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 the high-and-mighty Home office, to the governing Family Compact, to the Oppositionists/Reformers, right on down to the level of individual settlers, the likes of David Thompson and Robert Burr.
In terms of material loss, however, the people who most suffer from the lawlessness of the period are the Haudenosaunee – the Six Nations Confederacy. A reading of David Grann’s shocking story of the 1920s Osage Indians of Oklahoma, Killers of the Summer Moon, should send every Canadian teacher to dig up Bruce E Hill’s book, the Grand River Navigation Company. The Navigation scandal is not just an Indigenous story, although it is too, the Navigation scandal is a Canadian story, and for shame.
In the event, “naughty not nice” is the meme of the 19th century in pre-Confederation Canada West, and everyone appears implicated. Up comes the Markham Gang.
Remembering the horrific Bloody Assize of 1814 and watching the Navigation scandal unfold, the Markham gangsters see the shenanigans of the United Empire Loyalists before and after the uprising of 1837, and they are furious. Governor Sir George Arthur rankles the Reformers with his lack of compassion for Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, followers of William Lyon Mackenzie. Hanging Lount and Matthews is incentive enough for Reformers to seek violent revenge on colonial bureaucrats: every UEL officer appears to profit from crime – why not us?
Among the Markham Gang, the revenge motive is strong. Vicious as they are, they reflect a vicious era.
“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….
“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.
“There is much to be gained by acknowledging the sins of our forefathers. However, this is not a suggestion that there should be an emphasis on the purgative. Nor is there a need for any balancing effect. The healthiest nation is one that acknowledges its entire past and includes the sins and errors, not as a focus, but as a part of the immense panorama of its history. Canadian history is incredibly rich and colourful, but it only assumes validity and accuracy when we view the whole spectrum of the behaviour of its characters and the events that they precipitated. We are all inextricably linked to our past, whether it is through the colour of our eyes or our cultural proclivities.
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.
“In the present generation, the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ has come to be applied to the treatment of minorities in countries struggling to deal negatively with their multi-cultural nature. Americans clearly practiced ‘ethnic cleansing’ in their treatment of Loyalists and First Nations. Though the treatment of many blacks was inhumane, the dependence upon slaves for economic survival, particularly in the south, saved the blacks from such a ‘final solution.’
“Someday this topic will become the focus of a major study. However it does help us to realize that ignoring such events results in a certain arrogance. This blatant disregard of the facts of history is not a condemnation of Americans, but it is a condemnation of historians and historiographers of America.
“Unfortunately Canadians have tended to follow the same pattern of ignoring certain events and the negative characteristics and questionable actions of our notables. Indeed, there has been an apparent aversion to dealing with many controversial aspects of Canadian history: Mackenzie King’s attitude and policies regarding the Jews; the government’s attitude toward the Chinese who worked on building our railways; the incarceration of Japanese Canadians during World War Two, and the dark episode of Canadian history that is the subject of this study.
“Historians writing about this period have tended to limit their efforts to studies of the people and events of the Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada, the ‘bad boys’ of the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique, and the numerous settlement enterprises. There is an obvious lack of quality studies written on the cult of lawlessness of the period. Little has been written about the era’s social problems and incompetent administration. This avoidance may be due, to some degree, to the politicians and writers of the first half of the twentieth century who were anxious to establish and maintain an image typified by the phrase ‘Toronto the Good.’
“But the complete story of the Markham Gang involves an intricate weave of people, events, ideas and attitudes. The resulting fabric is a tapestry depicting the exciting and controversial dramas of that period: Reformers and Family Compact members, wealth and poverty, crime and punishment, immigration, urban and rural lifestyles, the right to vote, loyalty to the Crown and those who advocated annexation with the United States. Unfortunately, the absence of certain documents and records has produced numerous spaces in the already faded and fragmented tapestry.
“Fortunately, there is beginning to be a glimmer of interest in this dark period of Canadian history. It is to be hoped that this work will add to that interest and dispel the idea that this era belonged to ‘the good old days.’ It will also help us to understand more clearly the plight of new democracies around the world as they strive to emerge from a more primitive past. And it should serve to further underline the incredible courage, determination and hardiness of the pioneers who laid the foundations of our own great nation.”
ARCULUS, PAUL. Mayhem to Murder: the history of the Markham Gang. Port Perry: Observer Publishing, 2003. Excerpted from the Introduction
Feature image, old fashioned bank robbery by Steinwill.