Historicist: The Assassination of George Brown
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Historicist: The Assassination of George Brown

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Illustration by Henri Julien, the Canadian Illustrated News, April 10, 1880.

Late afternoon, Thursday, March 25, 1880. The front page of the 5 p.m. edition of The Evening Telegram bore breaking news occurring at a rival newspaper that had been the subject of quickly spreading rumours over the past hour.

We stop the press to record one of the most dastardly and daring acts of violence and attempted murder ever perpetrated in this city. This afternoon, about 4:10 o’clock, an ex-employee of the Globe, named George Bennett, entered the Globe Office and met the Hon. George Brown and shot him with a revolver. Mr. Brown is at the present writing lying in the Globe office with physicians attending him.

So would mark the beginning of the end for a man whose life encompassed such roles as newspaper editor, political leader, and Father of Confederation. The assassination of George Brown was essentially a case of the victim being in the wrong place at the wrong time and a lesson on how not to handle an agitated former employee.

Left: Globe Office, 1877. Illustrated Toronto: Past and Present, J. Timperlake, Toronto: Peter A. Gross, 1877. Right: Illustration of George Bennett, The Evening Telegram, March 27, 1880.

George Bennett (born Dickson) had worked in The Globe’s engineering department for five years. Initially regarded as a sober, upstanding employee, within a few years he gained a reputation for frequently hitting the bottle and engaging in domestic disturbances with a woman who may or may not have legally been his wife. March 25, 1880 found him hanging around The Globe offices in a drunken state after having been fired shortly before for “intemperance,” as well as being out on bail after his spouse charged him with neglect. He was seen with the paper’s chief engineer around 2:30 p.m, who he called an enemy for, among other things, being subpoenaed in his court case. An hour later Bennett was found rambling in the press room, where the head of circulation informed him that strangers were not allowed on the premises. Bennett proceeded to rattle off his list of grievances, ran up and down from the basement several times in an agitated state, then briefly passed. Unbeknownst to anyone, Bennett carried in his pockets a pistol and a packet of letters outlining his grievances towards fellow employees he felt had wronged him and plans of revenge on them worthy of a modern school shooter, mostly threats to chop others up violently.

Hon. Geo[rge] Brown. Archives of Ontario, C 133-0-0-0-4.

Sometime after 4 p.m., Bennett made his way to George Brown’s private office. He knocked on Brown’s door, entered, then closed it behind him. He pressed a letter indicating the length of his employment at the paper upon Brown, urging the paper’s proprietor to sign it. Brown refused, urging Bennett to have the head of the engineering department do so. Bennett indicated this wasn’t possible, so an increasingly irritated Brown suggested that he go to the head of the treasury, who had all of the employment records. Bennett refused to go and urged Brown to “sign it, sign it.” As historian J.M.S. Careless noted in the biography Brown of The Globe, “Brown was impatient. He did not know the man, He did not know Bennett’s record of drunkenness, neglect of duties, and wife-beating, or that he was now out on bail after being arrested for non-support…the one thing Brown did know was that he had been needlessly disturbed by this unprepossessing creature, who had no doubt got what he deserved.”
Brown then noticed Bennett’s hand moving towards the pistol and thought “the little wretch might be meaning to shoot me.” A scuffle ensued, the results of which were reported in The Globe the following morning:

Yesterday afternoon one of the most seditious and dastardly attempts at murder ever made in this city took place in the private office of the Hon. George Brown in the Globe Building. Fortunately, owning mainly to Mr. Brown’s presence of mind and superior physical strength, the attempt was unsuccessful, the only results being a severe flesh wound to the thigh and the nervous prostration which is the inevitable result of such an encounter. Had the miscreant who made the murderous assault been a little more prompt in taking his aim, or had the pistol been of a different construction, the attempt could hardly have resulted so favourably, for he persisted in his efforts to effect his bloody purpose until he was overpowered and the weapon was wrenched from his grasp.

Other employees quickly rushed in to separate the two men. Police arrested Bennett, who was initially silent then indicated “I don’t know anything about it.” At the police station, he threatened an officer with “I’ll get even with you yet.” Globe staff temporarily closed the office as Torontonians rushed down to confirm rapidly spreading rumours and offer their best wishes to Brown. As the paper noted, “the effect upon the community was to create a general feeling of indignation. All condemned the cowardly and murderous attack. This feeling of condemnation was intensified when all the circumstances surrounding the affair came to be known, and when it was learned how little ground there was for so bloodthirsty an attempt to take life.” Other papers, including those who opposed Brown’s Liberal politics, offered their best wishes and played up Bennett’s mixed-blood background—The Evening Telegram noted he was “as dark as an octoroon.”

George Brown House, corner of Beverley and Baldwin streets. Photo: Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist

Initially Brown’s wound was treated as non-threatening and he continued business from his home at the corner of Beverley and Baldwin streets. He took the incident in stride, treating the wound as “trifling” and laughing at “the solicitude of those near him.” The first signs of infection appeared four days after the attack, which didn’t stop Brown from holding court at the paper’s annual shareholder meeting. As The Globe later noted, “very soon troublesome symptoms appeared. The nervous system became very much deranged, inflammation set in, the thigh swelled, and abscesses were formed in the region surrounding the wound. Three incisions were made, and the discharge was copious and continued till nearly the end of the illness.” Regular bulletins on Brown’s condition reflected the optimism of the doctors that he would recover. The battle took its toll on Brown and by May 7 his condition was rapidly deteriorating. At 2 a.m. on May 9, Brown died at the age of 61.
The following day’s edition of The Globe saw every column outlined with a thick black line and offered the following conclusion about its deceased proprietor:

He loved his country and laboured for her good; the objects he set before him were high, the plans he formed vast, and when he failed it was from no lack of courage or self-sacrifice on his part. The bed of death calls for other consolations than the praise of men, but it may be that his passing spirit was cheered by the thought that in the estimation of his fellow countrymen he had not lived altogether in vain.

An inquest into Brown’s death was quickly launched and Bennett was charged with murder. The case went to trial on June 22 and after two hours of deliberation the jury came back with a guilty verdict. When asked for comment before sentencing, Bennett replied, “I have only to say that I have not willfully committed this crime.” Sentenced to hang, Bennett treated his fate flippantly, which observers felt was a sign that he was tired with life and ready to die. When brought to the scaffold at the Toronto Gaol on July 23, Bennett spoke his final words clearly and firmly and seemed to pin responsibility for Brown’s death on the deceased:

He has gone to his death through an oversight on my part. It was a foolish thing for me to have drawn the revolver, but I was in liquor or I would have never done it. I could not control the event. I went there purely on a matter of business and my business was very simple and very plain. The result was as it was. I am prepared to die.

The execution took place at 7:50 a.m. The Globe reported that “the arrangements were thorough and the ceremony was carried out without any of those terrible hitches which too often occur to intensify the horror which must necessarily attend an execution. Death was painless and easy.” His final letters warned young men against the dangers of temptation and thanked jail officials for their hospitality.

Grave of George Brown at the Necropolis. Photo: Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist

As for Brown, his funeral procession took place on May 12. The route started at his home and wound its way along Beverley, College, Yonge, Carlton, Parliament, and Winchester before arriving at his final resting place in the southwest end of the Necropolis.
Additional material from the March 26, 1880, May 10, 1880, June 23, 1880, and July 24, 1880 editions of The Globe, the March 25, 1880 and March 27, 1880 editions of The Evening Telegram, and Brown of The Globe by J.M.S. Careless (Toronto: Macmillan, 1963).