On June 26, 1886 two sons of Bob McDonald of Mount Forest decided to spend their Saturday morning gathering strawberries along the river near Queen Street.
At a spot along the river known as Tanner’s Flats, at the east edge of town, they discovered a dead infant, wrapped in a piece of old clothing and partially hidden behind a log. The spot, though well hidden, was only about 75 feet from a well-travelled road.
Scared out of their wits, they ran home and told their father of their discovery, who immediately informed the authorities.
The coroner called an inquest for the following Monday morning. By then Dr. Yeomans had completed a post-mortem examination. The story quickly created a sensation in the town, and was the main subject of conversation before and after church on June 27.
Dr. Yeomans told a packed room at the inquest the body was that of a male child, perhaps four weeks old, and that the cadaver, due to considerable decay, had probably rested beside the log for two weeks or so. He believed the infant had died from exposure. He found that the heart, lungs and digestive system seemed to be normal and healthy. The stomach was empty. A rubber nozzle of a nursing bottle had been found near the body, but no bottle.
Several other witnesses testified, but they could offer little in the way of evidence concerning the identity of the infant or the circumstances surrounding its abandonment.
The inquest adjourned until July 2 to allow time for a police investigation.
During the week, based on Dr. Yeomans’s testimony, public sentiment became outraged at the person or persons responsible for the callous act of abandoning a helpless infant to die.
Just prior to resumption of the inquest, John Stovel, the Mount Forest constable, arrested a young woman named Ellen Shaughnessy in connection with the death of the infant.
A number of people had reported scattered pieces of evidence, which all combined to point the finger at her.
Most of those people offered testimony at the resumed inquest. The evidence was all of a circumstantial nature.
The inquest continued the following Monday, and concluded on Tuesday, when the jury presented a verdict to the effect that the infant had come to his death through the actions of Ellen Shaughnessy. The jury recommended extreme mercy in the case.
When she heard she would be taken to the Owen Sound jail to await her trial (the infant’s body had been found in Grey County), Ellen broke down, protesting her innocence, and clinging to her parents while court officials tried to pry her away. Public sympathy began to sway a little in her favour.
Ellen’s lawyer attempted to have her released on bail, but does not appear to have been successful. The trial took place in mid-October. Ellen’s family and friends hired John Creasor, QC, to defend her.
Constable Stovel had done much work over the summer in preparing the case against Ellen, and he worked closely with Crown Attorney Frost in formulating the prosecution strategy. Ellen was a daughter of Thomas Brennan, a gentleman well known in the Mount Forest area. After attending high school in Mount Forest she had gone to Minnesota to teach school.
In Minnesota she boarded with an aunt and her husband, a man named Shaughnessy. Her aunt died soon after. Ellen became involved with the widower, and in March 1886 she married him after she found herself with child, to use the phrase then in use.
Following the wedding, a group of men from the neighbourhood organized a charivari, which quickly got out of hand. Shaughnessy did not welcome the impromptu celebration.
He took down his shotgun and fired in the direction of the celebrants, probably to warn them away rather than do them any harm.
His shots drew some return fire. One gunman was very accurate with his aim. He wounded Shaughnessy, mortally, it turned out. The man died three days later.
On May 17, the young widow gave birth to a son. On his trip west Constable Stovel found the midwife. He arranged for her to come to Owen Sound for the trial, along with an adult daughter of Shaughnessy (by his first wife).
As a consequence of the marriage and birth, Ellen was removed from her teaching position. She decided to return to her family in Mount Forest.
The midwife told the court that a few weeks after the birth Ellen had told her of plans to return to Canada, and that she desired to get rid of the child. The midwife recommended that she leave it with the Sisters of Charity in one of the cities she would pass through on her return to Canada.
The Shaughnessy daughter identified the clothes found on the dead infant as the same ones Ellen had used to wrap the infant when she left Minnesota.
She offered other evidence indicating similarities between that child in Minnesota and the body found at Mount Forest.
Several witnesses followed who described a figure with a baby get off the train from Palmerston at the Mount Forest Grand Trunk station the previous June 10.
All described her as having the same stature as Ellen. She was heavily veiled, wore a large hat, and carried a baby. No one could see her face.
The witnesses recalled she had walked in the direction where the baby was later found. Some recalled that the baby was crying as the woman walked, and two remembered she sat down at one point, apparently feeding the child.
A farmer next took the stand. He was driving a buggy home from Mount Forest and passed a young woman near the place where the baby was afterwards found. She carried no baby. He stopped to give her a ride, and she got off at a crossroad near the residence of her father.
That summed up the case for the prosecution.
Ellen’s lawyer called no witnesses. His argument was that, had Ellen desired to get rid of the child, she would not have carried it all the way from Minnesota and then abandoned it almost within sight of her father’s house.
Instead, he offered the explanation that the trip from Minnesota had been too much of a strain on the baby, and that he had died in his mother’s arms when she was only minutes from her destination in the warm arms of her family.
On the spur of the moment she decided to leave the body beside a log at the side of the road, rather than take it to her home. Her parents did not know that she had given birth to a child.
Lawyer Creasor embellished the story to fill more than two hours. He filled his oration with high Victorian drama and pathos.
It seemed to have worked on at least some of the jury.
Deliberations continued for some three hours. Then the jury filed back to the courtroom, and told the judge that they had been unable to reach a verdict.
The judge might have sent them back to continue their deliberations, but instead he followed his other option and dismissed them with the thanks of the court.
Though the breakdown was not announced, it was rumoured three were for conviction and nine for acquittal.
Guards took Ellen back to the jail, but she was afterward released when the crown attorney decided not to call for a second trial.
So ended one of the saddest trials and most pathetic stories in local history.