A Canadian Heroine of Nearly Eighty Years Ago

(By Janet Carnochan)
Originally Printed 1907

    The story of the heroic exertions of Maria Wait during four years, first to save the life of her husband and next to obtain a full pardon or some amelioration of his sufferings when a prisoner in Van Dieman's Land ( Australia), is known to comparatively few persons and forms a remarkably interesting page of Canadian History, giving us glimpses of governors, judges, lawyers; a journey in the first place of seven hundred miles in the days before the advent of railways, introducing us to officials in Toronto, Kingston, Quebec, Lieutenant-Governor Arthur and Lord Durham, Bishop Mountain, Wm. Hamilton Merritt, M.P.P., Jesse Ketchum, and affords the dramatic ending of her labors, the respite arriving only half an hour before that appointed for the execution of. the prisoners. Next she travels from Niagara to Kingston to visit her husband in the prison at Fort Henry and returns to obtain signatures, this indefatigable woman, then leaving her babe, takes a journey of three thousand miles, crossing the Atlantic to intercede for her husband even at the foot of the throne.

    We now have glimpses of Charles Buller, the Secretary of Lord Durham, Joseph Hume, Mrs.. Fry, Miss Strickland, Mrs,. Opie, Mary Howitt, the Philanthropists Buxton, Clarkson, Wilberforce, the Patriot Dan . O'Connell, Sir Robert Peel, Prince Albert, the young Queen, our heroine meeting the best in the fashionable, literary, political, philanthropic, and religious world of that day.

    Her letters show a well trained mind, an affectionate heart, an indomitable will, and a deeply religious spirit, while those of her husband show great vigor and close reasoning powers, he having had some legal training, and we can understand and pardon the bitterness with which he speaks when we remember his sufferings. To all her other difficulties was added that of insufficient means. We note with interest that though so much is recorded of hardships and hard heartedness, the letters of both husband and wife tell of many deeds of kindness, the dark record. is broken by the silver lining of the cloud; the benevolence of the people of three countries is recorded, in Canada, United States, and England.

    Maria Wait, nee Smith, seems from her letters to have been born not far from Niagara, as was also Benjamin Wait, he says "I was one of Canada's sons, born, bred and rocked in the cradle of liberal principles. She was my own, my native land." She was educated by Robert Randall, who was also the early friend and patron of her husband. On the tombstone of Robert Randall, at Lundy's Lane it is recorded that he was "a victim of Colonial Misrule". He was fourteen .years in the Legislature and went to England to complain of the wrongs of Canada, was ruined in health and fortune, though not in mental energy. Dying in 1834 he had taken part in the efforts to break the power of the Family Compact, but was spared the later troubles: These letters imply that the writers suffered from being his friends.

    The book from which the most of this story is derived is a rather rare one. "Letters from Van Dieman's Land, written during four. years imprisonment for political offences, also letters of Mrs. Wait." The book is dedicated to Thaddeus Smith, a brother of Mrs. Wait, and was published in 1843.

    The devoted wife returned from England to Canada to petition Lord Sydenham, and finally the long separated husband and wife met, he having escaped in an open boat was picked up by a U.S. Whaler; wrecked on the coast of Brazil; spent a month in Rio de Janiero and finally reached New York and found his wife teaching in Buffalo. But alas this loving wife whether worn out by anxiety or the fatigue she had undergone, or from other cause lived. little more than a year after the return of her husband, who, notwithstanding the extraordinary hardships he had undergone, to which some of his companions succumbed, lived to the age of 82, dying in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1895.

    Whatever opinion may be held of those who took part in the Rebellion of 1837-8, whether justified or not, there can be no question that we are now enjoying the advantages gained by that struggle, there can be no question either as to the cruel treatment meted out both in Lower Canada where houses were burnt and Savagery reigned, or to those executed here, particularly those banished, the treatment of felons begin given to political prisoners, they being herded with the vilest of convicts. There is no question either as to the tyranny, injustice and oppression of the Family Compact of which in these days we can have no conception. While the total incapacity of Mackenzie as a military commander must be noted, and while we must severely condemn him for bringing from another country a force to invade his own land, we remember that it is difficult sometimes to say what constitutes treason.

    When successful the leader is a hero, a patriot, when unsuccessful a rebel and a traitor.

    But of the deeds of Mrs. Wait there can be no divided opinion. Other women have performed heroic deeds. Cathanne Douglas, who to save the life of her king, James the First, of Scotland, in Stirling Castle, thrust her arm into the staple in the absence of the bolt, breaking the bone, this was the deed of a moment; our own Laura Secord's was the deed of a day, long and toilsome indeed. Helen Walker, the original of Jeanie Deans to save the life of a darling sister travelled painfully for weeks. Prascovia Lopouloff the Elizabeth in the Exiles of Siberia to save her father, endured hardships for months, but this heroic woman, undeterred by difficulties, disappointments and opposition gave years to the rescue of her husband and his fellow prisoners, travelling many thousands of miles through Canada and to England, and finally contemplated going to Van Dieman's Land to be near the loved one and help in any way in her power.

    In Dent's history of the Rebellion is a very graphic description of the Court House in Niagara at the trial of Robert Gourlay in 1819, very much in the style of Macaulay's Trial of Warren Hastings, and in this same building, now the home of waifs from the old land, was Benjamin Wait confined. A few days before, Morrrau had been tried, found guilty and executed, now sixteen more were sentenced to death, of these the sentence of thirteen was commuted, and three, Chandler, McLeod and Wait were left for execution. A letter to a friend begins thus. "You, Benjamin Wait shall be taken from the court to the place from which you last came and there remain until the 25th August, when between the hours of eleven and one you shall be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution and there hanged by the neck until you are dead. The Lord have mercy on your soul! This sentence was pronounced by Judge Jones, 11th August, 1838. The house was crammed, my counsel was Alexander Stewart." He goes on to tell of being led back to his ironbound stone cell; (the iron grating scarcely a foot square which afforded the only chance to see the light of day is in the Niagara Historical Room and two culverts in the town were formed of the stone walls of the condemned cell.) Mrs. Wait had taken a room near the jail, the 24th regiment was on guard, afterwards the 43rd, the commander of the latter being much more compassionate to the prisoners than the first. . Petitions for pardon were signed and taken by his father and Rev. Mr. Johnson, of Drummondville, to Toronto and Kingston, but preparations for the execution were made, a hangman brought from Toronto, to avoid what had occurred in the case of Morreau when the Sheriff had to perform this repulsive task, one hundred dollars having been offered to a black man in

    In a letter from Niagara to a friend, dated October. 13th, 1838, Mrs. Wait tells that on the evening after the sentence had been pronounced she determined to go to Quebec to petition the Governor-General, but everyone tried to dissuade her, and said that she ought to stay to give consolation to her husband, that appeal was useless, besides she might endanger the life of her infant, which must be left behind. There were barely two weeks, but she was firm against all opposition. Miss Chandler determined to go with her to beg for her father's life, in his ease there would be ten children left fatherless. A subscription was taken up for Miss Chandler but none for Mrs. Wait as her friends opposed her going. "It was urged that a daughter pleading for the life of her father would be more likely to be successful than a wife for that of her husband. This was poor reasoning to me as I could not trust my husband's life to the pleadings of anyone but myself much less to those of an inexperienced girl of eighteen."

    Before leaving, she begged the jail surgeon, Dr. Porter, that were she unsuccessful the body might not be given up for dissection but given to friends for burial. James Boulton and Judge Butler are both mentioned as also Capt. Richardson of the Transit, who gave Miss Chandler a free passage and four dollars. The next morning before leaving Toronto, Mrs. Wait went to see Jesse Ketchum, whom she had met when a girl, had breakfast there and joined him and his wife at family worship, before leaving this philanthropist gave her ten dollars to help her on her way. Capt. Moody treated the two distressed ladies with great kindness. Another steamer was taken at Kingston. Though she speaks of the beautiful scenery her mind was too distracted to enjoy it. Another steamer at Montreal for Sorelle, the residence of Sir John Colborne, whose son gave a letter to the aide-de-camp for the Governor-General at Quebec, but on reaching his residence they could not obtain an audience but were told a message would be sent to them By the kindness of the captain they were allowed to remain on the boat overnight, and at ten the next morning again went to the castle, but no decision had been reached. They begged for an answer that day, as otherwise, Niagara could not be reached in time. A pathetic circumstance is the drive in the interval in a caleche through the streets and to the battleground and the citadel to pass the time of suspense. On their return found there was still no answer, were told one would be sent to the boat before it sailed.

    At this critical moment Miss Chandler was in tears and Mrs. Wait begged leave to sit there till a reply was given; if too late they would only arrive in time to embrace the lifeless bodies of those they loved. Col. Cooper the aide-de-camp finally went to intercede for them and returned with the news of a commutation of the sentence. Lord Durham could not give a free pardon till he had seen the documents but would give a letter to Sir George Arthur, the Lieut.-Governor.

    On the return journey much kindness was received from a Mr. Simpson, M. P., as it was necessary to intercept Gov. Arthur who was travelling, and inquiries were constantly whether they had met or passed him. This gentleman contributed twenty dollars, one half of which she gave to Miss Chandler. At Cote de Lac, the steamboat was waiting for the arrival of Sir Geo. Arthur, and on his appearance next morning another trying interview took place as on the presentation of the dispatch from Lord Durham he seemed annoyed, said he could not accede to the. request. Mrs. Wait pleaded earnestly but she feared in vain, and afterwards sat down to write to Lord Durham telling him how his message had been received, honorably telling Gov. Arthur the next day of what she had done, who seemed angry and said "Before you send your letter to Lord Durham I wish to You understand that I have granted a respite." We may imagine with what feelings this was received, and she tells that only now, when the strain was over did she begin to think of her child, (she had been quite ill on the way from mental excitement and the great strain). One pleasing feature all through is her grateful mention of kindnesses received. Mr. Macaulay, the Secretary, had spoken kindly to her, and now on the boat Bishop Mountain, clad in his robes on the way to Toronto, was very kind. Niagara was reached on the 22nd. She flew to the prison to convey the joyful tidings but found the respite had not arrived and as she had no papers to prove it had been granted, her news was hardly believed. The next day she went back to Toronto to inquire, and driving to the Chief Justice found he was not at home, then to the Solicitor General, Judge McLean, but met him on the way, by whom she was sent to Parliament, and met Mr. Sullivan, but no news of the respite had come. If it arrived she was told it would be sent next day on the Transit. In the interval she called on Bishop Mountain, who promised his help. She had only time to reach the boat, and arriving at six in the evening, found she could not see her husband that night. On handing in his breakfast the next morning she tried to offer encouragement but at eleven the boat brought no good news and the long day dragged on' till the arrival of the evening boat and still no message nor yet on the Transit the next day at eleven, the 25th, and the day appointed for the execution, but at noon the Sheriff, who had gone to Kingston with prisoners, arrived on a Government Steamer with the respite and the news was conveyed to the prisoners by the Rev. Thomas Creen, the rector, of St. Marks, at half past twelve.

    After the overwhelming scene which ensued she hurried off to see her babe twenty miles away with its grandmother. It had been ill, but was brought next day on a pillow to Niagara. The mention of the Sheriff (Alexander Hamilton), recalls the story that the gruesome task he had been obliged to perform, so preyed on his mind that he died shortly after and the words of Wait have some bearing on this. "The execution of Morreau had made such an impression on his mind that he was glad of a respite and succeeded in gaining the Governor's boat to convey the news."

    The next letter is from Wait himself who tells that on October 6th he was removed accompanied by the jailer, Wheeler, to Toronto, and thence to Kingston, escorted by soldiers, there they found many of their friends who had been prisoners in Niagara jail.

    From this strong fort had escaped sixteen, by digging through a stone wall four feet thick and traversing underground rooms and an outside trench. Many came to see the scene of so daring an escape. The prisoners now used various devices to keep themselves well employed, reading, writing, making small boxes, portfolios, and Wait introduced the art of making a curiously wrought paper memorial inscribed in elegant style with names and short pithy mottoes which were eagerly sought after and often sent to friends. An association for literary improvement and amusement was formed, addresses given, etc. On Sabbath one of the prisoners, Rev. Wixon, a Baptist minister and the editor of a paper, who had lost one leg and walked with a crutch, gave commentaries o~ the Psalms. His crime was an article published in a newspaper.

    On 4th November Mrs. Wait came with Miss Chandler bringing clothing and food, but after this toilsome journey in wintry weather, only five days of companionship were enjoyed for now an order came for twenty-three prisoners to be sent to Quebec.

    An interesting circumstance is that their guards on the way, the Glengarry Militia, were visited by lady friends with fruit, vegetables, and other food, which they kindly shared with the prisoners; on the way they saw the smoking ruins of the houses of the habitants who had taken part in the rebellion. At Quebec they found that a remarkable escape from the Citadel had been made by Theller and Dodge. On the 22nd November, the prisoners were sent to England in a vessel loaded with timber, the room was dark and cold, they were treated as felons, in chains, lodged with the worst criminals. The Mersey was reached on Dec. 11th, and steps were taken' at once by the prisoners to gain a hearing. They had determined to protest against all illegal treatment and Wait seems to have been made their spokesman. Many visitors showed kindness, particularly is mentioned Dr. Buck, the prison chaplain, who is spoken of as a Christian gentleman. Letters had been sent by Wait signed sometimes by the, prisoners, sometimes by himself to Joseph Hume, Roebuck, Lord Brougham, Lord John Russell, Lord Durham, asking for redress, but apparently with little result.

    A striking account is given of a frightful storm at sea when sent to Portsmouth, the vessel returned in five days, almost a total wreck, the shore was strewn with dead bodies from the numerous vessels lost. The commander of the vessel, Lieut. Pritchard, was most kind and reported the prisoners as "mostly men of property, respectability and family, intelligent, praying, moral men. I have frequently listened to their devotions before they retired to rest."

    At length reaching Portsmouth, they were placed on a hulk for convicts and there met Sir P. Durham (Admiral) brother of Lord Durham, and Wait was presented as "the man whose life was saved by the unparalleled conduct of his wife, who made a journey of 700 miles to present personally her petition to Lord Durham." Here again on the York hulk the prisoners shewed their ingenuity in making boxes, horsehair rings, paper tokens in the shape of hearts; these were shown on shore and Miss Strickland, the celebrated author of Queens of England, sent to them several sheets of colored paper to make for a Bazaar, with strict orders "to have the Day mentioned which increased the demand and we thus purchased an extra loaf of good bread."

    All this time they were kept in ignorance of their fate but told they would not be sent out of England. In spite of this they were on the 17th March sent to Van Dieman's Land, a voyage of 16,000 miles, their hardships on the voyage were so great that three of the nine died soon after landing and Wait only recovered after months in the hospital. He was sometime after assigned as clerk and storekeeper to a farm of 6,000 acres, also acted as teacher to five children for six months, and in 1841 was granted a ticket of leave from the efforts of his wife, who during all these weary years, had never ceased her exertions for his release. We have passed over very slightly the sufferings of the husband as this record is that of a wife's devotion, and that of her partner only as it affected her.

    The letters of Mrs. Wait tell the rest of the story, sad indeed, but relieved by gleams of brightness, one from New York in Aug. 1839; tells that she had been in Lockport till May, two letters had reached her from Mr. Wait, as soon as she knew of his being sent as a convict to Van Dieman's Land she immediately left for Canada, resolved to obtain certificates and petitions and go to England. She met on this canal boat for Buffalo a warm hearted family from St. Thomas, named Wynen, who sympathized with her and raised $30 to help. She then went to Haldimand and meeting the Hon. Wm. Hamilton Merritt, obtained from him letters and also a contribution of $20; then went all through the Niagara District, being received kindly. The struggle of parting with her child is thus described. "Could I leave my child? I could not take her with me, and should I join my husband in his exile, my heart must yearn for my absent child. Could you my dear friend but imagine the heart rending effect of these sad reflections I made it a subject of prayer to God by day and in the vigils of the midnight hour continued my supplications for guidance and direction, while pressing my dear babe to my breast. Thus nearly a week of dreadful anxiety passed while I continued my preparations, then I prayed with a fervor I bad scarce ever experienced when a calm and consoling resignation was diffused through the soul and I felt that the conflict was past and I could leave her without a struggle. My youngest brother brought from Dunnville a generous contribution, my aged father bid me farewell at Tonawanda, being a refugee from his home. I heard at Rochester of the release of nine of the prisoners in London, some thought from this that I need not go to England. I visited Mr. McKenzie in prison and at Syracuse I met the widows of Woodruff and Buckley, whose husbands were sacrificed at Kingston at New York the talented Mr. Bidwell called on me, offering more than sympathetic words, benevolently opening his purse. The aid I have received from kind Americans is $300, which with assistance from friends in Canada may came far short of what I require, my passage will be $75, which is $25 "less than the usual sum."

    The next letter is dated London, Dec. 30th, 1839, twenty-one days out, I first saw Mr. Ashurst and Mr. Walker, their agents, and then went to Lord Durham with letters from Mr. Merritt, which were sent by him to Lord John Russell with letters from Mr. Durand and others. I met with many kind Christian friends. Female prayer meetings were held to intercede for husbands and fathers in bondage. I personally saw Lord John Russell, who promised to present a petition to the Queen, this was ultimately presented by Lord Normanby. I met Mrs. Fry, the female Howard, of England, she is a friend of the Duchess of Sutherland. I think her the most majestic woman that I have ever seen. Lady Barham, a lady in waiting on the Queen, has most kindly laid the matter before her Majesty, who is to use Lady Barham's own language; "expressed herself as being much touched with the circumstances and was pleased to say she would consult her ministers on the subject when should it be deemed practicable, she would be glad t(; listen to the application and grant the request though it is most difficult to act in these matters." Of the Queen, Lady Barham says "to know her is to love." I am advised to wait the course of affairs in Canada and so cannot go to Van Dieman's Land till a final answer is received, but to stay is very expensive five dollars a week for board with any comfort, from the humidity of the climate.

    The Queen is to be married in February, and there are hopes of a pardon then."

    Letters are sent through friends to Sir John Franklin, the Governor of Van Dieman's Land with regard to Wait and Chandler. Application was made to the Queen on her marriage but there were so many similar appeals that this one was not granted. The Chartists are referred to as being sent to Van Dieman's Land also.

    "I have besieged the government on every hand, had the best of influence which I think must eventually prevail, if otherwise I will endeavor to reach the land of their captivity and do something for them though I must leave my dear child and friends in America."

    A letter is quoted from Lady Grey offering sympathy and help with letters to the isle of their imprisonment. Sir Edward Parry, a contemporary navigator with Sir John Franklin, is also pressed into the service. A kind letter from Charles Buller, Secretary to Lord Durham, is given. Mrs. Wait now becomes companion to a widow lady, Mrs. Ellis, with whom she is very comfortable. Lady Barham writes that nothing can be done at present for the prisoners, that "the Queen regrets her inability to remove the cause of your distress." She then looks forward to a six months' voyage.

    A letter to her brother in May 1840 gives us two pictures of life in England, the beautiful countryseats, and London in the May meetings of Christian and benevolent societies.

    "The fields are rich with primroses, daisies, cowslips and buttercups. I have welcomed the delicate snowdrops, the crocus, the variegated polyatithus, the ever valued smile of the violet at a time when our fields are still lying under the pressure of snowbanks, indeed I have drunk in the beauties of this early spring with a degree of ecstasy."

    Then follows a description of the church rates to be paid by all and the case of John Thorogood, a shoemaker, in jail eighteen months for noncompliance. In all her sadness she says "she has frequently laughed outright when on the scene of the marvelous adventure of the famous John Gilpin, particularly when on the road where he passed the sign of the Bell at Edmunton and Mrs. Gilpin waited her smoking dinner as so facetiously described by Cowper."

    Her description of the meeting of the London Missionary meeting at Exeter Hall with seats for 6,000 and well filled is particularly interesting to us now after 76 years, and shows a well informed mind, keenly alive to the progress of the world, Sir George Grey, the son of the Lady Grey previously referred to, took the chair and opened with an eloquent address in which he spoke of the death of the Martyr, Rev. John Williams, at Erromanga, which recalls to us our own Canadian Martyrs on that Island fifty years later, the heroic Rev. Geo. Gordon and his wife and afterwards his brother undeterred by the murder of his relatives by the natives on what has been well named "the martyr island." Missionaries from all parts of the world spoke, among them Robert Moffatt, the father-in-law of David Livingstone. Other meetings are spoken of, benevolent, scientific and religious. One of the world's great conventions on the Rights of man discussed the emancipation of the slave. Ladies were there from America, but were not allowed to speak, according to the rule which then governed these meetings, but some one spoke of the ungallant Englishman who would not give a hearing to this "Spartan band of women." At one meeting Prince Albert spoke and was cheered enthusiastically, was called by Sir Robert Peel "the right arm of the throne" and by Mrs. Wait is spoken of as "the youthful and amiable looking Prince." The Philanthropist Buxton, Archdeacon Wilberforce are also mentioned. The last meeting was presided over by the Duke of Sussex, it was packed and many were turned away. The French ambassador was present, Monsieur Guizot, and many American gentlemen and ladies, the Duchess of Sutherland, leaning on the arm of Mrs. Fry, the venerable Thomas Clarkson, who was listened to with respect, Judge Birney from America Mary Howitt Mrs. Opie, Daniel O'Connell. "I fancied I had heard eloquence' before and I had heard eloquence in that hall from the lions of English oratory but this was eloquence that entranced the mind with its cadence and melody in strains too bewitching to resist and elicited enthusiastic cheering which transcends description." An American mulatto spoke with ability and pathos; all this was in the afternoon from two to five o'clock

    A visit is also spoken of to the Zoological Gardens the Tower and other places, her remarks showing a cultured mind and knowledge of history and literature.

    The next letter is dated London, July 2nd, 1840, and tells that after deciding to go to Van Dieman 5 Land she is advised by Buller to return to Canada instead and petition Mr. Poulett Thompson, the Governor General, and a letter of introduction is given her. Showing the versatility of this admirable woman we find that expecting to go to her husband and not knowing how she would support herself there she had entered the Home and Colonial Infant School Society, to learn their methods of instruction. After ten months in England, through the kindness of friends a passage was taken for her to America, and she promised her husband that should her hopes prove abortive she will with her child join him. "Cheer up" she says "rise superior to surrounding circumstances."

    Again we find her on this side of the Atlantic still assiduously working for these unfortunate prisoners. In September 1840, she tells of writing to the Governor-General and not being satisfied with the verbal reply, conveyed by J. E. Small, Writes again and receives a letter from Government House, Montreal, which only promises leniency and a ticket-of-leave. Receives a letter from W. H. Merritt, M.P., enclosing one from Sir John Franklin, in answer to appeals to him. It is somewhat strange to us to see in what varied lights the same person is spoken of by people in different circumstances, Sir John Franklin known to us as the naval commander and to whom such a pathetic interest attaches from his sad fate so long in doubt and the persistent efforts of Lady Franklin, appears here as the ruler of convicts in that distant island.

    Her next visit was to Kingston to appeal to Parliament and the Governor-General in person. More than fifty members recommended her memorial among whom she mentions Sir Allan MacNab, and by the Governor she was kindly received.

    She then spent four weeks in the Niagara District obtaining signatures to a petition asking for a free pardon to all implicated in the rebellion and writes from Louth to Mr. Merritt saying she could have the signatures of nearly the whole province, mentions the good wishes of Mr. Thomson and Mr. Thorburn, both members of Parliament. Mr. Merritt replies that the House had addressed the Government and that the Home Government and the Queen are urged to consent to a pardon. In reference to the help by W. H. Merritt, M.P., Mrs. Wait calls him "the worthy and distinguished member of Parliament and her husband says, "his kindness will be remembered with that deep sense of gratitude so eminently due."

    This closes the letters of this remarkable woman, as before the pardon was received, Mr. Wait had escaped and after some months met his wife in Buffalo, where she was teaching. Her exertions it is well to know were appreciated both by her husband and the other prisoners as he speaks of the "energetic conduct of my affectionate wife, notwithstanding the obstructions thrown in her way and the difficulties she encountered" "and Mr. Gemmel who had also escaped published a card attributing his freedom to the exertions of Mrs. Wait, showing that her labors were not for her husband, alone, but for ~s companions in suffering as well.

    Since writing the above, from a letter received it is learned that Maria Wait was educated by Robert Randall, M.P.P., that she died shortly after the birth of twins in 1843, one of which survived, named Randall.

    The infant, Augusta, was kept a great part of the time of the mother's absence by Mrs. Gonder at Chippawa, and the friends there who met to bid Mrs. Wait farewell saw her while they were watching from the shore wipe away the fast falling tears as the boat carried her from their sight. She is buried in Buffalo, but it is feared no stone marks the spot where rests the dust of this noble woman.