Trial of Maryborough woman caused a local sensation in 1921

In 1916 a girl from Maryborough Township named Nellie Wetzel dated a man named Colonel Laughrin.

The affair, it seems, quickly heated up, and in the fall of that year she realized she was pregnant. For whatever reason, the couple decided not to marry.

In the summer of 1917 Nellie, accompanied by her mother, boarded a train at the Drayton station bound for Toronto.

On July 12 she gave birth to a child at the old Toronto General Hospital. About a week later Nellie returned to Drayton with the baby. Laughrin was at the station to meet her.

Nellie believed that Laughrin intended to take her to her father’s house. Laughrin later testified that they set off for the Laughrin farm.

There seemed to have been some uncertainty at the time, because they drove slowly along various side roads for more than three hours. The journey was very hard on Nellie and on the baby, which, not surprisingly, was restive during the long trip.

According to Nellie’s story, they eventually came to a bush at the rear of the Laughrin farm. There, Nellie later testified, Laughrin forced her to give him the baby. She tried to hold on to the child, but was unable to do so in her feeble and weak condition.

Carrying the child, Laughrin climbed over a fence and into an orchard.

A few minutes later he returned, without the child. He refused to answer her tearful entreaties about what he had done with the child.

Laughrin then drove the couple the short distance to his family’s farm.

The next morning, according to her version of events, Nellie walked back to the bush to discover the fate of her child. Laughrin spotted her walking away, and soon caught up to her. He told her he had placed the baby at the bottom of an old disused well. Uttering dark threats of violence, he warned her not to reveal to anyone what he had done.

As might be expected under such circumstances, relations between Nellie and Laughrin were by then less than ideal. The pair quickly separated, seeing no more of one another.

Surprisingly for such a close-knit community, they seemed to have succeeded in keeping quiet the existence and death of the child. Amazingly, no one seems to have noticed them at the Drayton station when Nellie returned from Toronto.

A couple of years later Nellie married another Maryborough man named Orlando Beisel. Shortly after the marriage, Colonel Laughrin boasted to a friend of his prior relationship with Nellie, and of the child he had disposed.

Laughrin’s friend, a man named Coulter, was unable to keep the fantastic tale to himself. He related the story to a number of people and before long, in the summer of 1920, County constable Green got wind of it. He discussed the matter with his friend Nicol Jeffrey, who was, at the time, the acting crown attorney for Wellington County.

The two men were convinced that there was something to the story. They visited the back of the Laughrin farm, found the well, and the remains of a body of an infant in a milk can at the bottom.

Constable Green secured an arrest warrant and soon had Laughrin in custody.

Later, just before midnight of the same day, Green was at the Beisel residence, where he took Nellie into custody.

A grand jury brought in a true bill against both, on first degree murder charges. Jeffrey believed he had ample evidence against Laughrin, and proceeded at once with a trial for murder.

Nellie’s role, it appeared, was somewhat ambiguous, and he decided to take more time with his case against her.

Laughrin was held in custody pending his day in court, while Nellie was soon free on posting a $15,000 property bond, provided by her family. Bail for murder suspects was rare, hence the huge sum demanded.

Jeffrey was perhaps overconfident in his case against Laughrin. The jury found him not guilty, even though he came across as an unreliable witness and a generally unpleasant man.

Jeffrey and the judge immediately brought a second charge of birth concealment against him. The judge found him guilty, and sentenced him to the maximum sentence available: two years at the Kingston penitentiary.

Jeffrey had originally planned Nellie’s trial to follow Laughrin’s, but the acquittal caused him to reconsider and attempt to strengthen his case as much as he could. He succeeded in getting her trial postponed until the spring assizes of 1921, and then to the fall assizes, scheduled for the last week of September 1921.

At her trial, Nellie Beisel seemed very nervous, and particularly so when she saw that Colonel Laughrin was in the court room. He had been brought from the Kingston penitentiary by crown attorney Nick Jeffrey, who planned to use him as his key witness.

That was a bad move by Jeffrey. The press pegged Laughrin as a cad and a liar, an opinion that was probably shared by the jury. As well, according to his own story, he was far more guilty than she was, and had actually committed the murder.

The highlight of the trial came when Nellie Beisel was called to the stand on the afternoon of Sept. 27. Nervously shaking and sobbing, she seemed to call on an inner strength as she endured more than two hours of questioning. Sobs and tears punctuated her answers, and at one point Justice Rose, the presiding judge, allowed her to leave the witness box and rest for a period of time.

Defending her were R. Greer, K.C. of Toronto, one of Canada’s top defence lawyers of the day, and J.A. Mowat of Guelph.

Nellie was the last defence witness. Greer followed immediately with his final address to the jury, which carried on into the evening. Crown attorney Jeffrey followed the next morning, with a precise analysis of his case, which emphasized that Nellie was an active participant in the infanticide.

Justice Rose then compactly summarized the case for the jury, hinting at his sympathy for the accused. The jury retired a few minutes after 11 in the morning for their deliberations.

Anticipating a lengthy deliberation, Justice Rose then moved on to another case. To the surprise of everyone in the court, the jury was back after only 15 minutes. Justice Rose had to suspend the other case to receive their verdict.

In the breathless silence of the court room, the foreman rose and in a firm voice said, “Not guilty, your Lordship.”

Nellie, whose face was haggard and flush, sank into the side of her husband, and then recovered a little as several women patted her shoulders and back, and men clasped her hand. She and her husband did not linger in court. Grasping her husband’s arm, she walked quickly with him through the back door of the courthouse. Her husband had parked his car just outside the door.

They took off at once for their farm in Maryborough, with a friendly wave to reporters, but no interviews for their stories of the conclusion of the trial.

By then her old boyfriend, Colonel Laughrin, was back in his cell in Kingston. The common opinion was that the verdict was an appropriate one, given the circumstances, and that Laughrin was the true villain in the case.

The Mount Forest paper went a step further, finding that “the evidence revealed a shocking state of immorality among some of the people of Maryborough.”

In any case, this was one of the more sensational local events of that era.


Stephen Thorning