The Toronto Reference Library Archive of the Dead

April 2, 2019 | Beau

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I just finished reading Adam Bunch's The Toronto book of the dead (eBook), and above and beyond enjoying it as an interesting work of local history, I also found it engrossing on a professional level because many of the people who feature in these darker moments in Toronto's history are names I recognized from the manuscript collection in the Special Collections & Rare Books Department of the Toronto Reference Library.

The Toronto book of the dead

These include but are not limited to:

  • John Graves Simcoe, a British general, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada and husband to Elizabeth Simcoe, who died after fumes from fresh paint on a ship he was sailing from England to Portugal on aggravated his long-standing health problems.
  • Reverend John Strachan, Toronto's first Anglican bishop, who stood up to American troops who pillaged and looted Toronto after Britain's defeat at the bloody Battle of York, and almost got murdered in the process.
  • Robert Baldwin, whose list of final requests to be carried out after his death included: being buried with the letters written by his beloved late wife Elizabeth, having their coffins chained together, and a particularly grisly task I won't recount here. This task was to be performed by his son, brother and brother-in-law by breaking into his tomb shortly after he'd been laid to rest.
  • Anderson Ruffin Abbott, the first Canadian-born Black person to graduate from medical school. Abbot was a civilian surgeon on the Union side of the American Civil War and a friend of Abraham Lincoln's, and was given a shawl that belonged to the President by his widow Mary after Lincoln was assassinated.


But there are two stories from the book in particular I'd like to focus on, the first being that of James FitzGibbon, a British soldier and public servant who was born in Ireland. FitzGibbon repeatedly distinguished himself during the War of 1812 (Laura Secord delivered her famous warning of an impending American attack prior to the Battle of Beaver Dams to him), and in 1837 was a Colonel in charge of Toronto's defenses when William Lyon Mackenzie (a former Mayor of Toronto!) led an attempted rebellion against British rule. The rebels had gathered at (John) Montgomery's Tavern on Yonge St., where they lost the element of surprise by waiting too long to attack (some never made it past a post office on St. Clair Avenue, where they stopped for lunch and whiskey). FitzGibbon led a larger, better-organized force and easily defeated the rebels.

The library's manuscript collection includes this Narrative of occurrences in Toronto, Upper Canada in December 1837, signed and corrected by FitzGibbon and dated December 13 of that year. It details FitzGibbon's recollections of the failed rebellion, including the muster of the rebel troops at Montgomery's and their subsequent defeat:

Narrative of occurrences in Toronto, Upper Canada in December 1837

"About Eleven at night I was told that the Rebels were assembling at Montgomery's Taverns four miles north of the city, and that they intended coming in and attacking the city that night...I led the Column to the attack, directed every movement personally, and so were they combined that the Rebels finding their flanks unexpectedly attacked, soon after they were all warmly engaged in front, they became panic struck and fled from the field."

Going back in time a bit, Chapter 10 ("The Deadly Duel") tells the story of the 1817 feud between the Ridout and Jarvis families, which culminated in a duel (of the "pistols at dawn" variety) between Samuel Jarvis and John Ridout. There had been bad blood between the two prominent Toronto families for years, and one July afternoon in 1817 Ridout visited Jarvis at his office, mostly likely to discuss a lawsuit the Ridout family had launched against William Jarvis (Samuel's father). Whatever they talked about, it didn't go well. Jarvis threw Ridout out, and when the two men encountered each other on King St. a few days later Ridout broke Jarvis' hand with a stick. Jarvis punched back, and by the time they were separated a crowd had gathered to watch the young sons of two of Toronto's most powerful families trade knuckle sandwiches in the street. 

Offence had been taken, satisfaction was demanded, and the two men agreed to a duel on the morning of Saturday July 12, 1817. They met in a barn near the intersection of Yonge and College, accompanied by their seconds, themselves members of important Toronto families; James Small (Ridout's second, whose father John had previously killed the first Attorney General for Upper Canada in a duel), and Henry John Boulton (whose younger brother James would fight a duel against Thomas Radenhurst in 1830, although the matter was settled without serious injury to either man). Jarvis and Ridout stood back to back, paced off eight steps and turned to face each other. Boulton counted to three, which was supposed to be the signal for each to fire but Ridout fired at the count of two and missed. Jarvis was (perhaps understandably) enraged by Ridout's violation of the terms of the duel, and after some discussion between the seconds Jarvis was allowed to take his shot.

He didn't miss. Ridout was killed almost instantly, and Jarvis was charged with murder. By the time of the trial the charges had been reduced to manslaughter and in the end he was acquitted of even that because dueling, while technically illegal, was still considered an honourable way for disputes to be resolved and the law tended to look the other way if the duel had been a fair fight. However, this was to be the final duel of this sort in Toronto, and Upper Canada's last fatal duel took place in 1833.

There is an entire box of Samuel Jarvis papers in the manuscript collection; one folder is mostly comprised of material pertaining to the duel and its aftermath, including a "Full statement of circumstances leading up to the duel and account of the meeting."

Samuel Jarvis papers

A postscript to the story: local opinion following the duel was extremely divided, and the aforementioned William Lyon Mackenzie, at this time the publisher of a failing pro-democracy newspaper named The Colonial Advocate, regarded Jarvis' acquittal as an example of the favourable treatment Toronto's elite (often referred to as The Family Compact) granted themselves. Mackenzie made it clear that he thought Ridout's death was a murder and constantly railed against the Family Compact in the pages of the Advocate. In 1826, Samuel Jarvis and a bunch of his Family Compact pals went down to the Advocate's offices on Front St. and, after learning that William was out of town, trashed the place while Mackenzie's family hid in the basement, smashing the printing press to bits and throwing the newspaper type stocks into Lake Ontario

But Mackenzie had the last laugh, in this matter at least; he sued, won the case and used his settlement to resume printing the paper, which grew to be more successful and influential in the wake of the attack. Here's one last item from the library's manuscript collection, an 1828 affidavit signed by Jarvis and the other participants in the Riot, in which they state that "the act complained of was committed without much time for reflection, and without any deliberate conceit," which appears to have been too much of a stretch for even a jury in a town more-or-less run by the families of the defendants to believe.

William Lyon Mackenzie affidavit