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Criminal Justice Records for Genealogists?

Toronto Branch is offering a three-week hands-on course in 19th-century Ontario criminal justice records this fall at the Archives of Ontario (three Thursdays 4–7, beginning September 26).

If your ancestors weren’t criminals, why take the course? Instructor Janice Nickerson has supplied a few sample cases.

line drawing of men standing and leading on a rail in front of a judge seated on a crude bench
Illustrated London News, Supplement 17 February 1855, page 161

#1. The Case of the Stolen Cloth

On Wednesday morning, September 6th, 1837, an elderly woman named Elizabeth Mitchell was tried for larceny before the Toronto Mayor’s Court. Mayor George Gurnett and Alderman Stotesbury acted as judges and 12 prominent citizens served as the jury. She had been indicted for this crime the previous day, by a grand jury of 16, along with Patrick and Mary Ingoldsby (or Inglesby) for receiving stolen goods. The draft minutes of the court contain verbatim testimony of 8 witnesses, giving a virtual play-by-play of the events that ensued after Elizabeth took several pieces of cloth and a shawl from her landlady, a dressmaker, who just happened to have the same name as the defendant. Elizabeth Mitchell was convicted and sentenced to one month in jail. The “cast of characters” for this case included 41 names.

#2: The Case of the Quarrelsome Woman

Mary Moodey made at least 8 appearances before the Home District Court of Quarter Sessions in 1801–1807, charged with assault and battery by three different people (two women and a man), and counter charging twice. Each time she was charged, she had to find two sureties to put up bond for her to ensure she would appear. In some cases, her prosecutors/victims (victims had to serve as their own prosecutors in the early days) also had to put up bonds so they would show up. All but one charge was eventually dropped and she was acquitted of the last. The prosecution called four witnesses. Mary called four witnesses for her defense, two of whom were her husband and her son. The cast of characters for this case included 88 names: 9 JPs, 40 grand jurymen, 24 petit jurymen, 4 prosecutor/victims, 4 sureties, 7 witnesses.

#3: The Case of the Over Zealous Magistrate

Representatives of the law, such as magistrates, sheriffs and constables were often resented by the local population. Some of this feeling was due to the harsh debt laws of the time, which allowed a farmer’s land to be seized by the sheriff and auctioned off when the farmer got too far behind in his lease or mortgage payments. And so people sometimes fought back by resisting arrest, appealing convictions and filing law suits against constables and magistrates for exceeding their powers, neglecting their duty or misconduct.

In one 1839 case, John Thomson, a new arrival to Burford Township in Brant County purchased a farm from William Cruden paying in cash and Cruden was supposed to give him back change, but didn’t. So Thomson took Cruden to civil court. Cruden also refused to remove his belongings from the barn on the property and several of his friends started harassing Thomson, apparently threatening his life. When Thomson went to the local magistrate, John Weir for help in dealing with his neighbour, Weir tried to get them to settle their differences using independent arbitration rather than formal charges, but Thomson refused, so Weir issued a peace bond against the Cruden and his wife. But it didn’t stop the harassment. Eventually another magistrate, George Whitehead wrote up an arrest warrant for one the seller’s friends, Allan Muir, for trespassing. Muir was made to walk, tied to constable Robert Weir’s horse, despite having a bad knee, and claimed he was half-dragged for at least a quarter of a mile. After he was convicted, Muir appealed and had the conviction overturned because the jury decided that Weir hadn’t shown the arrest warrant to the accused, making the arrest illegal. Muir then charged both of the Weirs (father and son) with trespass, assault and false imprisonment, and won compensation in damages. Not content with this victory, the Muir wrote to the Lieutenant-Governor complaining that magistrate Weir was a tyrant who overstepped his authority and misappropriated the fines he collected. His petition was signed by 240 Burford residents. The Lt-Gov refused to intervene, saying that such matters properly belong in the courts. The matter was not pursued further. The cast of characters for this story includes 1 Lieutenant-Governor, 1 judge, 2 magistrates, 1 constable, 18 grand jurymen, 12 petit jurymen, 2 warring neighbours, 3 friends/witnesses/co-conspirators, and 240 Burford residents who signed the petition!

Now that you’ve seen how just three cases managed to involve over 400 people, in an era when the population of the City of Toronto was only about 10,000 and that of the whole of Upper Canada was 400,000, you can judge for yourself the likelihood of your ancestors appearing in these records. Space is limited in this hands-on course. Click here to register today.

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