Peterson adultery case shocked Guelph residents in 1874

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.

There are some historical subjects that are difficult to study.

One of these is the nature and dynamics of families in the 19th century. Few people left a continuous record of the way their personal relationships formed and evolved.

Today, a significant proportion of marriages end in failure. Divorce was rare in the nineteenth century, and expensive to secure. From anecdotal evidence, it is clear that a number of marriages degenerated to a state that today we would call dysfunctional. Nevertheless, for economic reasons, and to avoid social stigma, most families remained together. These were private matters, requiring a tight lip and discretion always.

From time to time, marital discord became very public. Such was the case in the early 1870s, when Henry Peterson’s marital difficulties became the subject of general comment. Henry W. Peterson was one of the wealthiest and most prominent lawyers in Guelph. He had served in a variety of public positions, and was the crown attorney for Wellington in the 1870s. He had a young family, and his wife moved in the best of circles in the city.

The Petersons’ marital difficulties grew out of their friendship with Dr. and Mrs. Herbert Tuck. Coming to Guelph about 1868, Dr. Tuck soon became a friend of Henry Peterson, and their wives became close as well. They and their families frequently went on outings together. In 1871 or 1872 Dr. Tuck moved to Berlin (Kitchener).

In July of 1872, the Petersons stayed for a few days at the Kress Hotel in Preston, and the following month were in Berlin for a few days. Peterson undoubtedly made these trips to conduct legal business. Word soon got to him that his wife, on both occasions, had engaged in adulterous relations with Dr. Tuck, who turned up at their hotels on both trips.

Livid at this affront, Henry Peterson launched a civil action against Dr. Tuck, which was heard in a court in Berlin late in 1872. Peterson produced sufficient evidence to secure a verdict in his favour, and the court awarded him damages in the amount of $5,000 from Dr. Tuck. This was an immense sum in the 1870s. It would have purchased three or four good houses at that time, and is equivalent to about $500,000 today, (1999).

The verdict and financial settlement, though, did not end the affair. Mrs. Peterson returned to her husband, but he set her up in a separate bedroom, and, according to her account, virtually ignored her. In April 1873, she decided that she had enough of the situation and moved out.

The following year she initiated her own legal action against her husband, suing for alimony. It is not clear how she supported herself after leaving, but she does not seem to have suffered. When the matter came up in the Court of Chancery in October 1874, her case was argued by Edward Blake, a former premier of Ontario and future federal opposition leader. Blake was the most expensive lawyer in Canada.

Mrs. Peterson argued that her husband’s treatment of her was such that she could no longer live with him, and was therefore entitled to alimony. Henry Peterson contended that she had left of her own accord, that she had been involved in an adulterous affair behind his back, and therefore did not deserve a penny.

The trial began on 24 October 1874, and occupied the court until the 28th. The Guelph newspapers published extensive accounts. The Mercury, on two succeeding days, devoted most of the front page to the case.

To support his position, Henry Peterson introduced evidence of the adultery, replaying much of the testimony of the earlier trial. Hotel keepers, bartenders and chambermaids paraded all the sordid details through the court.

Christopher Kress testified that Mrs. Peterson and Dr. Tuck were together in the garden and the sitting room of his hotel in Preston, and that she had been wandering through the hotel in the middle of the night in a chemise, obviously intoxicated. Jim Smith, the bartender at the Kress Hotel claimed that he found two empty brandy and two empty wine bottles in her room. There was testimony that Dr. Tuck was not in his room, and that he had been seen entering Mrs. Peterson’s room.

One question was not explored. Where was Henry Peterson that night? He did not testify himself, but others indicated that he was away that night, and returned the following day.

The testimony of the later meeting between Dr. Tuck and Mrs. Peterson, in August 1872 at the Royal Hotel in Berlin, was of a similar nature. Mary Ahrens, a chambermaid, testified that she had entered Mrs. Peterson’s bedroom, and found Mrs. Peterson in bed with her clothes in disarray, and Dr. Tuck sprawled across the foot of the bed. Henry Roat, proprietor of the Royal Hotel, recalled seeing Dr. Tuck and Mrs. Peterson together, and that they were very affectionate with one another.

Word of the affair at the Royal Hotel had quickly found its way back to Guelph. Two days after Dr. Tuck and Mrs. Peterson had allegedly been together, Sheriff George Grange and Judge Kingsmill had gone to Berlin and had interviewed all the witnesses to discover the rumours affecting the character of Mrs. Peterson. Both testified at some length, with the lawyers exploring discrepancies between their recollections and the testimony given at the first trial.

Mrs. Peterson testified in great detail, attempting to put an innocent construction on all the unusual meetings between herself and Dr. Tuck. She claimed he was both a close family friend and her personal physician. Dr. Tuck’s wife was away at the time in question, on a trip to England, and she claimed that she had been looking after the Tuck’s children during Mrs. Tuck’s absence. She also hinted that Sheriff Grange had attempted to keep the alleged affair quiet.

George Grange was recalled as a witness for further testimony. He revealed that he had told Mrs. Peterson to remain quiet about the events, and had requested Dr. Tuck to give a written explanation of the events. He wrote out his account, and Sheriff Grange took it to both Mrs. Peterson and to Henry Peterson to try to calm him.

At the end of a marathon court session on 28 Oct. 1874 that did not adjourn until 11 pm, Chancellor Spragge of the Court of Chancery adjourned the case until Nov. 30. Another full day of evidence, with new witness, took up the whole day. Most interesting was that of Dr. Herod, who claimed that Mrs. Peterson had been ill during the early part of 1872, and had been her physician at that time.

Even more fascinating was the testimony of Jane Ludlow. She told the court she had been hired as a nurse by the Petersons to look after Mrs. Peterson, and that she had moved into the Peterson household following the first trial in 1872, and that she continued to live there.

With the evidence completed, the lawyers took the floor. Henry Peterson’s lawyer, Tom Moss, made much of the discrepancies in the evidence of Mrs. Peterson and her defenders, and lamented the sad circumstances of the case, where the happiness of a family had been destroyed by Mrs. Peterson’s having proved a faithless wife, and listened to the voice of the seducer. After an hour and a half, Peterson’s other lawyer, A.H. Macdonald, reviewed more of the evidence.

The next morning, Edward Blake took the floor for two and half hours, claiming there was no real evidence of adultery, and that Mrs. Peterson and Dr. Tuck would have been far more discrete had they been involved in an illicit affair. He explained some of Mrs. Peterson’s actions by claiming she was a woman maddened by grief. Had there been a concerted affair between her and Dr. Tuck there would have been more evidence of a plot.

Chancellor Spragge promised a verdict the following day, 2 Dec. 1874, but it took him three more days to sort out the sordid evidence and make some sense of it.

He concluded that the evidence of adultery had been proved, and therefore dismissed the case, denying Mrs. Peterson any alimony payments.

The evidence at the trial gives us a glimpse of the workings of Guelph’s social elite in the 1870’s. It is notable that many points were not explored at all.

The relationship between Henry Peterson and nurse Jane Ludlow must have raised some eyebrows. There was no mention of Mrs. Tuck other than that she went on a trip to England in June 1872. Did she return? Did Mrs. Peterson and Dr. Tuck have continuing contact after the first trial? Why did the Grange and Kingsmill families, both leaders of Guelph’s social elite, become so involved in the case, and side with Mrs. Peterson rather than her husband?

Both Dr. Tuck and Mrs. Peterson had young children in their care, but they seem to have disappeared at the times of the alleged adultery. It is probable that this case involved two disintegrating marriages, and that those involved were anxious to keep as much out of court as possible.

For the public, the case provided a great deal of speculation, particularly for those who enjoyed seeing the high and mighty fall down. No one would doubt that there were other cases of adultery at that time. The Petersons were wealthy, and able to pursue a resolution to their problems through civil court. As a result, their case is the one in the historical record. The others will forever remain a mystery.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Nov. 19, 1999.

Thorning Revisited