Originally printed 1907
If the Niagara Court house and jail built in 1817 could tell only a part of what has been enacted within its walls what a tragic tale should we have. It has been said elsewhere by the present writer that to know the history of Niagara is to know much of the history of Upper Canada and in a lesser sense to know the history of this building is to know much of the history of our country.
An advertisement in the Spectator published in St. Davids in 1816, for brick, stone, lumber, lath, shingles, etc. for a jail and court house is signed by Ralfe Clench, Clerk, who we know was a United Empire Loyalist, a member of Butler 5 Rangers, a member of Parliament, a Judge, who had fought at Queenston Heights and whose name appears more frequently perhaps than that of any other in papers of that day. The first Court House and Jail in Niagara had been burned in 1813 and the next served the double purpose from 1817 to 1847, when the Court House was built in 1847 it was used as a Jail only till 1866 and from 1869 to the present time it has been the Western Home for waifs and strays from the crowded motherland and from its walls have gone out more than 4000 children to homes in our land.
In a letter in the Niagara Gleaner for March 26th, 1818, is a letter referring to the new gaol and Court House as a handsome building which must have cost a great sum of money and does credit to the builders and founders but he "cannot conceive why it was set in that swamp." Another letter is from the contractor Josiah Cushman acknowledging his satisfaction with the committee.
Here in 1819 was confined Robert Gourlay,
a British subject banished as an alien by false oaths, his crime
that of protesting in the newspapers of the day against the government
of that period.
Gourlay was so treated that his reason gave way. The chapter is named "The Banished Briton." The editor of the Niagara Spectator, Bartemus Ferguson, fared badly also, a letter of Gourlay's had appeared in his paper in his absence and without his knowledge and for this the unfortunate editor was confined in the Niagara jail, tried for sedition and sentenced to pay a fine of £50, to be imprisoned in jail for eighteen months, to stand in the public pillory one hour, to give security for seven years for the sum of £1000 and to remain in prison till the fine be paid and security given. We may surely congratulate ourselves that we do not live in these "good old days".
The newspapers of the day show how severe were the punishments, as in 1825 John Hight for Highway robbery was condemned to death. In 1826 three men were sentenced to be hanged for horse stealing and sheep stealing, on 25th October. This sentence was not carried out as the paper for Oct. 28th has an item headed "Great Disappointment. Great numbers came from U.S. into town to see the execution but His Excellency had suspended the sentence; A wagon load of cakes and gingerbread had to be sold at reduced rates". What a mingling of sad and gruesome elements does this extract give us. In 1831 is mentioned the Debtor's prayer written on the walls of the prison. In 1832 a letter in the Gleaner from a debtor in jail speaks of the kindness of Mrs. Stevenson and Mrs. Capt. Mosier in sending food and delicacies to debtors confined there, and in a Canadian home now after a lapse of seventy years may be seen a symbolic picture executed by one of these unhappy prisoners confined for debt, representing a bird in a cage fed by a little girl who is spoken of in the letter as the angel Mary. In the same letter the kindness of John Crooks, P.M., is spoken of in sending a load of wood in winter to allay the sufferings from the cold of a Canadian winter. Another pathetic story lately told me is that of a prisoner confined for debt for years; in those days the creditor was obliged to send weekly to the jailer a certain sum to provide food (meager enough we may be sure.) On the death of the prosecutor it was found that he had actually left in his will a sum that this payment might be made and the unfortunate debtor still kept a prisoner. The executor, however unwilling to carry out this malignant desire from a grave, felt himself compelled to do so, till becoming ashamed at last thought of a way of escape for himself from this binding decree and escape for the prisoner as well. By the law the money had to be paid at a certain hour and it was so arranged one day that the messenger was detained a few minutes past the time and the jailer as the money was not forthcoming set the prisoner free, no doubt to the satisfaction of many sympathizers. This recalls a story in Old Man Savarin by E. W. Thdmpson, when a copper coin (many of which were not legal tender) afforded an excuse for a similar jail delivery.
In 1828 another victim complains in a letter in the Gleaner (Edward McBride a Parliamentary Candidate) that he was put in Jail for debt to keep him from being elected.
In the Gleaner of April 10th, 1832, a memorable meeting was held in this building in which we see the rumblings of the storm which culminated in the Rebellion of 1837 of which the imprisonment of Robert Gourlay and Bartemus. Ferguson thirteen years before gave warning. The meeting was called by the Sheriff to discuss the affairs of the country. The accounts are very confusing, one meeting was held outside the building with Jas. Cooper as chairman, the other inside with Wm. Ball as chairman. Each party declared his the only legal meeting, both declared their loyalty to the King, William IV Both passed an address with eleven resolutions, one declaring themselves satisfied with the administration, the other complaining of the grievances that existed, in the war losses not being paid, nor grants of land confirmed. Numerous contradictory letters appeared in the Gleaner telling of this exciting meeting.
The celebrated slave escape in 1837 gives perhaps the most dramatic event in connection with this building. At that time there were 300 or 400 colored inhabitants in Niagara, most of whom had escaped from slavery following the north star to liberty. Among them was a man called Moseby, who had escaped from Kentucky, using his master's horse for some distance. He was working on a farm near town when he was arrested and put in jail, having been followed by his master, a demand being made for his return to the United States as a felon for horse stealing, not as .an escaped slave. It is said that baseless charges of this kind were often made to secure the return of the slave. The government was appealed to and Sir Francis Bond Head, then the governor, ordered that he be given up. Meanwhile great excitement prevailed in town, the colored inhabitants collected in crowds, messages were sent to all the dusky race in the vicinity and several hundreds assembled watching the jail to see that the prisoner was not taken away. The white inhabitants sympathized with the prisoner and furnished provisions and other comforts for the beleaguering army. This was kept up for two weeks and finally a waggon was ready with constables and soldiers to take the prisoner to the wharf. The women in the crowd sang hymns, some were armed with stones in stockings, (a very effective weapon) one strong black woman seized one of the officials and held him prisoner. The riot act was read, the prisoner driven out, rails from a fence were stuck in the wheels to stop the progress, the prisoner, whose manacles it is said had been manipulated by friends in the jail jumped out and escaped. The order to fire was given and two black men were shot dead and others wounded. The leader was a teacher and exhorter, an educated mulatto named Herbert Holmes, the other named Green. Both were buried in the graveyard of the old Baptist church. An inquest was held and after seventeen hours the verdict of Homicide, but whether justifiable or not was not known. Some of the papers of the day headed the account Mobocracy in Niagara, others spoke of Holmes as a hero and his death as murder.
In many books of travel in Canada from 1820 to 1830 the jail and Court House is spoken of as the handsomest building in Upper Canada. The fine wood work in the interior may yet be admired. The present dormitory for the children was the court room, the spectator's gallery and the fine arches remain, but many changes have been made in the building as the condemned cells were taken down, and from the stone two culverts constructed in the town. In our Historical room may be seen the grating only about a foot square, from which a prisoner condemned to death might take almost his last sight of the light of day. The picture taken in 1860 is that of a building of unmitigated ugliness, very different in appearance from that of the present day with its beautiful trees and flowers as laid out by the good taste of Miss Rye, by whom it was purchased in 1869, it having been unoccupied for several years, when Niagara ceased to be the county town.
On July 31st, 1828, Jas. Morreau, who had taken part in the rebellion was hanged. A printed bill in the possession of the Society offers a reward for his arrest. Thirteen other persons were condemned to be executed on 25th August. Ten were reprieved and the wife of Benjamin Wait and the daughter of Chandler took the long journey to Quebec to beg the lives of the husband and father. After many difficulties and discouragements Mrs. Wait returned with the promise of a reprieve which however did not arrive till half an hour before the time fixed for the execution. The excitement of such a dramatic scene may be imagined. Another memorable execution was that of Seely in 1836 who died protesting his innocence of the murder attributed to him. Many years afterwards the real murderer on his deathbed confessed his guilt, thus confirming the statement of Seely.
In this building the congregation
of St. Mark's church worshipped in 1843 while the transept, the
new part of the church was being erected.
It is rather remarkable that the advertisement for materials for the first jail and Court House in Niagara in 1795 is signed by Ralfe Clench, the same as in that of 1816. The jail was situated on the corner of King and Prideaux street. We read that in the war of 1812 there were confined in the jail at one time 300, many of them political offenders. It was burned during the bombardment previous to the conflagration in Dec. 1813. Many other remarkable events might be narrated which transpired in this building but these may be left for other explorers of historic lore.