Hotel bar rooms in the 19th century normally were quiet and orderly places. Governments imposed strict regulations – card playing and singing were forbidden, for example. No publican wished to risk losing his licence as a result of brawls and fights on his premises.
Nevertheless, bar fights did break out from time to time. Normally they involved young working men from the lower economic strata of society celebrating a pay day, or young farmers who overindulged on an infrequent visit to town, and situations of a similar ilk.
Much rarer were fights and fisticuffs involving older and respected members of the community. One such incident occurred in Spires’s Hotel in Fergus in late May of 1883. William Spires by then had operated his business, known as the Wellington Hotel, at the busy corner of St. Andrew and St. David Streets, for the better part of two decades. The Wellington had a reputation as a well-run establishment, and incidents of any sort there were rare.
On the evening in question, the Wellington’s bar room was well filled. Among the imbibers was John Davy, an older man who enjoyed holding forth with opinions that became increasingly outrageous as he tossed back tumbler after tumbler of the Wellington’s cheapest whiskey. Davy was, in fact, an excellent example of the bar room windbag.
After a time, Davy struck up a conversation with George Thorpe, a respected Fergus resident who should have known better than to take Davy seriously. As he listened to Davy on such subjects as the buying and selling of Negroes and the physical resurrection of the dead, Thorpe became offended, and then furious. He told Davy to withdraw his remarks, under penalty of direct contact with Thorpe’s fist.
Among those watching the show was John Thomson, Jr. He was a skilled carpenter and furniture maker, as well as an undertaker, operating the funeral business established by his father. Thomson, distressed that Thorpe was threatening a harmless old man, stepped forward to intervene, telling Thorpe to desist. Thorpe ignored Thomson, and raised his fist to strike Davy. Before Thorpe could land his blow, Thomson spun him around, and with a solid punch to the jaw sent Thorpe to the floor.
A spectator to the episode was John Alpaugh, the bumbling and ineffectual Fergus constable. He did not intervene at any stage of the incident, and later, in court, explained that he had seen nothing until he noticed Thorpe attempting to regain his feet, shaking his head in surprise at the unexpected blow which almost knocked him out.
Outraged at the punch landed by John Thomson, Thorpe, after regaining his senses and his steadiness on his feet, proceeded to have charges laid against his assailant. A Fergus magistrate heard the case, and ruled that there was sufficient evidence for a day in court. Meanwhile, all those involved hired a lawyer to look after their interests. By the next day, the story was on the lips of everyone in Fergus and the surrounding area.
Thomas W. Saunders, the long-serving Guelph magistrate, heard the case on the morning of June 2, 1883. The court room was crowded with spectators, a number of whom were Fergus residents who had gone to the trouble and expense of travelling to the Royal City by train that morning.
The magistrate heard evidence from all those involved, punctuated by objections voiced by the various lawyers to some of the statements made. Of the witnesses, only Constable Alpaugh did not have legal representation.
Magistrate Saunders was never jovial, and in this case he was scathing in his remarks to those involved in the incident. Though John Thomson was, by his own admission, guilty of assault, Saunders found his actions entirely justifiable, even commendable, under the circumstances. He was obliged to find him guilty of the offense, but set the fine at $1.
George Thorpe received a severe dressing down for his conduct in the bar room, which was inexcusable for a man of his position in the community. John Davy, the loudmouth who started it all, was well known to all involved, stated Saunders. They should have ignored his rambling remarks.
Bill Spires, the hotel keeper, came in for his share of criticism for allowing the situation to escalate to the point of fisticuffs. Any hotel keeper in his jurisdiction “who allowed such proceedings to carry on in his hotel, should have his licence suspended,” declared Magistrate Saunders.
Having warmed up, Saunders next addressed Constable Alpaugh, chastising him for drinking in a public bar room, and for not performing his duty when the incident began. He declared that Alpaugh “was not worthy the name of constable.”
Taking “the whole ruction into consideration,” he ruled that each party involved would be responsible for their own legal costs.
So concluded a morning of court room amusement for the spectators. No doubt embarrassed by the whole affair, George Thorpe, John Davy, and John Thomson skulked home, resolving to control themselves in future when they slipped into the Wellington for a drink. With temperance sentiment particularly strong at that time, Bill Spires and other hotel operators had yet another motivation to prevent such incidents in their bar rooms to counteract charges that they were violent and lawless places. Newspapers in Wellington County and elsewhere took gleeful pleasure in publishing details of the trial and the harsh comments of Thomas Saunders. Of those involved, only Constable John Alpaugh was not happy to let the matter slip into history. He was greatly distressed at the picture of himself that emerged in Saunders’s courtroom. He submitted a letter to the Fergus News Record, which appeared in the June 7 issue. Alpaugh objected to some of the evidence that had been presented in court and was later reprinted widely. He claimed that he had seen and heard nothing until he saw Thorpe on the floor of the bar. It was an absurd claim: he was only a few feet away, and every eye in the place was on Thorpe and Thomson.
When Thomson rose to leave the bar, Alpaugh stated, he followed Thomson into the hallway and admonished him for causing “such a racket in the house,” and told him to desist from fighting.
Alpaugh concluded his letter by claiming that “as a constable” he could be held “liable for interfering where he had no right to do so.” It was a peculiar position to take, to say the least, because fighting in a bar was strictly forbidden under both provincial law and local licencing bylaws.
Alpaugh concluded by complaining that, in view of his explanations, his actions in the case should not have been so severely criticized by Magistrate Saunders. Altogether, the letter put him very close to the border line of contempt of court, if not over.
Thomas Saunders no doubt read the letter, which was reprinted by the Guelph Herald, but the old magistrate seems to have concluded that it was best to let the matter drop at that point. The participants, all solid citizens, had been suitably chastised.
And John Alpaugh’s abilities as the Fergus constable was a matter for the village council, not him. His reputation as an inept, hard drinking officer of the law was a matter of comment far outside Fergus.
The Thomson-Thorpe case received so much attention because it was a rare and unusual one, a major departure from the rather dull decorum and atmosphere that prevailed in Ontario beverage rooms.