Maryborough mob defended ‘helpless’ widow against eviction

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.


Scenes of violent confrontation do not predominate in the history of Wellington County.

Rarer still were cases of open defiance of authorities. The bulk of the latter class pertained to defiance of liquor laws and compulsory school attendance, two areas of life that our earlier generations, to a greater or lesser extent, believed were purely matters of personal purview.

Outright mob activities, against this background of comparative quietude, loom in the historical record in stark contrast. On the list of such cases, that of the Maryborough Mob of 1872 deserves to head the list.

The central figure in this drama was Ann Gray, a widow left with a large and young family.

James and Ann Gray came to Maryborough Township, it appears, at some point in the 1860s. Jim was a carpenter by trade, and the couple had a family of 10 children. As far as we can tell, the family was unremarkable for their time and place. Jim had been born in northern Ireland; the family attended the Anglican church, and the large family was spaced out over roughly two-year intervals. This general description could be applied to dozens of other households at that time.

In 1869 or 1870, Jim settled his family on a farm on Concession 9, Lot 3 of Maryborough, located a short distance northwest of Moorefield, and very near the small settlement of Trecastle.

This farm had been purchased in 1864 by Thomas L. Moore. At the time of purchase, Moore had taken out two mortgages on the property, the first to Abram Ball, a Galt lawyer, and the second to Rev. George Moore, the founder of Moorefield and a looming figure in the early history of the township.

Tom Moore had not made a success of farming this property, and at the beginning of 1869 he turned over the title to the first mortgage holder, lawyer Abe Ball of Galt. Jim Gray, it appears, had agreed to purchase the farm from Ball, through a rather complicated financial web involving members of Ann’s family.

It all began to unravel with Jim’s death at the age of 45.

Ann, a young widow of 37, immediately faced the double difficulties of no regular income and 10 mouths to feed, ranging from Bill, who had just turned 18, down to little Catherine, barely a year old.

Billy and his brother Jim Jr., two years younger, tried their best to make a go of the farm, but very little cash trickled into the household. Ann soon fell hopelessly behind in her payments to Ball.

Becoming much more demanding and persistent during 1872, Ball insisted that the Grays either pay up in full or abandon the farm. Pushing his case, he soon had the matter in court. In the fall the court awarded possession of the farm to Abram Ball. On Dec. 4 Sheriff Grange dispatched bailiff Michael Conway, with a couple of constables, on the morning train from Guelph to Moorefield to serve eviction papers on Ann Gray and to take possession of the house.

Intelligence of Conway’s mission reached Maryborough long before he did, aided, no doubt, by sympathetic railway employees who telegraphed the news ahead. Normally, this was a service only accorded for journeys by liquor and excise inspectors.

When Bailiff Conway reached the Gray farm, he could see that Ann had company.

There were some 50 men, more or less, milling about the house, some holding firearms. Determined to carry out his duties, Conway and the constables approached Mrs. Gray, but he quickly found himself in the midst of a shoving and jostling match with Mrs. Gray and several of the mob.

Realizing that he was involved in a rapidly escalating confrontation, the bailiff and his men made a tactical retreat. They piled back into their rented carriage, and headed off to Hollin, where Conway knew there was an active company of the militia.

Passing through Moorefield, he paused to telegraph Sheriff Grange in Guelph to send more constables.

Conway spent a futile couple of hours in Hollin. None of the men of the Hollin rifle company had any stomach to assist the bailiff in tossing a widow and her 10 children onto a lonely country road, for the benefit of a slick lawyer from Galt, three weeks before Christmas.

They did not deem the ejectment of “a lone widow a sufficiently glorious service for their arms,” commented the Guelph Herald.

Sheriff Grange was no more help. He telegraphed back that he would send no more constables, and advised Conway to pursue a course of “masterly inactivity,” believing that Conway could negotiate himself out of the impasse. Conway’s only help came from the reeve of Maryborough, Dr. Maudsley, who offered to assemble some of the leading men of the township to persuade the mob to go home.

Considerable organization went into the defense of Ann Gray. The men worked shifts there, and maintained their position 24 hours a day. They were still there on Saturday, Dec. 7, three days after Conway arrived.

By then, with no resolution in sight, Conway and his men took the evening train back to Guelph.

Ann and the family spent Christmas on the farm, and another two months besides. But the wheels of justice were still grinding away in Guelph, slowly but inevitably.

Late on the morning of Feb. 28, 1873, James Armstrong, the chief constable of Wellington County, knocked on Mrs. Gray’s door, accompanied by Constable Mann, Bailiff Conway, and five men hired to remove Ann Gray’s furniture and possessions from the house.

This time the authorities caught her by surprise. She was alone, with only her six-year-old son Sammy in the house. Conway had his eviction papers, and Armstrong some papers as well – an arrest warrant against Ann Gray for assaulting a constable during the December confrontation. He and Mann quickly got her bundled up and took her outside into their sleigh.

Once through the door, she urged little Sammy to run to the nearby bush and get his brothers, who were chopping wood. Billy and Jimmy, aged 19 and 17, arrived on the scene almost immediately.

Perceiving that their mother was in grave danger, they dashed into the house, and came out moments later with shotguns, cocked and aimed at the frowning visage of Chief Constable Armstrong. Shaking with fear, they stuttered that they would shoot if Armstrong did not release their mother immediately.

Armstrong coolly and slowly drew out his revolver, pointed it at Jimmy and said he would shoot if he encountered even the hint of resistance. Cowed, Jimmy dropped his shotgun to the ground. Armstrong and Mann then struggled with Billy, and took his shotgun away.

In the confusion, Ann Gray had slipped out of the sleigh and back into the house, where she armed herself with an axe, and offered to use it on anyone who dared come through the door.

Despite Mrs. Gray’s offer of forceful bodily violence, and her even more forceful profanity, Bailiff Conway and his men managed to get into the house.

Ann continued to menace them, but she backed away out of arm’s reach. The men spent the next hour removing the furniture and household possessions from the first floor, whilst Mrs. Gray made her stand on the stairway.

When the men started ascending the stairs to remove the bedroom furniture, Mrs. Gray threatened them from the landing.

Determined to complete his assignment, Conway ordered his men to demolish the staircase, which they did, and then began pulling up floorboards as Mrs. Gray retreated step by step.

A final lunge at the men with her axe threw Mrs. Gray off balance, and she fell through the partially demolished floor. Some of the men downstairs caught her, and broke her fall. Soon she was ensconced in the sleigh a second time, hissing as she watched the bailiff’s men removing the rest of her furniture and possessions from the house.

Her two sons stood by as well, watching helplessly as the men spent the rest of the afternoon clearing out the house.

Through the afternoon the commotion had attracted quite a crowd of neighbours and passers-by, who stopped to commiserate with Ann and her sons. Armstrong eyed them nervously, but they offered no resistance.

By 5pm, the work was done – the Grays’ possessions piled at the roadside, lawyer Ball’s agent inside and in possession of what was left of the house, and Ann Gray under arrest and in the sleigh.

As Chief Constable Armstrong started to leave, the bystanders gathered around the sleigh and team. Several grabbed onto the horses’ heads, and while Armstrong ordered them to stand aside, others spirited Ann out of the carriage.

The mood of the crowd had grown distinctly hostile, and a spokesman told Armstrong that they would not permit him to take Ann Gray out of Maryborough Township. Fearful of the escalating situation, Armstrong, Mann, Conway and the others beat a hasty exit, and headed down the road to Moorefield.

I have not been able to discover how long Ann Gray remained a fugitive from justice, or the ultimate fate of her family.

It appears that the authorities did nothing more, in view of the widespread sympathy for Ann Gray, and having secured physical possession of the property for Ball.

Nevertheless, Ann Gray has the notable, if somewhat dubious, distinction of having mounted the most sustained and spectacular resistance to the application of civil authority in the history of Wellington County.

As for the farm, lawyer Abram Ball, whose mortgage precipitated the whole affair, sold the farm early in 1875 to William Findlay.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 31, 2000.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015