Click on this image to order the book

Click on this image to order the book
The book version of James Gammell's life story is now available. Click on this image.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Trial at Niagara (Part I)

Just a few days after James Gammell and the other captives were transported to the jail at Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake), they were suddenly moved again—this time to Toronto, aboard the steamer Experiment. The British had gotten wind of a rumor that the Patriots were planning to attack on Independence Day, July 4th, and could possibly storm the jail in an attempt to rescue their captured comrades. The rumors proved to be false, so on July 14th the prisoners were transported back to Niagara to stand trial. While at the Toronto jail, they had been visited by Sir George Arthur, then the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. In a most severe tone, he had “advised us to make our peace with heaven, as our time on earth was short.”(1)

A special court session was quickly convened at the District Court of Niagara. Arthur was determined to execute someone quickly as an example and warning to all those on both sides of the border who were involved in the Patriot cause. He chose an American, Colonel James Morreau of Pennsylvania. He would be the first to be tried and executed under the new Lawless Aggressions Act, passed just six months earlier: (2)

The Lawless Aggressions Act was passed in January 1838 to deal with Patriot raiders. Lawless aggression was a rough equivalent to treasonable levying of war, and, although foreigners owed no allegiance, when they joined traitorous British subjects in armed hostilities, they could be tried for a felony offence in the criminal courts as several Short Hills prisoners were…Lieutenant Governor Arthur…decided to try the Short Hills prisoners indicted under the felony provision by regular criminal trial. Solicitor General Draper found himself justifying this decision to Lord Durham, who evidently wanted the raiders dealt with expeditiously…When the Court of Special Commission…opened on 18 July [1838] at Niagara amidst cries for blood, Arthur had already confided his opinion to Sir John Colborne, commander of the forces in the Canadas, that “the Ringleaders must be punished with severity.” He had already told Durham on 27 June that…at least four should be executed. Transportation of lesser convicts would subdue the like-minded. (3)

Morreau was tried without a proper legal defense and convicted in short order by a packed jury. Judge Jonas Jones presided at the trials, and William Henry Draper was prosecutor for the crown. Judge Jones delivered the sentence:

The sentence of the court is, that you, James Morrow [Morreau], be taken to the jail from whence you came, and from thence, on Monday, the thirtieth day of this present month, to the place of execution; and between the hours of eleven and one, you be hanged by the neck until you are dead; and may God have mercy on your soul.” (4)

The court granted Morreau’s final request that Linus Miller occupy the cell with him until the execution. For the next ten days Morreau determined to prepare himself, and Miller did his best to offer strength and comfort. Morreau was confident that as a Patriot he had done his duty in a righteous cause, but he also knew that in his personal life he had violated the laws of God. He and Miller spent many hours in prayer, scripture study, and conversation about the principles of Christianity. Born into a wealthy Irish family, most of his friends were Catholic, but “he was a stranger to the consolations of religion, which he now so much needed.” Clergymen of various denominations visited him, but he told them that time was too precious to argue points of doctrine. He asked them only “to point him to Christ.” For many days he suffered great mental distress. He told Linus Miller:

I have spent my whole life in the pursuit of pleasure, utterly regardless of the claims of the Savior of mankind to my affections and services, and now, when death is staring me in the face, can it be that He can forgive? …On the evening of the 27th, he told me he could not close his eyes again until assured that his sins were pardoned, and accordingly spent the whole time, until midnight, in earnest prayer. It was an affecting sight to see that man upon his knees in the condemned cell, beseeching the Almighty to wash and cleanse his heart from sin, and prepare him for the solemn event which was so soon to take place. (5)

About three o’clock in the morning, Miller awoke to find Colonel Morreau still on his knees. Tears of joy were streaming down his face. Having received an assurance of pardon for his own sins, he was asking God to forgive those who were about to take his life. He also prayed for the cause of liberty in Canada, for his brothers and sisters, and for his betrothed, and for his fellow captives. And then he fell asleep. The next night, his last one on earth, he slept peacefully. Monday, July 30, was a solemn and painful day for the entire group: “There was not one in our little company who did not esteem and love him [Morreau].” Miller knelt with him in prayer one last time in their cell. They embraced, and then the door was opened. As Morreau exited the cell, his comrades, Gammell, Grant, Reynolds, and all the others, were lined up double file in the hallway. They wept as he passed between them. He bid farewell with the wave of his handkerchief and disappeared from view: “About two minutes of the most painful silence ensued, when we heard the fatal drop! And without a struggle Colonel James Morrow passed from the gallows to Heaven!”(6)
  1. Linus W. Miller, pp. 61-63.
  2. Miller, p. 64.
  3. Colin Read, “The Treason Trials of 1838 in Western Upper Canada.” Canadian State Trials, Vol. II: Rebellion and Invasion in the Canadas, 1837-1839. Toronto, 2002, pp. 109-11. Read states: “The records for the Niagara trials are quite good…with at least three separate accounts extant of each—the judge’s notes, the report prepared for Sheriff Hamilton of Niagara, and stories in the Niagara Reporter.”
  4. Miller, p. 73.
  5. Miller, pp. 74-76.
  6. Miller, pp. 76-80.

No comments:

Post a Comment