‘Voices from Lambton’: End of prohibition, part 2

Feature, Lambton County History — By on February 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm

The Scott Act provided for a local-option statute at the city or county level which could only come into effect when approved by voters during a municipal plebiscite. Lambton’s only Scott Act regime began on 1 May 1886 and lasted for three years, causing great despair and loss of sales for local hotel-keepers.

Here in Lambton, the Lambton Scott Act Association, led by J.S. McCrae, was formed and appointed a special constable, M.S. Campbell of Watford, to try to ensure that enforcement would result in a higher conviction rate in Lambton than in other counties.

End of Prohibition – continued from last week

“Grandpa, will you tell us now about this man, Charles Hand?”

“Certainly, A.E. Just sit back and listen.”

“As you know from yesterday’s newspaper, prohibition was in effect south of the border from 1919 to 1933. But it did come much earlier here in Canada.  It was back in 1878 that the government of the Prime Minister at that time, Lambton’s own Alexander Mackenzie, was able to pass legislation called the Canada Temperance Act or Scott Act. It inflamed supporters on both sides of the debate about the evils of alcohol. But it was different from the later US prohibition.

“The Scott Act provided for a local-option statute at the city or county level which could only come into effect when approved by voters during a municipal plebiscite. Lambton’s only Scott Act regime began on 1 May 1886, after my business had already closed. It lasted for three years, causing great despair and loss of sales for local hotel-keepers.

“The Scott Act was repealed in the late 1800's. But Prohibition would again come into effect in all of Ontario for a few years following passage of the Ontario Temperance Act of 1916.

“But, you want to know about what happened back in June of ’86.

“The Lambton Scott Act Association, led by J.S. McCrae, was formed and appointed a special constable, M.S. Campbell of Watford, to try to ensure that enforcement would result in a higher conviction rate in Lambton than in other counties. They took their job real serious. Before long, lots of people was feeling bitter, including me. We did like our occasional drop then, just as I do now.

“Then, on the 9th of June, it was a Thursday, I think. Must have been ‘cause it was on the front page of The Observer the next day. It was a weekly paper then, every Friday.

“I kept me a copy. Look here. The headline read

DYNAMITE DEVILTRY

MURDEROUS ATTEMPT TO BLOW UP ONE CITIZEN’S RESIDENCE

AND BURN DOWN ANOTHERS

Desperate Tactics of Anti-Scott Act Sympathizers

“Listen. I will read it to you.”

The town was startled yesterday morning by the report that a fiendish attempt had been made to blow up the residence of Mr. J.G. McCrae and to burn down that of Mr. Thos. Houston, both of whom have been conspicuous workers in the temperance cause and energetic supporters of the Scott Act. Citizens could not at first credit the statement that such outrages had been perpetrated in our midst, but a visit to Mr. McCrae’s residence showed that the news was only too true. The verandah was a wreck; the front door had been completely destroyed and the windows shattered.

Mr. McCrae’s family were aroused about ten minutes to one by the sharp shock of an explosion and the crash of splintered wood and glass. They were bewildered and for the moment terror stricken, not knowing the cause of the explosion nor realizing the extent of the damage done. Mr. McCrae and his eldest son hastily dressing, made an investigation and the latter started for Front St. in search of the night watchman. The Chief of Police who had been previously called upon to take the night watchman’s place, was met and he was soon at the scene of the outrage.

It was found that the explosive – probably nitroglycerine or dynamite, had been placed or thrown on the front doorstep – apparently on the outer edge – as a semicircular piece was cut or crushed out of the step, as if it had been crushed by a pile driver. The floor of the verandah was shattered and the roof displaced. The front door was blown in and broken in pieces; and the side and fan lights blown into fragments like coarse powder. The parlor windows were also shattered and in fact the whole front of the house shows the effects of the explosion.

Who the perpetrators of this devilish outrage are, is of course unknown and as there are absolutely no clues to lead to their identity there is not much ground for belief that they may be discovered and their guilt established.

Mr. Savoy, who lives opposite Mr. McCrae’s was disturbed by the barking of his dog, and hearing footsteps on the sidewalk he opened his door to see what the trouble and to quiet the dog. Just as he opened the door the explosion occurred and he saw two men run away in a southerly direction. Other parties down the street, who were aroused by the shock, also saw two men running, but no one can describe the men, either as to general appearance or as to the clothes they wore.

Within two minutes of the explosion at McCrae’s, some of the men in connection with Wren’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company, who were packing up, preparatory to taking the 3: a.m. train at Point Edward, saw fire burning at the basement entrance of Mr. Thos. Houston’s residence on Christina Street. They ran at once to put the fire out and they found that it was caused by a fire ball composed of cotton soaked with petroleum and sprinkled with powder. The fire burned a hole in the woodwork of the porch and but for the presence of the show men it would soon have spread from the porch to the roof and probably caused the destruction of the building.

The coincidence of time and that the two gentlemen whose premises were made the object of these murderous attacks have been prominent advocates of the Scott Act, and had that day been engaged in efforts to induce the County Council to appoint a Police Magistrate for the trial of Scott Act cases, points to the belief that the same parties who committed the outrage at Mr. McCrae’s attempted the burning of Mr. Houston’s, and that the motive of their savagery was to wreak revenge on the Scott Act workers and intimidate others from taking an active part in enforcing the Act in this town and county. No other reason can be assigned for deliberately endeavoring to murder these men and their families. Both are highly respectable citizens, against whom no breath of scandal nor charge of wrong doing has ever been heard, and the only enmities they have engendered have ben on the part of opponents of the Scott Act. No civilized community can countenance such methods of revenge as have been used in this instance. No justification can be pleaded; no excuse offered. The citizens of Sarnia owe it to themselves and to the reputation of the town to mark their disapproval of the dastardly methods of these dynamiters and incendiaries. Citizens of all classes freely give voice to the general indignation and encourage the authorities to leave no means untried to ferret out the miscreants who perpetrated these outrages and bring them to justice. The mayor has offered a reward for the apprehension and conviction of the guilty parties and detectives should be employed to trace out the criminals.

“But what does that have to do with Charles Hand, Grandpa? Wait! I know. He must have been the dastardly perpetrator, as the newspaper called him. Right?”

“Right, A.E. It wasn’t long before an undercover detective was hired. But his identity soon became known and had to be replaced. After about forty days mingling with local people, he learned the identity of the bomber was one Charles Hand, proprietor of the Rossin House, a local hotel and establishment. Seems that Mister Hand was bragging to a man staying at his hotel, not knowing he was talking to the very detective that was seeking his identity. He even told the detective that he had some dynamite in Petrolia and pay him $25 set it off at the home of a Scott Act supporter.

“On October first, Charles Hand was taken into custody by the detective and local police at the Sarnia railway station when he stepped off the Grand Trunk train from Petrolia with dynamite and detonators.

“Held in jail pending the trial, the following March, Hands was acquitted, the jury specifying that there was not enough evidence to prove Charles Hand was guilty. Might have had something to do with the fact that several members of the jury were known to like a little nip now and then themselves.

“No one else was ever charged in this case. Hands sold his place and left town and was never heard of again in these parts.”

HISTORICAL NOTES from the author: 

The what many thought was brutal enforcement of the criminal justice system by a Mr. Campbell, the man appointed to enforce the Scott Act in Lambton County, was intolerable to local hoteliers. One of their number, Sarnian Charles Hand, tried to intimidate J.S. McCrae by dynamiting his residence in the early morning of 10 June 1886. Fortunately, no injuries resulted from the explosion and there was only minor damage.

The resulting local and international press coverage prompted the Ontario government to conduct a provincial undercover police investigation culminating in the arrest and trial of Charles Hand.

When Hand was brought to trial, a sympathetic jury of Sarnia citizens found Hand not guilty. 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Glen C. Phillips says:

    Great story! Where’d you find all the historical information?

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