It is a sad fact of life that some people manage to annoy their neighbours through their actions or behaviour.
Neighbours often find subtle ways to retaliate. Such a low-key course of action did not appeal to a group of people living in the western part of Pilkington Township in June of 1872. They expressed their opinions by attacking their foes at night and covering them with a coat of tar.
Daniel Cornish and his wife farmed at Concession 6, Lot 15 of Pilkington. That property is on the north side of what is now County Road 18, abutting the border with Waterloo Region. Cornish seems to have had the ability to get on the wrong side of everyone. Even his brother, Thomas, wanted nothing to do with him. What Daniel did or said is not in the historical record, but whatever it was, his actions were sufficient to inspire his neighbours to exact their revenge.
On the evening of June 1, 1872, Dan and Louisa Cornish turned in about 10pm. After a time she heard the couple’s flock of sheep passing the house. She thought that strange because she had locked them into the barnyard before turning in. She roused her husband, who quickly pulled on his trousers and went out to investigate while she lit a lamp.
When Louisa went out, she noticed her husband on the ground, covered in tar and most of his clothes pulled off. Two men were standing over him, and a few other figures loomed in the distance. A moment later a masked man seized her. As they struggled she managed to pull the mask off his face, and recognized the man as John Auger, a neighbour from the farm immediately to the south.
Both Dan and Louisa struggled to get to their feet, but were repeatedly met with kicks and punches. The two men near her husband also smeared tar on her after ripping some of her clothes. All the while, Dan was screaming “murder” as loudly as he could. She recognized the two men with the tar as Moses Auger and John Cann.
After a time the sounds of a wagon coming from Elora could be heard in the distance. It contained Patrick Rooney, his mother, and a man named Williams, returning from a shopping trip into Elora. The mob scattered when they heard the wagon.
Rooney met Dan Cornish running down the road, still bellowing “murder.” He pulled Cornish, who was covered in tar and a few shreds of clothing, into the wagon and took him to the Cornish house, where they met a tar-smeared Louisa standing in the doorway.
Rooney took the couple back to Elora and roused Dr. Arthur Paget from bed to dress their wounds. With care the Doctor removed tar from Cornish’s eyes and head.
The next morning the Cornishes called on three of Elora’s magistrates, Andrew Gordon, J.M. Shaw, and Maurice Halley, and filed charges against the four men of the mob they could identify. The magistrates instructed the Elora constable to pick up the accused. John Cann and Moses Auger were charged with assault against Dan Cornish, and John and Moses Auger with the assault on Louisa Cornish. The magistrates released them on bail, with a hearing scheduled for the following day.
When the hearing convened on June 3, two more of the local magistrates augmented the bench: George Barron and Elora mill owner J.M. Fraser. By then, the story had become a sensation in upper Pilkington and Elora. Lawyer John Jacob appeared for the Cornishes, and Edward Burns for the accused.
The magistrates swore in Daniel Cornish to give his version of the events. He stated that he had been seized shortly after leaving the house on Saturday night. He claimed to have recognized John Cann as the man who pushed him to the ground and punched him in the eye, rendering him momentarily senseless. He stated that Cann and Moses Auger ripped at his clothes, pulled off his trousers, stuffed a tar-covered cloth in his mouth, and brushed his body with tar. He claimed that he heard the voice of his brother, Thomas, but could not identify him among the five or six other men in the dark.
The magistrates heard additional evidence from Dr. Paget, Patrick Rooney, and Louisa Cornish. They decided there was sufficient evidence to send the case for trial at the quarter sessions in Guelph, which had were to commence the following week.
The accused faced their day in court on June 13. Crown attorney Henry Peterson prosecuted the case, and the accused replaced John Jacob as their defence counsel with Donald Guthrie, then a 32-year old rising star of the legal profession in Wellington.
Peterson opened the case with the testimony of Daniel Cornish, then Louisa. Guthrie did his best, on cross-examination, to poke holes in their stories, and in particular exploited some inconsistencies in Louisa’s account.
Things began to sour for the Cornishes with the next witness. Patrick Rooney admitted that he saw five or six men run from the scene, but was unable to identify any of them. He was the only witness other than the Cornishes who might have named the perpetrators.
Peterson then called two neighbours, one of whom lived more than a mile away. Both claimed to have heard Cornish’s cries of “murder.” Peterson’s last witness, Dr. Paget, explained the injuries both victims had suffered, claiming that they could only have been administered by violence.
Then it was the turn of Donald Guthrie. His first witness was another neighbour, James Sutherland, who claimed he was with both the accused Auger brothers at the time of the incident, and therefore neither could have been involved. Mrs. Sutherland corroborated her husband’s evidence.
John Auger related the same story, and a third brother, Aaron, stated that he was asleep in the same bed with his brother Moses at the time of the incident, and that his brother had not arisen at any time that night.
On cross-examination, Henry Peterson asked why Moses would not admit his identity when arrested, suggesting that he had something to hide. Aaron could not explain his brother’s behaviour.
Haman Cann was Guthrie’s next witness. He claimed he was at his brother’s house the night of the incident, and that John Cann was there the whole time. He knew nothing of the incident, he claimed, until Constable Finlay, of Elora, came to arrest his brother.
George Wright, who lived a short distance away, stated he was at Thomas Cornish’s farm on the fateful night. They heard a noise outside, and found four men who told them of the incident at the Daniel Cornish farm. Wright went at once to the Cornish homestead. Louisa Cornish told him that her brother-in-law was one of those involved. Wright told her that was impossible, as he had just left Thomas at his farm. Tom Cornish’s wife confirmed Wright’s story.
Crown Attorney Peterson thought Wright’s tale was nonsense, but he was unable to refute it under cross-examination.
Thomas Cornish backed up the stories of Wright, and stated that he and his brother Dan “were not on very friendly terms.” Other witnesses, living close to Dan Cornish’s farm, stated that they heard nothing, and a couple of others from the neighbourhood testified to the consistently good character of the accused.
After summations from Peterson, Guthrie, and the judge, the jury retired to consider the case. They were back in a few minutes with a verdict of “Not Guilty.”
The case collapsed because no one other than Dan and Louisa Cornish were able to identify the perpetrators. All the accused were able to produce multiple witnesses that placed them elsewhere at the time of the attack, and all were respected residents of the township, with no history of criminal activity.
There appears to have been no investigation of the crime scene, and Peterson had no physical evidence to present to the court. No one ever identified publicly the five or six other men who were at the scene, and none of those involved ever admitted to the attack. After the passage of 138 years it is now one of the fascinating tales in the folklore of old Pilkington.