely an easement, not an actual ownership. The arrangements had been made years earlier, when the George farm was owned by James Lewis.

Therefore, it is natural that John George thought surveyor Lewis Bolton made an error in laying out the boundary lines, and that Eby was, in effect, stealing a portion of his farm when he started to move the fence.  When he bought the farm, George had only an incomplete and inaccurate understanding of the previous arrangements.  In court, he claimed that he had used force to defend his property, and that he had given several warnings that he was prepared to use his shotgun.  He believed that his actions were entirely within the law.

By the time of the trial the fence had already been moved to its proper location by Dan Eby’s brothers and some neighbours.  John George accepted the new property lines when he was released on bail. By then his lawyer had explained the legal situation to him. Because Daniel Eby recovered from the shooting, John George was a lucky man. The shooting incident was a life-long reminder to him of the dangers of acting on impulse.

The lesson for all, as relevant today as in 1892, is that property boundaries should be properly surveyed and documented on the title to the property. Verbal agreements and “understandings” lead only to ugly confrontations.

Stephen Thorning