Monday, March 25, 2013

# 37 ~ George Brown and The Globe Newspaper, Then and Now

On March 25, 1880, George Brown was working away in his office at King and Victoria streets, when he was interrupted by a deranged and alcoholic former employee, George Bennett.  Bennett, a press operator, had actually been by fired by one of the newspaper's foremen, but decided to take his grievances out on George Brown, who owned the newspaper.  Bennett became violent, and produced a pistol.  The two men scuffled, and Brown managed to push down on the hand in which Bennett held his gun.  The gun went off, and George Brown was shot in the leg.  George Brown was taken to his home at the northwest corner of Baldwin and Beverley streets, and the bullet was removed from his leg.  For some time, it seemed as though Brown would recover, but infection set in, as it often did, and George Brown died in his home a few weeks later, on May 9, 1880.
NOW : George Brown's house still stands, at the corner of Beverley and Baldwin streets.
George Brown was certainly in the upper echelon of important Victorian Canadians. Like many prominent Canadians of his generation, he was born in Scotland, on November 29, 1818. He came to Canada in 1843 by way of New York. That same year, he established a newspaper called the Banner, but it was The Globe, which he began the following year, in 1844, that would establish Brown's career as a journalist. The Globe quickly established George Brown's reputation as a Reformer, and in 1848, he was appointed to lead an enquiry into improper behaviour at the Provincial Penitentiary in Kingston. As a result of Brown's report, the penitentiary's warden, Henry Smith, was eventually dismissed. It was at this time, through his report, that Brown also earned the ire of John A. Macdonald. Although Brown and Macdonald would become two of the leading Fathers of Canadian Confederation, the two men would never enjoy a friendship.
Macdonald became an early conservative folk hero, while Brown spurred on the creation of what would become today's Liberal Party of Canada. Brown was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada in 1851, an would spend the next several years organizing and leading the “Clear Grit”, or Liberal, Party. Small government, the separation of religion and politics, and representation by population were all political platforms that were supported by George Brown.
THEN : This monument to George Brown was put up on the front lawn of Ontario's Legislative Assembly in the years following Brown's death.
We like to think of racial equality as a fine and altruistic Canadian virtue, but it is an issue that's been with us ever since the defeat of Montcalm at the Plains of Abraham wiped the French Crown from North America. These days, just skimming through the headlines of The Globe and Mail – the newspaper that grew out of The Globe – will demonstrate that the demons of the language issue are still alive and well in Canada. Back in the 1840s and 1850s, the English speaking population of what was then Canada West (now, Ontario) was growing, and the French speaking population of what is now Quebec was being left behind. However, both provinces had an equal number of representatives. Brown believed that the larger English speaking population should have more representation, because they were in the majority. Brown was often critical of the sway that the French Roman Catholic population held over English speaking Protestants in Canada West. In one particularly antagonistic quote, he lamented that English speakers had a “base vassalage to French-Canadian Priestcraft”. Try that one out today on Pauline Marois and see where it gets you.
In contrast to his views on Francophones and Roman Catholics, George Brown was known as a great leader in the abolitionist movement. His editorials in The Globe were heavily critical of American slavery. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law came into being in the United States, and it meant that slaves who had escaped to those parts of America where slavery was not in practice could be returned to their owners. George Brown reacted by helping to set up the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada. Meetings were held at the newly opened St. Lawrence Hall, and many famous abolitionists from America, Canada and the United Kingdom came to give addresses at the hall. George Brown's efforts to rid the North American continent of slavery earned him the votes of many black Canadians.
THEN : St. Lawrence Hall, 1859.  In 1850, abolitionists from across the globe met at St. Lawrence Hall, and Toronto would serve as a haven for escaped American slaves for decades.  The dividing lines for our intolerance in Toronto were more subtle - Roman Catholics, especially Irish Roman Catholics were often mistreated in Toronto.  In this photograph, one can see the sign for "St Patrick's Hall" on what is the east side of the building.  While the decent, Protestant population of Toronto could use the main rooms of St. Lawrence Hall, the Roman Catholics had to use a smaller room, St. Patrick's Hall, within the building.  Roman Catholics were even forbidden to enter in the main doors.
Dusk would set on George Brown's career as a journalist and politician on the afternoon of March 25th, 1880. But what would spur on George Bennett's attempt to assassinate Brown? When Bennett had taken up employment at The Globe, five years earlier, he'd been a decent enough employee. In the interim, though, he'd descended into alcoholism and was accused of beating the woman he lived with (there is no clear indication as to whether or not they'd actually ever been married). George Bennett was eventually sacked from the engineering department of The Globe for being drunk on the job, and he spent the afternoon before shooting George Brown lurking around the newspaper's offices in a similarly inebriated state.
THEN : The Globe office was located at the northeast corner of King and Victoria streets.
During the course of that afternoon, Bennett had altercations with several newspaper employees. He sought out the paper's chief engineer, who had appeared as a witness in court when Bennett's domestic partner had filed charges of abandonment. Later, Bennett was in the press room, but was soon evicted. He spent the next while running throughout the building, carrying a pistol in his pocket and a number of letters that he had penned, telling of his own perceived martyrdom and threatening plots for vengeance. It was a classic case of today's disgruntled employee tragedies transposed 133 years back in time.
THEN : George Bennett.
Bennett appeared in George Brown's office at about 4 o'clock. Closing the door behind him, Bennett was now alone with Brown. It seems that George Brown had little or no idea who George Bennett actually was; Brown was irritable at having been disturbed, an it was only as Bennett became more and more unhinged that Brown realized something was wrong. It was then that Bennett pulled out his pistol, and shot Brown in the leg.
THEN : The shot that took weeks to end George Brown's life.  Who said Canadian political history is boring?
George Brown was whisked off for medical attention and George Bennett was arrested. The next morning, The Globe ran the following news story :
Yesterday afternoon one of the most seditious and dastardly attempts at murder ever made in this city took place in the private office of the Hon. George Brown in the Globe Building. Fortunately, owning mainly to Mr. Brown’s presence of mind and superior physical strength, the attempt was unsuccessful, the only results being a severe flesh wound to the thigh and the nervous prostration which is the inevitable result of such an encounter. Had the miscreant who made the murderous assault been a little more prompt in taking his aim, or had the pistol been of a different construction, the attempt could hardly have resulted so favourably, for he persisted in his efforts to effect his bloody purpose until he was overpowered and the weapon was wrenched from his grasp.
Immediately after the shooting, newspaper bulletins told off Brown's recovery. For Brown, it was “business as usual” and he had business associates gather round his bedside. But, as infection set in, the optimism for Brown's recovery dwindled, and he died at about 2 o'clock in the morning of May 9, 1880. George Bennett was now a murderer. Bennett stood trial on June 22nd and it only took a jury two hours to deliver a verdict of “guilty”. Bennett was sentenced to hang.
George Bennett lamented the fact that he'd committed his crime while intoxicated, stating that he'd never meant to murder anyone. He nonetheless accepted his fate, and was executed just before 8 o'clock in the morning of July 23rd.
A few days after he died, George Brown was laid to rest in the Necropolis Cemetery. In contrast, George Bennett's corpse was unceremoniously dumped in a mass grave outside the Toronto Jail (more commonly known as the “Don Jail”). A 2009 documentary, called “The Hangman's Graveyard”, tells of the archaeological dig that uncovered several remains outside the “Don Jail”. The remains of George Bennett were among those recovered.

THEN : George Brown.

NOW : The grave of George Brown in Toronto's Necropolis Cemetery.

THEN : The Toronto Jail, more commonly known as the "Don Jail".

THEN : A portion of the human remains discovered in an unmarked grave outside the Toronto Jail.  Their discovery became the subject of a documentary entitled "The Hangman's Graveyard".



Join me on the weekend of April 20th an April 21st as we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York, which took place on April 27th, 1813.  On Saturday, April 20th, we will walk the battlefield and discuss the events of the American invasion, and also visit the site where the fallen were buried.  On Sunday, April 21st, we will visit Toronto's old town district, and discuss what it was like for those living in town under an American invasion.  Imagine what it was like watching American soldiers running through town, gun or torch in hand, wondeing if your home would be next!

Call me at (416) 487 9017 or email me at for more information.  For information on this and other special events that we are planning for over the summer, you can also find us on facebook, under "Muddy York Walking Tour Group".

Muddy York Walking Tours on facebook

THEN : The Battle of York, 27 April 1813.




  1. Excellent write-up! I need to get a hold of that documentary on the old Don Jail. Going to link to your blog :)

  2. Thanks Sue, who said early Canadian politics were boring? I am looking for a copy of the documentary, too. Let me know if you manage to "dig one up" ...

  3. Excellent blog. keep sharing such nice and interesting posts.
    Rental services Toronto

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.