Officials feared sectarian strife after 1847 execution

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.



Stephen Thorning