Sunday, October 28, 2018

The unbelievable 1890s Hintonburg arson case!

In the 1890s, Hintonburg was still a collection of almost exclusively small wood-frame houses, built by the workers at the nearby rail and mill yards. Lots were still plentiful, and available for a cost of next to nothing. Infrastructure was still a work in progress (electricity had just arrived, but no water, sewer or streetcars yet), and the small population still largely was involved in farming, gardening and poultry. With houses so primitive and no water available (other than a bucket-brigade to a well), a fire would be immediately devastating, and could wipe out a whole block, which was certainly a risk in the faster-building areas like Mechanicsville, where houses were going up practically touching each other, all in quick succession.

Few people had insurance back in this era, especially amongst the working class, but if they were to have one type of insurance, it was house insurance. Everything they owned and had worked for was put into their house. Yet, house insurance was still in its infancy, and as history shows, was quite exploitable. Most of these early houses were worth only $300-$400 at the time. A house insurance policy might cost only a few dollars per year. And though house fires were very frequent owing to how homes were heated and meals were cooked, not to mention the overall quality of construction of the homes themselves, the temptation to torch your own house for the insurance settlement was surely a factor on the regular. Insurance agents in the early days were kept busy investigating the most suspicious house fires.

One of the most bizarre stories I have ever come across is the tale of Thomas Lewis. There is just so much that is hard to believe in this story, yet it is all true. A tale right out of the wild, open days of old-west Hintonburg 1894.


Monday October 22nd, 1894, was another ordinary day in late 19th century rural Ottawa - except for the odd coincidence that there were FOUR fires in our area that day! The McTiernan farm (located on what is now the south side of Carling, between Fisher and Merivale) lost every barn, stable and outbuilding (except the main residence) during an overnight fire. Then in Birchton (Westboro today, west of Churchill) were two house fires that overnight as well. News reports indicated that the fires were all "hazy", suggesting that perhaps "tramps" had started the fires. The fourth fire occurred in Hintonburg, on what was known as McLean Street, now better known as Fairmont Avenue. It was in a small, isolated house where today 61 Fairmont stands, but back then it was one of only a handful of houses on the street, set back in an open field that was largely open all the way to Parkdale Avenue. The fire was in the home of Thomas Lewis, a 38-year old carpenter who may have been a Carleton County Constable at the time, or at minimum was imminent to be appointed as one. This fire was noted as being shady as well, since this was the third house fire in two years to have victimized Lewis (his previous house had burned down that April, and was originally attributed to children playing with matches).

The media may no further mention of the fire. The insurance company did their investigation, paid out the $325 settlement, and that was that. Or was it? Unbelievably, over three years later, this fire would become a hot topic in Hintonburg... but to get to that point, the Thomas Lewis story is worth telling, to provide some additional background (and also some crazy 1890s stories)...


Following the fire, Thomas Lewis moved elsewhere in Hintonburg, and would begin a 3-year stint as Carleton County Constable, which would have him overseeing the law throughout the County. But as you might see in an 1890s-set movie, though Lewis worked on the right side of the law, he frequently found himself on the wrong site of it. One of the most notable stories of several that 120+ year old newspapers reveal, is the Celia Kernan case.

In July of 1895, Lewis was charged with the "indecent assault" of Celia, who was a former Hintonburg resident now living downtown on Kent Street. Celia claimed that Thomas came to her house, and after a brief conversation about a business matter, made an "improper proposal", which she refused, resulting in Lewis responding with a more physical attempt. A witness added in court that before entering her house, Lewis had given Celia's son 5 cents and sent him and a boarder out to the store to buy candies. When the boarder returned, he heard Celia scream, ran inside and found Lewis in a "compromising position", from which he ran off.  Lewis' version meanwhile was that he was visiting Kernan along with another Constable to collect back taxes from when Celia lived in Hintonburg, and claims her story is blackmail over her debt.

Interestingly, on the same day the matter was heard at court, Celia was a defendant in another matter, of "allowing noise in her house" from her Hintonburg days. But making things even more interesting, on the day of the trial, Celia was a no-show at court. Why? Because she had been arrested in Hintonburg the night before the trials for disorderly conduct - by Lewis! Meanwhile, Hintonburg Reeve O'Meara (and obviously an enemy of Lewis's) paid Celia's bail, and said he would help ensure that her charge against Lewis be seen through. To help with that, later that day O'Meara had Lewis arrested, under the charge of "extorting money from a pedlar". Eventually, Celia was found guilty of her "disorderly conduct" charge and fined $25 plus $15 in costs (this was a significant sum of money), while Lewis was also found guilty for his assault. He unsuccessfully appealed that charge, and even went so far in 1896 to take the judge (Judge Harvey) to court claiming damages for "malicious prosecution and false arrest".

But in February of 1896, Lewis was back in trouble. His fellow Constable, Constable Thompson, charged that Lewis had made an illegal seizure of property belonging to Mrs. Charles Mariaville. Thompson believed Lewis had no search warrant, and thus no authority to make the seizure. But get this, the judge to hear the case was the same for whom Lewis was currently taking to court on the malicious prosecution charge, Judge Harvey! His lawyer wrote up a sensational notice Judge Harvey, claiming that the alleged offence was only a civic trespass, not a crime, and thus the Judge had no jurisdiction; that the Judge had a conflict of interest in the case because of the pending action from the other case; accused the Judge of not being "a native of Canada" (which apparently meant that he could not be a county judge); and went so far as to further question the Judge's qualifications beyond his nativity, threatening further lawsuits if the Judge heard his case with Thompson!

Meanwhile, as all of this was going on, Lewis found himself in yet further action, as at the Hintonburg council meeting on February 7th, Hintonburg Councillor H. G. Cameron attempted to read a petition signed by several Hintonburg residents demanding an investigation into alleged illegal actions on the part of Reeve John O'Meara. O'Meara objected and ordered Lewis to remove Cameron if he continued to read the petition. According to the paper, "Lewis requested Councillor Cameron to desist reading the motion, laying his hand on his shoulder at the same time." Cameron continued to read the petition, leading O'Meara to announce the meeting was to be adjourned, seconded by another Councillor, and everyone left the hall, "leaving Councillor Cameron reading his petition to an empty room." Following the meeting, Cameron then issued a summons against Lewis for assault, and the case was heard on the 13th (court cases moved very quickly back in this era).

The newspaper account of this hearing came with the hilarious headline of "Rumpus in Hintonburgh", and detailed how the Reeve (who was also a lawyer) defended Lewis in the case against Cameron. The trial included O'Meara requesting an adjournment of a few days to find more witnesses, to which Judge Johnston refused, stating the the case was pretty clear for the prosecution, and that if O'Meara were to call any witnesses that they would be "trumped up". O'Meara lashed out at the judge, accusing him of having already made up his mind against the defendant (Lewis), and officially requested a new trial, with a new judge, and after more arguing, eventually threatened that if the judge continued with the case, he would take it to the attorney general and have him disqualified as a magistrate. O'Meara got his wish with an adjournment of three days.

Hilariously, next up on the docket on the 13th was the case of Constable Thompson against Lewis, on the charge of trespassing on Mrs. Mariaville's property without warrant. The newspaper only included one line about this charge, noting that (somehow) it was discharged (how the judge possibly could have heard the case with an open mind after the first half of the morning, and even after all that sided with Lewis is incredible!).

Continuing the endless string of litigation, in response to Cameron's assault charge, and the fireworks at the first day of the trial, Lewis filed a counter action against Cameron, for his "creating a disturbance" at that same council meeting. Unfortunately, the whole Cameron-Lewis-Judge Harvey drama did not proceed any further. The newspaper the following week simply noted that the situation had been settled out of court.

But was it actually settled? Did Lewis have other enemies in Hintonburg? Surely he did, if the above tidbits are any proof.

Lewis spent most of 1897 living away from Hintonburg, and there was little on him in the media... that is, until January of 1898.


In January of 1898, Lewis submitted what were discovered to be "fake" news items to the Ottawa Journal, "one of the items was calculated to cast a slur on a member of Bethany Presbyterian Church, and the other a slur on the Anglican church in the village (Hintonburg)". When the reporter investigated the story in Hintonburg, he heard from several people in the village that "Constable Lewis was not a desirable man to be an officer of justice. One assertion was that there was reason to believe he had burned his house to secure the insurance". The Journal, based on Lewis's important job as county constable, and the seriousness of the charge, decided to investigate further, and interviewed individuals who had been recommended as having information, including the head of the Capuchin Monks monastery (now St. Francois D'Assise Church), and the agents of the Phoenix of Hartford insurance company.

Some of the tidbits of info were noteworthy. Lewis had added insurance to his house only on Oct 4th, the fire being 18 days later on Oct 22nd.

Lewis was paid out $325 in the insurance settlement, and owed D.H. MacLean several hundred dollars (MacLean being the agent who collected money for the estate from which Lewis bought the property on an installment plan). After Lewis received the $325, he did not pay the estate anything, and simply let the property lapse.

Meanwhile, a person Lewis attempted to obtain coal oil from stated that Lewis asked for it stating he was bothered for want of money and intended to burn his house. At the time the request was treated as a joke, but when finally Lewis did get his hands on some oil, within hours his house had burned.

The Journal took their info to the County Crown Attorney, who put the file into the hands of High County Chief Bliss for official investigation, resulting in the charge of arson.

On the evening of Thursday February 17th, while still holding the title of County Constable, Lewis was arrested and taken to county jail on the charge of setting fire to his own house way back in October of 1894. The paper noted that the arrest was done quietly; as quietly as the evidence gathering that Bliss had been conducting over the previous few weeks. The newspaper noted that "the evidence is said to be very strong against him". The papers though oddly failed to point out how bizarre it was that the charge came nearly three-and-a-half years after the fire took place.

Lewis at the time of arrest said he was innocent and had witnesses to prove his innocence. The court trial would captivate Hintonburg, and contained a lot of shocking testimony.


Lewis had freshly stepped down from his role as Constable (I assume, for reasons unrelated to the arson accusation) when the County Judge heard arguments on March 4th 1898, about whether the case should go to trial. 15 witnesses were called altogether, and the story was pieced together.

Benjamin Foster who resided on Parkdale just south of Wellington, and Mrs. Eliza Stimson who lived on what is now Sherbrooke) were the two key witnesses for the prosecution. Foster stated that he heard the fire alarm go out as he was having lunch that day. He went over and aided the Capuchin Fathers in putting it out. He returned home, but an hour later saw the house on fire again. He went over and again aided in putting it out, the fire burning on the roof near the chimney where it had the first time. At that time he claimed he asked Lewis if the house was insured, and Lewis pulled the policy out of his pocket and showed it to him, stating it was insured for $500.

Most of Lewis's furniture and possessions were out on the grass in front, and so his neighbour Mrs. Stimson suggested putting them back inside. Stimson and Foster began doing so. As they did, Foster claimed he saw Lewis make wood shavings with a knife, and then take the shavings and some paper to the basement. Mrs. Stimson, sensing what he was up to warned him "take care, it is a penitentiary job" (meaning, be careful, as he would go to jail for burning his own house down intentionally), to which Lewis responded "By God, it must go."

Foster claimed that he then left, and went walking down Richmond Road. After a short distance, he looked back and could see flames coming through the cracks along the bottom part of the house. Seconds later, Lewis came running down Richmond to catch up to him, and asked him to go have a drink, so they went to Byers Hotel (just before Merton). While there, the house burned down.

Foster also claimed he could smell coal oil on the floor boards the second time they put the fire out.

Mrs. Stimson also claimed that Lewis complained vocally about the priests who had put out the first two fires, that if it hadn't been for them, the house would have burned. She also claimed he told her that the house had to go, for his landlord MacLean was after him for his installment money. She told him "You shouldn't do it, Tom. You will be found out and will have to go to the penitentiary". But he didn't care. When cross-examined, she stated that she didn't say anything about the arson afterwards because she did not consider it any of her business.

Father Moise, Father Patrick and Brother Thomas of the Capuchin monastery swore they assistaed in extinguishing the first two fires, but the third time they did not bother.

Mrs. Byers testified that she had been asked by Lewis for coal oil on the day of the fire, but refused him. Instead he took an empty gin bottle to St. Matthias church (where he was the janitor), and where he knew there would be plenty of oil. She claimed that Lewis went inside with the bottle, came out without it, went around the side of the building, and then moments later saw him going towards his house with the bottle in his hands.

Lewis and his lawyer did not have any witnesses for the defence, and the Judge ordered that the case me moved to trial in April.


Lewis's trial was held on Wednesday April 20th, and it was a marathon, running all day from 10 a.m. until the verdict was reached at 9 p.m.

James Byers, owner of the Hintonburg hotel and tavern (who will be the subject of a very exciting upcoming Kitchissippi Times article, by the way!), added to the original testimony, stating that the morning of the fires, Lewis had assisted him in taking a pump out of the well. Byers stated that after removing the pump, he took Lewis to his cellar and gave him an armful of vegetables. Lewis threw them down saying "I don't think I'll take them, Jim. I owe MacLean $200 and he is pushing me for it. By God, I am going to burn the house and get the insurance." When Byers saw Lewis in his bar later that day, he accused him of burning his house, and Lewis did not reply.

Lewis's lawyer made an aggressive cross-examination of key witness Benjamin Foster, during which the Citizen reported he "alternated from scolding to appeals of "Now, Benjamin, tell the truth"", though Foster never wavered. Lewis's lawyer was attempting to prove that Foster was testifying against Lewis out of spite.

Most of the details were largely repeated from the first hearing, though this time the defense presented some evidence and witnesses to attempt to help his cause.

Local merchant William Joynt testified that Lewis and Foster had a dispute within Conservative party circles shortly before the charges against Lewis were made, over the appointment of a chairman within the local committee. Lewis claimed that he threatened to vote Reform if he did not get the chairman he wanted, at which time Foster allegedly stated "We'll fix you for that, Lewis".

Mrs. Latimer was a witness for the defence, who was apparently present with the Lewis's, Foster and Stimson, and denied that Lewis had cut shavings, or went into the basement, and that neither Foster nor Stimson warned Lewis about setting fire to his house.

Much to the surprise of all in the courtroom, Lewis took the stand in his own defence, and claimed he never said anything to anyone about setting his house on fire. He also denied that MacLean was pressing him for money. He stated he had been to the church for coal oil, needing it "to grease some rusty hinges", but did not get any at the church nor at Byers. He claimed the Byers' had been "bad friends" with him ever since he had convicted the Byers for selling liquor to a minor. He also claimed that after the second fire was out, he left with Foster (who drew water for the village - remember this was the period before water service was available in Hintonburg, so water had to be acquired and kept for emergencies), to go secure barrels for water for his house, having used all the water in his well on the first fires.

What appeared to be a slam-dunk for the prosecution somehow didn't work out that way. The jury came back at 9 p.m. that evening and 2-3 hours deliberation, and returned a verdict of not guilty, and Lewis was discharged!

Crazy shenanigans in a crazy era. I'm just thankful that newspaper records exist that can allow the story to be brought back to life 120 years later.

Ottawa Journal - February 14, 1896

Ottawa Journal - April 21, 1898

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