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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Provincial judge had no sympathy for Fred Sturdy

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.


This week’s column continues the saga of Fred Sturdy, the middle-aged widowed Guelph house painter who stalked, abducted and then forced into marriage young Annie Carr, a niece of County Sheriff Peter Gow.

Following their appearance on Aug. 6 and 7, 1877 at the preliminary hearing in Guelph’s magistrate’s court, Fred Sturdy and his three accomplices, son Joseph, daughter Louisa and employee Bill Lowes, were all held in the county jail at Guelph. There was no request for bail.

The four had almost 12 weeks to wait for their trial date at the fall assizes. They might have played a daily rubber of euchre while they killed time, but Fred Sturdy kept himself occupied with schemes to extricate himself from the mess he was in.

A model citizen for years, many in Guelph simply could not believe that Fred was guilty of the serious charges he faced. He had a constant stream of visitors and, by mid-September, there were rumours that he planned a break from the hoosegow. Apparently, he discussed the possibility with everyone who visited him. And some of his visitors simply could not keep their lips buttoned.

On Sept. 27 an unidentified Guelph citizen stopped at the jail and had a chat with the keeper, George Mercer. He advised the jailer to keep a sharp eye on Sturdy, and also on Sturdy’s cellmate, Matt Jeffries, who was serving a short sentence for stealing a pocket watch. Young Jeffries had a reputation for being especially clever and devious, and the story was that he and Sturdy were in league to make a break from the jail. Sturdy, apparently, had promised Jeffries a cash payment for his assistance.

Later that day Mercer told Sheriff Peter Gow about the informant, and Gow ordered that Sturdy and Jeffries be moved to cells on opposite sides of the jail. Because he had a personal interest in the Sturdy case (Annie Carr was his niece), Sheriff Gow took the report very seriously. He advised provincial authorities of the possibility of a jail break, and then ordered a full search of the entire building, leading it personally.

Mercer, Gow and several others spent more than three hours in the search, looking in every crevice and possible hiding place. Eventually they hit pay dirt.

Sturdy’s stream of visitors had included some smugglers. Under a table outside his cell, used to hold plates of food at meal time, they found a temporary shelf, and on it two hacksaw frames, a quantity of putty, some paint, and a couple of small brushes. The saws were useless without blades, but those turned up a few minutes later - 10 of them, secreted in a heating register in Sturdy’s first cell.

Following those discoveries, Matt Jeffries could see nothing to be gained from further assistance to Sturdy. He told jail keeper George Mercer everything he had seen. According to Jeffries, one of Sturdy’s regular visitors brought him pies and tobacco. These he used to bribe other prisoners, especially those on the corridor below his cell. Those prisoners were all held for minor offences, and they worked in the jail yard each day.

Every day, one of Sturdy’s friends passed a small parcel into the jail yard at 4pm. The prisoner in the cell below Sturdy would pick it up. Later, Sturdy would lower a piece of string through the duct, and the prisoner below would tie the parcel to it. Then Sturdy would lower a couple of plugs of tobacco, or some other gift, to the man below, saying “Here boys, this is something for you.” The tobacco was then passed around. Every prisoner in the jail was at least aware of what was going on.

Jeffries claimed that Sturdy had offered him $500 to saw through two of the bars in the window, hiding the cuts with the putty and paint until the entire job was completed.

He said he doubted Sturdy would honour the agreement, and defended himself by saying, “I am not to blame for what has happened, as I could not keep my eyes shut.”

Jeffries said that Sturdy had an ingenious scheme for communicating with his friends on the outside. He asked that he be allowed to send out bills for work he had done as a painter. He would write out fictitious accounts, and at the bottom add his instructions using onion juice. The message would be visible only when the paper was held up to the light.

When the bars were sawed through, Sturdy intended to jump out the window, and then scale the outer wall with the help of an outside accomplice. He was relying on the fact that only one or two guards were at the jail at any one time, and that the construction of the eight-sided jail and the wall made it very difficult to watch everything.

From the discovery of the escape attempt until the beginning of the trial some seven weeks later, George Mercer arranged for a guard to be within sight of Sturdy 24 hours a day. He was not merely afraid of an escape attempt. Along with the tools for the break, Sturdy’s friends had smuggled in a quantity of charcoal. Matt Jeffries said if the escape proved unsuccessful, Sturdy planned to hang sheets over the door and window of his cell, set fire to the charcoal, and hope to perish from the fumes.

During the weeks leading up to the trial, there were further rumours that Fred Sturdy intended to commit suicide rather than face a long term in the penitentiary. Mercer and his guards kept a careful watch. They reported no further discoveries.

Justice Morrison opened the fall session of the assizes on Oct. 22. In his preliminary remarks he commented on the seriousness of the charges in the Sturdy case, the nature of the charges and the decisions the jurors would need to make based on the evidence. The judge dealt with minor cases first.

The Sturdy case came up on Oct. 25, and continued into the following two days, making it a lengthy trial by the standards of that day. John O’Donohue of Toronto assisted Crown Attorney Henry Peterson. Malcolm Cameron, one of the high-profile lawyers of the day, assisted A.H. McDonald in defending Sturdy and his children.

Annie Carr was the first witness, and her testimony in answer to the questions of O’Donohue and Peterson virtually duplicated what she had said at the earlier inquiry. The defence relied on one witness, Rev. A.H. Fletcher, who had performed the allegedly forced wedding of Sturdy and Annie. He said there was nothing in Annie’s conduct to show that she had been forced or coerced into the marriage, and that she smiled when she signed the wedding certificate. On cross examination, he admitted to Peterson that Annie said nothing the whole time, but merely nodded to questions asked of her, that she looked weak and pale, and that there were no expressions of endearment of any kind between Annie and Sturdy.

In his summary to the jury, Cameron stressed his contention that Annie had entered the marriage of her own free will, and that Sturdy had acted “out of uncontrollable passion and affection.” He was careful to gloss over the circumstances of the abduction, and employing his noted eloquence he cast Sturdy’s actions in the most favourable light possible.

Judge Morrison, in his address to the jury, dwelt at length on the strong evidence against Sturdy, and the seriousness of his crimes.

The jury returned from its deliberations after less than an hour. Their verdict: Fred Sturdy and his daughter Louisa were guilty; son Joseph and employee Bill Lowes not guilty. It being a Saturday, Justice Morrison reserved sentencing to Monday morning, Oct. 29.

As he had at the earlier inquiry, A.H. McDonald objected to sentence being passed on the grounds that a wife could not testify against her husband. Justice Morrison quickly brushed that argument aside. When asked by the Justice if he had anything to say, Sturdy admitted that he was guilty of the abduction, but not “of the gross accessories with which Miss Carr has charged me.”

Justice Morrison replied  he heartily concurred in the verdict, and Sturdy’s actions were not committed in passion, but were “coolly planned, and carried out with deliberation.” He believed that this was the first crime of the kind ever committed in Ontario, and he intended to pass a sentence that would serve “as a lesson to others.” After a lengthy and stern lecture to Sturdy, he announced his decision: ten years in the Kingston Penitentiary.

Before hearing her sentence, Louisa Sturdy claimed that Annie had been a perfectly willing passenger on the trip to Hamilton, despite her father’s earlier admission that he had forcibly abducted Annie. Justice Morrison told Louisa that she was “almost as much to blame as your father.” He said he had received a petition signed by hundreds of Guelph citizens, praying for a lenient sentence in her case. As well, he recognized that Louisa was responsible for the care of her siblings, the youngest of whom was a two-year-old boy. His decision: two years in the penitentiary.

The following afternoon, a small crowd watched as Constable Armstrong and an assistant led the pair onto the 4:45pm train to Kingston, Louisa leaning on her father’s arm. With the departure of the train, what was perhaps the most sensational of 19th century criminal cases came to a close.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on July 22, 2005.


Vol 52 Issue 08


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