The settlement of black Americans in the early years of Peel Township has attracted a lot of attention over the past decade or so, and that historical effort culminated in the unveiling of the provincial historical plaque last summer.
That settlement of escaped slaves and free blacks preceded white settlement in the area. Between 1830 and 1860 the black settlement in Peel and Woolwich was one of the major ones in Canada. The black population diminished gradually after 1860, for reasons that have been only partially explained by historians.
In the 1870s and 1880s the dwindling settlement became increasingly violent, mostly within the black population, but at times involving the white population as well. Some of the crimes were serious, involving assaults, thefts, and arson. As well, there were a couple of homicides. One of those took place in August, 1875.
Henry White was a black resident who lived at Lot 13, Concession 5 of Peel, in a house on a farm owned by George Farr, located about 400 feet from his landlord’s house. He was married and the couple had several children. White and his wife Susannah frequently quarrelled, and the stormy nature of their marriage was well known in the neighbourhood.
Late in the afternoon of Aug. 11, 1875, Farr and White paused work harvesting for a meal. After eating, they resumed work. White asked to leave early that evening so that he might attend a church meeting.
White went to his house after stopping work, and told Susannah that he was going to a flax bee on an adjoining farm. She said that she wanted to go as well, but they argued. White told her to stay at home, and proceeded to the event. Not long after his wife appeared.
There was no further argument at the bee, and the couple left about 11pm, accompanied for part of the way by Arthur Smith, Susannah’s brother. He feared that a quarrel might break out, but all seemed tranquil. Smith left them and proceeded home to his own house.
White went into his house a little after midnight, and asked his son, Alfred, whether Susannah had come in from drawing water at the well in the yard. He told his father that she had not. Henry replied that she must have fallen down the well.
Henry and his son went out, and began shouting, which attracted the attention of several nearby neighbours. White went to his landlord’s house, and pounded at Farr’s door, awakening him. He explained to his employer that his wife had fallen down the well. Farr dressed and together the two men managed to pull her out. Farr concluded that she was quite dead after seeing that her skull was crushed. He thought the injuries for such a fall to be very curious. The well was a very shallow one, only five or six feet deep, and that the water came to within three feet of the top.
By then all the yelling and shouting had attracted several other neighbours, who had been sleeping with windows wide open. Farr sent a boy to fetch Arthur Smith, who lived a little more than a mile away. He rushed to the scene, and at once accused White of murder, and had to be physically restrained from attacking his brother-in-law.
An inquest took place the following evening, and heard four witnesses, including Peel Constable George Mellis, coroner Dr. Vardon of Hawkesville, and White’s son Alfred. Mellis testified that he had examined the house and well, and had discovered rags soaked with blood in the stove. White said that he had suffered a bleeding nose earlier in the day. There was also a stick of wood in the stove, splintered into several pieces, with blood on it. This was obviously the murder weapon.
Henry White’s son Alfred, 10 years old, testified that his father had taken a piece of wood out of the house and placed it near the well, telling him to leave it there undisturbed. The wood had been intended for a new leg for the kitchen table. The piece of wood could not be found after the discovery of Susannah’s body.
The jury returned a verdict that Susannah had “come to her death by violence from an unknown hand.” Nevertheless, on Aug. 16 Constable Mellis arrested White on a charge of murder and held him for a hearing at Yatton. He appeared before magistrates George Allan, W.S. Sutherland, and John Molloy. They heard evidence presented at the coroner’s hearing and new facts uncovered since then. They decided there was sufficient evidence to hold White for murder. The prisoner was taken to Guelph jail, awaiting trial at the fall assizes in November.
During the hearings and afterwards, Henry White answered all questions put to him clearly and logically, and insisted that he was innocent.
The trial took place on Nov. 4. George Farr was the first witness. He expanded on the evidence he gave at the hearings. When wakened by White on the fateful night, he initially did not believe that Susannah could have suffered much harm, considering the well’s shallow nature. He described how they pulled he body from the well, and the marks and bruises on her face and head after he looked closely by the light of a torch.
Constable George Farr described his investigation, conducted according to instructions received from Henry Peterson, the Crown Attorney for Wellington County. He testimony included various measurements and sketches of the scene.
White’s 10-year-old son offered very strong evidence describing White’s actions the night of Susannah’s death. When he had asked Alfred whether his mother had returned from the well, Henry White had said that she must have fallen into the well and drowned.
Several neighbours testified that White had been fearful for a couple of weeks that his wife was about to abandon him, and that his brother-in-law, Alfred Smith, was assisting her in plans to elope to the United States with another neighbour, Peter Wilson.
Dr. Vardon answered questions about his post mortem examination, stating that it would be impossible to sustain injuries such as Susannah suffered from a fall into a six-foot well half filled with water. He believed that Susannah had ben dead before she was placed in the well.
Henry White had a court-appointed defence lawyer. He asked only a couple of questions of the crown witnesses, and called no witnesses for the defence, and he offered no summation in White’s defence at the end of the trial.
After a lengthy address from the judge, the jury returned after deliberating only 20 minutes with a verdict of guilty to the charge of first degree murder. The judge regretted that he had no discretion in the matter of the sentence. Henry White would hang on Dec. 23, 1875.
As he faced the gallows on his last morning, White asked to make a statement, which was immediately granted. He thanked Governor Mercer, who ran the jail, and a man named Taylor, one of the guards, for many kindnesses. He was especially grateful to Rev. Dr. Davidson for spiritual guidance. White now admitted his guilt in killing his wife, and said he regretted his earlier denials, and that he deserved his fate. He concluded by saying, “Good bye all. May the peace of God abide with you.”
In retrospect it is obvious that the trial was hardly a fair one. His lawyer offered no effective defence to the charges, or reasons why the charge might not be reduced to a lesser one. The testimony against him may have been tainted because most of the witnesses were related by blood or marriage. Henry White could easily have argued that personal animosities biased the case against him, and that a jail sentence might have been more appropriate. The crown had not proven that the homicide was premeditated.
Executions in Wellington County during the years when capital punishment was in force were rarities. Henry White’s execution resulted partially from his poverty, in not being able to afford a proper defence, and partially from animosity to him amongst his relatives and neighbours. As well, it is hard to ignore the likelihood that there was an element of racism in the way the authorities handled his case.