Woman married two men within days, became ‘grass widow’

Thorning Revisited by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

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.

On days when I find my historical work becoming tedious, I take a break by reading 19th century court records.

The accounts of criminal activity, petty misdemeanours and civil lawsuits offer a fascinating glimpse of the underside of the society of the previous century.

Just a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a notorious matrimonial affair that briefly captivated the imagination of Wellington County and, for a few issues, turned the local weekly papers into scandal sheets of the first order.

It all began innocently enough. On Friday, Dec. 28, 1883, Susan Checkley and William Bolton went to the Methodist manse at Arthur and were married by the minister, the Rev. Mr. Charlton. Both had formerly been residents of Elora, but their families had moved to farms in the northern portion of West Garafraxa. She was 18; he was 22.

After the ceremony, the newlyweds went to the farm of Susan’s brother, Charles Everett, which was near Arthur, for their honeymoon.

On the Sunday following the wedding, the honeymooning couple, along with Susan’s brother, went to visit her father whose farm was nearby. In the evening, Susan’s mother asked her to go to the barn and milk the cows.

While she was going about her chores in the barn, according to her later evidence, she was seized by a young man named William Everett. He ordered Susan’s 14-year-old younger brother, who had been feeding animals in the barn, to hitch up a team of horses to the sleigh. Everett threatened to shoot both of them if they disobeyed or raised any alarm.

Continuing his threats, Everett lifted Susan into the sleigh and ordered the boy to drive to the farm of Everett’s father, about five miles away.

The Checkley boy returned home with the team. Everett and his captive remained at his father’s house until 4am Monday morning, when William Everett Sr. hitched a team and drove Susan and his son to Fergus, where they all put up at the Ontario House hotel.

That morning the Everetts, father and son, left Susan in the sitting room of the hotel for almost an hour while they went out to procure a marriage licence. The trio then drove over to Elora.

First, they went to Mrs. Thompson’s millinery shop and bought a hat for Susan. Then they spent the afternoon with the family of William Laing, a teamster who was a friend of the Everett family.

After supper, William Everett and Susan, with members of the Laing family as witnesses, went to see the Rev. Mr. Buggin, the Elora Methodist minister, who married them.

Following the ceremony the party got into the sleigh and returned to the Everett farm in Garafraxa, stopping along the way at a Cumnock hotel for a round of hot brandy drinks.

When they got back to Charles Everett’s farm in Garafraxa they met Susan’s parents, her brother and William Bolton (husband no. 1). We might expect Bolton and the Checkleys to be in a furore. Quite the opposite was the case. Susan’s mother admired the ring given to her by William Everett. Susan’s father, John Checkley, brought out his fiddle and the group partied and danced until five in the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 1, with William Bolton joining in the festivities with the rest.

Bolton went home quietly, leaving Susan with husband number two. She and Everett lived together the rest of the week.

The trouble started on Friday morning, Jan. 4, when William Bolton lodged a complaint with a magistrate at Arthur.

A warrant was soon written out, and William Everett was arrested for abduction. With Everett safely in the hoosegow, Bolton rescued his wife. He found her at the home of William Everett Sr., where she and her mother were enjoying a pleasant visit.

William Everett’s preliminary trial took place on Saturday evening, adjourned at almost midnight, and resumed the following Monday morning. The magistrate committed Everett to trial with a list of four charges related to the abduction and forcible confinement of Susan Checkley.

The trial was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14,  1884. In the meantime, rumours about the affair circulated widely. There was a general belief that Susan was a willing participant in the second marriage. Others suspected that the Checkley family did not entirely approve of the first marriage, and had been willing participants in a so-called abduction.

Susan and William Everett, apparently, had been seeing one another for some time, and the marriage to Bolton had come as something of a surprise.

For the times, the trial was a lengthy one, occupying two days of the court’s time.

The crown brought in Donald Guthrie, Q.C., as a prosecutor to assist William Peterson. William Everett hired Elora lawyer John Jacob to defend him. He probably thought this a smart move. The presiding judge was George Drew, Jacob’s brother-in-law and former law partner.

In total, there were 15 witnesses, virtually everyone involved in any way with the affair.

The prosecution called Susan Checkley as its chief witness. Under lengthy examination and cross examination she offered no evidence that she had at any time resisted, or attempted to get away. Guthrie and Peterson cringed at many of her answers, which elicited titters from the packed gallery.

At the end of her testimony, Judge Drew said he was inclined to throw the case out. Guthrie and Peterson objected, arguing that while there may be no evidence that Susan was forcibly detained, they still insisted that she had been abducted.

Judge Drew agreed to hear the next witness. William Checkley, Susan’s brother, testified that the defendant and the other Everetts had made various threats to Susan and other members of the Checkley family on the day of the second wedding and the day before. His crude manner brought admonishing remarks from judge Drew. Under cross examination he admitted that he and three others consumed almost a half barrel of beer on the two days in question, and that his recollection of the events was extremely hazy.

Then the defence took over. Under oath, William Everett Sr. testified that neither he nor others in his family had any idea that Susan was already married at the time of their excursion to Fergus and Elora. The Rev. Mr. Buggin had detected no sign of distress or unwillingness on the part of Susan during the second marriage ceremony.

William Checkley, Susan’s brother, admitted going to Arthur on the day of the second marriage to get a keg of beer for the party that night. When he returned, he found his parents talking to Bolton. They were poking fun at him for losing his wife.

Judge Drew interrupted the proceedings well into the second day. He had heard enough.

One key participant had not been heard. William Bolton, husband number one, had hurriedly gone to the United States. No one knew his whereabouts.

In his summary, Judge Drew said he could not find a shred of evidence that Susan Checkley participated in any of the events against her will. She had numerous opportunities to flee, or to raise an alarm. There was nothing to support a claim of forcible detention or abduction. His Honour acquitted William Everett of all charges, and discharged the prisoner.

The spectators in the court, most of whom were Everett supporters, noisily congratulated him.

Susan Checkley began 1884 with two husbands. Six weeks later she had none. I don’t know how these people ultimately resolved this messy situation – or if William Bolton ever returned to the area.

In truth, I really don’t want to know. I fear it would be a disappointing conclusion to this story.

The biggest post trial surprise came to John Jacob, the defence counsel. Four days after the trial a fire destroyed the building containing his office. He lost all his papers and a famous law library worth over $4,000.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on April 5, 1999.

Thorning Revisited