The judge dealt harshly with convicted Guelph arsonists in 1897

Last week’s column described the burning of five barns in Guelph and Guelph Township in 1897 by two young men, Jim Quinn and Jack Busby, and their arrest for the burning of Robert Hadden’s barn in Guelph on January 20, 1897.

While in custody a fearful Jack Busby had agreed to turn on his partner, in return, he hop­ed, for a light sentence.

After several brief appear­ances in court by the pair, Crown Attorney Henry Peter­son was ready to proceed with the trial of Jim Quinn on the morning of Feb. 1. The case was the topic of the town in Guelph, and had received much press coverage across the prov­ince, because there were sev­eral other cases of arson else­where in Ontario that winter. Public interest and fears were intense.

The court room was packed that morning, with some people standing at the back and others in the hallways, hoping to catch at least some of the testimony. The crowds would remain large throughout the trial. As it turn­ed out this would be one of the longest trials up to that time in Guelph, occupying the court for a total of nine days. Even homicide trials typically were handled in a single day, two at the most.

Quinn had elected trial by judge alone, so the court im­mediately proceeded with hear­ing witnesses. Peterson first called Robert Hadden, victim of the fire, and then Ed Ryde, who saw Quinn and Busby at the scene of the fire imme­diately before it broke out. Both offered the same evidence they had at the preliminary inquiry. T.P. Coffee, who was Quinn’s legal counsel, tried to poke holes in their testimony, casting doubt, for example, on Ryde’s ability to recognize the accused on the night of the fire.

Coffee questioned all the crown witnesses at great length, often on matters that had nothing to do with the char­ges. He was particularly thor­ough in questioning Jack Busby. A peculiar aspect of the fires was that all five victims had been involved in the milk delivery business, as was Bus­by. Coffee tried to show that it was Busby who planned the fires in order to eliminate com­petition. Busby claimed that none of the fires were his idea, and that he had been dragged into them by his bad com­panion, Quinn.

Busby stated that he had all the milk customers he could handle, had operated a regular route for seven years, since he was 14, and therefore there was no point in eliminating anyone else in the business.

Coffee called a long list of character witnesses, many of whom failed to appear in court. First was the accused’s father, James Quinn, Sr. He told the court that he did not approve of his son associating with Jack Busby, who he considered a bad character. He thought that his son was feeble-minded, and that liquor brought out the worst in his character. Quinn Senior stated that he had a brother he had looked after for 35 years, rather than send him to an asylum.

Peterson interrupted the testimony, asking whether Cof­fee intended to enter a plea of insanity. Coffee then backed away from that line of argument. His further witnesses all testified to young Quinn’s good character. Several stated that there was nothing wrong mentally with the accused, and all agreed that he was con­scientious, obliging, and had never been in trouble.

Following a short break in the afternoon, Coffee told the judge that his client wished to change his plea to “guilty.” Peterson agreed to the change.

On the second morning of the trial there was a new de­velopment. The police laid two more arson charges against Quinn. He entered a plea of “Not guilty.” The court post­poned the proceedings involv­ing the Hadden fire, and pro­ceeded with a preliminary hearing on the new charges.

The victim of one of those fires, John Hall, received an intense grilling from T.P. Cof­fee, who tried to show that he and Busby were bitter rivals in the milk business. Hall in­sisted that they were not competitors, as both had all the customers they could handle.

Jack Busby was next on the stand. He went over in minute detail the events leading up to the fires, claiming that Quinn had led him on, calling him “a bloody coward” when he re­fused to participate in one of them.

Coffee subjected Busby to intense cross-examination, pep­­pering him with questions for more than two hours and trying to poke holes in his version of the events. He spent much time trying to determine how much liquor Busby and Quinn had consumed on the night of the Hall fire, and his relationship with Police Chief Randall, who had taken down Busby’s confessions.

After two hours, Busby was sweating profusely. He asked for a pause and something to drink, then broke down com­pletely. Court attendants car­ri­ed him from the witness stand, sobbing and shaking, to a chair. Judge Chadwick called a brief recess. The rest of that day con­cluded without further incident.

The court adjourned until Feb. 16. The chief witness that day was Jack Busby, ostensibly the crown’s star witness.

Crown Attorney Peterson started by guiding him care­fully through his evidence, but at times Peterson became more hostile, occasionally resorting to dark sarcasm, which elicited laughter from the gallery, and seemed to confuse Busby.

A long list of witnesses followed. They tended to cor­roborate Busby’s testimony, but a couple damaged his version of events. Two boys, aged 10 and 11, told the court that they had heard Busby and Quinn jok­ing about the fires as they rode around in Busby’s milk wagon.

After summations, the hear­ing concluded, with Quinn com­mitted for trial for the burning of the Hall and Bionski barns.

The second trial, which proceeded at once, brought out nothing that was not mentioned in the preliminary hearing. Nevertheless, the session was a long and rambling one, largely due to the intense cross-ex­ami­nations by defence law­yer T.P. Coffee, who questioned virtu­ally every statement made in court.

Despite the lengthy ses­sions, attendance remained stand­ing room only until the end of the evidence, which came on Feb. 22 with final state­ments from the crown and de­fence.

Crown Attorney Peterson, in his summation, tried as best as he could to frame his case as logically as possible, a hard task considering the testimony provided by his supposed star witness, Jack Busby. The task was no easier for defence lawyers T.P. Coffee and Nicol Jeffrey. With no jury, there was no point to resorting to court room theatrics.

On the last day of the trial, Feb. 23, 1897, Judge Chadwick provided a lengthy summary and review of the evidence. He be­lieved that Jim Quinn had been most willing to set the fires, and bore more responsibility than Jack Busby for the series of fires.

Before passing sentence, Chadwick stated that he would take the ages of the accused into account. Chadwick provid­ed free railway trips to both to Kingston. Jim Quinn would serve a term of eight years in the penitentiary for setting the fires, and Jack Busby six years for aiding and abetting.

It would seem that Busby received no special consid­era­tion for his co-operation with the prosecution.

The severity of the jail terms underlined the serious­ness of arson in the 19th century – and the danger such young men as Quinn and Busby, with their mindless thrill seeking, could pose to the community.


Stephen Thorning