Last week’s column described a violent assault that took place during the severe but brief depression of 1907-1908. That case, with a handful of others, turned public opinion strongly against the armies of unemployed men roving the country, most of whom were simply looking for work of any kind.
During those months, unemployed men frequently found themselves in jail, charged with involvement of a recent unsolved crime. On the other hand, some farmers were happy to engage one or more of those men to work on the 1908 harvest for a few days. One such man found himself in a pack of trouble in Arthur Township in September of 1908. It was a story with both tragic and comic aspects.
A fellow named George Belingford – that was the name he would later give to the authorities – had been working on a farm near Farewell post office in Arthur Township, a couple of miles south of Mount Forest. In the late afternoon he was on the on the road heading south toward Wagram post office and another short-term job.
George was a little eccentric to say the least. He eschewed bath tubs, and readily admitted that he had not bathed all summer. He also enjoyed a drink or two, and had been celebrating the end of his last job.
As he staggered along the road a carriage passed him. On board were Margaret Barber, Elizabeth Barber, and Mrs. Margaret Morrison. They commented loudly on tramps in general, and on the appearance of George in particular, unconcerned that he heard every word of their conversation.
Taking offence at their remarks, George picked up a couple of stones and began hurling them at the receding carriage.
George was lucky (or unlucky) with one of his pitches. A fist-sized stone hit Mrs. Morrison on the upper arm, producing a slight cut. When she arrived at home, her family worked itself into a rage over the attack. Someone went to Mount Forest to summon Police Chief Cringle. With John Munro, of Mount Forest, driving a wagon, he set out at once on George’s trail.
George, meanwhile, had continued on his journey. He passed the gate of George McElroy’s farm, where young Elmer McElroy was setting out milk cans on a stand for pickup. George owned an Iver Johnson semi-automatic five-shot pistol, and he brandished it at the boy, jokingly threatening to shoot him.
With the help of Elmer and other witnesses, Chief Cringle tracked George to the Peter McLellan farm, where he was staying the night. It is not certain whether McLellan had hired George, or had merely offered him some dinner and a place to sleep for the night in the woodshed.
Cringle considered George Belingford to be a dangerous desperado, and he enlisted neighbours to surround the farmstead. The chief, brave and determined according to his own later testimony, stealthily entered the woodshed and made the arrest. For his part, George was taken entirely by surprise. Cringle seized the Johnson revolver, which was a late model and far superior to his own handgun. He also noted that it was fully loaded. That confirmed the Chief’s worst suspicions concerning his suspect.
George Belingford spent the night in the Mount Forest lockup, not the McLellan woodshed. The next morning he appeared in Police Magistrate Macgregor’s court room, facing a list of charges: assault, threatening with his pistol, and vagrancy. He gave his age as 69, an improbable number from his appearance. Most people were sure he was at least 20 years younger.
He told Macgregor that he was not a homeless tramp, but had a farm near North Bay. The night before he had told Chief Cringle that he had previously worked in mines in the Sudbury area. The gun, he explained, was for shooting skunks and groundhogs. He partially supported himself, he told the court, by skinning the animals, eating the flesh, and selling the oil. George told the magistrate that he would eat skunk over chicken any day of the week.
No one in the court room doubted George.
Magistrate Macgregor stated that George was the filthiest man he had ever seen. The odour accompanying him confirmed his familiarity with skunks. Fleas and body lice swarmed over his body, and vermin could be seen scurrying in and out of the tears in his ragged clothing. If he actually did subsist on skunks and groundhogs, the nutritional value of those animals must have been substantial. George was a stout man, and seemed to be in a healthy state despite the menagerie that had taken up residence on his body.
As for the stones thrown at the women, George insisted that he was merely defending his dignity. He did not threaten them with his loaded pistol, which he had left in his pocket during the encounter.
Interestingly, Magistrate Macgregor did not find George guilty of assaulting Margaret Morrison in the stone-throwing incident, or of threatening young Elmer McElroy with the gun. It was obvious to him that George Belingford was a harmless eccentric, though an unsavory one.
He did find George guilty of vagrancy, a catchall charge at that time that could be lodged against anyone the police found undesirable. Macgregor sentenced him to six months in the county jail.
The next morning, Sept. 12, Chief Cringle boarded the morning Grand Trunk train with George in tow, bound for the county jail at Guelph. George was as filthy as ever, and the train crew insisted that he be kept in the security of the baggage car.
A six-month sentence was probably a mixed outcome for George. He would suffer because there was no bar for prisoners at the county hoosegow. And it was certain that he would be given a bath, perhaps in a horse trough while jail staff burned his clothes. On the other hand, he would have a warm bed and meals until mid-March, avoiding the worst part of the coming winter.
The sentence was a lengthy one for a charge of vagrancy, but not unusually so for the climate that prevailed in 1908. Others had received three and four months, and they had been guilty of nothing more than showing up in one of the towns in Wellington, unemployed and with little or no money on them.
George Belingford’s eventual fate is lost somewhere in the historical record. He seems to have left the area on his discharge from the Guelph jail. Perhaps he went back to his homestead in the north, if there really was one, or perhaps he moved on to some other jurisdiction, to continue to live as he pleased.
It is easy to picture him as an early version of Bathless Groggins, the boozy reprobate in the “Abbie n’ Slats” comic strip back in the 1950s and 1960s.
It is noteworthy that the police and the courts dealt far more severely with the roaming unemployed during the 1907-1908 recession than they did a quarter century later during the Great Depression, when economic conditions were much more severe and the number of homeless tramps was far greater.