I occasionally contemplate how the sins of the father can effect his children. Is a man of sin, condemned to death, the only legacy of his offspring? Are they forever cursed by his wrongs in life? Perhaps not. Children should not have to pay for the crimes of their parents. They are responsible for their own actions, their own mistakes and not those of others. However, like a chain reaction, one event, one experience can set others in motion and although no one should be held responsible for the evils of their parents perhaps in the eyes of society it taints a person. A blemish one cannot hide for which one is not at fault!
My great grandfather and his siblings had to contend with this stain on their characters, born of their father’s crimes and his subsequent hanging. Though I had already learned of the fate of my great grandfather and is younger siblings I knew little of the effects on some of his older sisters. It was the tale I finally discovered of his sister Clara Ann which was to be most disheartening.
Clara was the daughter of John Carter and his first wife Elizabeth Ann Thatcher. Clara had been 12 when her mother died. Always awful to lose a mother, being an adolescent was probably that much more difficult. She was still at home when John remarried to Elizabeth Ann Alder and when she mysteriously disappeared. In 1892, at age 16 she married Henry Breakspear, ten years her senior. This was before her father had married, murdered, and been tried for the killing of Rhoda Ann Titcombe, his third wife.
Perhaps the fate of Clara had already been sewn up. Perhaps the poor choices and the harsh personality of her father lead to Clara’s choice in a husband who seems was also aggressive, and possibly weak minded, and lost in his own right.
Prior to his marriage Henry Breakspear had also had at least one run in with the law. A newspaper article details a case in which Henry was charged with having assaulted a young boy he was employed with labouring on a farm. He had struck this 15 year old boy and kicked him according to evidence given. Henry claimed he had lost his temper because of the boy’s sauciness and admitted to having assaulted him but not kicked him. The beating was allegedly severe and Henry was described as possibly half-witted. It appears Henry may have had a temper similar to that of Clara’s father!
Clara’s father John was hanged in 1893 after having been convicted of killing his third wife Rhoda. Clara had in various trials and inquests given testimony along with her siblings evidencing her fear of her father’s violent and brutal temper. Clara and Henry had a son, Edward John, in 1894 (I have yet to discover whether there were any others). It was possible that in Clara’s mind John’s execution, and now the birth of a child, would bring closure to all tragedy in her life but this was a far cry from the truth!
As though deja vu, 5 years later Clara’s would have to revisit tragic circumstances when Henry, in a state of unsound mind commits suicide by hanging and, Llewellyn Jotcham, the same coroner who investigated her father, now investigated her husband’s death. I sometimes wish Clara had left a diary. That I could peer into the depths of her soul and understand exactly what life with her husband had been but these are the frustrations of genealogy; These are the blanks we must fill with our own imaginings and emotions.
When we feel we have born all burdens in life that we can, life pierces us yet again with arrows! In 1914 World War I breaks out and England sends it’s brave and naive young men off to fight for king and country. Clara’s son Edward is now 20 and off he ventures to France and Belgium as a member of the 1st battalion, Somerset Light Infantry. Just as Clara has been cursed by tragedy in the past, she is now met with the sad end of her son’s life in its prime! Killed in action 7 Jul 1915, Edward was awarded the Victory medal and star his name appears on the Ploegsteert memorial,
Comines-Warneton, Hainaut, Belgium.
I know little nothing yet of what became of Clara after all these horrors in her life. I’d like to think she remarried, found some sort of peace. Hopefully further investigation into her life will lead to findings as these!
John McGinnis was the 3rd Great Grandfather of my husband. Son of Irish immigrants and born in Flos, Ontario, Canada on 3 Aug 1857. John was a fisherman much of his life. He moved to Collingwood, Ontario with his parents at the age of 8. He married his French Canadian wife Mary Jane Burgie 28 Dec 1877 and proceeded to have 8 children, one of whom became a ship’s captain. John was obviously well-loved and respected and his fellow fisherman nicknamed him “Daytime” due to his early rising! He was a member of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic church in Collingwood and it is in the St. Mary’s Cemetery he was laid to rest joined two years later by his wife Mary Jane. He died in Oct of 1937 at the age of 80 years.
I have yet to determine the name of John McGinnis’ mother and to trace his ancestors into Ireland. His father’s name was also John McGinnis (born abt.. 1818). Ah yes…another Irish brick wall!
Catch up! Previous posts in this series before you read “Sentences to Hang”:
The inquest verdict, “Willful murder” and the assize trial upholding this result, there was nothing left for the judge but to pass sentencing. As was the customary punishment for murder, my great-great grandfather John Carter was sentenced to hang. Just as the line of a movie, the judge was quoted as saying:
“I have nothing to do but to pass upon you the sentence of the law, and that sentence is, that you be taken to the place from whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck till you be dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
Sent to the infamous Reading Gaol to await his fate, John Carter, spent many days in prison to dwell upon his crimes, contemplate his death, and make his peace.
In Debtors’ Yard the stones are hard,
And the dripping wall is high,
So it was there he took the air
Beneath the leaden sky,
And by each side a Warder walked,
For fear the man might die.
Or else he sat with those who watched
His anguish night and day;
Who watched him when he rose to weep,
And when he crouched to pray;
Who watched him lest himself should rob
Their scaffold of its prey.
The Governor was strong upon
The Regulations Act:
The Doctor said that Death was but
A scientific fact:
And twice a day the Chaplain called,
And left a little tract.
And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
The hangman’s hands were near.
Excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s Poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897)
Tuesday December 5th, 1893 the hangman’s noose was ready. A hangman of renown and experience in England, James Billington–chief executioner of Great Britain and Ireland from 1891-1901–would be in control of the rope which encircled John’s neck and would soon violently jerk his head backward and sideways, fracture and crush his vertabrae, and soon cause him to cease breathing. 8 am John Carter was dropped! That long drop through a trap door, a perfect penance for a heinous murder, by Capital Punishment advocate standards. Billington, it was said, had a lifelong fascination with hanging. Creating model gallows in his yard, using weights and dummies, and rumoured use of neighbourhood strays. Perhaps the pleasure he took in his job was a sign of a psychy as perverse as that of his “clients”.
And he of the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.
The man in red who reads the Law
Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
His soul of his soul’s strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
The hand that held the knife.
Excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s Poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897)
John Carter –in an amazing twist of events which opens old wounds– confesses to another crime. He confesses to the prison chaplain–in his weakest moments and final hours of life–to the murder of his second wife Elizabeth Alder-Carter! He describes where he had, years prior, unceremoniously and hastily buried her body. Having no reason to offer a confession, perhaps John felt remorse or perhaps he wished to save his soul from damnation–a secret wish for redemption.
John then took the final walk, a walk to the gallows, a walk ending in the swing from a rope! His body was laid to rest or unrest on the Reading prison grounds. The police however had a new investigation ahead of them, another body to discover.
Once again I must reiterate how tantalizingly thrilling it can be to find an ancestor with an atypical occupation. Scanning census after census which lists individuals as farm labourers or just generic labourers can become tedious. But then one stumbles upon boat builder or light house keeper and the research potential begins to open into a new vista of possibilities! Yes, a lighthouse keeper! While researching an making headway climbing out on a branch of my husband’s tree–just newly sprung– I discovered quite by accident, 4th great grand uncle Charles Berger (Burgie). Born in Penetanguishene, Ontario in 1834, the son of French-Canadian Joseph Burgie and possibly a First Nations (Native) mother, Charles was one of 8 children. Voyageur and First Nations blood heavy in his veins. Of fishing and hunting/trapping stock he was well suited to the great outdoors by land or sea so employment pursuits such as ship building, and lighthouse keeping in later life seem a natural fit.
Listed as a Labourer on census records until 1891 when he was a boat builder and then in 1901 a corker (I have yet to understand this but believe it may also be related to boat building), Charles was married to Angeline Dusumme and had nine children. His race on Canadian census records was listed as FB (French Breed) a term referring to “Half breed”, a Metis individual of French and Native parentage. In 1911 he is listed without an occupation on the census. He was retired and living with his grandchild’s family. Local history though indicates that he became the first lighthouse keeper in Victoria Harbour, Simcoe, Ontario when the Canadian government built a lighthouse there in 1910.
Used as a beacon for ships transporting passengers and freight for the Canadian Pacific Railway and to guide ships safely to the Port McNicholl grain terminal and the Victoria Harbour lumber mills, this lighthouse was originally one of a pair. It was the lighthouse keeper’s important responsibility to keep the wicks to the kerosene lamps of the lighthouses lit. The second lighthouse–ironically located on “Bergie Point” quite possibly the name sake of another ancestor–was replaced later by a more modern tower but the other still exists as a heritage site. The lighthouse was actually in use until 1968, Charles however only worked there from 1910 to 1912. His time there ended tragically!
29 April 1912 Charles Burgie, at the age of 79, died. His death certificate reads:
“Accidental death from falling down stairs while intoxicated. Fell down stairs while lighting the main range light on Bergie point.”
Wow! A prime example of the significance of my seemingly morbid fascination with the details of death registers and documentation! I am not sure if this cause of death is an example of great dedication or glaring incompetence but it definitely makes for an interesting anecdote!