West Garafraxa’s poisoning and shooting case of 1921

The former township of West Garafraxa has the dubious distinction of being the most violent and lawless of Wellington County’s municipalities.

In area it was a large township, and a very rural one. Many of the first generation of settlers fell victim to economic cycles, and a large number of them lost their farms in the downturn of the 1880s.

At the bottom of the cycle, about one farm in three was vacant and abandoned, while many others hung on by their finger nails.

One result of this cycle, in the absence of any formal law enforcement, was a climate of lawlessness that pervaded the society of the township. West Garafraxa led Wellington County by a wide margin, in the categories of murder, assaults, and robberies.

One of the early families in West Garafaxa was headed by Thomas Cope, who came from England in 1847 and settled in West Garafaxa in the late 1850s with his wife and young family. It seems that his name was originally Coop, but the change in spelling may have been the result of a transcription error by a census taker or a government official.

In any case, Tom Cope managed to establish himself in the township despite several reverses in his fortunes. By 1900 his son, John Cope, owned a 236-acre holding at Lot 27, Concession VII of West Garafraxa. The farm was a few miles east of Arthur, on what would become provincial Highway 9. John Cope was then about 40 years of age, and had a family of five children.

By 1920 the two eldest sons, Tom, born in 1890, and Bill, two years younger, helped with the farming on the home while establishing their own spread on another farm nearby. By the early 1920s they were spending most of their time there, helping their aging father only when he needed help on the home farm.

On Sept. 16, 1921 they went over to their father’s place and remained there until returning home late in the morning of the following Monday, the 19th.

For their noontime dinner they retrieved a couple of potatoes they had cooked the previous week that seemed more or less edible.

One of the brothers sliced and fried the potatoes in some butter that they had also left out on the table. The potatoes tasted very bitter, and the brothers cast them aside as inedible, as they did with some other food they had used the butter on.

When it was all scraped together the Copes had an ample dinner bowl filled for Bowser the dog, who wolfed down the unexpected meal. Soon the brothers felt very ill, and when they looked for Bowser, the poor dog was dead.

They quickly concluded that they had been poisoned, and at once headed for a neighbour’s house, arriving there seriously ill. The neighbour immediately called Dr. Allan of Arthur, who managed to get them to regurgitate as much of the meal as possible.

Dr. Allan suspected that the brothers had been poisoned with strychnine. He retrieved what was left of the butter, and sent it to Toronto for analysis. Dr. Allan also contacted Crown Attorney Kearns of Guelph, who promised to launch an investigation should the butter be proven to have been poisoned.

The case inflamed the suspicions of old John Cope and his sons, who soon convinced themselves that someone in the neighbourhood was bent on poisoning them all, though they had not yet received the results of the analysis arranged for by Dr. Allan, or considered other explanations.

Strychnine, though very dangerous, was widely used in the early 20th century as a poison for vermin, and it might well have inadvertently contaminated the butter.

Altogether, it was an unfortunate set of circumstances for R.H. Clemens, the county agricultural representative. Late in the afternoon of Sept. 24 Clemens was returning to his home base at Arthur from Erin, where he had taken a passenger, Maud Buschlen, who had competed in a musical contest there earlier in the day.

As Clemens passed the Cope farm, he suffered a blow-out in one of the car’s tires. Clemens stopped the car and got out his tools. He spent about 40 minutes removing the tire, patching the tube, and re-inflating the tire.

The car stopped near their farm was soon noticed by the Copes, who quickly worked themselves into a state of agitation. Obviously, this was a return of the poisoners from the previous week, come back to finish the task of offing the Cope family.

Old John Cope picked up the telephone and called Constable Tindale of Arthur, telling the policeman that he and his family were in extreme danger. Tindale jumped into his car and headed east to the Cope farm, but he was not sufficiently fast to suit the Cope family.

Grabbing their shotguns, Cope and his sons rushed down their driveway and confronted Clemens just as he was about to drive away, ordering him to raise his hands and step out of the car.

Fearing that he was facing robbers, Clemens quickly put his car into gear and roared passed the men toward Arthur. As Clemens sped away, one of the sons fired his shotgun.

The pellets left a number of holes in the back of Clemens’s car. Some of the shots penetrated Maud Buschlen’s violin case which sat on the back seat of the car.

Constable Tindale arrived at the scene of the shooting a few minutes later. He had already been flagged down by the fleeing Clemens, who he knew well, and learned all about the shooting.

Tindale heard the Cope side of the story, and then charged all three men with the shooting. They were to appear in court in Arthur the following Monday before Police Magistrate Hellyer.

Hellyer, a recent appointment to the bench, displayed a large degree of wisdom from his first day as a magistrate. After hearing the evidence, he ordered the Copes to pay all the costs associated with repairing Clemens’s motor car. He took into consideration the stress the Cope family was under, and levied no fines or jail terms.

As to the alleged poisoning, that matter seems to drop from the historical record.

It is most probable that the butter was contaminated from a source other than poison, and had simply gone bad. In any case, the poisoning theory makes little sense.

Why would anyone break into the house while the brothers were absent and poison a plate of butter that was out on the table?

The Copes had no known enemies, and even if they had bitter enemies, that method of doing them in was most unlikely.

It is probable that old John Cope was remembering incidents from 30 or 40 years earlier, when the township was lawless and dangerous, and when unemployed men, some of them dangerous, drifted from farm to farm.

John Cope was also a lucky man. Nothing he did resulted in injury or death to anyone. The outcome of the actions of the Cope family might have been tragic to themselves and to others.

The incident was a reminder of what West Garafraxa had been like a few decades earlier in its history.


Stephen Thorning