Trip to Elora reunion resulted in tragedy, trial for Mount Forest man

During the first quarter of the 20th century many municipalities held reunions, aimed at bringing back those who had moved on to other places.

Often those events were advertised as an “Old Boys Reunion” or “Old Home Week.” Such events were popular everywhere in North America in those years.

Often, the reunions would double the population of a town for a few days. Among the biggest of them in this area was the Elora Old Boys Reunion, held during the first four days of August 1920.

That reunion had been in the planning stages for more than a year and a half. That was not because of an obsessive organizing committee. The event had originally been planned for 1919, but the original plans were cancelled due to the world-wide influenza epidemic, which was felt in full force in Wellington County.

The extra planning done for the Elora reunion resulted in a program that came off without a hitch, beginning with special services at all the churches conducted by ministers who had formerly served at Elora. Three days of parades, picnics, sporting events and dances followed.

There was only one incident to mar the event. On the Monday, Aug. 2, a large crowd milled about on lower Metcalfe Street, spilling onto the street, and making passage for motor cars and horse-drawn rigs difficult.

P.A. Meikle of Mount Forest had decided he wanted to attend the big event. He borrowed a car belonging to Father Cappe, associated with the Roman Catholic church in Mount Forest. Accompanied by two friends, Meikle arrived in Elora in mid morning.

At about 3pm, Meikle attempted to ease his way past the crowd that filled much of the intersection of Mill and Metcalfe Streets. Another motorist, headed in the other direction, was attempting to do the same. He steered directly into the path of the car driven by Meikle.

Reflexively, Meikle steered toward the sidewalk on the west side of the street. The car brushed and bumped against several pedestrians. One, Alex Cordiner, sustained bruises and scratches, but managed to scramble out of the way. Another man was unlucky. Meikle’s car pinned him to the stone wall of the livery stable of the Commercial Hotel.

The victim was a new resident of Elora, James C. Scott, who was 82 years old. He had been standing on the sidewalk, chatting with acquaintances, and did not notice the automobile bearing down on him. Scott had farmed in West Luther, and then retired to Grand Valley. In March of 1920 he and his wife had moved to Elora to live with a daughter. Though a newcomer, he had made many friends in Elora with his gregarious manner.

Meikle’s car was moving at a bare crawl, and initially at least, Scott did not appear to be badly hurt, though a couple of those near him who offered immediate assistance believed he had suffered some broken bones. Bystanders attended to him, and Scott was soon in bed at the hospital in Fergus.

As it turned out, hospital staff believed he had sustained some internal injuries. In any case, he seemed to worsen a little every day. The injuries and the shock he had suffered combined to claim his life on Aug. 8, six days after the accident.

Fatalities involving automobiles were something new for both medical men and officials of the law in Wellington County. The first people to own cars in Wellington made their purchases in the years between 1903 and 1905. In 1914, when war was declared, they were still something of a novelty. They did not become common until 1918 and 1919, when dealers popped up all over the county. Farmers, buoyant with money as a result of high commodity prices, led the parade of purchasers.

Scott may have been the first fatality in central Wellington County as a result of an encounter with a motor car. A few hours after his death, Crown Attorney Nichol Jeffrey of Guelph ordered an inquest. That session was called to order on Aug. 17 with Dr. Kyle of Fergus, the local coroner, presiding. Crown Attorney Jeffrey represented the crown. Meikle hired Lawyer Clarke of Mount Forest to look after his interests.

Several witnesses offered their versions of what they saw, and Alex Cordiner, the other man injured, also offered testimony, as did the doctors who had attended to Scott.

The coroners jury deliberated for a couple of hours before returning with their verdict. They found that Scott had come to his death as a result of shock, suffered when he was struck by the automobile driven by Meikle. They found the cause to be the efforts of Meikle to avoid a head-on crash with another automobile. They exonerated Meikle for any negligence in the accident.

Crown Attorney Jeffrey was furious with the verdict. Despite their findings, he charged Meikle with criminal negligence resulting in death. That decision caused some surprise amongst the legal community in Wellington County. The case bounced around the legal system for three months, before coming before Magistrate Fred Watt in the first week of December, 1920. Several witnesses offered testimony. Most were those who had testified before the coroners inquest, but this time Crown Attorney Jeffrey wanted a different outcome. He grilled the witnesses much more intensely than in August. The session occupied the courtroom for the best part of a day.

At the end, Magistrate Watt, who was a hard-nosed jurist, committed Meikle for trial based on the evidence he had heard.

The trial was something of an anti-climax. The crown trotted out the same witnesses who had testified twice before. In the end, the court ruled that the crown had failed to produce convincing evidence that Meikle had displayed criminal negligence in avoiding a head-on collision with another car.

Interestingly, neither the driver of the other car nor the brand of his automobile were ever identified, though there were dozens of witnesses. The other motorist was clearly driving on the wrong side of the street, and that is what precipitated Meikle’s sudden decision to avoid a crash by driving onto the sidewalk.

The death of Scott as a result of an encounter with an automobile seems to have perplexed those involved professionally with the law. The court system had much experience dealing with cases involving horses. They seemed unsure whether automobiles should be treated in the same or a similar way.

Meikle’s decision to avoid a head-on collision was understandable, and his decision to swerve toward the sidewalk, which had comparatively few people on it compared to his alternatives, was also a prudent one to take under the circumstances.

Somewhat perplexing was the decision not to try to identify the other motorist. Also missing from the testimony is any mention of Meikle’s experience handling a motor car. On the other hand, no witness commented that they thought he was passing through the crowd at excessive speed.

P.A. Meikle no doubt regretted his decision to go to Elora to enjoy the events of the Elora Old Home Week. Police and the legal system soon became experienced in dealing with cases involving automobiles causing injury and death, as automobile ownership became increasingly common through the 1920s.


Stephen Thorning