West Garafraxa farmer’s affair with a girl led to tragedy in 1890s

During the early 1890s Joseph Embree was a well-known farmer in West Garafraxa Township, managing a successful farming operation during a trying period for agriculture.

He was then in his mid 50s. He had married a woman named Agnes McBride in the early 1860s, and the couple had raised a family of seven children, born between 1862 and 1877.

Sometime in 1894 or 1895 Embree rebelled against his advanced middle age by embarking on an illicit romantic affair with a daughter of Andrew Cudney, who lived nearby the Embree farm.

The Cudneys were very poor, but were well regarded in the neighbourhood as a hardworking and honest family.

In early July of 1896 the girl discovered that she was pregnant. Embree arranged for her to take a train to Toronto, to a house where she could stay during her confinement. It appears that she planned to bear the child and then put it out for adoption.

The couple to this point had been successful in keeping the affair secret. The Cudneys could not understand why their daughter, who had just turned 16, had gone to Toronto and told them nothing about the trip or her reasons for it. They did some investigation, and soon the truth came out.

Acting on information from the family, County High Constable Merewether, assisted by Constable Elliot of the Guelph police force, drove a buggy to Embree’s farm in West Garafraxa and arrested him on a charge of seduction.

They arrived back in Guelph around noon on Sunday, July 26. The officers took their prisoner to the dining room of the Victoria Hotel for a meal. Then they went down the street and placed Embree in the county jail to await a court hearing the next morning.

Joe Embree had little company in the Guelph hoosegow. Only a small handful of men were incarcerated, most on drunkenness and fighting charges. None were considered desperate men or even slightly dangerous. And the jail keeper expected no problems from Joe Embree, who was considered respectable and a mature citizen at 57.

George Everson, who had charge of the jail, placed Embree in the southeast ward of the jail at about 1pm. The prisoner was able to move about the ward, but there were no other prisoners in that part of the jail. At 6pm Everson placed Embree in his cell and locked the door. Neither he nor anyone else entered that part of the jail until 7am the next morning.

Embree seemed to realize the serious nature of his predicament that evening, and his agitated mental state was aggravated by the fact that he was all alone. Outside his cell window was a ladder left there by some painters the day before. He managed to reach out and grab a hoop that was hanging on the ladder and he pulled it through the iron bars. He fastened one of his shoelaces to it, and fashioned a noose which he placed around his neck. He secured it in such a way that he was able to choke himself. There was not space enough for him to hang himself, but his improvised rig was sufficient to do the job, securing him from the bars of the door.

That is how jailer Everson found him the next morning. He had evidently been dead for some hours. Everson at once called the jail surgeon, Dr. Herod, who confirmed that Everson had been dead for some time. The doctor called Crown Attorney Henry Peterson, who was soon on the spot, and he in turn summoned the coroner, Dr. Savage, to call an inquest as soon as possible.

Dr. Savage opened the inquest at 4pm that very afternoon.

Thirteen men were sworn in as jurors, and Charles Walker of Guelph accepted the position of foreman. Constable Elliot, one of the arresting officers, was the first witness.

He described the trip to West Garafraxa to arrest Embree. He noted that Embree seemed perfectly sane and rational, and to a query from the jury foreman, said that there was not the slightest sign that the prisoner had consumed any alcohol. After being locked up, he requested that Elliot come to see him in the morning.

Jury member John Duff asked whether the charges laid against Embree could be explained to the jury, in order that they might know the background to the case. The coroner replied that it was not necessary to explain the charges, as that was a matter unrelated to the inquest. The jury was present to investigate the cause of Embree’s death, not what led to it. Duff then withdrew his objection, but noted that it “would have been well for the jury to be in possession of the facts leading up to the rash act.”

Jailer George Everson was the next witness. He described discovering Embree that morning. He said that he asked for the assistance of another prisoner in taking Embree down from the door, and laying him on the bed. He then notified the jail surgeon of the death.

Jury foreman Charles Walker asked whether it was a dangerous practice to leave materials and a ladder within reach of a cell. Everson replied that the ladder was within an interior courtyard, and that no one had the slightest hint that Embree might be suicidal.

Prisoner Albert Smith confirmed the testimony given by Everson. He did add that he heard someone calling out in the night, but believed it was another prisoner, James Watt, a bookkeeper by profession, of Fergus.

The coroner, Dr. Herod, told the jury that he knew Watt quite well, and that he believed that at times Watt “was out of his head.” Nevertheless, he could see no harm in taking testimony from him. A couple of officers went to the jail to retrieve him.

A short time later James Watt was on the stand. He said that on the previous afternoon Embree seemed very excited when brought into the jail. Watt asked Embree what he was charged with, and Embree replied that he was accused of seduction, but that “it was a put-up job.” Embree had said little else to Watt, and he was very quiet when supper was brought to them.

Before they had been locked in their cells for the night Watt saw Embree trying to retrieve something through the bars of his window, and at other times Embree was pacing up and down the corridor.

Watt was the last witness. No one commented that his evidence was sometimes at odds with that of the other witnesses, particularly that of Everson.

Later, in an interview with a Guelph Mercury reporter, he did not vary in any of the details that he had recalled in court.

After deliberating for a few minutes, the jurors returned with the obvious verdict that Embree had died by his own hand using a hoop retrieved through the bars of his cell and one of his shoelaces. His son took the body away after the inquest for burial by the Church of Latter Day Saints, of which the Embree family were members.

Further investigation by newspaper reporters revealed the Cudney girl was only 14 years and 6 months old, not 16, as had been believed by the authorities. She remained in Toronto for the inquest and afterward. The whole affair had distressed her so severely that she was confined to bed for several weeks in Toronto.

Much sympathy was expressed for the Cudney family and the distressing episode that had ended in such a tragedy. Both the legal authorities and the press did all they could to protect the girl from publicity. The outcome of the sad affair for her was never made known.


Stephen Thorning