This Week in Peterborough: 1872


Advertisement for the services of “Joseph Dann, Veterinary Surgeon.” (Peterborough Times, September 28th, 1872)

It is time to look at late September of 1872, a period that featured a sordid and sinister Peterborian incident!  In the ad for veterinary services above, I draw your attention to the line: “All calls by telegraph and otherwise, promptly attended to.”  A good business policy for a young vet recently arrived in a new town, but it got Joseph Dann into some serious trouble…

Click on for a crime in the night, international diplomacy, an important development in the history of Peterborough, and other things!

Mr. Dann (vets do not seem to have been referred to as “Doctors” at that time) had only arrived in Peterborough in the spring of 1872, but it is fairly clear that he had already managed to make at least one powerful enemy.  On the evening of Saturday, September 28th, a man arrived at the Royal Canadian Hotel, where Dann lived, and asked the vet to accompany him to look at a sick horse.  Dann “promptly attended” to the summons, and the two of them headed off into the night.  It turned out to be a set-up job.  In a particularly dark stretch of woods, the man who had gone to fetch Mr. Dann signaled to a couple of hidden companions, and the vet was set upon, beaten up, and left tarred and feathered.  After regaining consciousness, he limped back to Peterborough and reported the incident.

Things got even more sinister.  When Dann was asked about a possible motive for the attack, he produced a letter that had been slipped under his door roughly a month earlier.  The Peterborough Examiner, on October 3rd, reprinted the missive:

“Peterboro, August 30th, 1872


I should advise you to leave Peterboro at once as you have grossly abused two of the greatest benefactors we have ever had in Peterboro if you do not death will be your doom and nothing else for if you do not want to die leave at once as this is our motto [a sketched skull-and-crossbones] and you can rely on its being fulfilled if you are not gone by the end of next week hoping you will peruse this carefully and be prepared accordingly as your coffin will be there by that time mentioned–

We remain yours &c


Sadly, the mystery of who attacked Joseph Dann appears to be unsolved — there is no sign that any arrests were ever made.  Whether Dann had let a valuable animal die under his care, or was suspected of paying house calls of a different kind to somebody’s wife, or indeed whether he made the whole thing up and forged the letter to cover up some Saturday Night shenanigans that ended badly for him — we simply do not know.  However, whatever the truth may be, Dann’s ads vanish from the newspapers at the end October.  It would appear that he did indeed set off for greener or less perilous pastures.


“Suitable for the inhabitants of both sides of the River…” (from the Peterborough Times)

The tarring and feathering of Joseph Dann makes for an exciting story, but there was in fact something far more important going on in the town of Peterborough at that time.  “Shall the sister village of Ashburnham become annexed to Peterboro, or Peterboro to it?” asked the Examiner, rhetorically, on October 3rd.  Preliminary negotiations were indeed underway between the two settlements, on opposite sides of the river, and the public attitude towards them seems to have been warily positive.  The main issue was whether it would save the taxpayers of Ashburnham any money to join themselves to Peterborough, and enough of them felt that it would that the merger was approved in early January, 1873.  However, the Provincial Parliament never quite got around to passing an act to make it all official – that, in the end, did not occur until 1904.  However, unofficial though the deal may have been, at least some felt that that was good enough.  The ad reproduced above ran in the Peterborough Times beginning in late October of 1872.


A very young Sandford Fleming, at the time when he lived with the family of Dr. John Hutchison, just a couple of blocks away from the home (and daughter!) of Sheriff James Hall. (photo via Hutchison House Living History Museum)

Taking a look at what was going on in the rest of the country at this point, we once again encounter the first hints of a major piece of Canadian history, and it has a Peterborough connection.  Out in the West, Sandford Fleming was busy surveying a route for the transcontinental railway line, all the while keeping his father-in-law up to date on his doings.  His father-in-law, incidentally, was none other than Sheriff James Hall, with whom we are by now good friends in this series (Hall’s potatoes had once again swept all before them at the Fall 1872 horticultural shows).  In a letter to Hall obtained by the Examiner and printed on October 3rd, Fleming describes the Canadian prairie, and seems to be somewhat of two minds about it:

“Many parts of the country [are] uninteresting and barren, with little or no water, no running streams, and the ponds or small lakes brackish or mineral, and often unfit for use…”

“…It is a most beautiful rolling ground, with groups of trees like park scenery, and hills from which there are magnificent views beyond [my] powers of description.”

In the end, Fleming’s route through the Yellowhead pass would not be the one adopted by the CPR —  that would run to the south, through the Rogers Pass — although he remained somewhat involved with the project after construction on the railway began in 1881.  His famous invention of time zones was still to come at this point in history.

On to international matters, and the big international story of late September, 1872, not only involved Canada, but let to a certain reworking of the country’s relationship with Britain.  Although Canada had been a Dominion for five years at this point, much of her foreign policy was still under the direct control of Westminster.  As you can imagine, this state of affairs had the potential to cause friction, and it was doing so at this time over the question of the San Juan Islands.  Those lie off the southern tip of Vancouver Island, and had long been contested between Britain and the United States (in fact, they were the site of a brief and completely bloodless war between the two powers in the late 1850s).  After Confederation, of course, the islands were disputed between America and Canada, but Britain, nonetheless, remained in charge of the Canadian “side” at the negotiations.


Map of the San Juan Islands (by Pfly, via Wikimedia Commons)

By the early 1870s, the question of whether Canada or the U.S. owned the islands had been turned over to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany as an independent arbitrator, and by September of 1872 his decision was imminent.  It was also an open secret that he was going to award the islands to the United States, as indeed he did.  Understandably, the decision was not popular in Canada, but public anger focused on Britain rather than on the U.S. or on Kaiser Wilhelm.  The Peterborough Examiner, on October 10th, groused about Westminster “not being bothered” to look after Canadian interests, and there was a definite push on for the country to take more responsibility for its own affairs when dealing with other nations.  Both Canada and Britain were probably justified in their feelings about the issue — Canada was undoubtedly under-represented by the “Old Country”  in the San Juan negotiations, while Britain had no particular reason to jeopardize her relations with the United States over the matter to the sole benefit of her former colony.

Next time out, we look at 1873, hopefully with less tar and fewer feathers!


An ominous opening to this ad, as Game of Thrones fans will agree! The people of Peterborough, however, appeared to have things well in hand. (from the Peterborough Times, October 13th, 1872)

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One Response to This Week in Peterborough: 1872

  1. Pingback: This Week in Peterborough: 1924 | Peterboriana

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