Meningitis the probable cause of mysterious death in 1873

In the 1860s and 1870s the monthly fairs held in several of the towns in Wellington County were major events, for both transacting business and as social events.

Farmers from a wide surrounding area would bring their livestock to the markets to sell to travelling livestock buyers. Others brought and sold grain. Still others went to the markets as a sort of holiday, and to buy goods from the town’s stores. For them a day off was a welcome relief after weeks of isolation and boredom, or cultivating fields while staring all day at the hind end of a horse.

Meeting neighbours and acquaintances was a big part of market day. Occasionally there were physical flare ups and fisticuffs, when men got a snootful of red-eye whiskey and picked a fight, or when young rowdies got a little out of hand.

One such incident occurred at the Elora farmers market on Aug. 13, 1873. It was a busy day, with large numbers of farmers in town before harvest activities would claim their time. In one violent incident, Daniel Mayne of Peel Township was clobbered on the head by a neighbour, Bill Smith.

No one was quite sure how the dispute originated, but it seemed to be the latest chapter in a history of animosity between the two. Curiously, the families of both men claimed to be unaware of any ill feelings between them. Neither man was known as being violent or hot-headed. Mayne was a well-respected farmer, and Smith was a trustee of the local separate school, with a reputation as a peaceable man.

Mayne, apparently, was not hurt seriously, and everyone passed the incident off as another minor affair on a market day. When he got home, though, Mayne was obviously affected by the blow. A doctor put it down to a concussion as a consequence of the blow.

Mayne took a noticeable downward turn the next day, and on the Friday of that week he seemed to have lost his mind. He wandered naked around his farm, uttering oaths and threats. His wife and his eight children became alarmed when he attempted to kill himself.

Family members hurried to retrieve Constable Burns, the part-time police force in Peel. In mid-afternoon Burns managed to get Mayne calmed down and into a wagon, and took him to the jail in Guelph for safekeeping as a dangerous lunatic. When he returned home, Burns laid charges of assault against Bill Smith, the neighbour who had clocked Mayne on the head. Smith was fined for his impulsive act by a local magistrate.

Officials at the Guelph jail kept Mayne under observation, certain that he would soon recover and regain the use of his senses. Instead, he seemed to get worse, exhibiting violent spells. A couple of days later he died.

When the news reached Peel Township, Constable Burns arrested Bill Smith and took him to the Guelph jail, on a charge of homicide. Meanwhile, the Guelph coroner called an inquest. The jury heard opinions from several doctors and other witnesses.

The doctors had examined Mayne after his death, and described a couple of seemingly minor wounds to the head of the deceased. None offered any conclusive opinion or evidence. The inquest then adjourned, to resume after the coroner, Dr. George S. Herod, who was also the jail surgeon, performed a post mortem examination of Mayne’s body.

Dr. Herod’s testimony was thorough, as might be expected in a case such as this that had at first seemed a minor one. Dr. Herod testified that Mayne had been very thin and emaciated. He noted no significant bruises or wounds that might have caused death.

The only marks were a cut on the end of the nose and a slight abrasion at the side of the head near the eyebrow. He was of the opinion that both those wounds had occurred very recently, while Mayne was in jail, and had not resulted from the dust-up at the Elora Market a week earlier.

Dr. Herod also identified another bruise on the side of the head, but he considered it a very old one. He had opened the skull, and found a large quantity of coagulated blood beneath that wound. He found evidence of inflammation of the brain that he believed had existed for some time. Some of the blood vessels in the brain were engorged with blood, and lymphatic fluid was present throughout the right hemisphere of the brain. The left hemisphere of the brain appeared normal.

Dr. Herod’s examination of the abdomen revealed the organs to be normal, except for some bruising, which, he said, probably resulted from one of Mayne’s violent spells in jail when he struck himself violently while wearing handcuffs, which had been put on him by a guard to prevent him doing harm to himself.

When Dr. Herod finished the thorough description of his examination, he told the court that he believed Mayne had died of cerebral meningitis. The blow from Smith had aggravated what was already a delicate medical case, and that death had resulted from the meningitis, not Smith’s fist.

Several members of the jury posed questions to Dr. Herod. He asserted that meningitis could result from a number of causes, including excitement and cold, as well as a physical blow. He doubted that a blow to the nose, such as Mayne had received from Smith, could result in meningitis. He did not believe the other blow to Mayne, on the side of his head, was related to the meningitis. He was convinced that the meningitis had originated some time before the August Elora Market incident.

Several important points were not brought out during the coroner’s inquest. No questions were asked about Mayne’s behaviour before his visit to the Elora market, or whether he had sought any medical advice at that time. Another curious fact was that Mayne’s wife also suffered a bad spell of illness at the same time as her husband, and was in “a raving state,” according to newspaper reports. Neighbours believed that she had become deranged when her husband was taken ill, and feared that she would be unable to provide for their large young family.

Also curious was the removal of Mayne to the Guelph jail, rather than to the hospital. The obvious answer was that he was too violent to be admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital, which at that time concentrated on the old and indigent, and was probably unequipped to handle a violent and aggressive patient.

The Guelph General Hospital would not open for another two years. There were few alternatives in 1873 for dealing with a man in Mayne’s condition. Nevertheless, jail authorities might have been more diligent in securing medical attention for Mayne.

After hearing Dr. Herod’s lengthy description of his post mortem and his explanation of Mayne’s condition, the jury took only a few minutes to agree to accept the doctor’s verdict.

That news came as a great relief to Bill Smith, who had spent the day pacing in his cell. After the verdict was announced, the charges against Smith were dropped and he was free to return to his farm. No doubt he resolved never again to take a swing at anyone at the monthly Elora Market, or anywhere else.


Stephen Thorning