"You’re A Damn Lying Scoundrel!"

It began with those hot words. And it ended at twilight with the last fatal duel to be fought in Canada. Two men fired, one died — for a woman neither loved

DOUGLAS MARSHALL June 18 1966

"You’re A Damn Lying Scoundrel!"

It began with those hot words. And it ended at twilight with the last fatal duel to be fought in Canada. Two men fired, one died — for a woman neither loved

DOUGLAS MARSHALL June 18 1966

"You’re A Damn Lying Scoundrel!"

It began with those hot words. And it ended at twilight with the last fatal duel to be fought in Canada. Two men fired, one died — for a woman neither loved

DOUGLAS MARSHALL

IN A PLOWED FIELD late on a wet and thundery Thursday afternoon in June 1833, two young law students stood about ten yards apart glaring at each other down the barrels of heavy percussion-cap smoothbore dueling pistols. The field was on the outskirts of Perth, a village about forty miles southwest of Bytown (now Ottawa), and the situation, even for an age obsessed with “honor,” was ludicrous.

In the first place the opponents were barely out of their teens. In the second, they were close friends. And in the third, their quarrel had originated with a chance remark — so innocuous as to be quaintly hilarious — about the character of a young lady whom neither of them particularly cared for at the time.

The pistols fired simultaneously and both shots missed their mark — possibly deliberately, possibly not. By tradition the whole affair should have ended there. What passed for honor should have been satisfied, and lingering ill feelings could have soon been washed away in rounds of whisky (the Perth distillery was famous for its original Mountain Dew). But unfortunately for the two duelists, a set of social forces — partly accidental and partly the result of Machiavellian design — had conspired to trap them in a real-life neo-gothic melodrama that demanded a climax.

The plot called for death, not reconciliation. Despite the pleadings and protests of a horrified onlooker, the seconds methodically reloaded the pistols and the chief actors woodenly took up their positions. The count began: “One, two, three, four . . . Fire!” Again the pistols cracked simultaneously. Only this time Robert Lyon, nineteen, handsome, athletic, an excellent shot and the most eligible young buck in Perth, indeed in all the Bathurst district, fell unexpectedly dead. The ball had struck his armpit beneath his outstretched right arm as he faced his opponent sideways and, in the testimony of the attending physician, “passed quite through, perforating the lungs.”

Thus, one hundred and thirty-three years ago this

month, ended the last fatal duel on record in Canada. (Some of the explanatory details have only recently been unearthed.) It had followed the script exactly, except for one little twist. The wrong man had died.

According to the best laid plans of Henry Lelicvre, Lyon’s villainous second, the man who should have been lying dead in the muddy furrow near the banks of the River Tay (an ancient elm still marks the spot) was not Lyon but John Wilson, twenty, a little less handsome than Lyon, a little less tall, a little less eligible and, above all, a much poorer shot.

No novelist could have created a better villain than Lclievrc. The son of a French frigate captain who had prudently switched sides after the battle of Trafalgar, he was a “hanger-on” who pranced around Perth looking like, in the words of one witness, Ag well-dressed idle nobody.” Quite simply, LelievreG^nted Wilson either dead or disgraced. He mistakenly believed that Wilson was the main obstacle impeding the progress of his love affair with Elizabeth Hughes, who had recently arrived from Britain to teach at a select school for ladies run by Mr. and Mrs. Gideon Acland. Her father had died of cholera on the way out with her and she was consequently “without a natural protector.” The beautiful and somewhat flirtatious Miss Hughes was one of the belles of Perth society.

Mr WAS THAT SAME society, with its rigid etiquette and mannered conventions, that made it possible for Lelievre to manipulate an idiotic remark first into a fistfight and then into a fatal duel.

By the 1830s Perth was already an anachronism — an eighteenth-century English county town blissfully isolated in the backwoods of Canada. Surveyed and laid out in arbitrary military squares in 1815, it was settled the next year, through land grants, by about one hundred half-pay army officers and their families. These were the proud veterans of the Napoleonic wars, the remnants of half a dozen disbanded regiments, including the gallant Glengarry Fencibles. For two decades Perth was a Colonel Blimp’s paradise. Distinctions of class and precedence of rank could not have been insisted on more stringently if the cordwood roads running through the town had

been Pall Mall and the log cabins Blenheim Palace.

Lyon, dashing, rich and well-connected, sprang from the very essence of this social pride and prejudice. Wilson, by contrast, was described by a local historian as the son of a Scots farmer "of scholarly tastes but slender means who had made many sacrifices to give his son a profession.” But both were studying law (under different patrons) and in spite of their opposing backgrounds, they became fast friends.

To understand how this friendship was ruptured it is necessary to enter a world so artificial and so divorced from today's reality, that it's hard to believe it ever existed outside the imagination of Jane Austen. Here, according to the best records available, is the sequence of events:

Sometime in the spring of 1833 Wilson and then Lyon were sent to Bytown on business for their respective law offices. They met, drank and talked about the girls back home. Lyon, recently arrived, had a choice bit of gossip. Miss Hughes, he said, was in the habit of “allowing men to indulge in unbecoming freedoms.” Not only was she seeing Lelievre but the cad “had sat alongside her with his arms about her in a position which no woman of spirit would permit.”

Lyon, as he later claimed, was deliberately teasing Wilson to make him jealous. What he didn’t realize was that Wilson no longer cared two pins for Miss Hughes. He had, as we now know, fallen hopelessly in love with another Perth girl — the dark-haired, mysterious Joanna Lees. (Lyon, at the same time, was supposedly engaged to yet another girl, Caroline Thom. So the friends weren’t rivals, although Miss Hughes, to confuse matters further, had her eye on Lyon.)

Wilson apparently seized the opportunity to free himself from Miss Hughes. He unwisely wrote a letter to her guardian, Mr. Acland, quoting Lyon's remarks and saying this revelation forced him to abandon his courtship. (“The matter is only mentioned as proof of the young lady’s good nature — yet there is a point when good nature itself becomes criminal.”) Acland couldn't keep this information to himself. Soon it was all over town that Lyon had made “a dishonorable remark about an unprotected female."

The bewildered Lyon arrived back

in Perth to find himself snubbed in the street and unaccountably ostracized from tea parties. More painfully. his own Caroline shut her door coldly in his face. With the help of anxious friends — including the verymuch-interested Lelievre — Lyon discovered the cause of his problem was a remark attributed to him in a letter written by none other than his old friend John Wilson.

Furious. Lyon went prowling in pursuit of "the author of these calumnies.” The two came face to face on the afternoon of June 12 in front of the town’s court house. Had Wilson written that letter? Wilson admitted he had. and Lyon immediately knocked him to the ground. Wilson, bruised and bleeding, made some effort to explain. But Lyon was too angry to listen. He turned on his heel with a parting insult: “You're a damn lying scoundrel, sir, and I'll treat you as such every time I meet you."

■7

ML 1GH1INC. WORDS hard on top ol a lighting blow. Wilson hated dueling but he felt he would never be able to hold up his head in Perth society again unless he “sought satisfaction." James Boulton, the barrister to whom he was articled, later explained to a jury, “If his standing in society had been higher, he might with less danger to his reputation have treated the matter with contempt.” So a challenge was issued and duly accepted.

At first Wilson was convinced that Lyon would see reason, accept his explanation and make an apology. Lyon did show some willingness to agree on a peaceful solution but later changed his mind and adamantly refused to co-operate. The impressionable Lyon was by now fully under the sway of his doubtful friend and adviser. Lelievre. Every time the parties were on the verge of getting together, Lelievre would argue persuasively that honor demanded a fight. He knew that Perth was, above all. an honor-loving town.

After a flurry of messages the time was fixed for 6 p.m. the next day, June 13. (Pistols at dawn seems to have been the one eighteenth-century convention that Perth didn't observe. ) The meeting place was about a mile outside the village, deliberately chosen because it was just beyond the boundary of the old Bathurst district (now roughly the counties of Lanark and Carleton ). Neither side / continued on page 51

continued on page 51

“YOU’RE A DAMN LYING SCOUNDREL!” continued from page 23

The ball grazed his temple—the next shot could mean death

wished to embarrass their good mutual friend, the Bathurst sheriff.

Besides Lyon, Wilson and Lelievre. only two other people were actually present on the dueling ground — Simon Robinson. Wilson's second and also a good friend of Lyon, and the physician. Dr. William Hamilton. About a dozen other would-be spectators and intercedents were converging on the spot when the shots were fired but because of the distance and the steady drizzle, they reported conflicting accounts of what happened.

How did it happen? Later evidence suggests Wilson was clinging to the hope that his onetime friend would shoot to miss. He reckoned without the machinations of Lelievre. Wilson’s first shot went way wild, but Lyon's ball grazed Wilson's temple.

It's not clear whether Lyon, an excellent marksman, had intended the shot to kill or whether he couldn’t resist the temptation to give Wilson the fright of his life. Wilson, badly shaken, chose to believe the worst. Lyon apparently wasn't playing games. His suspicions were confirmed when both Lyon and Lelievre insisted that the pistols be reloaded.

At the second firing Wilson saw that Lyon's pistol was directly in line with his body. “This caused me to shudder and feel sick.” When the signal was given Wilson turned his head away and pulled the trigger.

When the smoke cleared Wilson was mildly surprised to be still alive and astonished that his fluke shot had hit Lyon. Lelievre was even more dumbfounded. He instantly vanished from the scene and was never seen or heard from in Perth again. (Some accounts say he became a "backwoods vagabond” and he is variously reported to have died many years later in Australia, the U. S. and Sierra Leone.)

Wilson and Robinson immediately gave themselves up to the authorities and were charged with murder — the first as principal and the second as accessory. The trial was held in Brockville during the August assizes. “The court room was crowded to excess," said the Brockville Recorder. “Among those present were a number of respectable females.”

After a series of witnesses had told what they knew, Wilson himself addressed the jury “in an interesting and feeling manner.” The burden of his brief was that it had all been a terrible mistake: “I was led from step to step, still in hopes nothing serious would occur until the fatal moment when the pistol was put in my hand the second time. Then indeed I felt the dreadful reality of the situation. I expected to be killed. But death was less terrifying than the frowns and reproaches of my friends and a scornful world."

Robinson also made a speech, rising to even more grandiloquent heights: “If the jury thinks the lives of two unhappy youths are necessary to vindicate the majesty of the offended laws, for the purpose of putting down a practice [dueling] which, if permitted, I should long deplore, I would without a murmur resign my life to the sacrifice.” Both the accused

particularly stressed that they felt no malice toward poor Lyon and that malice was an ingredient necessary to constitute murder. The jury took the point and after a short time returned a verdict of “not guilty."

Everybody lived unhappily ever after — especially Wilson. Throughout his imprisonment and after his acquittal

he wrote impassioned letters to his beloved Joanna (the letters have recently come to light) but she. or at any rate her mother, steadfastly refused to have anything more to do with a man whose reputation had been tainted by such a sordid affair. Wilson gave up in despair and moved to London. Ont.

About two vears later he returned

and. as if to salvage some meaning from an utterly pointless victory, married his unclaimed spoils, the celebrated Miss Hughes. Although Wilson went on to become a member of parliament and a judge of the Ontario Supreme Court, his wife is said to have nagged him ceaselessly until the day he died in 1869. Mrs. Wilson, her earlier “unbecoming freedoms" long forgotten, became a strict member of tlie Plymouth Brethren and died at the age of ninety-four. ★