Wednesday, January 5, 2011

19th Century Canadian Political Violence

The world of nineteenth-century Canadian politics could be surprisingly violent at times.  Election riots in  Newfoundland in the late century killed a number of voters due to the harsh sectarian divisions there.  The open-ballot, where one declared one's vote publicly, was considered the manly way to exercise one's right as a propertied citizen.  Due to this process, the tendency for political thugs to coerce voters with the threat of violence meant that voting could be a risky business unless you had your own mob to defend you.
Election Violence in the 1840s.

An incident recalled in J.M.S. Careless' biography of George Brown, fiery Reform party leader and editor of Toronto's Globe shows that the campaign trail could degenerate to all out brawling.  Brown was looking for re-election in Toronto in 1861, and had delivered a successful speech to a crowd of supporting liberals at St. Lawrence Hall on the 17th of June.  Two days later, however, he returned to the hall with a different environment, sharing the podium with his Conservative opponent John Crawford. No sooner had the meeting began, than it degenerated to heckling.  As the fervour of the crowd grew, the Reformers were pushed off of the stage.  Careless describes the melee that ensued as total pandemonium:
George Brown fending off a would-be assassin in 1880.  Infection from the bullet wound would later kill him.

"Highland blood up, torn coat flapping fiercely, Brown led a Liberal charge that almost reconquered the platform.  But out stepped Constable Jones of the Grand Trunk, and with a huge push tumbled them all back to the floor.  For good measure his friend Murphy swung at Brown's head with a cudgel, but Brown had rammed his hat on in the first attack and the blow smashed a good Victorian  top-hat - a useful safety helmet for the politics of the day."
More than just an elegant chapeau.

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