Justice Or Vengeance

George Lowder, aged 23, died first. But his fellow prisoner, Joseph Thomset, a 35-year old fisherman, struggled for a full fourteen minutes on the hangman’s noose on the early morning of June 10,1884.

Sentenced to hang at the Picton gaol for a botched robbery outside of Bloomfield that left one man murdered in December 1883, Lowder and Thomset maintained their innocence to the end. But were they innocent? Many local residents thought so and unsuccessfully petitioned the courts and Prime Minister John A. Macdonald for clemency. It remains the most celebrated court case in the history of Prince Edward County.

The fate of Lowder and Thompset hinged on the evidence of the boots they wore and the tracks in the snow that led a posse of local men to their homes.

“Well the tracks are very important because that’s how they think they got the two men who committed the crime.” says Judge Robert Sharpe, a Picton native who now serves on the Ontario Court of Appeal in Toronto. Sharpe is writing a book on the 1884 trial.

Map showing direction of footprints in the snow – courtesy of Prince Edward County Archives

“There were clearly tracks leading from the house going in the direction of West Lake and certainly tracks found around the homes of these two men. No one was actually able to trace the tracks all the way from the farmhouse to the two different homes, but they could find tracks along the way.

There was one pair of boots that had a somewhat distinctive bottom called a “patch bottom” and the people that did the tracking thought that they could tell if it was this particular pair of boots that left the tracks and that pair of boots was found in the home of one of the two men.”

And yet, there were many inconsistencies in the trial testimony that might have saved the men in another age. A local boot maker testified that the “patch bottom” boot was very popular in The County and the size – 8 1/2 -was also the most common size. Key witnesses such as Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Quaker farmers who defended their home against the robbers, were uncertain about identifying Lowder and Thompset as the men who had entered their house. Farmer Jones thought one of the men was older and had a limping gait.

Patch bottom boots as displayed at the Prince Edward County Gaol, Picton, ON

“For some reason,” says Judge Sharpe, “nothing much was made of this but it occurred to me that this might support the local feeling at the time that maybe it was the father John Lowder and not his son George who was involved in the crime because as Mr. Jones described the man running off, he said he had a kind of ungainly gait; he was running with a bit of difficulty. Now you’d think that would suggest perhaps an older man who was having a little bit of difficulty running. But somehow that issue didn’t get exploited at the trial, and there were some very fine lawyers at this trial so it’s hard to second-guess them at this distance. But it occurred to me that that was something that was potentially quite important.”

Judge Sharpe is skeptical of the conviction of George Lowder.

“We know that Joseph Thompset was in his early thirties,” he says. “He was a fisherman and he fished in partnership with George Lowder’s father, John Lowder. He lived near West Lake with his wife and one child. In the case of George Lowder, it was a family of several children. He was the second youngest and he was a mason by trade. He was much younger. He was in his early twenties. Thompset had had encounters with authorities before, and had been charged with minor offences before. Lowder had a completely clean record.”

In the charged atmosphere that swept through the County during the months following the crime, it was difficult for the two accused men to receive a fair trial. They weren’t allowed to testify in their own defence. And in the court of public opinion, they were guilty as hell.

“The atmosphere was quite amazing,” states Judge Sharpe,” because this was a huge event in the life of the town. There was a large crowd of people. The hotels were full. It was very difficult to get into the courtroom. The courtroom holds a lot of people, but there was a lineup of people who could not get in. The people in the courtroom were we know from the trial records, and from a letter from a prominent lawyer written after the trial, extremely unruly. And they would applaud every time the prosecution made a point and jeer every time the defence tried to score a point. And at a couple of points the trial judge had to clear the courtroom as he felt the crowd was so unruly and so disrespectful of the process. Clearly there were strong feelings at the time and I would say that a substantial part of this community were out for blood. They were convinced that these were the two men who had committed this crime, it was a horrific crime and they wanted blood. The mood started to shift after the verdict when some other people who were very concerned about what had happened, who had grave doubts about their guilt, tried to mobilize and they did mobilize a very long petition that was sent to cabinet, to Prime Minister Macdonald and Justice Minister Campbell to try to persuade them to commute this sentence. But they were a little too late in the case of Mr. Thompset and Mr. Lowder because they were hanged about a month after the trial.”

And so did they hang the right men back in 1884?

“There was a great deal of legal talent assembled for this trial,” Judge Sharpe says. “Judge Christopher Patterson practiced law in Picton early in his career with Philip Low and was later appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. The crown and defence attorneys were outstanding lawyers. But in the end, it’s a very human process.”

Judge Sharpe, a member of the Ontario Court of Appeal, is the author of several books on law and legal history. Raised in Picton, he is currently completing a book on the Thomset -Lowder trial due for release in 2011.

Sharpe’s lecture reviewed the case – the crime scene and investigation of the trail of footprints in the snow that led to the two men’s houses; the evidence presented; the personalities that dominated the courtroom drama from the unruly mob who attended to the witnesses, judge, jury and lawyers; the verdict that condemned the two men to death, and the desperate effort to save the prisoners’ lives following their sentencing.

Trucking Through Time

My first car was a green 1954 Chevrolet. My Dad bought it for $75.00 largely I think to save his own vehicle from further damage by a teenager with uncertain driving skills. It was solid, occasionally temperamental and gave me a new found independence. Most of all, it had an engine that emitted a deep throaty sound that I have never forgotten.

Much later in life, I purchased another old Chev, a 1952 standard model. It too was green. You didn’t get a big choice in colours in the 1950 models. They seemed to be green, blue or black. Take it or leave it.

Our first date. I drove the old truck for the first time on a practice run along a back road in Whitemouth. It started up instantly. It steered roughly in the right direction. And it ultimately stopped even when I discovered the brakes were bad.

But these old cars of my youth were long gone as I started out in October 2009 for the West. I drove. Sandy did the navigation as we crossed into the U.S. and drove along the underbelly of the Great Lakes towards our destination – Whitemouth, Manitoba, a tiny hamlet in the sourtheast region of Manitoba close to the Ontario border about an hour and a half from Winnipeg.

There’s not a lot in Whitemouth except Sandy’s cousin Ken Barnard and his wife Marie, who are certainly worth visiting. But we had driven there to pick up a 1952 3/4 ton truck Ken had picked up for me from a local farmer whose father had bought the truck new at Carter Motors Sales in Winnipeg decades ago.

The truck was big, long, dented from its years of service… and green. Within a few minutes of arrival, I had turned the key, pulled out the trombone choke and pressed the starter on the floor to start her up so Ken and I could go for a ride. Once again, I heard that deep, throaty rumbling of the motor made all the more rumbling by a muffler that would need to be replaced. Ken and I were perched high up on the bench seat of the truck as I shifted gears and we bounced down a dirt road. It was magic…. magic because it started up immediately, I didn’t strip the gears and most of all, we were able to stop as we approached Ken’s house again – my first indication that the brakes needed repair.

New and former owners of the old Chev truck pose in Whitemouth, Manitoba in October 2009 as the vehicle heads for its new home on an Ontario farm. The truck had served the Zomner family, grain farmers in the area, since it was purchased new from a Winnipeg dealership in 1952.

We didn’t stay long in Whitemouth. Just enough for a visit, a trip to Winnipeg to pick up a trailer and a half day of loading and securing the old truck onto the U-Haul. I wasn’t certain how long it would take to drive back home dragging a car trailer. What I didn’t know is just how dangerous it can be.

A few hours later we were cresting a hill east of Kenora. As we started the descent down the hill, we began to pick up speed and the trailer was swerving, whipping my truck all across the road. The force was amazing… and scary. But we were lucky. It was a three-lane highway with no oncoming cars and the truckers behind me slowed at the first signs of trouble. Somehow, I managed to get the truck and trailer going forward in the same direction again and we drove silently into Dryden.

The staff at the Dryden Holiday Express was exceptionally helpful. They helped us track down the local U-Haul dealer on a Sunday. He helped us locate a local trucking firm who could transport the old truck to Toronto, and coordinate a pick up with a Picton trucking firm. We got back on Thursday after a safe and leisurely trip home. The old truck was delivered to the farm on Friday morning. Now it sits stored for the winter waiting for the spring. To be continued…

Rose Museum Re-enactment

Prince Edward County, Ontario clings tenaciously to its early history as a Loyalist community settled in the mid – 1780s by colonists loyal to the British crown who were driven from their homeland during the American Rebellion.

These colonists were re-settled by the British government on tracts of land along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. Kingstown, now Kingston, was one of the first major settlement areas with townships established by British surveyors. The first settled area in Prince Edward County was at its southeastern end and called Fifth Town as the fifth township from Kingstown.

The Rose Family was part of this early settlement. Somehow, they managed with others to survive the hardships of the first years clearing the land, growing crops and building shelter. Many families didn’t. During the years 1787 – 1789, a period know as The Hungry Years, families ate bark to survive the winters when the game was scarce, and annual supplies from the British government failed to arrive. Evidence of the grim fate of many earlier settlers can still be seen in the Rose Cemetery that nestles the Lake Ontario shoreline.

The Rose House is now a local museum – one of five in Prince Edward County – stocked with period furniture, cooking utensils and farming tools typical of the Loyalist era. In September 2009 it became alive with this rich history when soldiers and their families dressed in period costumes camped on the property as part of a re-enactment for the 225th anniversary of the Loyalist settlement.

Rose House Museum, North Marysburgh, Prince Edward County, site of the re-enactment – photos by Sandra Foreman

The 70 actors and their families were from across Ontario and the United States. But their authentic costumes, canvas tents, and traditional cooking over wood fires to make period fare, reached across time. It was probably also cold and uncomfortable, but these men, women, and children are very dedicated. Their encampment and mock battle re-lived Loyalist history with all its rigours.

We were there to capture the event as part of our History Moments series to be launched the following week at The Regent Theatre in Picton. In fact, our lead feature celebrated the Loyalist anniversary. The September re-enactment was timely, colourful, and a unique glimpse into the past – a way of witnessing history.

The Canning Industry

The Doug Crawford Canning Collection, courtesy of The Wellington Heritage Museum, Prince Edward County

Like so many inventions, the preservation of food was actually developed to meet a military need.

It was the age of Napoleon. Conquering countries was hard work that left Napoleon’s armies hungry. Napoleon also wanted to overcome the bad habits of people who were being conquered. They often burned their crops as French troops advanced. To be victorious, he realized his army would win as long as their stomachs could be filled.

In 1795, Napoleon sponsored a contest in France to develop a way of preserving food. A Paris food merchant, Nicholas Appert, claimed the 12,000-franc prize by cooking food, and placing it in large, glass apothecary jars sealed with a mixture of cheese and powdered lime. It was a huge advancement at a time when famine was widespread.

Within a few decades, the industry had swept across Europe and to the seaboard of the United States. In the late 1870s, a nursery salesman from Prince Edward County, Ontario attended a food exhibition in Philadelphia. George Dunning brought the idea back home and teamed up with a wealthy and influential entrepreneur, Wellington Boulter. Together, they build a small experimental factory on Boulter’s farm. The experiment worked and in 1882, they built the first successful fruit and vegetable-canning factory in Canada on the corner of West Mary and Spring Streets in Picton, the area’s major centre. Dunning faded from view in the new industry, but Boulter went on to be a canning pioneer still remembered today as the father of the canning industry in Canada.

The Doug Crawford Canning Collection, courtesy of The Wellington Heritage Museum, Prince Edward County – label photos by Sandra Foreman

Boulter also made a great fortune. And soon there were others who rushed to join in the canning game. Small factories dotted the landscape in Prince Edward County and from the 1890s through until the late 1950s, the industry became the lifeblood of the area. Farmers grew crops for the factories; their wives and daughters took seasonal jobs in them. Local canners processed such a large volume of produce, the area became known as ” Garden County of Canada.”

The Wellington Museum is home to an extensive exhibit on the canning industry of Prince Edward County. Photo courtesy of Will S.

In the first days of the industry, canning was an imperfect science. Lead poisoning from tin cans, and botulism from spoiled canned food were common. The early canners liked to keep the colour of their canned tomatoes bright red so they used cochineal, a dye used in the textile industry. It’s made from bugs and proved to be a source of stomach cancer in later decades. Still, people ate it and during the war years, the canning factories of Prince Edward County ran day and night to meet the demand for food.

But after the Second World War, the small factories of the area were old and obsolete.

They couldn’t compete with newer factories built elsewhere, imported canned goods, and changes in government regulations that demanded better sanitary conditions and worker benefits. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the canning factories closed their doors one by one, and the industry that had once meant everything to Prince Edward County, was gone for good.