Free Genealogy Forms
Family Group Chart
New Genealogy Data
Family Tree Search
Genealogy Books For Sale
British Isles Genealogy
FREE Web Site Hosting at
The Fenian Prisoners
The Fenian Prisoners--Correspondence Between
Secretary Seward and the British Minister.
The question of the ultimate fate of the Fenian
prisoners who had fallen into our hands was one which received
considerable thought and discussion. While the temper of the
Canadian people was not favorable to any leniency being shown to
them in those sad days in June when they viewed the death and
desolation that had been caused by the raiders, yet all felt
constrained to give them the full benefit of British justice--fair
trials and an opportunity to separate the guilty from the innocent.
The authorities further resolved to be not too hasty in bringing the
unfortunates before the tribunal, as in the excited state of the
public mind such action might prove disastrous to the accused. This
policy was a wise and just one, and met with general approval.
While these Irish-Americans were penned up in Canadian prisons their
friends across the line were using every effort to effect their
release by supplicating President Johnson and Secretary Seward to
interpose in their behalf, and at last succeeded in getting some
resolutions put through Congress with this object in view.
Secretary Seward took the question up in an official way with Sir
Frederick W. A. Bruce, the British Minister at Washington, who
forwarded the documents relating to the matter to the British and
Canadian Governments, and no doubt this friendly interposition had
some effect in influencing the authorities to adopt the humane
policy which subsequently prevailed.
During the month of June the Fenian prisoners who had been captured
at Fort Erie and vicinity and lodged in the jails at Brantford and
elsewhere, were removed to Toronto Jail and placed under special
guard until their cases could receive due consideration by the
authorities. At a preliminary investigation a large number of these
men were discharged for want of sufficient evidence to convict, and
were deported from the country. About forty were held for trial.
Some of these were British subjects, while the remainder claimed
American citizenship. The former were charged with high treason, the
penalty for which is death. Those claiming to be aliens, and
citizens of the United States, were indicted under an old statute
which was enacted during the period of the Canadian Rebellion of
1837, which provided that subjects of a foreign state who entered
Canada for the purpose of levying war rendered themselves liable, on
conviction, to the death penalty.
On the 26th of July, 1866, President Andrew Johnson sent to the
United States Congress the following documents from the Department
of State, in reply to two resolutions of the House of
Representatives, the first requesting him to urge upon the Canadian
authorities, and also upon the British Government, the release of
the Fenian prisoners captured in Canada; and the second requesting
him to cause the prosecutions instituted in the United States
against the Fenians to be discontinued, if not incompatible with the
Department of State, Washington, July 26, 1866. To the
The Secretary of State, to whom was referred two resolutions of the
House of Representatives, passed on the 23rd of July, instant, in
the following words, respectively:--
"Resolved, that the House of Representatives respectfully request
the President of the United States to urge upon the Canadian
authorities, and also the British Government, the release of the
Fenian prisoners recently captured in Canada.
"Resolved, that the House respectfully request the President to
cause the prosecutions instituted in the United States courts
against the Fenians, to be discontinued, if compatible with the
Has the honor to report, in regard to the first resolution, that the
Government of the United States holds no correspondence directly
upon any subject with the Canadian authorities mentioned in the said
resolution, or with the authorities of any colony, province or
dependency of any other sovereign state; and that, on the contrary,
all its correspondence concerning questions which arise in, or
effect, or relate to such colonies, provinces or dependencies, is
always conducted exclusively with such foreign governments.
On the 11th of June last a note was addressed by this department to
the Honorable Sir Frederick W. A. Bruce, Her Majesty's Minister
Plenipotentiary residing in the United States, of which a copy is
hereunto annexed. It is proper to say, in relation to that note,
first, that the reports mentioned therein to the effect that
prisoners had been taken on the soil of the United States and
conveyed to Canada, and threatened by Canadian agents with immediate
execution without legal trial, were found on examination to be
untrue and without foundation in fact. It is due to the British
Government to say, in the second place, that the representations
made in the said note have been received by the British Government
and by the Canadian authorities in a friendly manner.
The resolution of the House of Representatives first recited,
harmonizing, as it does, with the spirit of the aforesaid note, will
be brought to the attention of Her Majesty's Government and of the
Canadian authorities, with the expression of a belief on the part of
the President that affairs upon the frontier have happily come to a
condition in which the clemency requested by Congress may be
extended without danger to the public peace, and with advantage to
the interests of peace and harmony between the two nations.
I have already received your directions that the second of said
resolutions be taken into consideration by the proper departments of
the Government, with a desire that it may be found practicable to
reconcile the humane policy recommended with the maintenance of law
and order, the safety of the public peace, and the good faith and
honor of the United States.
Respectfully submitted, William H. Seward.
Department of State, Washington, June 11, 1866.
Sir,--The Secretary of War has laid before the President several
despatches which were received yesterday and to-day from Major-Gen.
Meade, who is commanding the United States forces on the Canadian
frontier. These communications warrant the President in believing
that the so-called Fenian expedition is now entirely, at an end, and
that order and tranquility may be expected to prevail henceforth on
that border. I regret, however, that I am obliged to connect with
this gratifying information the further statement that reports have
reached Major-Gen. Meade to the effect that some of the Canadian or
British troops have crossed the line and entered within the
territory and jurisdiction of the United States. It is even said
that this entry took place after the disturbers of the peace under
the command of the leader Spear had relinquished their forbidden
enterprise and withdrawn within the boundary line of the United
States. The reports go so far as to say that prisoners have been
taken on the soil of the United States and conveyed to Canada, and
that the Canadian agents have threatened that these prisoners,
together with such stragglers as may now lie found within the
Canadian lines, will be executed without legal trial. It is believed
that these reports are exaggerated. Care has been taken by
Major-Gen. Meade to have them promptly investigated.
In the meantime I am instructed by the President to represent to
you, and through you to the British and Canadian authorities, that
this Government would not look without serious concern upon the
practice of any retaliation or other illegal proceedings upon the
persons of such of the offenders as have fallen, or shall hereafter
fall, into the hands of the Canadian authorities. I respectfully
invite your attention to the subject, with the confident expectation
that no proceedings that are not authorized and in conformity with
law, will be taken against persons of that class, and in the hope
that even the customary administration of the law will be tempered
with special forbearance and clemency. In view of the effective
proceedings which this Government has adopted in regard to the
disturbances now so fortunately ended, these representations would
have been made by me without waiting to be moved from any other
quarter. They are now made, however, with the approval of Major-Gen.
Meade, and I believe that they will receive the concurrence of the
Congress and people of the United States.
I have the honor to be,
Your obedient servant,
William H. Seward.
The Hon. Frederick W. A.
Trials of the Fenian Prisoners.
The Fall Assizes of the Court of Oyer and Terminer
and General Jail Delivery for the United Counties of York and Peel,
opened at Toronto on October 8th, 1866, His Lordship the Hon.
Justice John Wilson being named in the commission to preside over
the Court of Justice which was to decide the fate of the Fenian
prisoners. The indictments were read, and after an able and
exhaustive address to the Grand Jury by Judge Wilson, in which he
went fully into every phase of the case, and explained the statute
under which the prisoners were to be tried, the documents were
handed over to the Grand Jury for their consideration.
When the Court resumed its sitting on October 17th for the trial of
the accused, the Grand Jury presented true bills against three of
the most prominent prisoners in custody, viz., Robert Blosse Lynch,
of Louisville, Ky. (said to be a colonel in the Fenian forces at
Fort Erie and Lime Ridge); David F. Lumsden, who claimed to be an
Episcopalian clergyman, from Nunda, N.Y., and John McMahon, who
stated that he was a Roman Catholic priest, from Anderson, Indiana.
Lynch was first placed in the dock, and the indictment read, to
which he pleaded "not guilty." Lumsden and McMahon were next
charged, and also entered the same plea. The prisoners not being
ready to proceed with their trials, they were remanded until October
24th, when the Court re-opened and the trials proceeded with. The
counsel for the Crown were Hon. John Hillyard Cameron, Q.C.
(Solicitor-General for Upper Canada), Messrs. Robert A. Harrison,
John McNab, James Paterson and John Paterson.
The first prisoner placed in the dock was Col. Robert B. Lynch, who
stated that he had no connection with the Fenian Army, but had
accompanied the expedition as a reporter for the Louisville
Courier. A large number of Canadian residents of Fort Erie and
vicinity, however, testified that they had seen him wearing a sword
and in command of a body of Fenian troops at that place. The
evidence of his guilt was so overwhelming that the jury returned a
verdict of guilty, and Colonel Lynch was sentenced to be hanged on
the 13th of December. He received the sentence with composure and
was removed back to the jail.
Rev. John McMahon was then placed on trial. He claimed that he had
only went with the Fenians in a spiritual capacity, and to look
after the wounded and dying. He said he was at Lime Ridge and
attended to both Fenians and Canadians alike while there. His
statements did not accord with the evidence given by other reliable
witnesses who saw him giving aid and encouragement to Fenian
soldiers at Fort Erie, and after a fair and impartial trial he was
found guilty and sentenced to be executed with Lynch on December
Pending appeal proceedings these executions were deferred.
David F. Lumsden was brought up for trial on November 3rd. He was
formerly rector of Trinity Church at Syracuse, N.Y., where he had a
reputation of being too fond of drink, rendering himself subject to
discipline for intemperance, and had been cited to appear before
Bishop Coxe (Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the Western Diocese
of New York), who sent him to Nunda, N.Y., in the hope that he might
redeem himself. But he had again fallen from grace and was on a big
spree in Buffalo when he drifted over to Fort Erie, and was arrested
on suspicion of being implicated with the Fenians. After hearing all
the evidence, which was in favor of the prisoner, the jury retired
and brought in a verdict of "not guilty," and he was discharged.
True bills were then rendered by the Grand Jury in the cases of the
other prisoners who were held in custody.
On Nov. 7th. William Slavin was found guilty and sentenced to death.
On the same date Benjamin Parry (a lad 16 years of age, from
Cincinnati), was discharged.
On Nov. 9th. Daniel Drummond, who was arrested at Fort Erie, was
discharged, as there was not sufficient evidence to convict.
On Nov. 10th, William Hayden was found guilty and sentenced to
death, while William Duggan was discharged.
On Nov. 14th, Daniel Whalen and John Quinn were both found guilty
and sentenced to be hanged.
On Nov. 15th, Thomas School was found guilty and received the death
sentence, while Patrick Donohue was discharged.
On Jan. 11th, 1867, Timothy Kiely (who was found wounded in a
hay-loft at Major Canty's house near Fort Erie, on June 3rd, and who
had been engaged in the battle at Lime Ridge), was found guilty and
sentenced to death. On the same day John Smith proved his innocence
and was discharged.
On Jan. 12th, Patrick O'Neil and Patrick McGrath were found guilty
of high treason, and on the day following Thomas H. Maxwell was
convicted for the same crime. Those three men were British subjects,
and each received the death sentence.
On Jan. 14th James Burke and Patrick Norton were found guilty and
sentence deferred. On Jan. 15th John O'Connor, Daniel Quinn and John
Rogan were found guilty, while Patrick Keating, James Spanieling and
Wm. Baxter escaped conviction, owing to lack of sufficient evidence.
On Jan. 18th. Peter Paul Ledwith was found guilty and James
On Jan. 21st, Thomas Cooney (who was present at Lime Ridge) was
found guilty, and George J. Matthews (who was arrested at Thorold in
September. 1866, by some troopers of the Governor-General's Body
Guard, for having stated that he had been sent out from Buffalo as a
scout by the Fenians, who contemplated another raid) was acquitted
for want of evidence.
On Jan. 22nd Michael Purtell was found guilty of high treason, and
remanded for sentence. Owen Kennedy, an American who was arrested at
Fort Erie, was found guilty with a recommendation to mercy.
On Jan. 24th John Gallagher, of Cincinnati, was found guilty and
remanded for sentence, while Thomas King, an American, was
On Jan. 25th Barney Dunn was convicted, while Wm. Orr, John Hughes,
Frederick Fry and James Diamond were acquitted for lack of
sufficient evidence. On Jan. 29th John Grace and John Cooney were
This disposed of all the Fenian cases on the calendar.
The Court re-opened on Jan. 30th, His Lordship Mr. Justice Morrison
presiding, for the purpose of finally disposing of the cases of
eleven of the prisoners who had been convicted but not yet
sentenced. After the usual Court preliminaries had been concluded,
and the prisoners placed in the dock, Hon. Mr. Cameron moved that
the sentence of the Court be passed upon the following
prisoners:--Patrick Norton, Thos. H. Maxwell, Patrick O'Neil, James
Burke, Daniel Quinn, Peter Ledwith, John O'Connor, John Rogers, Owen
Kennedy. Barney Dunn and John Gallagher.
His Lordship then sentenced all of the above named to be hanged on
the 5th of March.
Appeals were made to higher Courts in several of the cases, but all
were disallowed, and it seemed for a time as if a wholesale
execution of the prisoners on the gibbet would be the result. But
the better feelings of the Canadian people prevailed, and by appeals
for clemency, in the cause of humanity, our country was relieved
from the gruesome spectacle of witnessing over a score of these
unfortunate dupes dangling from the gallows in expiation of their
crimes. That they deserved such a fate is undoubted. They entered
our peaceful country with murder in their hearts, and carried out a
portion of their programme of butchery, but their leaders escaped,
and it would have been poor satisfaction to exact the extreme
penalty on those deluded followers who happened to fall into our
hands. Therefore all of their lives were spared.
The sentences imposed were commuted to imprisonment in the
Provincial Penitentiary at Kingston for various terms, according to
the degree of guilt of the accused, and a few years afterward the
last of them was released from the grasp of Canadian justice.
This site includes some historical materials that
may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of
a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of
the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the
WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.
Troublous Times in Canada, A History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870
Fenian Raids of 1866 - 1870