Historicist: The Real Bandits in the Valley
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Historicist: The Real Bandits in the Valley

The Winchester Street bridge in 1894. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 200, Series 376, File 1, Item 51b.

As I write, Bandits in the Valley, a short, whimsical opera set in mid-19th century Toronto is playing to packed audiences gathered at Todmorden Mills in the Don Valley. Bandits have always been the stuff of opera and of pop drama. Yet once upon a time, there really were bandits in the Don Valley. We haven’t a plethora of sources here, and crime stories especially attract a good bit of conjecture and elaboration in their telling. So here is one story, cobbled together from the sources listed below. It’s a story about one of those gangs, a real-life tale demonstrating the gap between public memory and history and the ease with which memory overshadows fact.

A man named James Brown served unwillingly as the subject of a historical moment. His was Toronto’s last public hanging. It happened on March 10, 1862. Judge and jury considered Brown the leader of the notorious Brooks Bush Gang that had operated out of the Don Valley. The gang had made the mistake of murdering a notable private citizen and member of provincial parliament, John Sheridan Hogan, a few years before. The fiery member of the provincial legislative assembly had struggled with the gang as they sought to rob him. In the ensuing fracas Hogan was killed by a rock slung in a handkerchief and whirled about like a blackjack.

Hogan’s murder (it made the New York Times) transformed what had been a regional nuisance—Leslieville, according to local historian Louise Doucette, was sadly under-policed— into a civic terror. The public became terrified of the Don Valley and the supposedly bloodthirsty gang that lurked there. This also provoked the manhunt that had led to the apprehension of gang members and the trial and execution of Brown. He went to his death in the fashion of many: vociferously proclaiming his own innocence. Yes, he had been a bad man, he admitted, but not the bad man who had murdered Hogan.

The Adelaide Street courthouse, now a Terroni restaurant, in 2013. Photo by Wai photo album in the Torontoist Flickr pool.

The execution was staged instead in front of the Adelaide Street courthouse. Nonetheless, the murder and its aftermath remain a Don Valley story, a story that demonstrates how a stretch of territory that is now half manicured parkway and half urbanized bush was once a kind of refuge from the law, a place of deforested emptiness and potential terror. Chris Bateman’s Historicist article of July 9, 2016, recounts how even in the 1930s, Toronto’s ravines were often viewed as the refuge of criminals who could emerge from their lairs to destroy a vulnerable citizenry. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) had struck a widespread chord of fear when it divided the future between the heedless Eloi, who lived above ground in comfort, and the savage Morlocks, who emerged at will from their underground dwellings to feed upon the feckless. Some version of that bandit-haunted country of the mind long lingered in the imagination of one of Toronto’s best-known writers, including Ernest Thompson Seton (1860–1946), the Toronto-born-and-raised naturalist and writer who went on to help found the Boy Scouts, among other notable accomplishments.

Toronto is not well known for its criminal gangs. You have to dig a little to find information on the Brook’s Bush Gang, which was named after a 40-acre wood patch on the edge of the Don, in what is now Leslieville. The gang (suitably, from a dime novelist’s perspective) had its headquarters in an abandoned barn that lay in a clearing in that wood patch. It seems a far cry from the Hell’s Angels fortified headquarters on Eastern Avenue that the cops raided and confiscated in 2007. But still, the gang “terrorized the neighbourhood about the Don Bridge” as an antiquarian put it.

The Hotel Winchester at the corner of Winchester and Parliament in 1972. Photo by Jean-François Després from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 31, Item 17.

The gang might not even have veered off from local vandalism and crime had not fate put Hogan on the same bridge with them that December night. I have heard it said by a onetime Cabbagetown neighbour that the corner of Winchester and Parliament, close to the old wooden bridge over the Don, has always supported a pub: you either needed to have a heartening drink to get you over the bridge or a shot in thanksgiving for having made it safely from the other side. Hogan had probably had several.

A six-foot-tall, 44-year-old, large-living Irish journalist and politician (his contemporaries called him “brilliant” and “dazzling” ), he had risen to prominence in a young country. The government of Canada West awarded him a prize and reprinted his “Canada: an essay” that he had penned for the 1855 universal exposition in Paris. Hogan as they delicately put in back in the day, led an “irregular life.” Which is to say that he had married the respectable Madeline Wharton Metcalf at Christ’s Church Cathedral (Anglican) in Hamilton in 1847 but now resided at Toronto’s Rossin House hotel, “intermittently supporting a Mrs. Laurie and her children,” as Elizabeth Waterston’s authoritative entry on Hogan in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography puts it. Laurie’s skills stretched to the sewing room. On the night of Hogan’s disappearance, he wore a shirt that she had mended with a patch, and his underdrawers were held up with a safety pin that she had furnished. Those home repairs served later to identify his corpse.

Witness accounts vary, but they all agree that he was spotted on the Don bridge that night of December 1, 1859, in the company of one Jane Ward, later identified as a Brooks Bush Gang member. Whether or not he had been joyously waving around a wad of cash, as some say, certainly Ward relieved him of $150, then a hefty sum (around $2,000 in today’s currency) before he was killed.

Following his murder with a rock, Hogan’s body was tied down with stones, including the one used to kill him, and tossed into the stream below. It drifted in the Don’s currents for 15 months while town gossip attributed Hogan’s disappearance to various lurid misadventures and escapades. Two fishermen spotted what was left of Hogan at the Don’s mouth in March 1861, and the torso was by that point in such a condition that Laurie’s handiwork on his clothes became the chief means of identifying it.

The Don River at the entrance to the Rosedale Creek sewer on February 24, 1899. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 200, Series 376, File 2, Item 19.

Eventually, informants brought various members of the gang to the attention of the police. Another female gang member, Ellen McGillock, a “tall, strapping” figure of six feet with a visage marked by smallpox scars, may have been on the bridge during the incident along with another gangster, John Sharrick. McGillock and Ward frequently railed and cursed at each other in the dock, as each strove to claim her own innocence and the other’s guilt. The two women and Sharrick escaped the jury’s condemnation through a concoction of alibis, but Brown’s starring role in the gang assured him of being found guilty. Someone had to hang, and so he did, the last one to do so in the general-public’s eye. (Later executions would be held in the courtyard of the Don Jail before more select audiences.)

(Left: a headline from the Globe on April 1, 1861, about Ellen McGillock’s testimony about Hogan’s murder. The newspaper covered the trial extensively.)

Back now to the Don Valley, but years after Browne’s demise. The Ladies’ Home Journal serialized Seton’s Two Little Savages in 1903. In retrospect, the boyish adventure story marks the start of the process through which the young and remote Ernest Evan Thompson reinvented himself into the storytelling naturalist, wilderness champion, popular illustrator, lecturer, and partial founder of the Boy Scouts of America. In Two Little Savages, the semi-autobiographical, adolescent hero, Yan, takes leave from the prisons of school and family as he builds himself a shack in the Don Valley. That undeveloped expanse of new growth and trailless brush—despite the presence of a brickworks at one end of it—becomes an escape he calls Glenyan.

Todmorden Mills in the Don Valley on a winter night in 2014. Photo by Kiril Strax in the Torontoist Flickr pool.

Then disaster strikes. Immobilized by illness caused by eating one of the strange plants he finds in the valley, Yan has to confess to his horrified parents where he has been wandering. He is punished by his parents for his evasion of the bounds of proper society and then endures a severe beating at the hands of a teacher for a prank he had committed. Yan later returns to Glenyan and the magic kingdom he had made there.

Then comes a greater disaster: he arrives at Glenyan to find three tramps occupying his shanty, playing cards, and drinking from a bottle. Some necklaces he fashioned from pebbles serve as poker chips; the bow he crafted has been broken up for campfire kindling. The men had even “defiled” his cabin, by using a nearby creek as a toilet. In his rage and pain, he flees to “a far and quiet corner, and there flung himself down and sobbed in grief and rage—he would have killed them if he could.” The incident seems a paradigm of a sensitive boy’s loss of innocence as he comes to understand just how savage a spot the world now is.

Then, much later, in the pages of By A Thousand Campfires, a considerably less buttoned-up account of his adventures recounted to his adoring second wife (and perhaps embellished by her—Julia Seton never quite makes it clear where her husband’s stories left off and her own version of them begins) Seton loosens his imagination to dig away at the public past surrounding his personal one. He discloses what he declares as the genuine identity of the vandalizing tramps. They were members, he solemnly declares to Julia, of the dreaded Brooks Bush Gang! No matter that those villains had actually been dispersed within a year of his birth. Disregard the fact that their putative leader had been hanged by the time Seton was two. The notoriety of those miscreants, obviously preserved in the whispering public memory of Seton’s youth, had been sufficient for their name to lodge in the corners of his imagination. It’s as if Donald Trump blamed his distrust of Mexicans on Pancho Villa.

What we can say for certain is that faded public memory of the Brooks Bush Gang found its way into the imaginative recesses of one Toronto writer’s treatment of the spot that he had long ago idealized as he wandered along the Don Valley. For Seton, the gang had leapt from memory into history.

Additional material from: Timothy J. Colton, Big Daddy. Frederick G. Gardiner and the Building of Metropolitan Toronto (1980); Joanne Doucette, Leslieville: Pigs, Flowers and Bricks (2016); Ernest Thompson Seton, Two Little Savages; being the adventures of two boys who lived as Indians, and what they learned, with over two hundred drawings (1903, 1959); Julia M. Seton, By A Thousand Campfires. Nature Notes and Extracts from the Life and Unpublished Journals of Ernest Thompson Seton (1967); W. Stewart Wallace, Murders and mysteries (1931); Elizabeth Waterston, “John Sheridan Hogan,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.