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The Rebel Executions of 1839

by Christopher Doty

reward poster"Who but a devil would derive any satisfaction from such a scene?"

The late 1830s were an anxious time for the small community of London in the British colony of Upper Canada. Following an economic depression in 1836, armed rebellion against the government had broken out in Toronto and Brantford. Although pathetically organized and quickly put down, these uprisings set the scene for one of the bloodiest times in the community's history.

By 1838 the rebel leaders had escaped to the United States where they recruited Americans eager to free the Canadian colonies from the yoke of Great Britain. The plan was to turn Upper Canada into an independent republic - one that would join the United States - and make its liberators rich in the process.

The last of these "liberations" was attempted at Windsor on December 4, 1838 when a small force of rebels and Americans armed with muskets, rifles, swords and pistols crossed the Detroit River. Before retreating they killed four militiamen, set the British barracks on fire, burned the steamer Thames and shot a black bystander who gave three cheers for the Queen. The force was later routed by the Essex Militia.

Forty four of the rebels were captured and another 25 killed. The militia commander, Colonel John Prince, later ordered the executions of four of the prisoners. The remainder were sent to London to stand trial.

sir george arthurAfter two years of civil unrest Sir George Arthur, the new Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, was determined to make an example of the prisoners. All of the captured rebels - 18 of them from the London area - were found guilty of treason by military court martial and sentenced to hang. A huge gallows was built at the front of the court house for the most intensive period of executions in London's history.

Hiram Benjamin Lynn of Michigan was hanged on January 7, 1839, followed by Daniel Davis Bedford of Norwich on January 11th and Albert Clark of New Hampshire on January 14th. All three men were in their 20s. Bedford's mother reportedly went insane over the loss of her son.

However, these initial hangings failed to produce the result Arthur wanted. The crowds at the executions were much smaller - and much less enthusiastic - than expected.

"A reason given for these executions is that the loyal portion of the country requires satisfaction for the injuries they have received," wrote Reverend William Proudfoot whose own nephew was on trial for treason. "What a savage set of beings these loyalists must be! Now what satisfaction can it give any man to see a man hanged; who but a devil would derive any satisfaction from such a scene?"

The three subsequent executions would back up Reverend Proudfoot's opinion.

The hanging of Cornelius Cunningham from Beachville began the second cycle on February 4th. Cunningham's final words sent him out with a flourish: "Let it be remembered that I die a martyr in the cause of liberty."

Two days later it was the turn of Joshua Gillean Doan, a member of a Quaker family from Sparta, and Amos Perley of Burford. One of the military judges who had condemned Perley was his own cousin.

"Think as little of my unhappy fate as you can; as from the love you bear me, I know too well how it must affect you," Doan wrote in his farewell letter to his wife. "I must say good-bye for the night, and may God protect you and my dear child, and give you fortitude to meet that coming eventů"

At their final meeting, Doan's hysterical wife had to be literally torn from her husband's arms by jail guards.

With the deaths of Doan and Perley, the mood of the population turned from unease to anger. "The effect of that on the populace was that they were afraid of another uprising," says Peter Smith of Museum London. "People were so fed up with the executions that the other twelve people condemned to death had their sentences commuted."

The remaining prisoners were allowed to live, but shipped off the brutal penal colony of Tasmania where, ironically, a hotel would be named after the lieutenant governor responsible for exiling them. Of the 13 Canadian prisoners, three would die within weeks of arrival.

Following the trial and executions of the rebels, many locals sympathetic to the rebels sold their property and moved to the United States while the British government fortified its military garrison in London as a safety measure. There would be no further threats to Southern Ontario until the Fenian raids of the 1860s.

In this respect, the harsh governership of Sir George Arthur was vindicated.

Click here for more information about the Upper Canada Rebellion