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Crime and society

Canada developed the reputation of being a 'peaceable kingdom,' whose citizens were deferential to authority and valued law and order. Was this the case for 19th-century British North America and provinces such as New Brunswick? As already noted, the province, which contained little in the way of an industrial proletariat in the late 1800s, was largely rural. There were few immigrants or racial minorities.

Was New Brunswick an orderly society? One problem with this question is changing notions of what was acceptable behaviour and appropriate legal responses. For example, in the early Victorian period New Brunswickers consumed, by later standards, large amounts of distilled spirits such as rum. The political and legal authorities tolerated a certain level of domestic violence, viewing it as a private matter, but were shocked if businesses violated the Sabbath by opening on Sundays.

The author of an account of New Brunswick noted the following in 1825:

"Another great drawback to the prosperity of the province is the consumption of ardent spirits-partly occasioned by the present mode of conducting the timber business. The amount of spirituous liquors imported and consumed in the Province in 1824, at the least calculation was £120,000 exclusive of the County of Charlotte", making in the whole the gross sum of £360,000 for ardent liquors alone…being near twenty gallons on the average for every male over sixteen years of age."

Travellers and upper class authors who wrote accounts of 19th century society were affected by their own class, cultural and ethnic biases, for example, when describing the working class, the poor or minorities. Many of the documents which we use to reconstruct history were created by elite or middle-class individuals and organizations.

Concerns over excessive alcohol consumption, disorder and immorality gave rise to a lively temperance movement in the 1830s, which developed into the prohibitionist Sons of Temperance in the 1840s and 1850s. During the 1850s New Brunswick became the only 19th-century British North American colony to attempt to introduce a prohibition law, which was widely evaded before its repeal.

In the early Victorian era, brawling, assault and violent death were also fairly common. In one period in the mid 1840s, the authorities in the Saint John area dealt with sectarian riots, three murder cases not related to the riots, and an unsolved death of a British solider as the result of an incident involving "felonious intent." Three men were tried for the murder of Charles Yerza; one was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in the colonial penitentiary.

In another case John Carey, a sailor on the barque Velocity, was stabbed to death by his messmate Richard Burk. Tried for murder, he was convicted of manslaughter. Later that year at Red Head, James Stewart assaulted Henry Toole, who died of his injuries. For the third time in a year in a murder trial, a jury delivered a verdict of manslaughter. Violent crime was not confined to large centres such as Saint John. During that same year Francis Fullarton was indicted for murdering Alexander Alexander at Beresford, in northern New Brunswick. Unlike the other crimes, this one involved a firearm. Fullarton was convicted and sentenced to be hanged at the county gaol in Bathurst.

Typical of pre-industrial North America, the history of early New Brunswick affords examples of mass or social violence. Ethnic and sectarian animosities occasionally simmered over into open conflict, especially prior to 1850. The Loyal Orange Association or Orange Lodge was a secret pro-monarchy Protestant society that arrived via British soldiers and Irish immigrants. Embraced by native-born Protestants, the lodge spread throughout English New Brunswick.

In 1849 several hundred Orangemen from the Saint John area and the lower Saint John river valley attempted to march through an Irish Catholic ghetto in Saint John, York Point. The rioting that ensued was more like a battle. The legal authorities officially listed only three deaths, but other sources suggest up to a dozen fatalities. Eleven Catholics and five Orangemen went to trial but most of the defendants were acquitted.

During the early 1870s New Brunswick’s Catholic minority was threatened by a government policy of forcing all taxpayers to support public, non-denominational schools. To Catholic leaders, this was a threat to their system of separate Catholic schools. On the Acadian peninsula in Gloucester County, a clash between Acadian Catholics and Protestant officers of the law in 1875 resulted in the death of one Acadian and one anglophone, and the subsequent prosecution of the ’Caraquet rioters’ by the New Brunswick government.

As noted above, many crimes were not solved and others not reported. The records of coroners' inquests indicate that death through foul play did not always result in criminal charges. This was often the case with infanticide. In 1844, for example, a coroner's inquest was held in Gloucester county after the body of an infant was found in the snow on the grounds of a Catholic Church. The priest ordered the unfortunate victim to be buried.

In the meantime, the coroner's jury was told by a local midwife that she had recently assisted at the birth of a child with a similar physical description. Another resident reported the name of the parents. The coroner attempted to have the body exhumed but there was a delay. When the authorities finally acted, they found not the remains of a child, but those of a dead pig, wrapped in a cloth. Further attempts to locate the body were unsuccessful, and no charges were ever laid.