Two men acquitted in fatal 1894 bar room brawl

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.

Last week’s column described the events surrounding a fatal fight in Guelph’s Imperial Hotel on Nov. 24, 1894, in which John L. Johnson died.

On the recommendations of the jury at the preliminary hearing, police laid charges of manslaughter against John Cass, a woodworker, and accessory to manslaughter against John Keating, a labourer.

The surprising part of the jury’s findings was their strong condemnation of the hotel for allowing the deceased to continue to drink whiskey when he was so obviously intoxicated.

The licence inspector reviewed the case carefully, and eventually laid charges against the operators of the two bar rooms where Johnson had imbibed on the last day of his life: Joe Wagner’s American Hotel, and Fred Borsch’s Imperial.

The cases came up in Guelph’s magistrate’s court on Dec. 8, in a rare Saturday evening session.

The licence inspector had not been able to find many patrons willing to testify against Borsch’s hotel keeping, and he found no one who would say that they saw him give Johnson any liquor. The Imperial was a low-end working men’s dive, but Borsch’s regulars were loyal and happy to defend him. His lawyer trotted out a long line of them to testify that the place was always well conducted and orderly.

The magistrate explained that the charge against Borsch “was not one of keeping a disorderly house, but of sanctioning disorderly conduct.” Borsch had not checked Johnson when he began using filthy language and accosting Cass. He therefore found Borsch guilty of violating the liquor licencing act, and fined him $30 and costs.

The licence inspector tried to argue that proprietor Joe Wagner and his bartender, Harry Ellis, supplied Johnson with liquor when he was visibly drunk. The witnesses all failed to support the argument. Johnson, it appears, was at the American Hotel from 2 to 4:30pm on the day in question, and had four or five drinks. When Johnson began using foul language, Ellis immediately admonished him, telling him to be quiet or leave.

Intimidated by the burly bartender and his no-nonsense attitude, Johnson and his companions left. The magistrate praised Ellis for his quick action, stating he “realized his duties and responsibilities,” before dismissing the case.

A successful prosecution of a hotel operator in a case such as this was something of a novelty in Guelph and Wellington County. The example emboldened juries in other cases in the months following. About a month later, a coroner’s jury in Hespeler followed the Guelph example.

On the morning of Dec. 21, 1894, Jim Crane of Puslinch Township, accompanied by a friend, took a wagon load of live turkeys to Hespeler, and sold them readily to a store there. Crane afterward separated from his friend, and started for home about 9:30am. For some reason he turned around and went back to Hespeler, spending most of the day in the Queen’s and Commercial Hotels there.

Early the next morning, a passerby noticed a team of horses in the mill pond above Holm’s Mill, near Hespeler. Workers at the mill quickly drained the pond. The horses had drowned, and a short distance away they found the body of Crane.

A rail fence separated the road from the pond, and part of the fence was missing. It appears that in his intoxicated state, and in the dark, Crane mistook the gap in the fence for the roadway.

At the inquest held Dec. 26, the jury, headed by Louis Kribs, offered a vigorous condemnation of the hotel proprietors, claiming that Crane had been plied with whiskey “as to render him incapable of taking care of himself.” They desired that their conclusions be passed on to the licence authorities. That resulted in charges and convictions of the proprietors of the two Hespeler hotels.

Prosecution of hotels in the Johnson and Crane cases had a chilling effect on hotel keepers throughout the area. Bartenders became vigilant in maintaining order, and in watching that their customers did not drink to excess.

Meanwhile, John Cass and John Keating, the two men charged with manslaughter in John Johnson’s death, cooled their heels in the Guelph jail, awaiting their trials at the spring assizes during the first week of April 1895.

That session turned out to be an interesting one. On the day before the charges against Cass and Keating came forward, the court held a civil case against Tom Hunt and Josh Wayper, the proprietors of the Hespeler hotels where the late Jim Crane had spent his last day on earth. The action was brought by Bob Crane, on behalf of his sister-in-law and his infant nephews.

A succession of witnesses testified that Jim Crane had been drinking steadily through the day, and had been noticed on the street in a severely inebriated condition.

The judge advised the jury that the case revolved around the interpretation of the phrase “drinking to excess” in the licencing legislation.

After deliberating for 90 minutes, the jury returned. Their verdict was that the hotels had knowingly provided too much whiskey to Crane. They awarded judgments of $600 against Hunt and $300 against Wayper.

The following day, April 5, the Cass/Keating criminal case came up. The court heard evidence from the coroner, Dr. Caven, and from various witness, essentially repeating the testimony heard at the coroner’s inquest in December.

After hearing the coroner’s evidence, the judge expressed the opinion that the cause of death seemed to be injures Johnson received when he fell backward to the floor, not from injuries inflicted by Cass. Nevertheless, he decided to let the evidence continue.

Later he paused again to address the jury. He pointed out that it was clear that John Cass was not the aggressor, and the real question was whether Cass had used excessive force in defending himself. None of the evidence showed that blows by Cass were sufficient to cause death or serious injury.

Using carefully chosen words, he reviewed the law in such cases, noting that “the line is narrow and closely drawn,” and that the law does not allow fighting for revenge. Johnson struck Cass twice in the head before he returned a blow, and had tried to walk away from him. In this case, concluded the judge, he could see no evidence of criminal intent or criminal responsibility on the part of John Cass.

Therefore, he told the jury, they could not convict Cass, and he directed the jury to enter a verdict of “not guilty.” Charges against John Keating, who was named as an accessory, were dropped: he could not have aided in a crime that did not occur.

The verdicts received general public approval. John Cass was a popular and well-liked young man in Guelph, with no history of trouble with the law. Hotel keeper Fred Borsch, with a $30 fine, was the only person found guilty in the John L. Johnson case.

Ripples from the case were felt widely, beginning with the charges against the Hespeler hotel keepers, and particularly after the successful lawsuits against them and the substantial damages awarded.

After 1895 local hotel keepers began to restrict the flow of liquor down the gullets of their customers, even though doing so affected their own pocketbooks. Drinking was in decline already, and hotel keeping became even less desirable and profitable.

Local temperance advocates rejoiced at the consequences of the Johnson case.

Legislation had always required hotel keepers to guard against excessive consumption, but now those provisions were being enforced aggressively.

It seemed one more step in their mission to abolish the bottle altogether.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 20,  2006.

Thorning Revisited