The Hogan Case

The story of the murder that brought disaster to the once notorious Brooks' Bush gang of Toronto

W. STEWART WALLACE August 15 1931

The Hogan Case

The story of the murder that brought disaster to the once notorious Brooks' Bush gang of Toronto

W. STEWART WALLACE August 15 1931

The Hogan Case

The story of the murder that brought disaster to the once notorious Brooks' Bush gang of Toronto


THERE were several things that contributed to make the murder of John Sheridan Hogan, on the outskirts of Toronto, Canada West, on the evening of December 1, 1859, a cause célèbre.

First of all, there was the element of mystery surrounding it. From the hour of half-past eight on the evening of December 1, 1859, when Hogan walked out of the house of Mrs. Laurie on Teraulay Street, until the discovery of his body near the mouth of the Don River, sixteen months later, no clue was found which threw any light on the reason for his disappearance, and the most fanciful theories were advanced to account for it. There is to this day, moreover, some mystery attaching to the motive which took Hogan to the place of the murder; and we cannot even yet be sure as to all the circumstances of the murder, for there was at the subsequent trials a striking conflict of testimony, on the part of even the most reputable witnesses, which is difficult to explain.

A second factor which lent notoriety to the case was the amazing light it threw on the life of the underworld of Toronto three-quarters of a century ago. A distinguished English historian once said that if he wished to study the social conditions prevailing in a given country at a given time, he would begin with the murder trials; and one could almost believe tha't he had the trial of the murderers of John Sheridan Hogan in mind when he made this remark.

Lastly, there was the personality of Hogan himself. One of those brilliant Irishmen who played such a dazzling part in Canadian politics and journalism in the nineteenth century, he had risen to prominence from obscure beginnings. He had come to Canada in 1827 at the tender age of twelve years, and had lived, it seems, for several years with an uncle in Toronto, then known as "Muddy York.” While still in his ’teens, he had run away from this home and had begun life on his own account as a newsboy in the employ of the Canadian Wesleyan, one of the earliest newspapers published in the neighboring town of Hamilton. He graduated from newsboy to printer, and from printer to journalist; and about 1855 he became the editor-in-chief of the British Colonist, one of the leading newspapers of that day in Toronto. This position he retained until only a short time before his death, when he resigned because of a disagreement with the proprietors of the paper over a question of policy. While still editor of the Colonist, he was elected in 1857 to represent the county of Grey in the parliament of Old Canada as a Reformer; and he took his seat in the Assembly at the same time as Oliver Mowat,

later the prime minister of Ontario, and Thomas D’Arcy McGee, the apostle of Canadian national unity, who was, like Hogan, destined to meet a violent death. Mowat, McGee and Hogan, indeed, were regarded as the three coming men among the back-benchers on the Reform side of the House in the Assembly of 1857.

Hogan And the “Caroline” Affair

TWICE already before his disappearance, Hogan had achieved prominence in the news of the day. In 1842 he had been twice arrested in Rochester, on the American side of Lake Ontario, on a charge of complicity in the “cutting-out” of the steamboat Caroline on the American side of the Niagara River in 1838—an incident which threatened international complications. He was acquitted on both occasions of the charge preferred against him; and he seems, indeed, to have had nothing to do with the destruction of the Caroline. But his arrest and trial in a case which threatened to disrupt the peaceful relations between Canada and the United States brought the budding journalist very much into the limelight of publicity. Later, in 1855, he again brought himself before the public eye by winning the prize offered by the Canadian committee appointed in connection with the great Paris Exhibition of that year for the best essay on Canada. This essay was published by the Canadian government under the title Canada : A Prize Essay, and is today frequently met with in second-hand book catalogues, for apparently a large edition of it was printed. It was written in a pure and vigorous style, and shows its author to have been a man of good literary gifts as well as a well-informed student of Canadian affairs.

In appearance, John Sheridan Hogan was a well-set-up man of fully six feet in height, spare and agile in habit. At the time of his death he was only forty-four years of age and was at the height of his powers. He was unmarried and seems to have led a somewhat irregular life. In Toronto, he occupied a room at the Rossin House, one of the leading hostelries of the city; but he had a bien-aimée in the person of a Mrs. Laurie, who lived with her children in a house on Teraulay (now Bay) Street, and with her he occasionally stayed. When in funds, he seems to have contributed sporadically to her support.

On November 30, 1859, Hogan went to pay one of his periodical visits to Mrs. Laurie, and he stayed with her until the evening of the following day, December 1. These

dates were fixed afterward by Mrs. Laurie with reasonable certainty, since Hogan had told her that he had attended the day before the funeral of Sir James Macaulay, which occurred on November 29. The relations between Mrs. Laurie and Hogan seem to have had a somewhat domestic character. It later appeared in evidence that, while he stayed with her, she sewed a patch on his shirt-band and even went so far as to provide him with a safety-pin to pin up his undergarments which were too large for him. She would seem, moreover, to have exercised over him a good influence; for though he was. like so many of the journalists and politicians of his day, not strictly temperate, she testified that he had had only one glass of whisky before leaving her house on the fateful first of December.

Hogan left Mrs. Laurie’s house about half-past eight on the evening of December 1. He had told her, earlier in the evening, that he had to go to the office of the British Colonist to see Samuel Thompson, the new editor of the paper, whose Reminiscences are such a valuable contribution to the history of the period. Half-past eight came before he noticed how quickly time had passed; and Mrs. Laurie urged him to stay for the night, since it was already so late. But Hogan declined the invitation, and putting on his greatcoat, sallied forth into the night.

A Mysterious Disappearance

NEVER again did Mrs. Laurie see him alive. He vanished into the night, never to reappear. As time passed, and she heard nothing of him, she was no doubt perplexed and then alarmed. But she naturally hesitated under the circumstances about going to the police, and did nothing. It so happened that Hogan had then no relatives or close associates in Toronto who might be concerned about his disappearance; and his movements were so erratic that the manager of the Rossin House apparently thought little of his absence. Over two months elapsed before questions began to be asked about him; and then, suddenly, it dawned on people’s minds that he had disappeared. The police were notified, and paragraphs began to appear in the newspapers about him. The public was faced with the intriguing problem; What had happened to him?

The disappearance of a member of the Legislative Assembly naturally aroused interest, and the most vigorous efforts were put forward to ascertain his whereabouts. It was discovered that his finances were at a low ebb. and it was suggested that he had absconded. As is usual in such cases, he was reported to have been seen in many places, at widely different points of the compass. But every report

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when investigated was proved to be without foundation. Every “lead” ended in a blind alley. It became clear that if he had disappeared for reasons of his own, he had done so most effectively; and there were those who began to lean toward the hypothesis of misadventure or foul play. With regard to the latter hypothesis, there was the difficulty that there was no one known who was so inimical to Hogan that he would be willing to take his life; and that, even after the lapse of some time, there was no trace of the body of John Sheridan Hogan to be found.

It was not until March 30, 1861, sixteen months after Hogan’s disappearance, that some men fishing near the mouth of the Don River, to the east of Toronto, spied what seemed to be a human body awash by the shore of a small delta. They succeeded in towing the body to the shore of the mainland, and then sent for the police. The body they had found was a gruesome spectacle. The upper part was almost denuded of flesh, and the clothing consisted only of the tattered remnants of underclothes, a shirt, a dark coat, and trousers. There was no waistcoat and one boot was missing.

It did not take the police long to identify the body as that of Hogan. Mrs. Laurie said that if the body was that of Hogan, the police would discover a patch on the shirtband and a safety-pin in a cleat of the underdrawers; and these marks of identification were actually found. Hogan's tailor, moreover, identified the coat as one he had made for the dead man; and his bootmaker was virtually certain that the boot found on the body was one of a pair that he had made to Hogan’s order. An inquest was held, and sufficient evidence was taken to permit the body to be buried. Then the inquest was adjourned until the police could make a fuller investigation.

The speed with which the police acted was amazing, especially when one remembers that the police force of Toronto at that time was comparatively small and inadequate. The fact that the body was found near the mouth of the Don River, and had probably been washed down by the spring floods, evidently suggested to the police a possible hypothesis. There had been to the east of the Don River for many months previously a gang of desperadoes known as the Brooks’ Bush gang. These outlaws, among whom were numbered both men and women of the lowest standing in the social scale, had infested a forty-acre wood-lot known as Brooks’ Bush, and had had their headquarters in a deserted barn in a clearing in the heart of the forest. Being outside the city limits, they had been fairly free from molestation by the city police; but they had terrorized the neighborhood about the Don Bridge, and it is clear that the police hazarded a guess that they had something to do with the disappearance of John Sheridan Hogan.

A detective named Colgan, attached to the Toronto police force, took occasion, a day or so after the discovery of Hogan’s body, to visit, in a clapboarded house in one of the poorer parts of Toronto, a young woman named Ellen McGilloch who was known to have been a member of the Brooks’ Bush gang. Ellen McGilloch’s history is a social document which throws a flood of light on the conditions of that time. Though only twenty-three years of age, she had been “on the street” for four years; and had, prior to that period, been married and deserted by her husband. She was a tall, strapping girl, and would have been attractive had her face not been scarred by smallpox. She had often been in the police court, but the police magistrate afterward testified that he had always found her frank and truthful. She had sunk so low, perchance, that the only way she could keep her selfrespect was by telling the truth.

From her the detective, by clever diplomacy, obtained an admission of the fact that she knew something about the death of John Sheridan Hogan; and eventually, by

promising her the immunity accorded often to witnesses for the Crown, the police got from her her version of what actually happened to Hogan on the night of December 1,1859.

The Fight on the Bridge

T—TER story was that, on the evening in -*■ -L question, she. with Jane Ward, another member of the Brooks’ Bush gang, and several male members of the gang, had crossed the Don Bridge on their way into Toronto when they met John Sheridan Hogan. Ellen McGilloch and Jane Ward spoke to him, and Ellen McGilloch suggested later that she herself was on friendly terms with him; but he apparently ignored her, according to her evidence, and, linking arms with Jane Ward, a small and rather sharp-featured woman, walked off with her toward the bridge. By the time the two reached the bridge, Jane Ward had succeeded in relieving him of the money he had on his person, amounting to about $150; and when he strove to recover it, he was set upon by the male members of the gang, notable among whom were, she said, James Brown and John Sherrick, as well as two men who had since died in hospital from the effects of exposure and debauchery. A struggle took place, during which Hogan was severely beaten up, while he lay on the bridge, was despoiled of his greatcoat and waistcoat and all his valuables, and was finally hoisted over the railing of the bridge into the Don River after his feet had been pinned together and a stone perhaps tied to them. While this struggle had been going on, Ellen McGilloch had, according to her own evidence, been seated on a railing, hidden by one of the uprights on the opposite side of the bridge.

Jane Ward and James Brown, with several other members of the Brooks’ Bush gang, were promptly taken into custody. Later, John Sherrick was found to be serving a term in the Kingston penitentiary and was also charged with complicity in the murder. These three prisoners were arraigned before the police magistrate of Toronto, George Gurnett, an old-fashioned Tory who dated back to the Family Compact days in Upper Canada; and on April 20, 1861, they were committed to stand trial at the ensuing assizes.

In the police court proceedings there were several dramatic episodes. As Ellen McGilloch took the oath as a witness, Jane Ward rose in the dock and called down on her head the following curse;

“Oh, Lord God in Heaven, this day send down on Ellen McGilloch, and if I am guilty may God punish me, and if you are guilty of the false oath you have taken, may God bring it down this day. Oh, Ellen McGillcch, you will never get over this as long as you live. Oh, Lord in Heaven ...” Here the curse trailed off in hysterical sobbing.

Ellen McGilloch gave her evidence very much as she had given it to the police, and no fewer than two witnesses were adduced who corroborated at least part of her story. The first of these was a dissipated youth, named Maurice Malone, who came of respectable parentage but had apparently entered into relations with some of the members of the Brooks’ Bush gang. He confessed to having been on the Don Bridge on the night of the murder—where he had apparently made an assignation with Ellen McGilloch—and to have witnessed the first part of the struggle between Hogan and his assailants, though he was not at the time aware of Hogan’s identity. Realizing that there was trouble afoot he had decamped in some haste, leaving the fair Ellen where she sat ; but he had seen enough to corroborate the fact that an assault had taken place on the Don Bridge on the night in question.

The other witness who partially corroborated Ellen McGilloch’s evidence was a venerable and respected physician who lived on King Street, near the Don Bridge, Dr. T. C. Gamble. Dr. Gamble was a

member of one of the best-known families in Toronto, and his appearance in the witnessbox immeasurably strengthened the case for the prosecution. On the afternoon of December 1, 1859, he had, as appeared from his engagement book, visited a patient at a farmhouse east of the Don. He had then paid a friendly call on a neighboring family and had stayed for the evening meal. While crossing the Don Bridge on his way home, he had observed a scuffle in progress on the bridge, but, being an old man, had not ventured to interfere. At a distance of two or three hundred yards from the bridge he had stopped in conversation with a neighbor, and he had seen a man—possibly Maurice Malone—run past him at the double. He was even under the impression that he had heard the sound of John Sheridan Hogan’s body falling into the waters of the Don River.

There were, moreover, two circumstances which were established in evidence which went to substantiate the main outlines of Ellen McGilloch’s story. In the first place, it was proved that Hogan’s waistcoat had been found in the possession of an associate of the Brooks’ Bush gang, though his greatcoat was never found. In the second place, it was shown that someone had attempted to obliterate traces of the crime. Ellen McGilloch had testified that James Brown had returned to the Don Bridge on the morning of December 2, 1859, and, finding bloodstains on the railing of the bridge, had whittled them away. She had pointed out to the police the place on the railing which had been whittled away; and the police, finding some cracks in the wood where the blood might have seeped, removed a section of the railing and sent it to Professor Croft, of the University of Toronto, for analysis. Professor Croft reported that he had found in the cracks of the wood traces of blood, though whether it was the blood of a human being or of an animal he was unable to say.

The prisoners were not, at the Police Court enquiry, represented by counsel; and they themselves cross-questioned the witnesses. Jane Ward’s examination of Ellen McGilloch was highly acrimonious, and the magistrate had to exercise all his authority to prevent the proceedings from degenerating into a catfight. Even Dr. Gamble was subjected to the cross-examination of the prisoners, though he more than held his own. He had, in evidence, identified James Brown, who had a repulsive, cancerous nose, as one of those he had seen on the Don Bridge. Brown vehemently denied that Dr. Gamble had ever seen him before.

“Oh, yes, I have,” rejoined the doctor, dryly. “Anyone who has seen that nose of yours is not likely to forget it.”

A Complicated Case

'""PIJE prisoners came up for trial at the Spring Assizes in Toronto only a few days later, on April 29, before Chief Justice Sir John Beverley Robinson. The prosecution was entrusted to a well-known lawyer of that period, Henry Eccles, Q.C., assisted by the Crown Attorney, Richard Dempsey. Unfortunately for the Crown, Jane Ward and John Sherrick were first placed in the dock together. The evidence against Jane Ward was fairly conclusive, since Dr. Gamble had testified to the presence of a woman among the assailants of John Sheridan Hogan, and to this extent had corroborated the evidence of Ellen McGilloch. But the charge against Sherrick

rested on the unsupported testimony of Ellen McGilloch alone; and it was shown that Sherrick had been a former lover of Ellen McGilloch but had broken with her. Sherrick, moreover, produced during the trial witnesses of unimpeachable character to prove that on December 1, 1859, he had been working for a farmer in the county of Simcoe, over fifty miles north of Toronto, and could not, therefore, have been at the Don Bridge on the evening of that day.

The case for the prosecution was weakened also by the fact that a Crown witness swore that John Sheridan Hogan had been with him about midnight on the evening of December 1, 1859. This witness, who had met Hogan at the house of a mutual friend, had found him to be “several sheets in the wind,” and had offered to take him home to his hotel. Hogan had escaped from him, and had been recaptured while embracing a tree at the corner of Bay and King Streets. Eventually, a cab had been requisitioned, and the cabby had been instructed to take Hogan to his hotel—though it appeared that he had never reached his hotel, and the cabby was never found. This evidence directly contradicted that of Dr. Gamble and all the other Crown witnesses, since these all agreed that the assault had taken place on the Don Bridge about nine o’clock.

The result was that Jane Ward and John Sherrick were acquitted by the jury. On the evidence, Sherrick, having established an alibi, was entitled to an acquittal; and perhaps the jury was influenced by the agelong prejudice against the hanging of a woman to allow Jane Ward to go free also. Evidently the jury placed no reliance on the details of the unsupported evidence of Ellen McGilloch, and gave Jane Ward the benefit of whatever doubt there might be.

James Brown was held over for trial at the autumn assizes, on the ground that a material witness against him was not at the moment available. When he came up for trial, before Chief Justice Draper, on October 8, 1861, the evidence against him was virtually the same as had been adduced in the trial of Jane Ward and John Sherrick, except that Jane Ward was now able to testify on his behalf as she had not in her own. The jury, however, took another view of the evidence placed before it from that taken by the jury in the Spring assizes, and it found James Brown guilty.

The conviction was appealed by Brown’s lawyers on the ground that the trial judge had refused to admit the evidence of an essential witness, and a new trial was ordered. At this trial, which began on January 10, 1862, before Mr. Justice Bums, there was no new evidence produced, and the old arguments pro and con were rehearsed by the lawyers. But the jury had little difficulty in reaching a verdict. Though the prisoner evidently anticipated a verdict of “not guilty”—since he brought his civilian clothing to the Court House with him—the jury, after a brief deliberation, found him guilty, and the judge sentenced him to death

To the end James Brown continued to assert his innocence of the crime with which he was charged. He was hanged in Toronto on March 10, 1862, over two years after the commission of the crime for which he had been convicted. There were others, however, without doubt, just as guilty as he; and these escaped scot-free.