Bloody Assize Revisited

Bloody Assize revisited, 17 May 2012: 3 articles from The Hamilton Spectator

By Mark McNeil 

It must have been an incredible spectacle 200 years ago — 19 men hauled into a makeshift courtroom at the Union Hotel in Ancaster to stand trial for treason. And then, incredibly, eight of them were hanged in full public view, only to have their heads lopped off and stuck on the end of sticks to be paraded around the village. No doubt people around town were downplaying connection to the traitors. The British weren’t fooling around.

Yet time has a way of revising attitudes. Yesterday’s traitor might be seen today as an unfortunate rebel. One man’s turncoat is another man’s hero. And maybe the British army was doing things that deserved disloyalty, such as throwing people out of their homes and eating their food. It seems the British army was mildly paranoid about the locals.

Isaac Brock described Upper Canadian settlers as being “cool calculators” who could not be relied upon for support. With all the interest over the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 this year, people who might have kept quiet about a treasonous member of their family some years ago are now holding up the family member as a source of pride. What was once infamous is now famous. The Fieldcote Museum in Ancaster has become a centre of Bloody Assize commemoration and four people so far have come forward to acknowledge a family connection to prisoners who were tried back in 1814.

“They just keep popping up,” says Daryl MacTavish, program co-ordinator at Fieldcote. It also comes at a time when historians are pointing out that Upper Canadian settlers were not nearly as loyal to the British as some high school textbooks suggested. There was a lot of dissent.

Michael McAllister, co-ordinator of the Hamilton Military Museum, says, “if you were living around the Head of the Lake, you would have to ask yourself, ‘Who is the real enemy here? Is it the British army? Is it the Americans? Is it First Nation allies?’ They are unsure day to day who might come knocking on their door asking for what. . . Besides, they’re weighing things out. There are millions of Americans, as many as eight million whereas there are only 100,000 people at most in the province. Who was likely to win the war?”

Donald Weaver is a descendant of Aaron Stevens, who died at the end of a rope after being found guilty at the Ancaster assize of spying. He’s not sure what would have driven his great, great, great, great-grandfather to commit treason. But he figures Aaron had his reasons. “There are two sides to every story.” And he’s not the least bit ashamed of his family member.

Art Howey is part of the offspring of Cornelius Howey, a man who was found guilty of treason, but spared from hanging because of a successful appeal. He finds the story of Cornelius fascinating.“The story we got is that he was so badly injured that he was going to die anyway. Why hang him?” Cornelius Howey was tried for desertion and he and three other spared prisoners managed to temporarily escape while en route to the Kingston jail to await their banishment. Eventually, Cornelius was recaptured and deported to the United States. “I suspect he may have made his way back to Canada, but we don’t know that,” Art said.

Art said he doesn’t know why Cornelius decided to side with the Americans. Cornelius’s father and brothers were all staunch United Empire Loyalists. He figures for some at the time, life under an American flag seemed like a better alternative and “they didn’t think the British would win out over the Americans.”

Ancaster Bloody Assize
Background: By the second year of the war, it was clear to the British that numerous residents of Upper Canada sympathized with the American side. Many openly joined the invading American soldiers, others moved to United States, while some gave support to the enemy surreptitiously. The British had arrested several settlers across the province, setting the stage for the assize.May 23, 1814: The Union Hotel (which no longer stands today) had been commandeered by the British and was transformed into a makeshift court to host trials for 19 people. Eight found guilty and executed: Dayton Lindsey, Noah Payne Hopkins, John Dunham, Aaron Stevens, Benjamin Simmons, George Peacock Jr., Isaiah Brink and Adam Crysler. Seven found guilty and sentenced to banishment to the United States: Jacob Overholtzer, Garrett Neill, John Johnston, Samuel and Stephen Hartwell (escaped, never to be found), Isaac Petit and Cornelius Howey.

July 20, 1814: Date of execution at Burlington Heights; exact location unknown; burial site unknown. Description of hangings: “I saw eight men executed at a spot just the other side of Locke Street near Dundurn. It was during the war. A rude gallows was prepared with eight nooses, and the victims were placed in two wagons, four in each, and drawn under the gallows. They stood upon boards laid across the wagon, and after the nooses had been adjusted, the wagons were drawn away and the unfortunate traitors were left to strangle to death.“The contortions of the poor men so shook the loosely constructed gallows that a heavy brace became loosened and fell, striking one of the victims on the head and killing him instantly, thus relieving him from the tortures of the rope. After the men had been duly strangled, their heads were chopped off and exhibited as the heads of traitors.“Seven of the victims seemed willing to die, but the eighth pleaded for his life and said that what he had done was simply out of a feeling of hospitality and that he did not know whom he was entertaining.”— John Ryckman, in Oct. 4, 1880, Spectator, recounting what he had seen as a teenaged boy.

Descendants trace ties to Ancaster’s Bloody Assize

Hamilton Spectator

by Samantha Beattie 

It’s a rare person who can say his or her ancestor was executed by hanging, never mind in public for high treason during the War of 1812. But that’s exactly what happened to Barbara Roadhouse’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Adam Crysler. He and seven other men were hanged on July 20, 1814  (almost exactly 200 years ago) at Burlington Heights, near where the Hamilton’s Admiral Inn stands today.

Their crimes included spying on the British, leading armed rebel attacks and imprisoning loyalists. Roadhouse is among hundreds of other descendants living across North America whom Ancaster’s Fieldcote Memorial Park and Museum tried to track down and contact. Museum program co-ordinator Daryl MacTavish said they connected with a lot of people through ancestory.ca.

When word started to spread about the museum’s interest in the hangings, many descendants who already knew their family history started contacting the museum for more information.”It is interesting to have ties and know your ancestors were real people who made very real choices,” said McTavish.

Crysler himself guarded British prisoners and helped the Americans escort them to Buffalo. When asked about being a descendant of a once-deemed traitor, 59-year-old Roadhouse is fiercely proud.”I don’t think any of them were bad men,” she said. “I believe Crysler was doing what was necessary to survive. The Americans had a great influence on this area at that point in the war. What do you think would have happened to him if he refused to do what they said?”

Roadhouse, an avid genealogist, discovered she was related to Crysler in 1996. She was working on a related project about Ancaster’s Bloody Assize, which was where Crysler was tried, along with 18 other men, before he was executed at Burlington Heights. Since then, Roadhouse and Helen Bingleman (a descendant of George Peacock and Garrett Null who were both found guilty) have dug through any scattered records about the assize they can get their hands on.

In the process, they’ve became well-known genealogists in the Rainham area where they live.

When Fieldcote launched an exhibit about the assize and began organizing a 200-year anniversary event, which is taking place July 19 and 20, they got in touch with Bingleman and Roadhouse for help. “It is important to know about our past,” said Roadhouse. “It shapes what we become. Who knows how my life would have been different if had Adam lived?”

The Bloody Assize happened between May 23 and June 21, 1814 at the Union Hotel, which once stood on Wilson Street East. Nineteen men were tried for acts of high treason by British Prosecutor John Beverly Robinson and Justices John Campbell, Thomas Scott and William Drummer Powell.

Initially, 15 were deemed guilty, but seven ended up being exempted from execution and were instead banished for life to the U.S. Of those seven, three died of typhoid before their release (including Bingleman’s ancestor Garrett Null). Four of the 19 men were acquitted.

According to letters from Justice Scott to General Gordon Drummond leading up to the assize, it was a political move to stop local dissent that was taking its toll on the British militia.”I hope and think these trials will make a deep impression on the public mind and that but a few examples will be necessary to deter others from committing the like enormous offence,” wrote Scott. “The very novelty and horror of the punishment of that crime will have a most powerful effect.” On July 20 at 6:30 p.m., Fieldcote Museum will recognize the accused and their families whose lives were affected. About 90 descendants will attend the ceremony and plaque unveiling.”I think the descendants are excited because for some of them it is a chance to meet modern-day family,” said MacTavish.

Hamilton Spectator

By James Elliott 

On Feb. 19, 1814, the wartime Parliament of Upper Canada, homeless since the Americans burned the legislature, convened in a midtown hotel. When the speaker called the roll, eighteen members responded. Of the seven absent, one was sick, four were prisoners of war and two, including the member representing Ancaster, were stated to have deserted to the enemy. The defection of Thomas Markle and Joseph Willcocks, who were actually bearing arms in a newly minted U.S. Army unit called the Canadian Volunteers — the turncoats that torched Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1813 — clearly shocked the legislature. It condemned their “abominable treason” and declared their seats vacant. The treason of two sitting members, one of whom had fought against the Americans at Queenston Heights in 1812, was a major blow to the authority of the colonial government. But the two rogue members were only the highest-profile examples of the widespread disaffection that existed in Upper Canada during the War of 1812 and culminated in the largest mass hanging in Canadian history. 

The story begins in the wake of the American Revolution. 

Among the measures taken to secure the sovereignty of the Crown’s remaining North American colonies after this stunning loss, was an offer of free land in Upper Canada to anyone who would take up residence within six months.

The obvious source of English-speaking settlers was the United States, and in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, thousands of Americans took up the offer, only too happy to mouth an oath of allegiance in return for 200 acres.

These newcomers joined the Loyalists who had actively supported the Crown during the Revolution and been exiled for it. So by the early 19th century at least 75 [sic] per cent of the population of Upper Canada was American-born or born of American parents.

The attraction, of course, was the free land. But along with their industry came notions of Republicanism, that dangerous political virus that so alarmed conservative government ministers in London.

Attracted by the land grants, they were content to live under the Union flag, but it was a contentment born of convenience only and did not include any particular loyalty to the Crown or its government. In the lead-up to the war there were plenty of examples of the disaffected speaking their minds. In 1807, a tavern patron in Niagara told a receptive full house: “If Congress will only send us a flag and a proclamation declaring that whoever is found in arms against the United States shall forfeit his lands, we will fight ourselves free without any expense to them.”

In 1811, Niagara journalist Joseph Willcocks, still a sitting member for the 1st riding of Lincoln, was reported to have said that “the province would soon be overrun, that there was not one man in 10 who would defend it except for a few old Tories and that the Indians would soon put them aside or cut them off.”

Shortly after war was declared, Isaac Brock, military governor of Upper Canada, reflected on the widespread apathy and disaffection: “The population, believe me, is essentially bad — full belief possesses them all, that the province must inevitably succumb — this preposition is fatal to every exertion. Legislators, magistrates, militia officers, all have imbibed the idea, and are so sluggish and indifferent to their respective offices that the artful and active scoundrel is allowed to parade the country without interruption and commit all imaginable mischief.”

When General William Hull launched the first American invasion of the war at what is now Windsor, he circulated his infamous proclamation that began “Raise not your hands against your brethren,” which was clearly aimed at recent immigrants from the U.S.

Two hundred copies were printed in English and French and widely distributed.

Half the militia at Amherstburg promptly deserted, 60 reported to Hull’s headquarters to claim the protection promised, and several enlisted under his command.Brock’s brilliant and unexpected victory at Detroit and the collapse of the American invasion at Queenston Heights dampened open disaffection in 1812, but a pair of quick U.S. victories in the spring of 1813 successfully revived it.

When the Americans overran York, U.S. Navy commander Isaac Chauncey told Anglican clergyman John Strachan that he’d “never heard of any place that contained half the number of persons publicly known, and avowedly to be, enemies of the government and allowed to be at rest.”

After the fall of Fort George at the end of May, more than 500 militia, most of whom had been nowhere near the battle, turned themselves in to the Americans for a parole that relieved them of the obligation to bear arms for the Crown.

When the Americans advanced as far as Stoney Creek at least one witness identified the army’s guide as Joseph Willcocks; one month later he was the commanding officer of the Canadian Volunteers. Stoney Creek and a subsequent victory at Beaver Dams secured Niagara momentarily, but the loss of the Royal Navy squadron on Lake Erie and the ensuing defeat of General Henry Procter’s army at Moraviantown in October essentially ended British authority over the entire southwest portion of the province.

Needless to say there was no shortage of elements ready to move into the vacuum.

In Niagara, the British army that had been blockading the larger American army in Fort George retired in haste to Burlington Heights and called in the detachment kept at Port Dover to maintain communications with Amherstburg. The Americans sallied forth and made a three-day march though the surrounding countryside during which, according to their accounts, they were welcomed as “deliverers and friends.”

Emboldened by the British withdrawal, a number of the disaffected joined by some rogue militia units conducted raids, seizing public property, capturing militia officers, plundering private property and settling private scores. In November, a party of the Norfolk Militia surprised a gang of these marauders in a house near the mouth of Nanticoke Creek on Lake Erie, killing three and taking 18 prisoners.

In December, a second party of marauders guided by Ancaster’s Abraham Markle, was attacked and captured by a volunteer militia force at Chatham. Two were killed and 40 captured though Markle escaped. Among the prisoners were 15 inhabitants of Upper Canada.

Those who had come from the U.S. were held as POWs, the rest faced treason charges.

Also in December, the Canadian Volunteers, under command of Willcocks and including at least seven former Ancaster residents, put torch to the town of Newark, present day Niagara-on-the-Lake, destroying 80 structures.

The government in York, shaken to its core by the breakdown of authority and the increasing boldness of the enemy within, moved quickly in the February session to pass legislation that included a limited suspension of habeas corpus and streamlined procedures for punishing treason.

A special commission composed of the Chief Justice and two subordinate justices of the King’s Bench were empowered, and the prosecution was laid on the callow shoulders of acting attorney general John Beverly Robinson. Still a law student when war broke out, Robinson was commissioned a lieutenant in the 3rd rd York militia, went with Brock to Detroit and was commanding a company at Queenston Heights when Brock was killed charging the enemy. Ordered to charge again, Robinson saw his commanding officer and the province’s attorney general, John Macdonnel, mortally wounded. Robinson, who had been articling in Macdonnel’s office, was subsequently appointed acting attorney general. He had just turned 21 and was not yet a member of the bar.

It would be nearly impossible to overstate the enormity of the task facing him.

In the wake of losses on Lake Erie and at Moraviantown, the military was keen on a declaration of martial law and summary drumhead courts martial for traitors, a move that Robinson and the judiciary rightly opposed. The province’s newly appointed civil administrator, Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond, was also the military commander and he, too, was under enormous pressure to suppress treason and stabilize the military situation in Upper Canada.

The strategy of the government was to conduct civil show trials to reaffirm the Crown’s ability to deal swiftly and severely with treason.

Robinson had received information for treasonable practices against 60 men and prepared indictments against 30 for which he felt there was sufficient evidence to convict.Of course, the big fish — Willcocks, Markle and Benajah Mallory — had already skipped and were beyond punishment except for forfeiture of property.

Common-law trials are held where the offence occurred, which would have been the London and Niagara districts. However, the London District courthouse was in Charlotteville on the shore of Lake Erie which the Americans now controlled. And in Niagara-on-the-Lake the district courthouse and gaol had been destroyed in 1813 when the Americans burned the entire town. York was briefly considered and quickly rejected as it had already been pillaged twice by the Americans. Robinson was therefore instructed to hold the trials at Burlington in the District of Niagara.

Poor Robinson then discovered there was no township or town named Burlington, only the adjoining bay and the military position. So Ancaster was chosen as it had a building big enough to hold the trial and was reasonably secure with a military camp on Burlington Heights and 2,000 natives camped on the Beach Strip.

The Union Hotel — lately used as a military hospital — was pressed into service as a courthouse.

Ironically, it was Abraham Markle’s Union Mill, on the site of today’s Old Mill restaurant, that served as a lock-up.

The decision to forgo Charlotteville as a venue was reinforced on May 16 when an American naval squadron anchored in Long Point Bay and landed a force guided by Abraham Markle and another former Ancaster resident, Oliver Grace, which burned the village of Port Dover and every mill in the area.

On May 23, 1814, the assize opened with the Chief Justice, Thomas Scott, presiding. Bench duties were to be shared on a rotating basis with senior Justice William Dummer Powell and junior Justice William Campbell. Three associate magistrates — Richard Hatt, Samuel Hatt and Thomas Dickson — sat as observers.

The 17-man grand jury included such worthies as James Crooks, Robert Nelles and Samuel Street. Bills for High Treason were found in rapid succession against the 19 accused who were in custody and against another 50 who were not. By law the court was obliged to provide each of the accused a copy of the indictment along with a list of witnesses and jurors 10 days before any trial could begin.

Court convened again on June 7 with Scott presiding before a jury of 12 men. A Scot by birth, the chief justice — described by one historian as “an amiable mediocrity” — was 68 and in poor health.

After a daylong trial:

Luther McNeal A former ship’s carpenter accused of being an American sympathizer. Acquitted.

The following day, Justice William Dummer Powell took over. Born in Boston to a family split by the Revolution, Powell, who still spoke with a Yankee twang, was at 58 the most able and ambitious of the three judges. Domineering and sardonic in manner, he believed in strict justice for traitors.

Jacob Overholser

Which is what this recent American immigrant got: he was branded a traitor on the word of suspiciously hostile neighbours, despite favourable testimony from five witnesses including two Niagara magistrates. Guilty.

The gavel then passed to the third judge, Justice William Campbell. A 55-year-old native Scot, Campbell had served in a Highland regiment during the American Revolution and captured at Yorktown.

A staunch supporter of the British constitution who viewed American Republicanism as verging on mob rule, Campbell was known generally to be lenient in his sentencing. Under Campbell: Robert Lounsbury 47 A 20-year resident of Upper Canada. AcquittedAaron Stevens, 52 Formerly employed by the Indian Department, confessed he had been a spy, surveying the works and garrison at Burlington Heights and conveying the information to the Americans for cash payments. Also “constantly with the enemy when they possessed Ft. George and often seen with them in arms.” Guilty.  

Garrett Neill A recent immigrant from the U.S., “made prisoners of the King’s subjects in the London district and gave them to the enemy. Fully proved by three witnesses.” Guilty

John Johnston Four witnesses testified he was actively taking prisoners in the London and Niagara districts. Guilty

Samuel and Stephen Hartwell These brothers had returned to the U.S. on the outbreak of war and been taken with Hull at Detroit, returned to Canada and paroled. Charged with taking prisoners and delivering them to the Americans. Surrendered voluntarily. Guilty

Dayton Lindsey One of the ringleaders in the London district, active in taking militia officers prisoner and the destruction of Port Dover. Guilty

Isaiah Brink Taken in open rebellion. Guilty

Benjamin Simmons Active in kidnapping militia officers and the destruction of Port Dover. Guilty

George Peacock Jr. A ringleader, active in the destruction of Port Dover. Guilty

Robert Troup Suspicious conduct but not proved. Acquitted

Adam Crysler, 40 A farmer originally from New York, served briefly in 2nd Lincoln militia, taken in “open rebellion” in the London district. Guilty

Cornelius Howey, 32 An American farmer from Caistor Township and the son of a Loyalist. Had been on rolls of the 2nd Lincoln Militia. Pleaded Guilty

Isaac Petit Had taken some part in the marauding but refused to accompany them and had been branded a coward. Guilty

John Dunham Kidnapped several militia officers and inhabitants in the London area and sent them to Buffalo. His house was the marauders’ headquarters. Guilty

Noah Payne Hopkins Confessed to stealing flour and acting as a commissary for the Americans. Guilty.

The afternoon of the last trial, the 15 convicted men assembled one by one, to hear the chief justice pronounce the most fearsome mandatory sentence for High Treason: “Each of you be taken to the place from whence you came thence you are to be drawn on Hurdles to the place of Execution whence you are to be hanged by the neck but not until you are dead for you must be cut down while alive and your entrails taken out and burnt before your faces. Your heads then to cut off and your bodies divided into four quarters to be at the King’s disposal. And God have mercy on your Souls.”

The judges then delayed the sentences for 30 days to allow supplications for mercy. Within days, petitions from family members, businessmen, magistrates and even jurors began reaching Drummond in York.

Samuel Hatt, one of the associate judges at the trials, Richard Beasley, justice of the peace and militia officer George Chisholm pleaded for the life of John Johnston on behalf of his wife and six children.

Ten prominent citizens from London and Niagara, including magistrates and officers of the court did not dispute the conviction of Adam Crysler but cited the suffering of his wife and eight children.

Polly Hopkins, wife of Noah Payne Hopkins, pleaded her 11 years of marriage and four children. No petition for clemency, however, exceeded that submitted on behalf of Jacob Overholser. Ninety-five residents of Bertie Township signed, citing their neighbour as “an honest peaceable Sober and industrious inhabitant” with a wife and four children. Heading the list of signatories was that of prominent Niagara magistrate John Warren Jr.

Meanwhile the judges, the prosecutor and the civil administrator struggled to determine how many should die.

They agreed that not all the guilty should be executed.

Clearly, the authorities were leaning toward leniency, hoping to strike a balance between strict justice and mercy. But everything changed on July 3 when the U.S. Army launched its third major invasion of Niagara, overrunning Fort Erie and three days later dealing General Phineas Riall’s division a severe defeat at Chippawa. This sealed the fate of the worst offenders. Drummond announced that eight of the traitors would die, and seven — “the least guilty” — would be reprieved. Aaron Stevens, Benjamin Simmons, George Peacock Jr., Noah Payne Hopkins, Dayton Lindsey, John Dunham, Adam Crysler and Isaiah Brink had reached the end of the line.

On July 20, 1814, the condemned men were brought from York in manacles aboard two heavy wagons to the British military camp on Burlington Heights. Just west of Locke Street in what is probably the current Inchbury neighbourhood, a rough set of gallows had been built.

The prisoners were accompanied by a Moravian missionary, Brother Christian Denke and a sizeable military guard. Standing on boards laid across the back of the wagons, the men were driven under the gallows and fitted with nooses, loosely knotted to ensure a slow death. An eyewitness reported seven seemed resigned to their end but one cried and pleaded for mercy saying he acted only out of hospitality.

On the order of the district sheriff, Thomas Merritt, the wagons were driven off and the condemned men, in the words of Brother Denke “launched into eternity.”

The witness reported a struggle so violent that it shook loose a heavy brace that struck and instantly killed a man. Contrary to the strict wording of the sentence, the sheriff allowed each man to die before cutting them down and marking each body with a cut to symbolize disembodiment. Their heads were chopped off and displayed on poles. The bodies were buried in an unmarked grave close to the gallows.

Two days later a body of New York Militia and Canadian Volunteers destroyed the village of St. Davids. Five days after, British and American armies fought to a bloody standoff at Lundy’s Lane. Those granted clemency were transported first to York and then Kingston pending Royal approval from Whitehall, not expected until the spring of 1815.

Over the winter, typhus broke out in the overcrowded Kingston jail and three of the convicted men who had been spared death on the gallows — Garrett Neil, Jacob Overholser and Isaac Petit — died over a 10-day period in early March. The surviving four received a pardon conditional on their abandoning the province and all British possessions for life. From a 21st-century perspective it’s perhaps inconceivable that the province we know of today could have been birthed amid such brutality. Perhaps under a back garden or front yard on Inchbury or Kinnell streets in downtown Hamilton, are some remains of the eight who in the chaos of war or high blood of passion forfeited their lives to the Bloody Assize.

James Elliott is a Hamilton-based writer and journalist. His most recent book, Strange Fatality: The Battle of Stoney Creek, won the 2011 Talman Prize for best book on Ontario history.