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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Tragic homicide in Arthur Township in 1879

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

In the late 1870s, George Anticknap and his family resided on a small farm at the eastern edge of Arthur village. Over time, he gained a reputation as an eccentric fellow, and one prone to loud outbursts and threats.

Today he would be identified as a man either with mental problems or a brain tumour, but in the 1870s he simply co-existed as best he could with his family and community. His problems began in about 1870, and his bizarre behaviour gradually worsened over the years.

During his loud outbursts he sometimes threatened to kill his wife. Other times he vowed to take his own life; he had in fact tried to hang himself twice in 1878. The family feared what he might do, and kept knives and razors hidden from him when he displayed a fascination with cutting instruments.

George had been married to his wife Magdalene for about 30 years. One son, John, worked as a locomotive driver for the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway, and lived nearby with his wife Henrietta. A 17-year-old daughter, Maggie, was still at home. Two other sons, Bill and George Jr. had already left home. Isaac, the youngest child, was a Grade 3 student.

Due to bad legs, George walked with some difficulty in a wriggling motion, with the aid of a heavy cane. By the late 1870s he was a familiar figure to everyone in the area: his white hair disheveled, whiskers unshaven, wearing ragged clothes, and clomping about with his cane.

George was illiterate, but had some knowledge of the Bible, particularly Old Testament prophecy, which he sometimes quoted loudly. As his mental condition deteriorated, he sometimes carried around an illustration of Noah and the ark. He also acquired the habit of praying loudly every night.

George was particularly abusive first thing in the morning. In June 1879 he began rising early, at 5am or before. Usually he would quietly leave the house without eating any breakfast, and roam through the fields, returning sometime before noon.

On the morning of June 18, 1879, George was up and out of the house before anyone else arose. Magdalene said a few words to young Isaac before going to the barn to milk the cow at about 6am.

A short time later, Isaac went out to the barn to help with morning chores. He found his mother on the barn floor on her back, with blood pouring from her head. His first thought was that she had been kicked by the cow.

Isaac fled at once to the house to summon his sister, then ran to his brother’s house. John Anticknap rushed into Arthur to get a doctor, while Henrietta went back to the farm with Isaac.

With some struggling, Maggie and her friend Albina Lundy, who happened to be visiting the family for a few days, managed to get the wounded woman into the house and on a bed. She displayed no signs of consciousness, and her breath was heavily laboured.

Dr. Walter Henderson arrived at about 7:30am, and Dr. Edward Allan a few minutes later. There was nothing either could do. Magdalene Anticknap died at about 8am. By then, members of the family, and others who arrived on the scene, concluded the death was not the result of a kick from the cow. Near the body they discovered George’s axe, with blood and hair on it. And George was nowhere to be found.

By late morning George Moore, the county constable, was on the scene, and a group of 12 or 14 men was scouring the area for any sign of George. They found him huddled amid some shrubs, not far from his home, at around noon.

George offered no resistance when he was taken in a carriage to the lock-up in Arthur. In his pocket were some papers and a straight razor.

Early in the afternoon Dr. Johnson of Fergus, the county coroner, arrived in Arthur. He quickly arranged for an autopsy, rounded up a dozen jurors, and convened an inquest for the same evening.

The jurors heard evidence from 7pm until midnight. They heard testimony from members of the Anticknap family and Albina Lundy. They outlined their activities and actions earlier that morning. Maggie described some of her father’s loud outbursts and threats, and recalled her mother saying she would “go to the law” if George ever became physically violent.

The lengthiest testimony came from young Isaac. He was only 11, and had discovered his mother fatally injured, and saw her die two hours later that very morning. Now his father was the obvious suspect in her murder. Despite the trauma he was experiencing, he gave clear answers to all the questions, including various scenes of domestic turbulence over recent months.

The two doctors who described the injuries on Mrs. Anticknap’s head agreed that there was nothing medical science could have done for her. Both expressed doubts that the injuries could be the result of a kick from a cow. Neither had ever had George as a patient, but both were aware of his violent streak and his eccentric habits.

Drs. Allan and Henderson had not found time for their postmortem examination. They agreed to complete the task the following morning. Dr. Johnson called the inquest to reconvene at 3pm the next day, at Arthur’s drill shed.

The second session of the inquest attracted several hundred spectators - by then, news had travelled far and wide. There was a sensation when a constable brought in George Anticknap. His face twitched and he trembled, and he spoke constantly, repeating phrases such as “I know nothing about it” and “I would never hurt my wife.”

First to testify was his oldest son, John. He stated he had left home about 15 years earlier, and had never seen his father violent, but had heard about the incidents from his sister and brothers. He did say that his father “had not been in his right senses for some time.”

Next on the stand was George. His answers were rambling, and he ended each one with a declaration of his innocence. He claimed that his wife had urged him to hitch a ride on a passing wagon when he saw her milking a cow, and therefore knew nothing of her fatal injury.

Under further questioning, he denied all the allegations made by members of his family, and claimed he had not tried to hide from his pursuers. Asked about the razor in his pocket, he said he had carried it for six months “just for fun, and so that others could not use it.”

Further testimony came from some of the men who had searched for George, and from some neighbours.

The doctors then described the results of their autopsy that morning. Dr. Allan began by describing the two wounds to the head, which had been so forceful that splinters of the skull had penetrated into the brain.

The deceased had been perfectly healthy, other than a little congestion in the lungs. Dr. Allan believed the wounds, which were the cause of death, had been made by a blunt instrument such as an axe, and that it was “improbable” that they were the result of a kick from a cow or horse. Dr. Henderson agreed with all Dr. Allan’s statements.

Various other witnesses concluded the evidence. They could not agree on whether the stains on the axe were blood, or whether the hair on it was human or that of an animal.

The jury deliberated for a couple of hours, then returned with a finding that Magdalene had been murdered by her husband. The next morning, constables took George to the Guelph jail to await his trial at the fall assizes.

Judge Armour heard the case in October. If anything, George seemed more unstable, twitching constantly, perspiring profusely and interjecting comments and denials throughout the trial. Much of the evidence repeated that of the inquest the previous June, except that witnesses were more forthcoming in describing George’s outbursts and threats.

One new aspect to the case was George’s paranoia. For years he had believed that his wife had been involved in incestuous relationships with all his sons: John, Bill, and George Jr.

He spied on them all constantly, and had even drilled a hole from the attic into the bedrooms of the house so he could observe them.

Since the inquest, both Drs. Allan and Henderson had examined George several times, and as recently as the morning of the trial. Both thought he suffered from dangerous delusions, and could be capable of any sort of violent act, even though he was not entirely bereft of his reason. Dr. Henderson said he would expect violent acts from someone who was so delusional.

Guelph lawyer Alex Dunbar acted for George. He did not aggressively question any of the witnesses, and he declined to call any witnesses of his own.

The trial lasted about four hours. During Judge Armour’s charge to the jury, George muttered his disagreement with most of what the judge said. The jury took less than 30 minutes to return with a verdict: an acquittal on the grounds of insanity. The judge ordered George held in the jail until he could be placed in an institution for the criminally insane.

So ended one of the most tragic homicide cases in the history of the county. What is most striking, in looking at this case, is the primitive state of the medical knowledge of mental illness among the general public and doctors alike. Ignorance and lack of action resulted in the death of Magdalene, a ruined life for George and a tragedy for the Anticknap children, particularly young Isaac.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 18, 2005.


Vol 50 Issue 15


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Wellington North Guide 2017-2018


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