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Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Trial in London

The twelve Patriots on trial in London were confined at Newgate, a prison that had stood at the same location in London for at least 600 years and was rebuilt four times over the centuries. An imposing fortress with walls several feet thick, Newgate was well known for the public hangings of earlier years that were held just outside the prison walls and always attended by hundreds of people. The corridors and dungeons inside admitted barely any outside light; however, the Patriot prisoners were allowed daily access to the inner courtyard, which was open to the sky. Each day, beginning on January 14th, 1839, the twelve were handcuffed in pairs and transported in carriages from Newgate to Westminster Hall, two miles away. Here, for the next several weeks, they attended the Court of the Queen’s Bench. In the courtroom, crowded with one hundred and fifty barristers, dressed in their gowns and wigs, and a throng of spectators, Lord Denham presided as Chief Justice. Attorney General Campbell, Solicitor General Pollock, and Mr. Wightman were counsel for the crown. Matthew D. Hill, John A. Roebuck, and Thomas Falconer were counsel for the twelve prisoners, who entered or left the court each day to the cheers of a sympathetic crowd outside.(1)

A few weeks earlier, when the prisoners first arrived at Liverpool, two prominent radical reformers, Joseph Hume and John Arthur Roebuck, took an interest in their case, and immediately applied for writs of habeas corpus on behalf of the nine men taken at Toronto, as well as three of the Short Hills prisoners (Linus Miller, William Reynolds, and John Grant.) The main focus of the trial, however, was the group of nine Toronto prisoners, who had never been tried, specifically Leonard Watson and Randall Wixon. These two cases were the only ones heard, and stood to represent the cases of all twelve.(2) Watson was standing before a judge for the first time since his arrest a year earlier. Mr. Hill argued that the prisoner was not convicted. The crown answered: “The prisoner had petitioned and a pardon was granted, that pardon being transportation for life.”(3) Mr. Hill replied: “How could the governor of the province grant a pardon without a conviction? Only the Queen could grant a pardon!” One of the greatest injustices involved those who, like Randall Wixon, were not tried at all, but who petitioned under the Pardoning Act.(4) Wixon had petitioned Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head, confessing his guilt, and praying that pardon might be extended to him. Sir Francis consented to ‘mercy’ on condition of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land for 14 years to commence at the date of his arrival in the colony.(5) Mr. Roebuck argued that it was illegal for the prisoners to receive punishment by contract and without a trial. The judgment of the Queen’s Bench in both cases was to uphold the sentence of the Canadian Province.

Both cases were appealed at the Court of the Exchequer at St. James in April. James and his comrades being detained at Portsmouth were anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Patriot trials in London. Any concession granted by the court would, no doubt, be extended to them as well. But the second trial resulted in the same decision: the sentence handed down in Upper Canada was valid.(6)

After further deliberation concerning the nine untried prisoners, two choices were left—try them for treason under a faulty sentence, or let them go. Considering the inequity of the Pardoning Act and the resulting public reaction, Her majesty’s government decided to let them go “on Condition of their entering into their own recognizance not to return to Canada, nor to appear within Fifty Miles of the Canadian Frontier.” The document of pardon (July 9, 1839) originally included the names of Linus Miller and John Grant, but the next day their names were removed. The other nine were pardoned. Miller and Grant had been tried by a criminal court and “thus could be legally restrained in Van Diemen’s Land.” Also, having already transported other Short Hills prisoners, a pardon for Miller and Grant would open the door to lawsuits from those already in Van Diemen’s Land.(7)

United States ambassador to the Court of St. James, Andrew Stevenson, intervened on behalf of William Reynolds, who was then granted a free pardon on account of his being the youngest of the Patriot prisoners. (In reality Linus Miller was three years younger, but Reynolds had stated at his capture that he was only eighteen years old.) Ambassador Stevenson tried to procure that same pardon for Miller but was unsuccessful. The pardon of Reynolds and the nine untried prisoners left Miller and Grant, the only two of the twelve brought before the Queen’s Bench to be denied a pardon. During those six long months at Newgate they had hoped for freedom. But according to Miller: “Better had it been for us if those hopes had never been awakened, than that they should have been so cruelly blasted, after being cherished for so long and anxious a period.” On July 14th Linus Miller and John Grant were transported from London to Portsmouth, where they joined Gemmell and Beemer on the York Hulk.(8) Miller and Grant were sent to Portsmouth before any further petition could be prepared. In Van Diemen’s Land any complaints or appeals would be futile, and they would be well beyond the reach of any sympathetic public opinion. (9)

Throughout the London trial, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, James still held out hope for his own release. One final shred of hope came from John G. Parker. He was one of the pardoned men, and one who earlier had escaped from Fort Henry, but was recaptured. Parker’s first concern as a free man was for his friends. He immediately wrote a letter to Linus Miller in which he pledged to lobby for the freedom of the four still imprisoned at Portsmouth:

I cannot express to you the pain I felt on hearing of your departure from Newgate for Portsmouth on the Monday following my liberation. I called on Mr. Francis Hall on Saturday evening—the day I was liberated—but he was not at his lodgings, and I could not see him until Monday morning; I then called on him early, and breakfasted with him, and urged him to see Mr. Stevenson(10) and Mr. Webster(11) in your behalf. Immediately after breakfast he went to see Mr. S. Mr. Webster was out of town to some watering place, but Mr. Hall said he would see him as early as possible and have an interview with him, and endeavor to interest him in your behalf… for without their [their lawyers] efforts, we who have been discharged would now be in the same boat with you; whereas, if the government had discharged all, including you, Grant, Gemmell and Beemer, on the ground of mercy, they would have taken away that lustre from the acts of our lawyers that now so much shines upon them. Mr. Hume told me that he should never lose sight of you, and he hoped that steps would be taken in Parliament to procure the liberation of all under sentence of transportation.

Do not think that I have forgotten or shall forget you. I do not know in what way I may be useful to you, or your fellows. Should any opportunity occur of enabling me to do so, be assured it shall be my greatest pleasure. Give my respects to your fellow prisoners, and may God bless and keep you safely. May you put your trust in Him, and may He be your deliverer.

Your sincere friend,


  1. Miller, pp. 132, 141.
  2. Colin Read, p. 118; Pybus, “Patriot Exiles in Van Diemen’s Land,” p. 190.
  3. Miller, pp. 142-145.
  4. “A London [Ontario] petitioner subsequently complained that he had not known that a petition ‘was tantamount to an acknowledgement of guilt.’ Had he, he would have opted for a trial. The statute (Pardoning Act) had induced many innocents to confess. (Read, p.119.)
  5. Miller, p. 185.
  6. Linus Miller gives a detailed summary of the trials. See Miller, pp. 137-219.
  7. Pybus, “Patriot Exiles in Van Diemen’s Land,” pp 191-192; Read, p. 118; Wait, p. 113.
  8. Linus W. Miller, pp. 218-21, 223.
  9. Pybus, “Patriot Exiles in Van Diemen’s Land,” p. 192; Wait, p. 111.
  10. Andrew Stevenson, the United States ambassador to the Court of St. James, London (1836-41.) The first ambassador (1785) was John Adams.
  11. This is probably Daniel Webster. “In the summer of 1839 Webster, with his wife and daughter, Julia, …made a private visit to England. He was everywhere received in all the highest circles of intellect and culture, as no American had ever been received there before.” (See Webster’s Speeches, pub. 1897, p. xi) He was likely aware of the plight of the American prisoners at Newgate, but would have had no authority to influence the decisions of the Queen’s Bench. Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was an American orator and politician who practiced prominently as a lawyer before the U.S. Supreme Court, served as a U.S. Congressman and Senator from Massachusetts, and became Secretary of State (1841).
  12. Miller, pp. 219-221.

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