Last week’s column related the events of March 22, 1847, and the death of Richard Oliver after he was stabbed by Charles Coghlin.
Both were farmers in Guelph Township, to the east of that town. The families had been quarrelling for months, over religious differences (the Olivers were Protestant Orangeman; the Coghlins Catholics), and personal animosities.
The Guelph area had experienced heavy Irish migration in the mid 1840s, and the religious and sectarian differences of the Emerald Isle accompanied them. The authorities feared that the arrest and imminent trial of Charlie Coghlin might arouse demonstrations and further violence.
Though sentiments were strong, no one seemed inclined to disturb the peace. Most of the Irish, it seems, had come to Canada in part to escape religious animosities. They viewed the Coghlins and the Olivers as extremists and brawling troublemakers.
The Guelph jail guards led Charles Coghlin into court on the morning of May 29, a Saturday. A huge crowd crammed the room, with some people sitting on window sills and others outside, craning their necks to get a better view and to hear the proceedings.
Robert Oliver, a brother of the deceased, was the first to give evidence, and he related his version of the events of the fateful afternoon of the previous March 22. Coghlin’s friends probably assisted in getting him a high-powered legal defence: J.W. Gwynne of Toronto, who, 32 years later, would be appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. Gwynne subjected Oliver to intense cross-examination, trying to prove that Oliver had been armed with a dagger, and that the homicide had been an act of self-defence.
William Oliver, another brother of the deceased, followed Robert, and then his 11-year old nephew, John Oliver, who had witnessed the stabbing.
The next witness, John Jones, testified that he had met William and Richard Oliver near the Bull Frog Inn on Eramosa Road, and that William was covered with blood. William had told him that he had suffered the injuries in an altercation with two of the Coghlin brothers. Farther along the road he met the accused, who told him that his two brothers had suffered a beating at the hands of the Olivers, and that he was following them to get satisfaction.
In his cross-examination, Gwynne asked whether Jones had seen a dagger in possession of the Olivers, and whether Richard Oliver was sober. Gwynne suggested that the dead man had become confrontational as a result of liquor.
The final evidence for the crown came from Dr. Charles Jones and Dr. William Clarke, who had conducted the autopsy. They confirmed that death resulted from a stab that had penetrated the heart.
Gwynne’s first witness for the defence was Ann Mitchell, who lived on Eramosa Road. She described that two of the Olivers and two Coghlins had rushed into her house, much to her horror and fright, and fought inside the house. One of the Coghlins hid, telling her later that he did not fight because he was bound to keep the peace as a consequence of a previous fight.
After the Olivers fled the scene, one of the Coghlin brothers said he was going to Guelph to have a bad gash on his hand dressed by Dr. Clarke. In cross-examination, she confirmed that Charles Coghlin, the accused, was not part of that altercation.
Next up for the defence was Elizabeth Gay, wife of the proprietor of the Bull Frog Inn. She testified that she had seen a sleigh containing the Olivers pass her door, and that the accused was following on foot a short distance behind. She claimed she saw Richard Oliver try to get out of the sleigh, while his brother, Robert, tried to prevent him from doing so. Richard succeeded in stepping out, and a few minutes later she saw him confront Charles Coghlin, and then the two exchanged blows. She said she then went into the hotel and bolted the door, out of fear that the combatants would come to the hotel and continue their fight inside.
A short time later, Coghlin pounded at the door, asking for the use of a mirror so that he could see his face, which he believed had been cut.
Under cross-examination, she confirmed that she had seen Oliver and Coghlin exchanging punches. This was in contradiction to the testimony of the Olivers, who claimed their brother had not raised his fists, and that Charlie Coghlin had stabbed their brother without provocation.
The next defence witness, John Murray, offered another version. He claimed that all the Olivers got out of the wagon to confront the prisoner, and that after a time another pedestrian arrived on the scene and joined the fracas. For a time, he said, Richard Oliver and Charles Coghlin were fighting by themselves.
Not wishing to get involved, Murray had gone into his house. A few minutes later, the sleigh stopped as it was passing, and Robert Oliver told Murray that his brother had been stabbed. He could see that Richard Oliver was covered with blood, and claimed that he smelled of liquor.
Under cross-examination, Murray said that he did not want to get involved in the affair, and was on the verge of moving to Peel Township at the time. He had been summoned from his new home by the Coghlins to testify, he stated.
Murray was the last defence witness. In his summary, J.W. Gwynne addressed the jury at length, pointing out the inconsistencies among the prosecution witnesses, and the fact that the defence witnesses contradicted the version of events offered by the prosecution. It was a moving presentation, and elicited much sympathy for Charles Coghlin among the spectators.
The jury, though, was much more hard-hearted. The judge stressed that case revolved on whether Coghlin had stabbed Oliver, and the defence had not disproved the claim that Oliver had no weapon. They took only a short time to bring in a verdict of murder.
The judged then passed sentence: Charles Coghlin would hang on July 1, 1847, 33 days later. The entire trial had taken less than a single day of court time.
Fears that there might be some sort of intervention by Coghlin’s family and friends remained strong, and the authorities were particularly nervous as the day of the execution drew near. Anticipating that Coghlin’s supporters might try to intervene in the execution, workmen constructed a twelve-foot board fence between the court house and the old Guelph jail, and placed barricades at the door and windows to the court house. In addition, the novelty of the occasion made officials nervous: this would be the first execution to take place in Guelph.
To maintain order, 60 special constables were sworn in, their duties beginning at sunrise on June 29, two days before the date set for the hanging.
Members of the Coghlin family threatened the carpenter who was hired to build the scaffold, which was accessed through an upstairs window in the court house to keep it away from the crowd. A priest intervened and persuaded the Coghlins to withdraw their threats. The carpenter resumed work, but did not finish until about 1am the day of the execution. At the same time, Coghlin, who was illiterate, dictated a final statement to a priest and Sheriff Grange, which he requested be published in both Guelph newspapers.
Though he had not testified on his own behalf at the trial, he gave his version of the events in the statement, claiming the Olivers were brutes and had tormented members of his family, and that Richard Oliver had been armed with a knife when they met in the fatal confrontation. He had stabbed Oliver once out of self defence. Afterward, he said, he did not believe that Oliver was dead. If he had known, he would have fled from Guelph.
Four hours after the scaffold was completed a crowd started to form in front of the court house, and by 7am it had grown to about 1,000, and eventually to 1,500. Many were women and children. The execution had been scheduled for 8am, but Sheriff Grange moved it up to 10am to make certain that all preparations were made.
At precisely 10am, the sheriff, the hangman and Coghlin appeared in the upstairs window and stepped onto the scaffold. Grange allowed Coghlin time for his final words. Pale and thin from his time in the jail, but with a loud, firm voice, Charles Coghlin addressed the crowd for a half hour. It was a wandering address, raising all sorts of issues that had nothing to do with the case. He repeated many of his points several times. He expressed his sympathies to Richard Oliver’s wife, and asked that his supporters not seek revenge for his execution. He wished for the prayers of those assembled, and asked that his father not stay to see him hang.
The hangman then quickly carried out his duties, placing a black hood over Coghlin’s head, then springing the trap door. Three minutes or so after dropping, Coghlin was dead. The crowd drifted away, slowly and silently.
Charles Coghlin’s funeral drew more than 600 people. His father tried to procure some green cotton for bunting and as a cover for the casket, but Guelph merchants refused to sell it to him, fearing that a display of that colour would provoke Orangemen. The funeral procession was an impressive one. Several observers thought it might have been in honour of a local dignitary, rather than an executed murderer.
Sectarian feelings remained strong for a couple of years. Coghlin’s execution may have inspired the torching of the new Wellington Mills five weeks after the hanging. But that is a story for anther time.