New wrinkles emerged in bizarre 1877 abduction case

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.

Last week’s column described the July 1877 Guelph abduction case, in which members of the Sturdy family (Fred, his son Joe and daughter Louisa) lured 17-year-old Annie Carr into a carriage at an isolated bridge after dark, attempted to drug her, drove to Hamilton, held her captive in a house the Sturdys had rented, and eventually forced her into a marriage.

The initial story, based on a second-hand account from Annie after she was rescued and returned to Guelph by her uncle, Sheriff Peter Gow, struck most people as improbable at best. But new revelations emerged every day, making her story increasingly credible.

In the initial version of the story, Joe Sturdy had been the rejected suitor who forced the marriage. A day later, the true story emerged. Joe had dated Annie briefly in the spring of 1877, but then his father, Fred, moved in.

Fred Sturdy, a respectable citizen with a successful house painting business, was about 50 years old, and a recent widower. 

He soon became completely obsessed with Annie, showering her with gifts, and then proposing marriage. In early June she reluctantly agreed, much against the advice of her aunt and uncle, with whom she was then staying while working at a Wyndham Street store.

Fred had a large family. The youngest child was only 6 or 7, but Louisa, his daughter, was four years older than his intended bride. Annie’s doubts about the marriage mounted, and on June 18 she broke it off.

That only made Fred more determined. First, he sent his daughter Louisa to plead his case. Fred then returned to the Gow house to see Annie in person. She sent him away, and followed with a letter saying that she did not want to see him again. Fred hired agents to follow her everywhere, and made repeated attempts to resume contact. Annie felt safe only in the company of an older woman when she left the house.

In late June, Fred followed Annie on a railway excursion to Burlington. On the return trip he confronted her, making threats if she would not change her mind. For the next month she felt constant fear, with agents or members of the Sturdy family following her on the street.

Late in July she received a note, supposedly from her father, but actually penned by Fred Sturdy. Her father would come to Guelph from his home in Thorold for a week or so on business, according to the note, and he wanted to see her, but wished to avoid the Gows (Mrs. Gow was his sister). He would send a carriage to pick her up in the evening, with a rendezvous at the Edinburgh Road bridge over the Speed.

Given the circumstances, it is hard to believe that Annie fell for this ruse. Her father had no reason to avoid the Gows, and had no reason to be in Guelph for a week “on business.” And surely she should have been able to identify his handwriting.

Yet Fred Sturdy’s lure proved successful. He sent cabby Harry Pearson with his employee Bill Lowes to pick her up, and later took over the cab with his daughter Louisa for a lengthy and terrifying trip to Hamilton, as related in last week’s column.

With the full assistance of Sheriff Gow, police chief Jonathan Kelly, who had a reputation as a bit of a bungler, put together the story in a few days. Kelly by then had four suspects in custody: Fred Sturdy, his children Joe and Louisa, and employee Bill Lowes. Fred was charged with forcible abduction, and the other three with aiding in the crime.

A preliminary hearing was set for Guelph police court on Monday, Aug. 6. The room was packed, a result of the lengthy stories carried in every issue of both Guelph dailies. The city had a population of less than 10,000 and when it came to stories such as this one, it was more like a small town than a city. As well, reporters were present from the Toronto and Hamilton papers.

Annie Carr was the first on the stand. She had calmed down considerably after the frightening experience. Initially, Dr. Keating thought that she might have lost her mind. She answered all questions clearly, and gave a clear account of her three-day experience as a captive of Fred Sturdy. Crown Attorney Henry Peterson conducted the examination, skillfully guiding her with his questions. 

Lawyers for the Sturdy family were unable to poke holes in her story.

Annie described her endless torment in the rented Hamilton house. Fred attacked her several times, and threatened death if she would not marry him. Fred told her that he would kill himself as well, because he did not intend to go to the penitentiary over her.

The only food she had during the ordeal was a couple of stale biscuits soaked in wine. Her recollections of those hours were hazy. The wine was probably drugged, and she was weak from lack of food and the sheer terror of the ordeal. Fred’s daughter, Louisa, was at the house much of the time.

On the second morning of her captivity she broke down and agreed to marry Fred. He arranged for the ceremony with Rev. A.H. Fletcher of Dundas. 

Following the nuptials, Fred took Annie back to the house in Hamilton. He told her they could return to Guelph, live as man and wife, and no one need know anything about the abduction. The next evening she was rescued by her uncle.

Annie Carr testified all morning and all afternoon. When she was finished, Alex Dunbar, legal counsel for Fred Sturdy, objected to all of her testimony against his client, on the grounds that the marriage had been consummated and a wife could not testify against her husband. 

Donald Guthrie, representing Annie, jumped to his feet and cited precedents to allow such testimony, and the magistrate agreed.

After a supper break, the hearing continued with some legal arguments, and then adjourned to the following morning to hear more witnesses.

Henry Pearson, the cab driver, told the court about the rental of his cab to Bill Lowes. He said that the cab had been returned to him at about 11pm the night of the abduction, and the team had obviously been driven hard. He had heard from others that Fred and Louisa Sturdy had been seen in the cab, but Lowes denied it. Afterward, he had been unable to get his money from Lowes, and could not find Fred Sturdy.

Pearson said he found a broken bottle in the back of the cab. It had been identified by pharmacist Alex Petrie as a chloroform bottle. There was evidence of a scuffle in the cab, and he also found a handkerchief and a fan.

Henry Sallows, a blacksmith, said he had seen the cab pass with Annie inside, then slow down. Louisa and Fred Sturdy quickly got in from either side, and the cab then sped away.

E.H. Hall, who lived on Wellington Street, heard screams from a cab passing at high speed, and a woman crying out, “Let me out!” Similar evidence was given by Andrew Findlay and John Spalding, who also had watched the cab race by their residences.

Margaret Dawson saw the cab race by after dark on Victoria Road, two miles south of Guelph, and she heard muffled screams from a woman.

Dr. Tom Keating described the various injuries and wounds on Annie’s body.

Frances Hamilton told the court she had rented the house in Hamilton to Joe and Fred Sturdy. They paid the first month’s rent, $7, and said the house was for Fred’s son-in-law, who was a commercial traveller.

Police Chief Kelly related the evasive answers he had received when questioning Bill Lowes and Joe Sturdy.

At the end of the case for the prosecution, the magistrate said he had heard sufficient evidence to send the matter to the fall assizes without hearing any evidence for the defence. 

Alex Dunbar tried to argue that charges should be dropped against Joe Sturdy, but the magistrate would have none of it.

All four prisoners would remain in jail until their trial came up in the last week of October. But there would be more surprises in the case before then.

[Next week: The conclusion of the Sturdy story.]

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on July 15, 2005.

Thorning Revisited