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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 public interest:--

Department of State, Washington, July 26, 1866. To the President:--

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 public interests."

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, sir,
          Your obedient servant,
          William H. Seward.

          The Hon. Frederick W. A. Bruce.

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 13th.

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 Macdonough discharged.

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 discharged.

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 also acquitted.

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.

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Troublous Times in Canada, A History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870

Fenian Raids of 1866 - 1870


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