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Remember This? The Weatherhill charivari

An old Canadian 'tradition' halted after a death in a part of Ottawa which used to be known as Mount Sherwood.
2020-08-10 charivari ottawa history
Photo/ Historical Society of Ottawa

OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.

August 11, 1881

An odd folk custom that was still practised in Canada during the nineteenth century was the charivari (sometimes spelled shivaree). Brought to North America from Europe, a charivari was an impromptu parade or demonstration in which participants banged on pots and pans, and made all sorts raucous noise in response to some local event. 

While sometimes of a jocular nature, a charivari could also be malign, voicing community disapproval of something that violated perceived norms of behaviour. For example, a 'May-December' wedding might prompt a charivari where a crowd, usually consisting of drunken young men, would extort money from the couple. The payment of a few dollars was usually enough to pacify the mob and get them to move on, usually to the nearest drinking establishment.

Such was the case in early August 1881, when about forty young men held a charivari on Richmond Road, on the occasion of the marriage of a Mrs. Grundy. Mrs. Grundy, who had already been married at least twice and aimed to marry again. 

According to press accounts, she had had two suitors for her hand and there had been much speculation regarding whom she might choose. Her marriage to the elder suitor, who was also a widower, prompted a crowd of noisy revellers to demand late-night "entertainment" from the couple. The groom handled the situation by giving a $4 bill to the crowd which promptly repaired to the nearest public house, leaving the couple in peace.

A few days later, another charivari took place in Mount Sherwood. This time, the outcome was far less benign. 

Mount Sherwood was a small community of about 1,000 inhabitants on the then outskirts of Ottawa. It was bordered by Concession Street (today’s Bronson Avenue) on the east, Emily Street (Gladstone Avenue) on the north, Division Street (Preston Street) on the west, and Dow’s Lake on the south.

At about 7 a.m. on August 11, 1881, a distraught, middle-aged woman arrived at the Ottawa Police Station claiming that her husband had been killed after what we would today term as a home invasion. Unfortunately, as these events occurred in Mount Sherwood just beyond the Ottawa boundary, the police did not have jurisdiction. They didn’t even take her down her name.

Hearing the news, and receiving corroboration from another source, a Citizen reporter hurried to the scene to find fifty or so people standing around the body of an old man lying facedown in the roadway at the corner of Emily and Lisgar Streets (today’s Gladstone Avenue and Bell Street). The remains had been covered with cedar boughs to protect them from the sun but had otherwise been left untouched. 

The body was identified as that of James Weatherill, aged about 65, a retired dealer in country produce and cattle. Although something of a recluse, he was known as hard-working and honest, without any known enemies.

Weatherill, a two-time widower, who resided in neighbouring Rochesterville, had remarried the night before, taking Mrs. Dougherty, a widow, aged 45, as his bride in the nearby home of Mrs. Thomas Cooper on Emily Street, where Mrs. Dougherty resided. The couple had been married shortly after 7 p.m. in Mrs. Cooper’s sitting room by Rev. Mr. White of Mount Sherwood.

At about 8 p.m., a crowd of boys and young men came to the home, banging on pots and pans, and demanding money from the newly-wed couple who were in the home along with Mrs. Cooper and her four young children. Mr. Weatherill complied, giving the boys a dollar. Apparently satisfied, the crowd dispersed.

A couple of hours later, a second, far larger, alcohol-infused group of boys and men demonstrated in front of the home and demanded two dollars. 

At some point, stones were thrown at the house, breaking windows, causing minor interior damage and considerable distress among its residents. But Weatherill refused to give in to the crowd’s demands, believing that to accede to this extortion would only encourage the rowdies. 

Instead, the Weatherills hid in the loft above a summer kitchen at the rear of the home, while Mrs. Cooper told the demonstrators that the couple had fled via a back door.

But the revellers insisted on searching the residence. 

Two entered the house, one being a neighbour named Hugh McMillan, finding the couple. McMillan advised Mrs. Weatherill to pay the $2. While she was willing to do so, her new husband called her an old fool and slapped McMillan in the face. McMillan left, and the charivari continued. 

At some point, although accounts are confused, a neighbour, Peter Potvin, threatened to beat or kill Weatherill, saying that the old man had insulted him.

In the wee hours of the morning, when the crowd had dwindled, both Mr. and Mrs. Weatherill went outside. Weatherall, in good spirits, began to chase four youths down Emily Street towards Concession Street. 

This was the last time his wife saw him alive. 

She had stopped to watch Mr. Potvin, who she later described to police as walking up and down the street like a mad man. 

Subsequently, Mrs. Weatherill returned to her lodgings at Mrs. Cooper’s home. The fact that her husband did not follow, was not a cause of concern. She simply figured that he had gone to his own home on Rochester Street in Rochesterville, just a short distance away. 

It wasn’t until the next morning when Mrs. Weatherill decided to walk to her new husband’s residence to look for him that she discovered a crowd of people surrounding the lifeless body of her husband.

Newspapers far and wide were rightly appalled by the event. 

The Ottawa Daily Citizen thundered that "it was high time that the charivari business was put down by a strong hand." It was a "disgrace to our modern civilization." It added, "It is terrible to contemplate that because a man refuses to meet the demands of his persecutors he may be cruelly beaten and left by the road side to die." 

The London Free Press opined that "It is only necessary for a marriage to take place under some circumstances which some rude youths may deem to be irregular, for them to assemble together, and amidst hooting, horn-blowing, pan-beating and other discordant noises, insult the newly-married couple." It added that in this particular case, the charivari had led to repeated demands for money, assault and death. The paper demanded special legislation against charivaris. 

The Hamilton Spectator, sniffed that the "advance of more refined feelings" had led to the charivari dying out in western Ontario. However, it was still the custom in eastern Ontario and "ought to be punished with the greatest severity." 

The Quebec Chronicle recommended the lash.

A coroner’s inquest into Weatherill’s death was immediately called. 

As Mount Sherwood lacked a constable, the murder investigation was headed by Superintendent E. J. O’Neill of the Dominion Police. He and several of his men arrived later that morning to view the body.  The dead man was clad in a new suit of clothes, undoubtedly his wedding attire. In his pockets were $19 in bank notes and $1.70 in change. Robbery was clearly not a motive for his murder. While there were contusions on his head, the cause of death was not evident. 

The body was removed to Rogers’ undertaking establishment on Nicholas Street where three doctors conducted a post mortem. They concluded that James Weatherill had died owing to an "extravasation of blood between the membranes of the brain."

After the post mortem was conducted, Weatherill’s remains were turned over to his widow. A wake was held in his Rochesterville residence on the Saturday, two days after his death. Rev. Mr White, the minister who married the couple, conducted the funeral. Weatherill was buried in the Beechwood Cemetery.

Suspicion immediately fell on the neighbour Peter Potvin who was quickly arrested by the Dominion Police and put in jail. But the evidence against him was purely circumstantial. 
Hugh McMillian, as well as the other man who had invaded Mrs. Cooper’s home, later identified as Ruggles Brunel Jr., were also arrested but were released on $500 bail each -- a very large sum of money at the time.

But the focus of the investigation quickly shifted to four charivari participants: James Kelly (age 20), Christopher 'Pum' Berry (age 16), Robert McLaren Jr. (age 20) and James O’Brien (aged about 20). 

They were picked up that weekend. Berry and McLaren were arrested at their homes. O’Brian and Kelly were found in Stewart’s Bush, a nearby heavily-wooded area.

Despite being cautioned by the police about incriminating themselves, the foursome quickly began blaming each other. 

The four admitted that they had been throwing stones at Mrs. Cooper’s house, and that Weatherill had chased them down Emily Street in the wee hours of August 11. Reportedly, Berry told Superintendent O’Neill that Kelly and O’Brien had been throwing stones at Weatherill, and that Kelly had said "By God, we have killed him." He also claimed that O’Brien had remarked that "the old man was as dead as a nail." 

Kelly, however, said "I didn’t strike the old man." He claimed that Weatherill struck McLaren with a stick, and that it was McLaren and Berry who had been throwing stones at the old man. Kelly added that he had wanted to throw stones but couldn’t find any. 

When O’Brien was arrested, he reportedly laughed at the police and told them to do their best. He said to Superintendent O’Neill, "You can lecture me if you like, but it is not a neck-snapping affair at any rate." All four were charged with feloniously murdering and slaying one James Weatherill on August 11, 1881.

Shortly afterwards, Superintendent O’Neill accompanied by a company of Dominion policemen swept through Mount Sherwood arresting alleged charivari participants. 

More than a dozen boys and young men were taken to police headquarters in the East Block departmental building on Parliament Hill and charged with riotous conduct. All were released on bail. 

Among the arrested was one William McGrath, a stone cutter by trade, aged about 20, who spoke "openly and fearlessly of his conduct, free from any criminal intent," according to the Ottawa Citizen. William McGrath later became a City of Ottawa alderman.

Unlike today, justice moved swiftly in nineteenth century Ottawa. Three weeks after the fateful charivari, those charged with riotous conduct were found guilty and fined anywhere from $3 to $15, or one to two weeks in jail with hard labour.

The four charged with Weatherill’s murder were brought in front of the Carleton Assizes in October 1881. All pleaded not guilty. Representing the foursome were Mr. Gibb for James O’Brien, Mr. Ward for Christopher Berry, and Mr. William Mosgrove for James Kelly and Robert McLaren. The Crown was represented by Mr. Robert Lee, Q.C. and the prominent Ottawa lawyer and former mayor Richard W. Scott.

The defence lawyers were clever. 

Dominion Police Superintendent O’Neill testified that he had known the four young men charged from infancy, and attested to their good character. Mr. Mosgrove argued that the evidence could not fix the cause of death on any of the prisoners. Moreover, he claimed that when Weatherill left the home of Mrs. Cooper and began to pursue the boys, he became the aggressor.

Most telling, however, was testimony from one of the three doctors who conducted the post mortem, who admitted under cross-examination that Weatherill’s death might have resulted from a number of causes. Besides being hit on the head with a stone or a blunt instrument, an "extravasation of blood" into the brain could have incurred through a fall or excitement. The fact that Weatherill’s body had been found lying close to a high, wooden sidewalk that crossed a small gully, gave credence to the possibility that his death might have been caused by a fall. 

There was also little doubt that Weatherill had been seriously vexed by the charivari.

The Crown contended that there was no doubt that Weatherill had been murdered. He had been in good health immediately prior to the charivari, and that it was plain that he met his death in a most violent and sudden fashion. 

Scott argued that it was ridiculous to say Weatherill brought his death upon himself by his attempt to drive off the rowdies. His actions to protect the lives of helpless women and children were natural and right. While the charge against O’Brien, Berry, Kelly and McLaren was murder, he did concede that the jury could bring in a verdict of manslaughter.

In his charge to the jury, the presiding judge said that a charivari was no excuse for rowdy conduct and condemned the practice. He also said Weatherill had not overstepped his rights when he left the house and gave chase to his tormentors.

After only two hours of deliberation, the twelve-man jury acquitted the four youths. Few in the courtroom were surprised.

Forty-five years later, retired alderman William McGrath, who had been fined for his participation in the charivari, recounted the events surrounding Weatherill’s death in a lengthy interview to the Ottawa Citizen. While there were a number of discrepancies between his version of events and contemporaneous accounts, he credited the acquittals to the ability of defence lawyer, later judge, William Mosgrove.




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