They Said I Would Hang
In which the exiles from Canada hatch a plot to highjack a prison ship—and overlook the traitor Beemer
LINUS W. MILLER
This is the true story of Linus Miller, 20-year-old, law student of Stockton, N. Y., who was an undercover agent of the 1 ‘ Provisional Government of Canada” set up in the United States during the rebellion of 1837-38. After narrowly escaping capture on an expedition to save seven condemned Patriots from the gallows at Hamilton, Miller finally fell into the hands of the Crown.
Ironically, he had just stopped an unauthorized band of rebels from going into action prematurely under the leadership of a loot-thirsty rebel named Jacob Beemer, who proved to be a turncoat. Miller and 15 other Patriots, after a trial at Niagara-on-theLake, were sentenced to be hanged.
ON AUG. 22, three days before my execution was to take place, the sheriff came to the jail and read from a document which he held in his hand, “Linus Wilson Miller, His Excellency, the Lieutenant-Governor, has been graciously pleased, in consideration of some circumstances in your favor, to commute your sentence of death to transportation for life to Her Majesty’s penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania, Australia).”
The same mercy—if it may be so called—was, on the same occasion, extended to 12 others of my comrades, leaving Messrs. Chandler, Wait, McLeod, Warner, Brown and Beemer still under sentence of death. The two last were tried some days subsequent to us.
The next day we were chained and handcuffed in pairs, and removed, under charge of the sheriff, on the steamboat Traveler to Kingston. Arriving, we
were marched by a back road to Fort Henry, which is by far the most formidable fortification in Upper Canada. There we joined the Point-au-Pelee prisoners and 10 persons who were taken at the first outbreak on Yonge Street.
The former had not been tried, in consequence of having been captured previous to the passing of a provincial act, of the 12t.h of January, ’38, providing for the trial and punishment of American citizens. The latter were the remnant of a large number of prisoners who had petitioned the lieutenantgovernor for pardons under an order-in-council which authorized that functionary to accept petitions of the political prisoners who should confess their guilt, and order such punishment, death excepted, as should seem fit.
Banished Without Trial
THIS order was passed when the jails of the province were full, and it was found impracticable to try so great a number in the usual course of criminal law. The governor and his council possessed no authority for enacting a law of that nature. By virtue of this act several hundreds of British subjects were admitted to bail and many were banished, without trial, from the province under pain of death if they returned.
On Aug. 29 we were agreeably surprised at seeing our companions, from whom we had parted under painful circumstances at Niagara, march into the fort. They were chained, of course, hut this was better than the gallows, which we feared had been their lot. On Nov. 9 several of us received an order
to be in readiness, in an hour’s time, for removal to Quebec.
The names of my comrades were John G. Parker, Randall Wixon, Finlay Malcolm, Paul Bedford, Robert Walker, William Alves, Ira Anderson, James Brown, Leonard Watson, Benjamin Wait, Samuel Chandler, James Gemmell, Alexander McLeod, John James McNulty, James Waggoner, John Vernon, William Reynolds, Norman Mallory, George Cooley, Garret van Camp, John Grant and Jacob Beemer. The first nine were ordered for transportation without a trial, under the act already referred to. The remainder were all taken and tried at Niagara with myself.
On our way down the river we saw numerous companies of militia and volunteers drilling; who, at the sight of the redcoats guarding us, would generally cheer for the Queen most lustily.
This seemed to annoy our poor fellows much. At length J. J. McNulty, an odd fellow of Irish descent, could bear it no longer, and, jumping upon some boxes, he waved his hat in the air, in answer to the cheers, and shouted loud enough to be heard a mile: “Hurra for Mackenzie! Hurra! Hurra! Hurra for
liberty!—you d-fools!” This seemed to check
their loyalty, and puzzled them not a little, coming, as it did, from a steamboat showing the Union Jack and covered with redcoats.
We ran the rapids of the mighty river, commonly called the “Long Sault,” in the steamer; a somewhat dangerous experiment, Durham boats being commonly used for that purpose. We ran a distance of nine miles in less than 15 minutes.
We arrived at Cornwall, a small village containing a courthouse, jail, churches, etc., at 2 p.m. It was determined that we should remain for the present, while the boat proceeded with the soldiers,
who were needed because the rebels were active below. It was considered unsafe for us to go farther, for fear of a rescue by the rebels of the Lower Province. We were accordingly marched to jail, through mud more than a foot in depth most of the way. Here we had a partial respite from our sufferings, which had become dreadful. This was the first time that I ever felt thankful for the privilege of going to jail.
Riot Call in Cornwall
ON THE evening of the 12th our keepers and the inhabitants of Cornwall were greatly alarmed by news that some rebels had reached Prescott. The bells of the churches were rung with violence, for an hour, to arouse the citizen soldiers; and there was a general cry of, “To arms!” “To arms!” We were ordered to hold ourselves in readiness for removal at a moment’s warning, as they expected a rescue. But it didn’t come.
On the 13th we were placed on board the stenmer Neptune, and at 7 p.m. arrived at Coteau du Lac, where we had a ride, in drays, a distance of four miles, to the Fort so-called, although it deserves not the name. We remained here two days and three nights, under the Glengarrys, a regiment of Scottish militia, who were rebels in heart to a man.
On the 16th we proceeded by land. The roads were almost impassable, and it either rained or snowed the entire day, and on arriving at the Cascades I was scarcely able to stand. Food was scarce, our keepers having to ransack the town twice over before they succeeded in finding enough to keep themselves and us from starvation. The soldiers had, literally, eaten the habitants out of house and home; as these poor people were looked upon and treated as rebels they had no redress. They were of French extraction, and generally suffered much from persecution from the few English resident among them.
The next day we were placed in the ladies’ cabin in the steamer Dragon, and as we proceeded down the river we witnessed the ravages of civil war wherever we turned our eyes. The ruins of villages were still smoking; farmhouses and pleasant villas were reduced to ashes, and women and children wandering through the fields and forests, houseless and friendless, without food or clothing, or covering of any kind, to screen them from the piercing cold. Thousands of dwelling houses were burned by order of Sir John Colborne, lieutenantgovernor of Lower Canada, and what became of the ruined and suffering families, of old men, women and children, Heaven only knows. As far as the eye could reach, the valley of the St. Lawrence, which is perhaps scarcely excelled by any in the world in the same latitude, in richness, fruitfulness, and beautiful scenery, exhibited the foul work of the destroyer.
The steamboat stopped a short time at Beauharnois, a few days previous a flourishing village, but then a pile of ruins, the sanguinary Colborne having ordered the houses of the reformers to be burned and their plantations laid waste, without discrimination or mercy, throughout all the disaffected districts. I went upon deck and looked upon the desolating scene.
The village was utterly desolate, the inhabitants having fled to the hills and forests to save their lives and escape the wanton fury of the soldiery, whom I saw prowling about in search of plunder. Every paltry soldier, more particularly the militia and volunteers of the Upper Province, was heavily laden with spoils. Order and discipline there were none; but horses, donkeys, and indeed everything which could carry a load, were pressed into the plundering service of these valiant scoundrels.
We reached the city of Montreal at 8 p.m., cold, wet and hungry, having eaten nothing during the day, and were marched to the city guardhouse.
Next day, still without food, we were marched a distance of half a mile to the wharf. The streets of the city were densely crowded with spectators, who seemed very anxious to stare at “the Upper Cana-
dian rebels.” Many of them, particularly the French, manifested much sympathy in their looks, and I saw several burst into tears as we dragged our chains through the mud.
At the wharf a mob of the most squalid, miserable-looking objects I ever beheld was assembled, evidently for the express purpose of insulting us; and an admirable performance they made of it. Groans, hisses and speeches of various kinds were profusely showered upon us.
We were well-treated on board the steamer British Queen. The next day, at 2 p.m., we reached Quebec, the Gibraltar of America. We were wellaccommodated at the hotel which persons in our circumstances always patronize; had our irons all taken off, and made ourselves quite at home during our stay. As yet we had been led to believe that we were removed to Quebec for safekeeping during the winter; hut the day after our arrival the sheriff informed us that he had orders to forward us at once to England.
A lumber vessel was about to sail for Liverpool, and our passages were forthwith engaged. On Nov. 22 the chains and handcuffs were again put on, and we were marched through the streets of the city to the wharf. We were again the subject of much curiosity, and a mob of Irish emigrants commenced hissing as we passed through the city gate; but a cry of, “Silence! shame on you, to insult the poor fellows,” from the citizens, put a stop to it.
A boat was in readiness to convey us to the Captain Ross, a barque of some 250 tons, which lay in the stream with the Blue Peter flying at her masthead. With an aching heart I stepped into the boat, fearing that I might never place my foot upon the American continent again.
Living Tomb Aboard Ship
WHEN I was thrust—after having been twice searched on deck—into the hole which was to be our cabin on the Captain Ross, it was so dark that I could see nothing, but as object after object in our living tomb became dimly visible, I confess I was horror-stricken. The depth between decks was less than five feet. There were six berths on each side, five and a half feet long, and three and a half wide; and two across the ends, capable of accommodating one person each. In the centre was a hatchway, underneath which were two tubs for general purposes. The whole space, including berths, hatchway, etc., was about 14 feet by 12, in which 34 persons were to live during a voyage of 3,000 miles. Eleven French-Canadian convicts—thieves, highway robbers and murderers—were thrust in with us.
Being chained in pairs, the constant rattling of our irons added not a little to our other afflictions. Sixteen hours out of 24 the hatchway was closed, depriving us of fresh air, and shutting out all light except what two small skylights afforded.
The captain, who rejoiced in the appellation of Digby Morton, was a stout, jolly-looking fellow; but, as we soon learned, a desperate coward. He always managed to keep at a respectful distance from us when we went on deck, unless armed to the teeth. The keeper, Morris—a kind of half-civilized brute—styled himself “Captain of the watch,” which was composed of eight poor, ragged, and hungry-looking fellows, one of whom was stationed with his blunderbuss, pistols and sabre, immediately over the hatchway, day and night.
No sooner had we made sail than seasickness commenced, and with myself only ended with the voyage. On the third day a fresh wind sprang up, which soon increased to a gale, and hurried us out of the gulf. The weather was extremely cold, and our vessel was soon covered with ice. The gale continued about 12 days, during which we averaged 200 miles per day. Our sufferings during this time were horrible. The hatches were battened down much of the time, and we had no fresh air; but the vessel, being heavily laden, frequently shipped heavy seas, and the water would sometimes pour down in torrents into our hole, cleansing the fetid air, but for which it would have indeed been intolerable.
During the gale the weather was intensely cold. Every sailor and soldier on board was more or less frozen and disabled. A plan was immediately entered into to take the vessel into our own hands and navigate her back into some port of the United States, where we could all go ashore—leaving the officers and crew to pursue their voyage when we had effected our purpose. I was too ill to take any part in the affair, beyond that of encouraging the others.
When, however, nearly ready for action, and another half hour would have changed our prospects and destination, the hatchway was suddenly shut down and barred, “all hands” were summoned on deck, and we heard a great rattling of cutlasses and firearms. At length the hatchway was cautiously reopened, and Messrs. Parker and Wait were ordered on deck by Morris. After a lengthy and loud altercation, they were thrust below with a new set of irons, weighing 50 pounds, and the others were called up in turn.
We were at first at a loss to understand how the captain gained his information; but on our arrival at Liverpool he caused an exaggerated account of the suppressed mutiny to be printed, from which it appeared that the old traitor, Jacob Beemer, had betrayed us. His object in doing so was to secure a pardon for himself. But he failed again in that purpose.
The weather grew warm in proportion as our distance from land increased, and the thick coat of ice which accumulated on the vessel while off the banks of Newfoundland soon disappeared. In a few days we saw Cape Clear, after which many vessels were always to be seen from our decks. I counted 17 at one time; among them was a British man-of-war of 120 guns.
25 Days to Liverpool
ON Dec. 17 the barque Captain Ross anchored in Liverpool harbor. The voyage was unusually short (only 25 days—average voyages between Quebec and Liverpool being 40 days).
We were landed at the wharf and conveyed in coaches to the Liverpool borough jail, A great number of ladies and gentlemen called to see us the day after we landed, but only a few obtained admittance. They were warm in their expressions of sympathy and good wishes; and were greatly shocked at the relation of our sufferings on board the Captain Ross. We were soon made to feel that we had come less to a land of strangers than of friends. Continued on page 26
Continued from page 22
We lost no time in writing to some of the most influential reformers of the country, setting forth the peculiar circumstances under which we had been transported, and asking if something could not be done to test the legality of the proceedings. It afterward appeared that, previous to the receipt of our letters, the parties addressed and others had formed an association for the purpose of investigating our cases,
and, if practicable, delivering us from bondage.
Mr. Walker, clerk of W. H. Ashurst, Esq., solicitor, London, came down to obtain the necessary information, and he was soon followed by John Arthur Roebuck, Esq., M.P. The result was a determination to remove 12 of our number to London, under writs of habeas corpus in Her Majesty’s court of Queen’s Bench. To my inexpressible joy I found my own name among the 12.
Those of our number who were not Continued on page 28
Continued from page 26 included felt dissatisfied with the arrangement, as well they might. On Jan. 4 they were sent, in irons, on board the steamship Meteor to be conveyed to Portsmouth, where they were placed on board the York Hulk.
On Jan. 9 we started, at 3 o’clock in the morning, for London by the railroad cars; the governor and two turnkeys accompanying us. We reached the great metropolis about 7 p.m., and were conveyed through streets teeming with life and activity, though but poorly lighted compared with those of Liverpool, to Her Gracious Majesty’s prison at Newgate. The massive doors were unbarred to welcome us, and we were again buried in a living tomb—the receptacle of the poor, the lost, the ruined, the doomed of earth.
As far as possible the treatment due to state prisoners was extended to us, and in all the dealings of the authorities with us a due regard to the nature of our offences was observed. We were ever made to feel, in our intercourse with the numerous strangers and friends who visited us, that in their estimation we were neither degraded nor debased.
On Monday, Jan. 14, handcuffed in pairs, we were driven in coaches to Westminster Hall, a distance of nearly two miles. There we invariably attracted a large concourse of people when we entered or retired from court. They manifested their sympathies and good wishes by cheering us. This amply repaid us for all the groans and hisses of the ragged Canadians in Montreal the previous year.
The courtroom was densely crowded with barristers and spectators, about 150 of the former, dressed in their gowns and wigs, being in attendance. Lord Denman presided as Chief Justice; Mr. Justice Williams, Littledale and Coleridge took their seats by his side. Mr. Justice Haliburton, Chief Judge of Nova Scotia, and the author of the celebrated and humorous Sam Slick, was among those present. The attorney-general, Sir John Campbell, a Scotsman, the solicitor general, Sir F. Pollock, and Mr. Wightman appeared as counsel for the Crown, and Matthew Davenport Hill, John Arthur Roebuck, and Thomas Falconer, Esquires, for us.
The 12 prisoners were divided into two classes. The first nine had never been tried or convicted. After their arrests in Upper Canada they had confessed their guilt and had petitioned for pardon under the order-in-council which permitted the lieutenant-governor to order them punished in any way he saw fit, short of death. Sir George Arthur had ordered them transported to Van Diemen’s Land. They were Randall Wixon, Leonard Watson, Finlay Malcolm, John G. Parker, Robert Walker, Paul Bedford, James Brown, Ira Anderson and William Alves.
The second group of prisoners—three of us—had been tried and convicted. There were John Grant and William Reynolds besides myself.
Our counsel chose to argue the cases of Leonard Watson and Randall Wixon as representative of the whole group. In brief, they contended that neither the authorities at Quebec nor the master of the Captain Ross nor the jailer at Liverpool had the right to keep in custody men who had never been convicted of a crime. They also argued that an enactment of a colonial governor carried no weight beyond his colony, otherwise he could thrust his criminals as unwelcome guests upon any part of the British realm.
The attorney-general took the opposite view, and cited statutes and precedents in support.
Lord Denman, speaking for the
court, gave his decision that there was no want of authority to transport the first nine prisoners to Van Diemen's Land, and accordingly they must be remanded into custody. Their lordships had also decided that the allegations against the three other prisoners were sufficient, and they, therefore, must also be remanded.
The habeas corpus, that great bulwark of English liberties, as it is called, according to the decision of the judges of her Majesty’s Court of Queen’s Bench, turned out to be an illusion, a weapon which might be used to oppress the subject, but powerless to shield him from usurpation and cruelty. A Whig Government was in power; under that administration Canada had rebelled. These upright judges, who were also Whigs, scrupled not, in the discharge of their high duties, to declare, in the face of law and justice, that we were legally and justly dealt with.
Not so the Court of Exchequer. Upon the same facts, and under the same law, the learned judges decided that the nine men who had not been tried could not, by the laws of England, be transported, and that the Government must either try or discharge them. The judges of the Court of Exchequer were Conservatives, and opposed to the Whig administration.
Through the intervention of Mr. Stevenson, at that time minister plenipotentiary and ambassador extraordinary of the United States at the court of St. James, William Reynolds obtained a free pardon, on account, it was said, of his being the youngest of our party. He was three years older than myself, but had, fortunately for himself, and as unfortunately for me, stated his age when captured as 18. Mr. Stevenson exerted all his influence to procure the same boon for me but was unsuccessful.
The liberation of my friend left but two (Grant and myself) besides the nine untried prisoners. Our cases had not been investigated in the Court of Exchequer, because, said our friends, “The Government will never be mean enough to transport you if all the others with whom you have been so long connected in the participation of incipient punishment are discharged, and you will, as a matter of course, be pardoned free gratis.”
The truth was, the Government eventually was obliged to liberate the others, which so enraged them that they determined to punish us, whom they had in their power.
On July 14 John Grant and myself were called, long before break of day, to be ironed, preparatory for our journey to Portsmouth. We were speedily equipped with chains and handcuffs and marched first through the Old Bailey to a covered van, large enough to hold 30 persons, and drawn by three spans of horses, into which we were crammed, and a ring in our chains slipped on a bar of iron which ran through the entire length of the wagon. There were 26 English felons in the van before us, although hitherto we had been strictly forbidden to speak to persons of their character.
“All men are born free and equal,” said the turnkey to whom I remonstrated against this inconsistency and injustice, and, being an American, I was obliged to accede to this practical illustration of my national first truth.
We arrived at Portsmouth (distant 70 miles from London) about 2 p.m. A scow rowed by convicts conveyed us to the York Hulk, an old 74-gun ship which was moored in the harbor, three fourths of a mile from shore. The first objects which attracted my eye, upon
giining the deck, were James Gemmell and the Traitor Beemer.
After having been searched for tobacco, money, etc., which were s'.rictly prohibited, our irons were tiken off, and our hair sheared close to the head. Our private clothing was at the same time taken away, and its place supplied with convict apparel. To my astonishment, irons, weighing about 10 pounds, were riveted upon our limbs, the same as upon the English felons, notwithstanding that Lord John Russell (the Home Secretary) had sent strict orders to the captain of the Hulk that the Canadian prisoners should not be ironed, put to labor, or placed in the immediate company of the other prisoners.
Gemmell related to me the history of himself and companions, as far as he knew, since our separation at Liverpool. Hopes of freedom and an investigation of their cases were held out to them to the last (whether in good faith or not I cannot say), but I fear it was only to quiet their minds. On March 12 ¿11 but Gemmell and Beemer were shipped for Van Diemen’s Land.
Gemmell was sick in the hospital at ihe time, so was detained. As for Beemer, he had busied himself with vriting to the Government a most exaggerated account of the Captain Ross affair, and claiming a free pardon for his treachery on that occasion. The Government didn’t send him away, having in contemplation the granting of his request, but later he spoiled his chances. In every application he represented the mutiny more aggravated than before, in order to enhance the value of his service, until he at last contradicted himself and disgusted them.
The next morning, when the men were mustered for labor, we were called with the others. I protested strongly against this, stating to Captain Nicholson that it was a violation of all the rules hitherto observed by the Government in our treatment, and that as state prisoners we were entitled to exemption from servile labor. His only reply was, “That will do, that will do, pass on.” Descending the rope ladder over the side of the vessel, we took our places in a launch with about 60 men, and were rowed to the Portsmouth dockyard. A steamboat was lying at one of the wharves to be loaded with coal, and in 10 minutes we were as hlack as the most sooty sweep of London.
The next day we were employed in skidding up large logs, of which the dockyard was full, and this continued two weeks.
One day the captain, whose hauteur
toward me had been daily wearing away, said in an undertone when my name was called at the muster for labor, “I shall send you and Grant to Chelsea beach to work in the invalid gang, where your labor will be light.”
There were about 70 invalids in the gang—lame, blind, halt and lazy; and among the latter I soon learned to class myself. The overseer informed me that his orders from the captain were to allow Grant and myself to work or not, at our own discretion; of which gracious permission we were not reluctant to avail ourselves. Six men were sent with a cart every morning (a sentry guarding them), about one mile, to a spring to draw a cask of water for use during the day; we made two of the number, and this was our task for the entire day. Conceiving the possibility of an escape into the country, where it was probable we should find friends to aid us, we resolved to make an attempt to throw off the yoke of slavery.
Gemmell was made a confidant in the business, after being cautioned to beware of Beemer, and he entered into the plan with right good will. We proposed to knock down the sentry at the spring, seize his gun, and then send him back to the party with the remainder of his charge, making him the bearer of a letter to the captain, which I wrote for the purpose. It explained why we were escaping.
Gemmell, who at that time was expecting a free pardon, requested me to furnish him with a copy of this epistle to carry home with him, and I was foolish enough to do so.
About half an hour before the time set for our attempt to escape, the captain came ashore in his boat and ordered us to return with him to the Hulk. Suspecting from his grave demeanor that all was not right, I took the letter from my pocket and commenced tearing it into small slips, which I threw into the water.
Arriving at the Hulk, the first object I saw was Beemer, whose countenance wore a malicious grin, which I well understood. Gemmell stood leaning against the side of the ship, pale as marble, as was always the case when he had committed some terrible blunder. I learned from him that, supposing that we were already beyond the reach of treachery, he had made a confidant of Beemer, who snatched the beforementioned copy of our letter and ran with it to the captain. Deeply mortified as I was, I could but forgive Gemmell his indiscretion, for I was certain he meant no evil.
(This is the third of a series of four articles narrating the adventures of Linus Miller. The final one will appear in the next issue of Maclean's.)