With a multiplicity of irony, a long-buried symbol of early Toronto life has drawn attention to the extreme repercussions of gossip.
It’s as if the Law Society of Upper Canada’s first Treasurer is speaking from the grave about the consequences of ill-considered words, now that remains of his killer’s elegant home are being unearthed and catalogued, making way for a newspaper headquarters.
John White’s life and career were cut short in a duel sparked by nasty gossip. White had been appointed Attorney General of Upper Canada in December 1791. At the Law Society’s first meeting, in what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake, White was elected treasurer. He held that position for one year.
Little is known of his duties and activities as Treasurer, but it is clear he did not hold the colony’s denizens in high regard. He wrote of their lack of rationality and backwardness, according to Law Society archives. White considered himself to have been “banished” to the fledgling province.
Meanwhile, John Small revelled in his social standing, often from the front door of Berkeley House. It was smack in the heart of early York’s social scene and not far from the centre of “Muddy York” politics — an ideal setting for the clerk of Upper Canada’s executive council.
After the men’s wives slighted, or were slighted by, each other at a social function, White approached an indiscreet colleague with vicious gossip and sexual innuendo about Small’s wife. That incident led to a duel between the two men, each defending his own and his spouse’s honour. Re-enactments of that early January, 1800 duel took place at both Osgoode and Niagara in 1997, marking the LSUC bicentennial.
White died in agony the next day. At his murder trial a few weeks later, Small was acquitted. No witnesses had seen the fatal shot, apparently. The district sheriff had been Small’s “second” at the duel, enlisted to oversee the proper gentlemanly procedure.
It is said that Small had a long and prosperous career as a bureaucrat, long in the favour of the Family Compact that controlled Upper Canada.
In three years or so, the Globe and Mail Centre will stand 17 storeys high, on the site Small’s home. An archeologist is surveying the newly unearthed remains, logging such items as inkwells, a gravy boat, an Albany Club plate and a Bank of Montreal penny.
City planning laws require developers to undertake archeological assessments in heritage areas, including the King-Jarvis-Gerrard-Front area. It’s one of the earliest-settled parts of what is now downtown Toronto. The Town of York was just 10 years old when its first, and possibly most famous, duel took place.
In another twist, Toronto Globe (precursor to the Globe & Mail) editor George Brown (“Downtown George Brown”), a Reformist and anti-slavery campaigner, was shot not far from the scene of the current archeological work.
A former employee shot Brown in the leg as he worked in his Globe office. Gangrene set in. Brown, the politician-turned-editor, died seven weeks later, on May 9, 1880. His statue stands outside the main portico of the Provincial Legislature. He’s buried in the Necropolis Cemetery, on the edge of Cabbagetown.
The last fatal duel in Canada was also sparked by gossip about a woman’s reputation. In Perth, Ontario, in 1833, Robert Lyon challenged John Wilson to a pistol duel after a quarrel over remarks made about a local school teacher. Wilson later married the teacher.
Challenging someone to duel, or taking part in one, is illegal in Canada.
Globe & Mail article