As regular readers know, more often than not, I assign books to outside reviewers rather than review them myself. But from time to time, I will take on a title, which is what I did in our June issue with Chad Reimer’s Deadly Neighbours: A Tale of Colonialism, Cattle Feuds, Murder and Vigilantes in the Far West.
In setting up the context for Reimer’s book, about the lynching of the fifteen-year-old Semá:th boy Louie Sam, I made brief reference to several other instances of nineteenth-century vigilante justice in this country:
On Valentine’s Day 1873, for example, a man “killed a comrade during a quarrel” in Abinger Township, in eastern Ontario. According to the Toronto Globe, he was “tried by his companions the next morning, and suffered death, under lynch law, by hanging.” Reports reached Kingston that same month that “a number of shantymen lynched” a suspected murderer in Kennebec. Seven years later, in February 1880, five members of the Donnelly family, outcast immigrants from Ireland, were effectively lynched in Lucan, just north of London, Ontario.
Weeks passed after the June issue reached subscribers and hit newsstands before a reader from Denbigh, Ontario, not far from historic Abinger, took umbrage at those sentences of mine. Richard Marquardt had also dug into the archives, and he wrote to point out that the Globe ran the following on February 27: “The Napanee Beaver has been informed, on what it considers to be good authority, that the report about the lynching of the shanty man at Abinger is a hoax.” The paper noted there was, in fact, a dead man involved — but that he had died from apoplexy rather than hanging. “It has seldom occurred that so bold a story has gained so much credence and excited so much interest.”
The Toronto Mail also referenced the Abinger case, Marquardt found. “The inventor of the story was deputed to convey the body of a young man named Darby,” he quoted from the March 7 edition. “He met some parties on the wayside who enquired as to the cause of death, to whom he told the ridiculous and horrible falsehood that went speeding over the telegraph wires in all directions.”
“There is no further mention of the Abinger and Kennebec lynching stories in either the Globe or the Mail,” our correspondent concluded. “The fact that they were reported within days of each other suggests that they were simply different versions of the same false rumour.”
Nobody likes getting it wrong in print, of course, but as this magazine’s editor, I love receiving such correcting commentary. I’m not printing Marquardt’s note in its entirety as part of this month’s letters page, however, for the simple reason that the mailbag has been a little heavier than normal lately — and space is tight.
Nevertheless, his letter underscores two important points. First, it draws attention to the fallibility of sources, both past and present, and how we interpret them. Even if we agree the two 1873 cases were one and the same — and that it was all made up — there are still unanswered questions. In going back to the story, both the Globe and the Mail reported that Darby died of apoplexy at “Mr. Skead’s shanty.” However, yet another issue of the Globe, from February 21, ran a death notice for one “Thomas Darby,” who died while “driving a team in Gilmore’s Shanty, Lake Mishinoge,” which I’m unable to locate on a map. Did Skead and Gilmore lend their name to the same shack? And was this Thomas Darby the same one who, also in 1873, was assaulted by “D. Whiteside” or the one who was fatally struck by a gravel train near Orillia or the one who was arrested, along with “several vagrants and drunkards,” for roughing up Robert Coghill? What I’m trying to say is that we do ourselves a disservice if we speak of past actors — what they did, what they thought — with absolute certainty. This is also why the Canada Council for the Arts should once again support historians, in the same way it does memoirists. Yes, the art of historical analysis demands time, effort, and sustained funding.
Marquardt’s correspondence also underscores the value of your feedback. While we had a lot to choose from this month, it can often be difficult filling the letters page. Ironically, when I meet readers, I tend to hear more about the comments we do publish than about any other part of the magazine. You like “Furthermore.” So challenge our interpretations, build upon our arguments, celebrate our wins, point out our blind spots. And when you get in touch hoping to “restore the good reputation of the law-abiding shantymen of Abinger and Kennebec,” I’ll do my best to share your point of view.