website security

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.

Comments are closed.

Toronto Branch Meetings

7:30 pm York’s Underground Railroad
York’s Underground Railroad
Feb 24 @ 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm
York's Underground Railroad @ Lansing United Church | Toronto | Ontario | Canada
YORK COUNTY AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD  Speaker: Guylaine Petrin  In honour of Black History Month, Guylaine Petrin will give a special presentation on York County and the Underground Railroad.  During the last 30 years, York[...]
7:30 pm Records of Migration at the AO
Records of Migration at the AO
Mar 23 @ 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Records of Migration at the AO @ Lansing United Church | Toronto | Ontario | Canada
RECORDS OF MIGRATION AND SETTLEMENT AT THE ARCHIVES OF ONTARIO: Speaker: Jane E. MacNamara Since its founding, Ontario has been involved in supporting and promoting settlement. This lecture will look at the major groups of[...]
7:30 pm Closing the Loop
Closing the Loop
Apr 27 @ 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Closing the Loop @ Lansing United Church | Toronto | Ontario | Canada
CLOSING THE LOOP: THE LONG JOURNEY TO RECONNECT WITH A UKRAINIAN FAMILY Speaker: Terry Maurice Researching Eastern European genealogy presents many daunting challenges to the family historian. Unfamiliarity with the languages, history and geography of[...]

Courses starting & Workshops

4:00 pm Hands-On Land Registry Records
Hands-On Land Registry Records
Feb 13 @ 4:00 pm – 7:00 pm
Hands-On Land Registry Records @ Archives of Ontario | Toronto | Ontario | Canada
Course runs on two Thursdays: February 13 and 20, 2020. Registration is required.  Sorry, this session is now fully booked. Click here to add your name to the waiting list. Once land was granted by[...]
6:30 pm Genealogy Resources in TPL’s Cat...
Genealogy Resources in TPL’s Cat...
Mar 25 @ 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm
Genealogy Resources in TPL's Catalogue @ Toronto Reference Library, Learning Centre 1 | Toronto | Ontario | Canada
WEDNESDAY, March 25, 2020 Co-sponsored by Toronto Public Library. The Toronto Reference Library contains many excellent genealogy resources. This hands-on class will demonstrate how to use the Toronto Public Library’s online catalog to find items[...]
10:00 am TRL Genealogy Collection Tour
TRL Genealogy Collection Tour
Apr 23 @ 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
TRL Genealogy Collection Tour @ Toronto Reference Library, 2nd Floor | Toronto | Ontario | Canada
This tour is now full.  Please email us at to be put on the waiting list. TOUR OF THE GENEALOGY COLLECTION AT THE TORONTO REFERENCE LIBRARY Co-sponsored with the Humanities and Social Sciences Department[...]

Did you know?

That Toronto Branch OGS has more than 600 members? That members get a discount on publications, and course and workshop registration fees?