Fit to Be Tied ­Ontario's Murderous Past

Summer 2001 CSANews Issue 39  |  Posted date : Mar 09, 2007.Back to list

Contrary to popular opinion, Canadian history need not be boring! Two pithy collections of tales about our past have recently been released, and they are anything but dull. Castles and Kings, about Ontario mansions and the people who lived in them by Ron Brown, responds to the recent popularity of "historic home tours." Terry Boyle's Fit to Be Tied, on the other hand, delves into Ontario's murderous past and gives a Canadian slant to the macabre hype on capital punishment ignited by the recent execution of Timothy McVeigh.

In Fit to be Tied, Boyle reveals our inherent fascination with all the gory details of crime and punishment - particularly the punishment. Nowadays, we normally get our sanitized fix through television. Remember the non-stop O.J.
coverage? Our ancestors, on the other hand, appeared to enjoy nothing better than a dramatic trial followed by a violent and public retribution.

Both men and women would travel miles to witness a good old-fashioned hanging. In 1859, ten thousand people in Kingston gathered around the gallows to watch William King meet his maker. The more tasteful "chose to picnic a short way from the scene."

The population of Woodstock in 1890 was only 9,400, but 1,500 of those citizens crammed into the space in front of city hall in what was described as a circus-like atmosphere, to catch a glimpse of the notorious Reg Birchall on his way to court. He was a handsome devil and, for the first time in Canadian court history, the ladies turned out in full force (some of them even sent flowers!). The Birchall trial was also a first for Canadian newspapers, as direct telegraphic lines were set up to send the story to papers across Canada, the United States and overseas.

As well as going into depth regarding eight of Ontario's most notorious murder trials over the past 150 years, Boyle shares some fascinating legal trivia.

Fit to be Tied also includes court transcripts, historical photographs, "wanted" posters and even letters written by the condemned, adding a note of authenticity.

We go from crime and punishment to "Lives of the Rich and Famous" with Ron Brown's Castles & Kings. In telling the stories of 59 of Ontario's grandest houses, Brown also shares the stories of fortunes made and lost and the communities that grew around "The Kings" who dared to dream.

Some, such as Casa Loma, described by a contemporary critic as "a mix of 17th-century Scottish baronial and 20th Century Fox" do fit our image of what a castle should look like. Other more modest dwellings "earned their 'castle' title at the hands of derisive neighbours mocking the perceived status of the castle-owners."

Historian Brown really uses this historic house tour as a device to illustrate the remarkable progress from log shelters to the most opulent of conspicuous consumption. Along the way, he is not averse to sharing some salacious gossip, the eccentricities of some builders, and making acerbic observations about communities that do or do not value their historical heritage.

For instance, after describing the distinguished history of the beautiful Langdon Hall (built by a great-grandson of U.S. industrialist John Jacob Astor), Brown goes on to praise the village of Blair as a virtual 200-year-old 'time capsule'.

He applauds the community of Baden and the Township of Wilmot for taking a huge gamble in 1993 to purchase and restore the massive Italianate mansion known as Castle Kilbride.

Brantford, on the other hand, Brown denigrates as having a mixed record on heritage preservation. "While it has designated a number of historic homes, it has also allowed the loss of its magnificent city hall."

And then there's the gossip. For example, there's the bit about the builder of Toronto's Graydon Hall, financier Henry Rupert Bain.

Bain's marital situation took a strange twist in 1951, when he virtually switched wives with his best friend. Two years later, Bain died at the age of 54 and, in another odd twist, the courts awarded his estate to wife number one.

A few of the castles in this book are public or quasi-public, but most remain private homes. However, virtually all can be appreciated from roads or sidewalks. It would be a fun family project to tour around and see as many as possible. Give your grandchildren an appreciation of our historical heritage. It will be a lasting legacy.