This Week in Peterborough: 1876


Undated but early photograph of the Courthouse, Peterborough (photo via County of Peterborough)

Sometimes, in researching these pieces, it is very easy to figure out what the big news was in our fair city at a given time.  And so it was with late October of 1876, which saw Peterborough dealing with the immediate aftermath of a major criminal trial (itself the result of a profoundly tragic incident in the town), as well as keeping a wary eye on doings overseas.

Click on for murder in Peterborough, war drums in Europe, and other, thankfully less dire, news!

To get at the heart of the big local story of late October, 1876, we have to go back to the spring of that year.  In the early evening of May 8th, a woman named Mary Ryan left her home on Simcoe Street and staggered towards a neighbour’s house, with her arms wrapped around herself.  On the way she passed her 9-year-old daughter, who was playing outside, and said to her: “Minnie, this is the last time I shall walk on this sidewalk.”  Mary Ryan then collapsed at the door of the neighbour’s home.  She was taken inside by helpful bystanders who believed that she had suffered a fainting spell, but when her clothes were loosened, it was discovered that she had been stabbed in the chest, fatally as it turned out.


Headline from the Peterborough Times, May 13th, 1876.

Mary’s acquaintances were in little doubt as to who had struck the lethal blow.  Her friend Mary Phelan, testifying in court, would recall:

“As I was going home I passed Ryan’s house, and I saw [James Ryan, Mary’s husband] standing at the door.  I said to him, ‘Oh, Ryan, do you know what you have done?  You have killed your poor wife.’  He said, ‘Is she dead?’  I answered in the affirmative; he then gave the door a kick and went into his house.” (From the Peterborough Examiner, October 19th, 1976)

James Ryan, son of the man who owned Peterborough’s tannery, was duly arrested and charged with the murder of his wife.  Despite attempts at both escape and suicide, he stood trial on October 12th, and this event remained the talk of the town even a couple of weeks later.  The defense did not deny that Ryan had committed the deed; their arguments, rather, revolved around his mental state at the time.  Ryan had suffered some business setbacks, and these appeared to have triggered a serious breakdown of some sort a little while before the killing.  He had also begun drinking heavily, although whether this was a cause or an effect of his difficulties was a matter of conjecture.  In any case, everyone agreed that James Ryan had been drunk on the night of the murder, and this probably told against him in court.  The jury convicted him in fairly short order, although with a recommendation for mercy, and he was sentenced to be hanged (it was not, technically, the place of the judge to act on the request for clemency).

In the days and weeks that followed Ryan’s trial, the people of Peterborough served notice that they agreed with the jury on all counts, including the call for commutation of his sentence.  The Peterborough Times, whose sentiments on capital punishment were abolitionist to begin with, devoted two columns in its October 21st issue to the matter, writing:

“The citizens of this town are being called on, to sign a petition to have the sentence of death recently passed on James Ryan commuted to imprisonment for life.  We are glad to know that in only a few instances has the request met with a refusal…  We can not but express a strong hope that the petition may be successful, and our town spared from witnessing another execution.  We are sure that our readers feel that the ends of justice will be as fully met by the more lenient sentence, and we trust that reasons adduced in the petition may incline the Governor-General to the merciful view held by the majority of our citizens.”

In general, Peterborians felt that there were enough doubts about Ryan’s sanity to make hanging him unpalatable.  There were also deep concerns about the effect that his execution would have on his elderly parents, who were well-thought-of in the town, and on his children, who had so recently lost their mother.  These arguments proved persuasive, and in early November Ryan’s sentence was commuted to life in Kingston Penitentiary.


Tsar Alexander II of Russia. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The James Ryan trial, and its aftermath, were wrestling for public attention with some ominous international news, namely the situation that had been dubbed “The Eastern Question” by the newspapers.  To boil a complicated scenario down to its essence, the Eastern Question involved apparent imminent war between the Empires of Russia and the Ottoman Turks.  “The war cloud in the East remains about as dark as ever,” said the Examiner on October 26th, as the two Empires threatened each other and issued ultimata, and the Great Powers of Europe tried to figure out which side to support.  Canadians had reason to pay attention; Britain was heavily involved in the buildup to war (mostly in trying to prevent it), to the point where the British stock market was feeling the effects.  Had the worst fears been realized, and a pan-European conflict broken out, there can be no doubt that Canadian soldiers would have taken part.

War between Russian and Turkey did arrive, early in 1877, and what became known as the Russo-Turkish War resulted in at least a nominal victory for the forces of Tsar Alexander II.  It also resulted in a complicated redrawing of borders in the Balkans (the war’s other theatre was the region of the Caucasus).  These changes would, in time, bear some of the responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.


Map of the International Exhibition. (via Wikimedia Commons)

However, that was for the future, and in the meantime, it was not all bad news from foreign parts.  The United States was celebrating her centennial with an International Exhibition in Philadelphia, and the Peterborough Examiner had sent a correspondent.  This particular writer was full of praise for the Exhibition, and was particularly impressed with the Centennial Newspaper Building:

“Here you may see any one, or, if you like, all of the 8,129 newspapers published regularly in the United States, and you see them, one and all, for nothing! …the management is so simple that, by consulting the catalogue, or even without the aide of the catalogue, any one can at once find whatever paper he wants.  They are pigeon-holed on shelves in the alphabetical order of their States or Territories and their towns, the names of which are clearly labelled on the shelves.” (Peterborough Examiner, October 26th, 1876)

The Examiner’s correspondent further praised the section of the Exhibition given over to education, noting Pennsylvania’s display of “the new but superior hobby of kindergartens and oral instruction,” but also took time to praise Ontario’s exhibit in this area as “a just cause of pride to Canadians.”

Speaking of which, there was not much in the way of momentous news from the nation at large in the Peterborough papers in late October of 1876.  The usual political back-biting was going on, with Sir John A. MacDonald’s Conservatives sitting in opposition at this time to the Liberal government of Alexander MacKenzie, but nothing on the scale of the Pacific Scandal that had seen MacDonald booted from a office a few years earlier.  Indeed, the next federal election (and a return to a Conservative government) would not occur for another couple of years.

And so we shall finish up back where we began, in Peterborough.  With the Ryan trial and the Eastern Question dominating local headlines, there was not much room for other news.  However, the October 19th Examiner reported that the steam-ship “Golden-Eye” had run aground in the Otonabee River on a shoal called the “Yankee Bonnet,” which had been a menace to shipping for decades.  Per the newspaper, it was expected that “she may have to remain there till the high water in the spring.”  Various governments had made attempts to remove the shoal, but it should be noted that the Trent-Severn Waterway was still very much a work in progress!  The “Golden-Eye” survived her run-in with the Yankee Bonnet (and a subsequent sinking, and salvage operation, in 1892), and continued in service under a variety of names for many years.


The “Golden Eye,” re-named “City of Peterborough” in about 1900. (photo via the McCord Museum)

Next time out, we’ll see what was happening in 1877!

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3 Responses to This Week in Peterborough: 1876

  1. Pingback: Snow Day! | Peterboriana

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