Minister’s son ran bizarre 1910 provincial election campaign

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.

One of the more bizarre political campaigns in the history of this county was that of Joel Marvin Briggs in a by-election contest for the provincial Wellington South riding in the fall of 1910.

His campaign ended abruptly when Chief Randall of the Guelph police department took him into custody and put him on a train to Toronto.

Joel M. Briggs was a son of Rev. Joel Briggs, a Methodist minister. The Methodist Church in the mid-19th century assigned its ministers to circuits, usually consisting of a larger church in a town or village and several rural churches. A circuit usually had two ministers, sometimes with a student minister assisting. Officials moved the clergymen regularly, normally every two years.

The local ministers moved from town to town around the area to the west of Toronto. Rev. Briggs served in towns from Owen Sound to the London area. In 1872, church officials sent him to the Elora circuit. He had married in 1854. He and his wife Frances had a family of four children, of whom Joel Jr., born in 1863, was the youngest.

Rev. Briggs was a very popular minister in Elora. Joel Jr. and his siblings quickly made friends at Elora Public School. Late in 1873 he was transferred again, this time to Toronto. That appointment turned out to be a brief one. In May of 1875 he fell from the roof of the manse while doing some minor repairs. He died of his injuries. Rev. Briggs was only 47 years old.

Frances, as many widows of that era did, opened a boarding house. Young Joel, only 12, continued his schooling, and then found employment in one of the Toronto banks as a clerk. He continued to live with his mother, helping to support the household. They lived in half a duplex house, long demolished, on Maitland Street, just east of Yonge.

By 1900, the household expanded when Joel’s widowed sister moved in, along with her three children. The following year Joel moved out when he married Anna Hill. He was then 38, and his friends had considered him a confirmed bachelor. Over the next eight years the couple had two sons and a daughter.

It is impossible to determine whether married life did not agree with Joel, or whether a quarter century of balancing ledgers had become too much for him. In any case, Joel began to acquire strange opinions on political and economic issues, and he became determined to voice them publicly.

Though he had never previously been involved in politics, he ran for mayor of Toronto for 1909. He placed fourth in field of four, garnering 327 votes. The winner received more than 27,000. A year later he stood again, this time securing only 93 votes.

By then he had lost his position with the bank. His employers had become alarmed at the statements he made during his campaigns, and at his behaviour on the job. Consequently, Briggs decided to devote all his energy and resources to his political career, even though it had been spectacularly unsuccessful so far.

J.P. Downey was a former editor of the Guelph Herald who had been elected as a Conservative MPP in 1902. In the fall of 1910 the government appointed him the superintendent of the mental hospital at Orillia. That resulted in his resignation from the provincial house and a by-election in Wellington South in November of 1910.

Briggs viewed Wellington South as home territory, having spent part of his boyhood there. He decided to contest the seat, as the candidate of the Great Independent National Party. He was the sole member of that organization. In October he moved to a room in a Guelph boarding house, which would be his campaign headquarters.

During his campaign Briggs made a few public appearances. His speeches were confused and rambling soliloquies, attacking various public figures and advocating nonsensical policies. Briggs devoted most of his time to writing threatening letters and mailing them to prominent men and public figures in Guelph, Fergus and Elora. The Briggs campaign became the most exciting part of an otherwise dull by-election, and was the subject of comment everywhere in the riding.

Back in Toronto, Joel Briggs’s family had become alarmed at his actions, which were reported in some of the Toronto newspapers. His wife, Frances, contacted Chief Randall of Guelph on Oct. 27, explaining her fears for her husband’s sanity. Randall, who had been watching the Briggs campaign closely, had to agree. That evening he had his men take Briggs into custody.

He telephoned the Toronto Police Department, advising it of Briggs’ arrival on a train that evening.

The seizing of Briggs without laying any charges and without a court order, and his deportation on a Grand Trunk train, accompanied by an officer in civilian clothes, were highly irregular. Chief Randall was reluctant to discuss the matter with reporters, though he did state that he had sent a huge trunk filled with election pamphlets with Briggs. He did leave the reporters with the impression that he was very relieved to have Briggs out of the city.

At that time candidates were selected at a public nomination meeting. Briggs’s removal from the Royal City took place before that meeting. Consequently, he did not have the opportunity to create a scene at the meeting, and his name would not appear on the ballot.

Toronto police officers met the train, and took Briggs directly to the Queen Street mental hospital. By then authorities had filled out the required paper work. Briggs was held at the hospital on a magistrate’s order on a charge of insanity. The hearing that afternoon had been a brief one. Briggs was not present, but the magistrate had a report from Chief Randall concerning Briggs’s activities in Guelph, Fergus and Elora.

As well, several of his acquaintances and former fellow-employees testified that his mental state was severely impaired and that he should be held in custody. They feared his erratic behaviour would lead to violence and injury to others and himself.

Joel Briggs remained at the hospital for exactly three years.

Several sources state that he died there on Halloween in 1913, but the death notices in the Toronto newspapers stated that he passed away at the family residence at 24 Maitland Street. It is probable that he had been in failing health and was released to the care of his family.

Joel Briggs was 49 years old. The family arranged a private funeral at the Toronto Necropolis.

The coroner gave cause of death as cirrhosis of the liver. That ailment usually means chronic alcoholism, but there are other causes. Briggs would have had little or no chance to get liquor while in the mental hospital. During his ill-fated political career there is no mention of a drinking problem, but such habits were rarely mentioned at that time. There may well have been other factors in his physical health that caused his mental aberrations.

Like his father, Briggs left a young family. His sons, Earl and Charles, were 10 and 8 years of age. The youngest child, Frances, eventually moved to British Columbia, where she died in 2000 at the age of 90.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on May 18, 2012.

Thorning Revisited