July 16, 2014

Strike terror in all – The Bloody Assize

In 1814, Lieutenant-General Drummond sought new powers from the legislature of Upper Canada. Drummond’s early victories provided him with much influence in the legislature and the fact that three of its members, Benajah Mallory, Abraham Markle and Joseph Willcocks, had defected to the U.S., the legislature was willing to concede to Drummond’s demands.

Drummond suspended habeas corpus and introduced a new law to confiscate land from traitors, or anyone who did not swear an oath of allegiance or had fled the province. Despite these new laws, Drummond sought to punish traitors with the hangman’s noose. In May 1814, a grand jury indicted 70 men, but only 19 were in custody when the trial began on June 7. By June 21, one dying man pleaded guilty, and the jury convicted 14 more for treason.

One of the men convicted was Aaron Stevens, a former Indian Department official and farmer from Newark. In the summer of 1813, Stevens acted as a spy for the Americans and he even helped to defend the U.S. camp at Fort George. The attorney general, John Beverley, described him as “a man formerly in the confidence of the Government, of respectable family and property, convicted of having acted as a spy for the enemy.”

Another man accused was Jacob Overholser from Fort Erie. Overholser was a  40 year old illiterate who had lived in Upper Canada for only four years. During the American occupation of Fort Erie in 1813, Overholser turned to an American officer for redress when four neighbours stole his horse and threatened to burn his barn. Overholser’s neighbours later reported him to the British who convicted him of treason to show that no personal feud could trump the demands of the government for loyal service. Even John Beverley though the case was not that important, describing Overholser as “not a man of influence or enterprise, and it is though acted as he did from motives of personal enmity.”

The British wanted to have enough executions to demonstrate the power of the government and enough pardons to show that the government had mercy. Chief Justice Scott explained, “Example is the chief end of punishment & that the punishment of a few would have an equal, & I even think a more salutary effect in this province than the punishment of many.” He went on to comment that some would need to be executed as examples to “strike terror in all.”

The Ancaster court, or the Bloody Assize as it was later known, sentenced all 15 to hang but delayed punishment to allow some to be pardoned. Seven convicts, including Overholser, received a suspended sentence that included exile for life and the confiscation of their property. Those pardoned were sent to Kingston to await deportation. One escaped during transport and the remaining six were placed in the crowded, cold and filthy jail in Kingston where three of them died from typhoid fever, including Overholser.

At Burlington Heights on July 20, 1814, the British executed eight people, including Aaron Stevens. The condemned stood in wagons beneath a quickly built gallows when horses moved forward, leaving the condemned to strangle to death. As they struggled, a beam broke loose striking one man in the head, killing him instantly. Once all the convicted were dead, their heads were cut off and put on display.

Drummond concluded that the executions had produced “the most Salutary effects among the people … throughout the Province.” Drummond showed that disaffection in the province would no longer be tolerated.

1 comment:

  1. Aaron (Arent) Stevens had been a Loyalist who was Commassary to Joseph Brant in the Indian Affairs dep't of Buttler's Rangers. His Father Nicholas, Brother John came up from Schenectady to join as Nicholas was a magistrate and had previously sworn an oath to the British. Nicholas and John died in service Arent had 13 kids by the war of 1812 and had been petitioning the British for years to acquire his brothers and fathers land which they had not recieved. The British were uncooperative and this probably contributed to his turning. Colonel Buttler had even written a letter on his behalf to no avail. Arent enlisted as a 52 year old retired officer at the onset of the war of 1812. I'd love to know where they burried him as I'm his 5th great grandson. Anyone know?? I found the grave of my 4rth great Grandfather , Arent's son Johannes, he also died in 1814, not at the assige though,I wonder if he was killed off once they discovered his father was a traitor.

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