Strange abduction case caused excitement in 1877

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.

Fred Sturdy operated a house painting business in Guelph in the 1870s. 

A conscientious workman, he gradually built up a large clientele. By 1877 he employed several assistants, including his son Joe and a man named Bill Lowes.

Early in 1877, young Joe began keeping company with a girl named Annie Carr, and the couple soon announced their engagement. Annie lived with her uncle, Peter Gow, who did not approve of the liaison. 

Gow, one of the city’s leading citizens, had been involved in various business ventures including a tannery and a couple of mills, had served as mayor and MPP, and at the time was sheriff of Wellington County. His estate on the south side of the city, Beechgrove, was one of the finest properties in town.

On July 17, 1877, Bill Lowes approached cab driver Harry Pearson and asked what the charge would be to rent the cab without a driver. Pearson told him such an arrangement was unusual, and he would need to talk to his boss about it. The next day, Pearson told Lowes that the charge would be $5 for an evening without a driver, or $1 per hour with one.

Two days later, Lowes told Pearson to meet him at the Grand Trunk railway station at 7:30pm. From there the two men drove to the Edinburgh Road bridge over the Speed River, at the west end of Gow’s estate, where they picked up Miss Lowes. 

From there they drove to the corner of Dublin and Wellington Streets, where Pearson jumped off. Several people saw the cab continue down Wellington Street with Lowes and Miss Carr in it.

The story from that point, as related by Annie Carr, to her uncle and to Guelph police chief Jonathan Kelly, was a fantastic and terrifying tale. She claimed that she had received a letter from her father in Thorold, stating that he would be in Guelph, and asking to see her. He would send a cab to meet her at the bridge. 

After leaving cab driver Pearson, she claimed, Lowes had driven on to the corner of Wellington and Gordon, where Fred Sturdy and his daughter Louisa got into the cab, one on each side, to prevent her from getting off. She claimed that they held her down, preventing her from getting up, as Lowes drove the cab rapidly down Neeve Street and York Road, and eventually into Puslinch Township.

As the cab rocked along the rough roads, she said that Fred and Louisa Sturdy produced a handkerchief and a bottle of chloroform, and tried to hold the soaked cloth over her face. In the ensuing struggle the bottle broke. Next they attempted to force her to drink some drugged wine, but again she resisted with all her might, and that bottle broke as well, though they did manage to force her to swallow some of the liquid.

Eventually the cab reached Hamilton’s Corners, on the Brock Road south of Guelph. A mile or so south of there they met another carriage driven by Joe Sturdy. The family forced her into that conveyance. While Joe held Annie in the back of the cab, Louisa drove on in the direction of Hamilton, speeding up as they passed through the villages on the way by way of Dundas. She attempted to scream whenever she saw someone, but Sturdy held his hand over her mouth, and eventually shoved his fingers down her throat to keep her silent.

At about 2:30am they reached a small cottage on the edge of the city. Louisa then headed back to Guelph. Witnesses there saw her in the carriage the following afternoon. The house in Hamilton had been rented two weeks earlier by Fred Sturdy, and there was virtually no furniture in it other than a bed and washstand and a small cook stove.

Annie claimed she endured unbelievable cruelty and terror at the house. Joe Sturdy demanded that she marry him at once, she said later, and threw her to the floor and choked her when she refused.  He then told her various ways he could kill her, and showed her a vial of what he said was a powerful poison, sufficient to kill both of them. He would poison himself, he said, because he had no intention of going to the penitentiary for her demise. Eventually, on July 21, she relented. Sturdy arranged a marriage ceremony with a minister in Dundas, and she secretly hoped to escape her captor at the wedding. Louisa Sturdy returned to Hamilton for the wedding on that afternoon, a Saturday, and acted as one of the witnesses. 

Annie Carr claimed that she tried continually during the ceremony to signal the clergyman that something was amiss, but he failed to notice her facial expressions and gestures.

Meanwhile, back in Guelph, Peter Gow had concluded that his niece had been kidnapped, and with Chief Kelly soon turned up evidence that the Sturdy family was involved in the disappearance. While the wedding ceremony was in progress in Dundas, he was in court securing a warrant for the arrest of Joe Sturdy and Bill Lowes.

Chief Kelly sent two of his constables to Hamilton to arrest Sturdy. At the livery stable connected with the American Hotel they found Sturdy’s team and carriage, but no one there knew where Joe was. Concluding that Sturdy would eventually show up, they staked out the livery. A little later, Sheriff Gow arrived in Hamilton, and joined the constables in their vigil.

They did not wait long. Sturdy sent a message that he wanted the horses and carriage ready for use in the afternoon of July 22. When Sturdy showed up the constables arrested him and hauled him off to the Hamilton jail. He readily gave the address of the house where Annie was waiting. Peter Gow left at once to retrieve his niece.

She related her improbable tale to him on the way back to Gow’s Beechgrove estate at Guelph. After the ceremony, she told her uncle, Joe Sturdy intended to bring her back to Guelph, where they would live as man and wife, and that no one need ever know anything about the abduction.

The next morning the constables returned Joe Sturdy to Guelph, where a cell was waiting for him. His sister Louisa was also in the jail, on a second warrant secured by Gow. Later, Fred Sturdy was arrested as well.

Annie Carr remained at Gow’s residence, under the constant care of Dr. Thomas Keating. 

The doctor claimed that she was in a precarious state, and that “her mind is at present gone,” but that he was doing everything possible for her recovery.

At the first court hearing, charges of abduction were heard against Fred, Joe and Lousia Sturdy and Bill Lowes. Donald Guthrie appeared for Peter Gow, and told the court that Annie Carr was totally unfit to give any evidence at the present time. The magistrate remanded the case until Aug. 6, 1877.

Meanwhile, reporters for the Guelph and Hamilton newspapers tried to dig up new evidence to prove or disprove the claims of Annie Carr. A few tidbits supported her – a couple of people had heard stifled screams from the carriage – but most seemed to be on the other side. 

Annie had several chances to make her escape. Rev. D.H. Fletcher, who performed the wedding, said the bride seemed perfectly willing and happy.

The case produced a lot of excitement in Hamilton, and captivated the city of Guelph. Many believed Annie’s tale. Others found it improbable at best. 

The Sturdy family had never been in any sort of trouble. The most probable explanation was that they had aided in an elopement, and that Peter Gow had helped his niece in concocting a story that would extricate her from a marriage he would never sanction, and that he was using his influence unfairly to prosecute the Sturdy family.

Regardless of their opinions, the public eagerly awaited what promised to be the trial of the year.

[ Next week, Part 2: More intrigue in the courts. ]

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on July 8, 2005.

Thorning Revisited