Unlike some parts of Ontario, Wellington County was largely spared the violence that came to Canada with the migration of a certain element of Irishmen.
The one exception to that generality is a period in the late 1840s, when fighting escalated amongst some of the Irish immigrants. Some of the violence was between Catholic and Protestant adherents, and some was the continuation of long-standing disputes that had their origin back in the Emerald Isle.
The Galt and Guelph Advertiser noted in March 1847 that, “It is generally known that for years past party feuds have existed in this neighbourhood, amongst a small portion of the Irish population.” Those disputes had resulted in minor physical injuries and “trifling injury to property, and now and then a slight disturbance of the piece of the town.”
For whatever reason, the frequency and violence of the confrontations rose significantly at the beginning of 1847. The local magistrates fined at least a dozen men for fighting and rioting, and bound over a larger number to keep the peace. Those measures seemed to have little effect in stemming the rising tide.
Many observers, noted the Advertiser, expected that the situation would soon lead to tragedy. That prediction came true on the afternoon of March 22, 1847, with the fatal stabbing of a man, and the arrest of three others for murder.
About 4pm that afternoon, Robert Oliver, accompanied by his father, was returning from Guelph in a sleigh after buying some provisions. Near the current intersection of Eramosa and Victoria Roads they met two of the Coghlin brothers, John and Tom, both armed with clubs, and headed to Guelph. The Olivers and Coghlins had been feuding for months. The men exchanged insults, but did not fight.
Robert Oliver knew that his two brothers, Richard and William, would soon be returning home on foot, and that they would inevitably encounter the Coghlins. He dropped off his father at their farm, and retraced his trip, hoping to pick up his brothers before they met up with the Coghlins.
Darkness was falling on Guelph Township as Richard and William Oliver were walking home from Guelph. Near the Bull Frog Inn on Eramosa Road, they encountered John and Tom Coghlin, both still armed with clubs.
Tom Coghlin asked, “Where are you going you Orange pup?” Richard Oliver replied, “I’m going home and it’s none of your business.”
Then the fight was on. A blow of one of the clubs stunned William Oliver. Richard, it seems, then got the better of the Coghlins, who began again to walk to Guelph, but then turned around and followed the Olivers.
Though William Oliver was still stunned from the blow to his head, they continued their walk home. After a short distance they met their brother, Robert, in a sleigh. They piled in, noticing that the Coghlins were still following them.
Eramosa Road, that late in March, was far from ideal for sleighing.
At Morrow’s Hill there was a long stretch of mud, and Richard Oliver got out to walk in order to ease the load on the horses. By then, a third Coghlin brother, Charles, had joined the adventure. He had been hauling a load of cedar shingles into Guelph. He joined his brothers in pursuit of the Olivers, and was in the lead in chasing them down.
Noticing that Charles Coghlin was nearing him, Richard Oliver turned around and asked what Coghlin wanted. “I’ll soon let you know why I am following you,” he replied. He pulled out a long pointed knife and stabbed Oliver in the chest.
Oliver staggered a little, then half fell into the sleigh. In the darkness Robert Oliver could not see the extent of the wound, but a few minutes later Richard was dead. He took his brother back to the Oliver farm, then returned to Guelph to secure a warrant for the Coghlin brothers.
The story created a sensation in Guelph that night, and by the next morning it had captured the attention of everyone in the town, which was still something of a rustic village in 1847, with perhaps 1,200 people.
The Guelph constable, aided by several volunteer assistants, set off in search of all three of the Coghlin brothers. They made some efforts to elude their pursuers. That later led to charges against John Heffernan for hiding the brothers. The posse soon found their prey, and led them into a jail cell in the small hours of Tuesday morning.
A coroner’s inquest met that afternoon. After the swearing in of the jury, the whole party left Guelph for the Oliver farm, about two miles from the city, to view the body. The doctors had not yet finished their work, so the inquest adjourned until the following morning.
A Mr. Foote, of Fergus, was in charge of the coroner’s inquest, filling in for an ailing Dr. Henry Orton. Dr. Charles Jones, of Guelph, performed the examination, assisted by William Clarke, of Guelph. The medical evidence was straightforward. Oliver had died from a deep stab wound, between the eighth and ninth ribs, which punctured and penetrated the heart. Oliver’s lungs and chest cavity were filled with blood. There were no other wounds. The doctors agreed that death had occurred a few minutes after the injury.
The coroner swore in the surviving Oliver brothers, plus several witnesses to parts of the events of that afternoon. Among them was James Gay, the poetry-spouting proprietor of the Bull Frog Inn. He saw some of the altercation, and bolted the door to his hotel because he did not desire to have the battle move into his bar room.
Taken together, the stories were confusing and contradictory. There was no doubt that various Olivers and Coghlins had fought that afternoon, but in the end that was largely irrelevant to the fact that Charles Coghlin had stabbed Richard Oliver. One witness had seen the stabbing in the distance.
The Coghlins did not take the witness stand. They at first attempted to act as their own counsel, but the coroner intervened, and a Guelph lawyer who was watching the proceedings took over the questioning.
The brothers, assisted by their lawyer, tried to confuse the issue by arguing that a bayonet in the hands of the Olivers had caused the death. The hearing paused briefly while the weapon was produced. Dr. Jones and Dr. Clarke both examined the bayonet, and agreed that it could not have inflicted the wound, as it was too broad and not sufficiently sharp.
After listening to brief final summations, the jury retired. They deliberated for about an hour, then returned to the court room with a verdict that Richard Oliver came to his death by a wound inflicted by Charles Coghlin, who should be charged with “wilful murder.” The jury acquitted the other two Coghlin brothers of involvement in Oliver’s death.
Charles Coghlin was bound over for trial at the spring 1847 assizes, remaining in custody, without bail, for two months. The Assizes opened on May 27, with a larger crowd of spectators than usual. The Coghlin case, of course, drew the most interest, but there were several others that session that had attracted public notice. The court dealt with several other cases before calling the Coghlin case on the morning of May 29, 1847.
Next week: A trial and a quick execution.