The Story Seventy-two Years
Old Retold. The Old Headstone — Portraits.
(By J.M. Walker, Gananoque.)
The old cemetery in Perth has had its growth; and now age and decay are written upon its wooden pailings, around forgotten graves, upon the moss-covered tombstones and upon the sinking mounds that cover the remains of what were living men and women who, after their days of joy and sadness, have gone to join the innumerable throng who sleep their indeterminate slumber in the earth’s bosom. Old as it is, it must not be assumed this graveyard is an eyesore or spot neglected because disused. Any such impression would be erroneous. Before this, some years, private parties have seen to it that bushes grown rank were thinned out, superfluous trees cut down, and all rubbish removed. Later on, the Horticultural Society undertook to do the same work thoroughly, and this they accomplished as if it were a labor of love, and now it is a pleasure to see that all rotting grave fences have been taken away and thinned out, headstones that were broken or were standing awry or had fallen down have been placed upright and braced up where necessary, and the old place made to wear an aspect of neatness and decent old age to which it had for years been a stranger. The fences and gates have been repaired or renewed, trees set out along the roadways, and in some cases flower pots have been set out at the inner approaches. Elmwood cemetery, which stands in its park-like beauty at the other end of the town, has its attractions from its winding avenues, its shady drives and walks bordered by maples, elms and evergreens, its flowers and stately granite monuments, but it has not yet the history of the older cemetery whose headstones of marble lift themselves by the meandering river near by, and in the white moonshine look so ghostly among the scattered trees and shrubbery.
Near the centre of the Church of England section of the burying ground stands a modest little headstone of grey marble which would likely be overlooked by a stranger passing by. But observe the inscription, of which this is a copy :
To the Memory of
in mortal combat
13 of June 1833
in the 20th year
of his Age
Requieseat in Pace.
Very early one morning in June, 1833, a party of three men from Smith’s Falls, paddling a canoe up the Tay River on their way to Perth, landed on the McLaren farm, near the town, to rest and eat their breakfast. While thus engaged they heard a shot and voices. Pushing their way through the underbrush in the direction of the sounds they came to a clearing at the bank of the river, and were just in time to see a second shot fired and one of the men there turn half round, throw up his arms and fall stone dead. They then became aware that a duel had been fought.
The late Mr. Robert Douglas, a contractor, going through the town a short time before, met the duelling party at the “Sand Hill,” near St. James’ church, going toward the scene of the fatal meeting. The victim of the encounter was Robert Lyon, student-at-law. The five men forming the duelling party and the witnesses are all dead and gone, but the field of blood stands as it was on the level banks of the Tay, overlooked by the spires of Perth, and is part of the farm on the Scotch Line, North Elmsley, known long afterwards as the Presbyterian clergy lot. The present owner of the farm, Mr. Archibald McLaren, can show the exact place in the clearing, now a meadow, rich with grass and blossoming clover, where the fatal bullet did its work. The clearing has since been widened until it embraces the whole part of the farm on the right bank of the river; but the one spot in the field of blood, memorable from the tragedy which so stirred the hearts of men and women at the time, and when minor occurrences have been forgotten has ever since been one of the main historical reminiscences of the town, is still marked by an elm tree, and the placid river flows peacefully by as it did seventy-three years ago.
Robert Lyon was the son of a Scottish officer in the British army, Captain Lyon, who settled at Richmond, in Carleton county. He was a law student in the office of the late W. M. Radenhurst, a barrister of prominence in his day, and whose sister was young Lyon‘s mother. The Lyon family afterwards became more or less prominent in Ottawa and neighborhood, one becoming a member of parliament and another a county judge. Mr. C. H. Lyon, of Perth, is one of the same family. The younger Lyon was a fine looking, dashing youth, an athelete, genial and handsome, of aristocratic ideas and associations. He was somewhat the antithesis of another young man, who had recently arrived in the town, John Wilson, a law student in the office of Mr. (afterwards honorable) James Boulton, but notwithstanding these points of contrast it is quite certain the two were friends, and it is no wonder, for though Wilson was of lowly origin and came only yesterday from the backwoods of Dalhousie, twenty miles away, he had brains, perseverance, self reliance and a consciousness of talent which in time brought him to the first rank at the bar and on the bench. His ambition impelled him to high aims, and in callow youth he left his father’s farm and started on his career as school teacher, by which he earned enough money, as many a Scotch boy had before him, to pay his board in Perth and put himself through his legal studies. He boarded when in town at William Rutherford‘s, who lived in the house yet occupied by his daughter, corner of Brock and Wilson streets, and took special lessons in classics, etc., from the late Rev. William Bell, Presbyterian minister. Some of his nephews are yet living in the townships of Dalhousie and North Sherbrooke. Concerning him and his career a writer in a late issue of the London (Ont.) “Advertiser,” says:
“John Wilson came in 1834. Born near Paisley, Scotland, in 1809, he came with his parents to Canada to pass his early days on a farm in Lanark county, where he acquired a knowledge of farm life and a sympathy with the feelings of the back-woodsmen, which stood him in good stead in the subsequent practice of the profession of the law, to the study of which he turned when his health had become impaired by work on the farm. He studied in the office of James Boulton, at Perth. Mr. Wilson speedily acquired a large and lucrative practice in London, and became a prominent and leading man, whose power with juries was enhanced by the blunt common sense and unadorned oratory, which were his characteristics. He was generous and kind-hearted by nature and it is, therefore, not surprising that he achieved a large measure of success, professionaly and politically, in after years. He married, the year following his arrival in London, a sister of David John Hughes, the first judge of Elgin county, who came with his two sisters from Perth in 1835, (the second marrying Hugh, second son of Major Barwick, of Oxford), and soon after commenced, in the office of his brother-in-law, Wilson, to prepare for the practice of law and for a career on the bench unexampled, in its duration of more than half a century in Canada, if not the empire, so far as the present writer is aware. John Wilson‘s office speedily became the headquarters for a coterie of students, who became prominent men throughout the district in after days. Foremost among these, in many ways, came in 1836, Henry Corry Rowley Beecher, a young Englishman of good family, sent out to seek his fortune in Canada, who visited the Harrises and took up the study of law. In after times he frequently broke a lance with his former preceptor, Mr. Wilson. As his name will recur in these pages, it will suffice at present to say that two men could scarcely present a wider contrast in appearance and manner than Wilson and Beecher. Wilson, sturdy, inclined to stoutness, with broad, open, strong countenance, whose bold expression and tilted nose verged on coarseness — Beecher, tall, slight, straight featured, with dark, and even sallow complexion, polished manners and gentlemanly bearing, which he never laid aside, was sauve and smooth of speech. In addition to Mr. Beecher, Mr. Wilson‘s students in the years now referred to included John H. L. Askin, son of Col. Askin; John Stewart, afterward of Goderich; Alex. McLean, who became a pioneer lawyer at Chatham; James Shanly, better known afterward as Col. Shanly; and Mr. (afterward Judge) Askland, of Goderich.”
A quarrel between the two friends and fellow law-students arose out of some words in reference to a young lady, who afterwards became the wife of Wilson. One was accused by the other of having spoken slightlingly of the lady in question; the lie was given and a blow given by Lyon to the other separated the two friends forever. Lyon was much the stronger and larger man, and Wilson was unable to retaliate effectually, and for the time the fracas ended between them, only to be retailed, with the flourishes added to it, so consistent with our erring human nature, by five hundred tongues within an hour or two after. The young lady who was the innocent inspiration of the altercation and assault, was a Miss Elizabeth Hughes, a daughter of a Unitarian clergyman, recently out from England, and who came to Perth to fill the position of assistant teacher in Miss Ackland‘s select school for young ladies. She had a brother David J. Hughes, who followed his sister to this place the next year, and entered the “Courier” office to learn the trade of printer. He remained a year or two, then left to study law in his brother-in-law’s office in London, practiced law, became judge of Elgin county, and is living yet, after superannuation only last year, a venerable man in his 86th year. The ex-sheriff of Lanark county, James Thompson, Esq., still living and within a few days of his ninety-fourth year, was the printer of the “Courier” in those days for the Hon. Malcolm Cameron, the proprietor.
As has been said, the encounter became the talk of the town, and it is not unreasonable to assume that the matter would have ended in talk and gossip if the two had been let alone. The days of duelling were past, though the remembrance of the duels and the old code-of-honor still lingered in the minds of the old half-pay officers, who had followed Wellington through his campaigns; but the practice in a non-military country like Canada had grown obsolete and opposed both to the law and sentiment of the land. But there appeared on the scene one who still clung aggressively to the military traditions of a past age and whose bold and unscrupulous disposition became an active factor in dealing with the quarrel between the two proud and excited youths. This was a young man named Henry La Lievre, son of Francis Tito La Lievre. The father, Francis Tito La Lievre, was an ardent French Republican, and in the strenuous days of the Revolution commanded a French frigate. But Napoleon came on the scene, and though at first a zealous “friend of the people,” dropped his Republican principles, and in time made himself emperor of France. La Lievre, indignant at this betrayal of the cause, one held so dear by Bonaparte, sailed into an English harbor with his frigate, and offered it and himself to the British service. He was given employment in the army, and was sent to Canada to take part in the war of 1812-15, which in the end found him a colonel in the Canadian Fencibles, many of whom settled in Lanark county. His grant embraced the farm of North Elmsley, near the town [sic] now occupied by Mrs. Robinson. His sister was the second wife of Dr. Thom, and Henry La Lievre and Mrs. C. H. Gamsby, now of Florida, were therefore first cousins. Col. La Lievre was afterwards made clerk of a division court, in western Upper Canada, by his relative by marriage, Judge Small, of Toronto, and he died in that part of the province. The La Lievres were Protestants of the Huguenot type, and one branch of the family named Le Breton also came to Canada and settling in Bytown, gave the name of Le Breton Flats to a section of the city of Ottawa. Mrs. Langtry, the famous English professional beauty and actress, known as the “Jersey Lily,” whose maiden name was Lily Le Breton, from the island of Jersey, was a relative of the Canadian Le Bretons and La Lievres. The farm of the older La Lievre was that in North Elmsley, on the Smith’s Falls road, about a mile from town, now owned by Mrs. Robinson.
Henry La Lievre was a man of powerful frame and herculean strength, full of courage, handsome, reckless and not troubled with scruples where self-interest or feelings of revenge came into play. He loved turmoil and was easily interested in the affairs of others, and here was the time and opportunity : the man was ready. Judge Hughes says he harbored feelings of resentment against Wilson because he desired an intimacy with Miss Hughes, but unsuccessfully, and he imagined Wilson was the cause of his failure, and was desirous of “getting back” at Wilson by engaging him in a duel with Lyon, who was known to be a sure shot under ordinary conditions. Be this as it may, La Lievre, who was well acquainted with both parties in the quarrel, undertook, true to his disposition, to obtrude his advice upon them as to the right mode of settling their difference, urging, with his strong, persuasive powers, blended with ridicule and appeals to their courage and pride, the youths to wipe out the score by mortal combat. He was successful. Wilson sent a challenge to Lyon: the latter accepted, both very unwillingly it is said, to resort to this dreadful alternative; and a meeting with pistols was arranged for the early morning of June 13th. The weapons were regular duelling pistols, sureptitiously taken, it is said, from a store in town, and returned after the deadly issue. The summer wind blew softly among the trees, the sun shone brightly and the birds sang joyously as the young men, with beating hearts, appeared on the ground, crossing the bit of wood from the Scotch Line to the river bank. Along with Lyon came La Lievre, his fire-eating second. Wilson‘s second was a young Scotchman named Simon Fraser Robertson, son of Captain Robertson, and brother of Mrs. (Hon.) Roderick Matheson, whose position of supporter of his principal was evidently opposed to his desires, as he strove at a critical time to effect a reconcilliation between the belligerents. A surgeon, as was usual, was in attendance. This was young Mr. Reade, son of Staff-Surgeon Reade, of the regular army. He was of a family, members of which afterwards rose to eminence, one of them becoming a general of high standing in the imperial army.
The duel went on. The first fire proved harmless to either. It has been said that the pistols for this shot were loaded only with blank cartridge, but Judge Hughes claims that Wilson‘s temple was grazed and his hair brushed by a flying bullet from Lyon‘s pistol. Reade and Robertson, now did their best to have the affair end there, and Lyon was willing to apologize to Wilson, but La Lievre would not hear of it. “Load up again,” said he, and his ferocious counsel prevailed. His vindictive nature could not bear to allow the “affair of honor” to end in this bloodless way, and the pride of the young men came to his aid. The pistols were again charged, and there was no doubt this time that they were loaded with ball. When the word fire was given both weapons went off together. Lyon‘s bullet went harmlessly by, but the shot of Wilson carried death with it. Simultaneously with the report, Lyon was seen to throw up his hands, and then fall to the ground motionless. When taken up he ws dead. The bullet from Wilson‘s pistol passed under his extended arm, passed through his body, piercing the heart. Wilson and Robertson were horrified at this ending and at once gave themselves up to the authorities. Wilson was kept in Perth jail some three months, until the next Johnstown district assizes were held at Brockville, where he was tried before Chief-Justice Robinson, and acquitted. It is said that young Wilson‘s impassioned appeal to the jury was a masterpiece, and at this critical period of his career he showed himself worthy of the high standing he was to attain afterwards in law and in the judiciary.
The eastern part of Upper Canada was at that time divided into the Johnstown, Bathurst and Midland districts for judicial purposes, and the boundary between Bathurst and Johnstown ran along the Scotch Line, just outside the eastern limits of Perth. This is the reason the dueling party took that direction, for they found themselves outside the jurisdiction of Bathurst district, merely by stepping across the Scotch Line. This is also why the trial took place at Brockville.
Whatever the feelings La Lievre may have had at the result of his disappointment or of apprehension, we cannot say, but he fled the scene, and became a fugitive for a time, the exciting and impelling feelings having gone by. After a while he found his way back to Ottawa and Montreal, where his friends lived: and long years after came to Perth, his mission here being to attend the funeral of Mr. J. F. Baker, whose wife’s father, Daniel McMartin, Esq., Q.C., was one of the friends of his youth.
The body of Lyon was brought to the house of his uncle, Mr. Radenhurst, corner of Craig and Wilson streets; and his grief and rage were excessive, vowing he would shoot down Wilson were he to meet him. A sheet was procured at a neighbor’s, Mr. William Rutherford, to help envelop the corpse, and in a day or so a sad procession left the Radenhurst mansion, with the remains of young Lyon born in its midst. The funeral cortege moved down to the cemetery and the body committed to the grave, earth to earth. The interment was made in a vacant lot just in rear of the Radenhurst plot, and in close proximity to the pretentious monuments that mark their dead in the grass-grown mound, marking the lonely grave of their unfortunate relative.
Lyon’s friends in town subscribed money through the efforts of the late Mr. William Fraser, county treasurer, and with it erected a small headstone at the head of his narrow bed, commemorating the sad event as shown near the beginning of this article.
In his old age Henry La Lievre and his unmarried sister Louise left Canada for Australia to live with their sister, Mrs. (Dr.) Mount, where they both died a year or two after, weary of their exile to that faraway country. Their portraits given here were kindly loaned us by Mrs. Baker, and show strong, handsome faces, as one might expect, though taken in the evening of their life.
Mr. Wilson left town in 1834 and next year married the woman of his choice, Miss Hughes, the governess whose name was so intimately connected with the duel. The husband preceded his consort to the grave at least thirty years, the lady dying only in 1904. Wilson rose rapidly in his profession, to a high mark and was made a judge of the Superior Court. By the whirligig of fate he took his turn in holding the assizes at Perth, in the fifties, and in the course of his reply to an address presented to him by the bar of the county, he stated that “Perth was associated with some pleasant recollections and some very painful ones,” the reference being of course to the unpleasant tragedy that clouded his existence, and which he above all others could not forget.
The story of this duel has been written up many times, and various writers over the province have dealt with it differently. Mr. Charles L. Shaw, a native of this town, once gave a very interesting account of it in “Saturday Night“; and Judge Hughes, to correct some mistakes in another narrative of it, wrote a brief summary of the tragedy from his standpoint, and we think as far as he goes the story told by the judge may be relied upon as correct. His honor is yet living, but he was not in Perth at the time of the duel; and with the death of Mrs. Wilson last year the last of those directly interested in the tragic episode left the scene; only the little piece of time-stained marble at the head of the grave remains to speak of the duel and tell why he who sleeps his long sleep underneath the sod came to lie there alone, apart from his kindred.
[Transcriber’s note: the set of dueling pistols used in this duel are on permanent display at the Perth Museum].