The Markham Gang, 1845-46
“Gang members took an oath of secrecy. They vowed to support each other in any way possible. They pledged to provide alibis in case they were arrested, and to back each other in court. This was a homegrown, nineteenth century Canadian ‘Mafia,’ a ‘mob,’ one of the earliest known cases of organized crime in British North America.” Paul Arculus
In the 1840s, the culture of Canada West is, in a word, lawless – lawless up and down, from the mores of England’s high-and-mighty Colonial office, to the governing Family Compact, to the Oppositionists/Reformers, right on down to the level of individual settlers, the likes of David Thompson l and Robert Burr.
“In the early 1840’s robberies, burglaries and similar crimes appear to have been just as commonplace as they are today. By 1845 a few people began to think that there was a link in some of the crimes being committed. In June that year, Hugh Scobie, owner and publisher of the British Colonist, a popular Toronto newspaper, revealed that an organized gang of robbers was in operation across the province. Scobie identified the outlaws as the ‘Markham Gang.’ As the year progressed the activities of the gang were slowly revealed. The range of crimes was extensive – from petty theft to an elaborate system of horse stealing and from forgery to murder. Their crimes extended throughout the province and beyond.“From evidence provided in court and other information provided, it was obvious that the crimes were carefully planned and executed. Relatively intimate details of the victims were carefully gathered so that the offences could be committed with an optimum chance of success. Goods and merchandise were disposed of, not in the community in which they were stolen, and not by those who had stolen them, but by other members of the gang in locations well away from the scenes of the crimes.
Nathaniel and Margaret Burr of Burrwick (Vaughan, Woodbridge), and later Brantford. Nathaniel Burr of Brantford on the Grand River was a character witness for Robert Burr in the trial of the Markham Gang.
From Wikipedia: “William Hume Blake, leader of the Reform Party and a major foe of the Family Compact, came to the defence of the accused. He portrayed the case as being politically motivated, with Gurnett paying back supporters of William Lyon Mackenzie with threats of jail time or hangings. Although his defence was spirited, in the end Robert Burr, Nathan Case and Hiram and James Stoutenborough were all sentenced to death for their part in the Morrow robbery, and a further eleven members received sentences between 7 years and 8 months for larceny or forgery. However, the death penalties were later commuted to prison sentences by the Attorney General of the Province of Canada, which was a common practice in the British colonies [sic].”“Gang members took an oath of secrecy. They vowed to support each other in any way possible. They pledged to provide alibis in case they were arrested, and to back each other in court. This was a homegrown, nineteenth century Canadian ‘Mafia,’ a ‘mob,’ one of the earliest known cases of organized crime in British North America.“No records of the actual oaths are known to exist; certainly none were presented at the time of the trials. No members’ lists were ever found. Indeed, no written records are known to have emerged from their activities. All the information of their activities is derived from the few remaining court records and from the press.“One of the disturbing aspects of the Markham Gang is that its members were not idle, unemployed ne’er-do-wells or vagrants; they were successful merchants and businessmen, and errant sons and daughters of respectable families. They came mainly from the regions east and north east of Toronto, but some came from communities beyond. Their surnames were readily recognized among the pioneer families, including many United Empire Loyalists, and the early businesses in the communities of south- central Ontario. Indeed many of those convicted went on to become prominent citizens themselves; their criminal past somehow kept quiet….
Markham, turn of 19th century
“Perhaps when we become a few more generations removed, we might have more collective and individual confidence in exposing the remains of those skeletons in our closets. The psychological health of our nation will be much improved when we can honestly face our past clearly, warts and all, and learn from the mistakes made by our pioneering ancestors and the prices they paid. Hopefully, much more of our past will have been studied and documented and a more complete picture of our history will be available to scholars and the general public.
The fourth man, the one who had been the most vicious, was eventually identified as Robert Burr, one of the ringleaders.
“Canadian historians have, to a large degree, fallen into the syndrome that is typified by the American historical paintbrush, which is characterised by ‘George Washington never told a lie.’ In this scenario the only villains are those who kill presidents or oppose the Union. All the notable leaders are sanctified and portrayed as near spotless saints. This of course denies the reality of human nature. Despite the rationalisation and philosophising of the socialists and sociologists, all real people make mistakes. Indeed, most real people commit acts that others would consider to be evil. Psychopaths and compulsive criminals exist in every civilization and in every large cross-section of the population. They have done, and will continue to do so until science finds a way to modify or eliminate the gene, or resolve the chromosome abnormalities or whatever factors are found to be the underlying causes of criminal disposition.“Most American historians even today still portray Washington as a man worthy of sainthood, completely ignoring the fact that before he became passionately involved in the leadership of a new nation, he was a land grabbing, highly exploitive and manipulative slave owner, a man whose compassion for his fellow man was ruled by the profit motive. The same can be said of many of the founding fathers, and it is certainly true of Thomas Jefferson.“American historians still choose to try to ignore the most embarrassing periods in their history: the horrors perpetrated by the rebels during the Revolution, the era of cruel lawlessness which followed, and the entire period during which blacks and the First Nations were denied even a small portion of the range of human rights. The greatest travesties against humanity in the late eighteenth and particularly in the nineteenth century were committed in America, by Americans, through their attitudes towards loyalists, blacks and the people of the First Nations. The British had enacted anti-slavery legislation and by 1833 had abolished it. The United States, despite the noblest rhetoric recorded by the quills of the founding fathers and their successors, remained a full half-century behind, in any form of humanitarian legislation or action, particularly if it applied to the blacks and First Nations. The administrative attitude toward them, action supported from the president on down, gives absolute credence to the notion that all the noble declarations of equality were hollow words. While Jackson was expounding his unquestionably splendid treatises on democracy, his policies toward the First Nations, as exemplified by his treatment of the Cherokee nation, prove him to be a hypocrite of the worst order.