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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Letter to the New York Plebeian

William Lyon Mackenzie

After his arrival James stayed just one week in New York City. During that time he was overwhelmed with visitors anxious to hear about his experiences and to learn any news of their friends still imprisoned in Van Diemen’s Land. Mr. Bennett and Mr. Greeley continued to attend to his needs and “published all the scraps of information he could give them.”(1)  As soon as he could, James attempted to locate his brother Robert, as well as Mr. William Lyon Mackenzie. (Robert was supposedly living in New York at the time: “About ten years ago my brother Robert was apprenticed to a New York book binder. I am extremely desirous to obtain his present address.”(2))   James met a Canadian refugee who directed him to the home of Mackenzie at 401 Houston Street.(3)  Mackenzie, the former mayor of Toronto, former newspaper editor, and the political leader of the Upper Canadian rebellion, was likely a hero and a mentor to young James. This reunion between the two men resulted in a letter to the New York Plebeian.

It has generally been accepted that James Gemmell wrote the article “Two Years in Van Diemen’s Land”, published in the New York Plebeian in two installments on June 25 and 28, 1842. Further research indicates that it was actually written by William Lyon Mackenzie. No doubt it was based on his interview with Gemmell, but the rhetoric definitely belongs to Mackenzie: “The piece could not have been written by Gemmell, who was barely literate; it bore the imprint of the Canadian rebel leader, William Lyon Mackenzie, who had arranged its publication.”(4)  The following excerpt from the first paragraph of the Plebeian letter is an example of Mackenzie's prose: 

My desire is to interest in the benevolent, true-hearted, and kind people of America and Britain, and thro' them their respective governments, for the liberation and restoration to their friends, families and homes, of my truly unfortunate companions who yet remain in captivity on Van Dieman's Land; and as I am the first of the Canadian or American prisoners taken at Prescott, Windsor, or the Short Hills, who has been enabled by the blessings of a kind Providence, to escape from the terrors of that far-distant prisonhouse to earnestly entreat the editors of newspapers of all parties, to lay the statement I am enabled to make before their respective subscribers and readers.(5)

Typical of Mackenzie, the “wiry and peppery little Scotsman”(6) and passionate politician, the article seems to have been written with a political agenda in mind:  to agitate for the immediate release of his comrades still in captivity. He attempts to stir up public sympathy for their plight with stories of floggings:

With the exception of the venerable Chauncy Sheldon, now 70 years of age,(7) who commanded a troop of horse [sic] under General Van Reselaer, in the last war on the frontier, I scarcely remember one American or Canadian who has not been flogged by felons, from two dozen of lashes with the cat-of-nine tails, up to six dozen.(8)

The Plebeian article claims that James Gemmell was flogged twice, and names at least seven others who were flogged. There is no evidence to support this claim:

This seems to have been written to stir up public feeling. No mention of flogging is to be found on the individual convict records and several narratives, like Snow, expressly say they were not flogged. It is not clear whether this was on a directive from HM government or from Franklin. The narratives suggest individual magistrates chose not to have the politicals flogged.(9)

In a somewhat self-serving comment about the fiasco at the siege of Toronto (1837), Mackenzie quoted James as saying:

I parted with Mackenzie when he and Colonel Lount separated, after the Defeat, near Shepards mills, and never saw him again until one of the refugees directed me to his home in this city, a week ago. I saw that he faithfully performed his duty behind Toronto, and if some who do not know, have blamed him in the United States, I am sure that those who were his companions cannot have done so.(10)

As an agitator, Mackenzie successfully drew crowds of supporters, but as evidenced by the outcome of the rebellion, “his forte was passion, not necessarily planning.”  Some called it Mackenzie’s “Comedy of Errors.” He lacked the “patience and prudence needed to organize and effectively command large forces of fighters.” At Toronto he was not willing to relinquish his command to his experienced military leader, Van Egmond.(11)

Perhaps the Plebeian letter was Mackenzie’s chance to bring closure to the events of the rebellion. Using his natural gifts as an orator, he pled for immediate release of the Patriot prisoners in VDL. At the same time he assured both the Canadian and the United States governments that their release would not pose a threat to the peace and security of Canada, and issued a warning to England to rule in Canada with a lighter hand:

My object is to state the plain facts, leaving to better informed men the task of applying them; but I may venture to remark, that it would surely be better for England to govern gently in Canada, and thereby gain the affections of the people, than to be careless there, and keep some hundreds of honest, well-meaning men, who sought to get or give relief from a government acknowledged by the authorities of that nation to have been very wicked, 18,000 miles from their homes, miserable, and among the most degraded of God's creation, under the pretext that their release would involve a million and a half of colonists in revolt.(12)

Mackenzie made a final appeal to the United States government and then signed James Gemmell’s name:

In concluding I would again entreat every friend of humanity to endeavor to get the United States government to interest itself in the matter of my unfortunate comrades…those manly hearts which now beat on a far distant shore with fond and anxious confidence and hope that they will yet find opportune friends and deliverers in the land of Washington.

Acknowledging very respectfully your kindness in the publication of these letters,

I remain your humble servant,

57 West Broadway
New York, June 28, 1842.(13)

For the benefit of their families, James reported the names of the seventy-six Patriot prisoners he left behind (most of whom were United States citizens) and their condition when he last saw them. Most were in good health; some were dead.  Fourteen Patriots had died as a direct result of their brutal treatment on the work gangs in VDL or on the voyage.(14)  Of the fourteen prisoners who had been together since their capture at the Short Hills, James mentioned nine (including himself) that were in good health at the time of his escape: “George B. Cooley, Benj. Waite, Sam'l Chandler, Norman Mallory, John Vernon, of Markham; John Grant, of Toronto; and Jacob Beemer (the informer), all of Canada; James Waggoner of Lewistown."(15)  (James didn’t know that Wait and Chandler had escaped.) There were five others. William Reynolds was pardoned in London and returned home. Linus Miller was still held at Port Arthur. John J. McNulty, Alexander McLeod, and Garret Van Camp, who were transported on the Marquis of Hastings, all died soon after their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land. McNulty died the first day after arrival from the effects of the poor diet and harsh conditions on the voyage. The next day McLeod died of a quick consumption. Three weeks later Van Camp died from a rupture and other injuries he received while hauling a heavy cartload of wood.(16)

The story of James Gammell’s escape from Van Diemen’s Land proved to be one of the big newspaper “scoops” of the day. A week later the Plebeian letter was reprinted in the Jeffersonian, Watertown, New York, on 4 July 1842. Other newspapers on the frontier continued to pick up the story, including the Northern Journal, Lowville, New York, July 14, 1842. A year later it was reprinted in the Michigan State Gazette, Jackson, Michigan, June 1843.
  1. Wheeler, “The Late James Gemmell”.
  2. NY Plebeian, transcript, p. 12. Nothing more is known about Robert. He has not been identified in later censuses.
  3. NY Plebeian, transcript, pp. 11-12.
  4. Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 162.
  5. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 1.
  6. Wilson, W. R., Historical Narratives of Early Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie, Part 2,
  7. Sheldon, age 57 in 1839, was probably in his early 60’s. (See Pybus, American Citizens, p. 232.)
  8. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 3.
  9. Pybus, “Snow narrative”, part II, note #22.
  10. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 11.
  11. and
  12. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 10.
  13. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 12.
  14. NY Plebeian, transcription, pp. 8-9; Pybus, “Snow narrative”, part I. Note #16.
  15. NY Plebeian, transcription, pp. 8-9.
  16. Wait, pp. 127-129; Miller, p. 257-259.   

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