Shooting at Irvinedale marred tavern’s reputation

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.


Several readers had comments about the column on the boisterous early years of Irvinedale and the nearby hamlet of Cumnock.

There is a sentiment that I might have provided more specifics about the debauches and general bacchanalia that led Irvinedale to be dubbed “Sodom” in Wellington County’s mid-19th century vocabulary.

First of all, this is a family paper. Columnists must be mindful of the delicate sensibilities of the more fastidious readers.

Secondly, most incidents are not well documented in the historical record. Seldom do we find names, and there are conflicting accounts.

Veiled references and oblique hints are all we have.

We will never have an adequate account of the young blades who made Irvinedale their headquarters in the years before 1870, or the all-night revelry, rotgut whiskey, fast horses, and the occasional base women at the locus of their lives.

After that column went to press I stumbled upon a major incident at Cumnock.

It occurred in 1875, rather late in the annals of the Irvinedale and Cumnock heyday. More important for present purposes, it is unique in being fully documented.

It seems that at about 6pm on April 17, 1875 a number of young men drifted in to John Muir’s British Hotel for a glass of beer. It was a Saturday evening, and they had just finished their week’s work.

All were employed at Walter Linn’s sawmill as mill hands or teamsters, and they had been busy with a large order of lumber for a cheese factory under construction at Cumnock.

The bar room atmosphere quickly became boisterous, with loud talk, jostling and horseplay.

One of the patrons, William Kerr, stooped over to light his pipe. While doing so, Muir’s son, George, gave him a shove. He caught Kerr off balance, and Kerr landed in the fireplace.

John Muir leapt from behind the bar and tried to calm the situation down and get the combatants to shake hands. Several patrons pulled George Muir and William Kerr apart, but they continued to argue.

George Muir challenged Kerr to settle it outside.

He took off his coat and went out. When Kerr did not follow, Muir returned to the bar room after a few minutes.

One of Kerr’s friends, John Scott, concluded that further trouble was inevitable.

He turned to William Strachan and said, “It’s time we were home,” and tapped Kerr on the shoulder and said they were leaving and to come along with them. Kerr agreed. As Kerr reached for the doorknob, George Muir called out that he would shake hands by giving Kerr “a slap in the mouth.”

Kerr turned around and dared him. George Muir approached Kerr, and when he was a couple of feet away, Kerr reached inside his coat, pulled out a pistol, and fired at Muir.

Luckily, it was an old single shot pistol, with a weak charge. Kerr, in his excitement, did not aim properly.

The discharge singed Muir’s clothing. One piece of shot lodged in the tobacco packet in his pocket. Sidney Reynolds, a startled bystander who was trying to restrain Muir, received some of the shot in his hand.

Muir rushed at Kerr, and wrestled him to the floor. Reynolds, infuriated about his injured hand, assisted by kicking Kerr repeatedly in the head.

When bystanders managed to pull Muir and his associates off Kerr, the failed assassin dashed out the door and headed across country, seeking refuge at the residence of George Magwood.

Within an hour a posse recruited from the tavern had captured Kerr. Meanwhile, the constable had been summoned from Fergus. William Kerr spent the rest of the weekend in a small room at public expense.

George Muir laid a complaint against William Kerr for “firing a pistol with the intent of doing bodily harm.”

Kerr faced a hearing on April 19, 1875. The various witnesses gave reasonably consistent accounts of the incident. Kerr’s friends, John Scott and William Strachan, claimed they did not see the shot, but gave no evidence to refute Muir’s charge.

William Kerr was held over for a trial three weeks later. He was convicted and was sentenced by Judge Chadwick to “three months in the common jail.”

Chadwick also delivered a stern admonition to other young men to avoid becoming embroiled in similar situations which might easily lead to tragedy.

It seems likely that this bar room brawl was a continuation of some dispute that started at the sawmill. Earlier events though, were not brought up at the trial.

Why, for instance, was William Kerr carrying a loaded pistol while teaming lumber for Walter Linn?

I have tried to identify those involved in the incident or mentioned as being present at the British Hotel on that fateful night. I am reasonably certain that I have done so with about half the men.

Of those, all were between 17 and 22 years old and single. A couple resided in Fergus, the rest in various parts of Nichol Township. The latter were sons of farmers, obviously picking up a few days of casual work at the sawmill before the seeding season started.

There was another incident at Cumnock the night before the shooting. William Anderson, a labourer at Linn’s sawmill, was accosted by two men after dark while walking home.

They punched him a couple of times and pushed him to the ground. Anderson recognized the men, who were local. No charges were made.

I strongly suspect that the two incidents were connected in some way.

Assaults and other violence were far more common in Wellington County in the 1870s than they are now – but the use of firearms was a rarity. This aspect of the Cumnock case resulted in wide publicity, with lurid headlines in newspapers across Ontario.

The Cumnock shooting should cause some revision of historical accounts of the hamlet. According to the published accounts by James Ross and A.W. Wright, Muir’s tavern invariably was conducted according to the highest standards, with nary an unseemly incident to mar its reputation.

‘Twas not always so!

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 8, 1999.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015