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Ontario’s disappearing history

October 2, 2009 3 comments

Vandeleur 019I’m standing in the abandoned courtroom of the Grey County Courthouse in Owen Sound, Ontario, reflecting on what the passage of time has done to our concepts of justice, and our appreciation for the history we’ve inherited.

My visit to Grey County has given me a feel for the “literary landscape” of a story I’m working on for a national magazine. I’m looking into cases of “the Innocents” — Canadians who were wrongfully hanged during the years in which we had capital punishment.

Capital punishment was abolished in Canada in 1976. More than 700 people were hanged since Confederation in 1867. Probably several dozen went to the gallows innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.

One such case has brought me to Grey County. Back in 1884 a blind man, Cook Teets, was convicted of poisoning his young wife of six weeks with strychnine. It was known he had strychnine (commonly used to control predators) and that he’d taken out a $4,000 life insurance policy on his wife.

But there was also testimony that after sharing a meal with his wife and mother-in-law on the fateful day, he left to spend the night at his own mother’s farm, some five miles distant. His wife, Rosannah, died at six o’clock the next morning. The coroner testified that death would have come within half an hour of ingesting the poison.

Despite petitions urging clemency, Teets was hanged in the jailyard behind the County Building early on the morning of December 5, 1884. Years later, the Toronto Telegram published news of a confession by Rosannah’s mother. She had fed the strychine to her daughter. The Telegram headlined its story: A LEGAL MURDER.

Today, procedures are in place to help people who have been convicted despite their innocence. One organizaation, AIDWYCK, wages an unrelenting fight to overturn wrongful convictions. Judging from the large number of high profile cases where it has had murder convictions reversed, our justice system is still far from perfect.

But as I stood in that old courtroom in Owen Sound — now used by an amateur theatre group — it struck me how sad it is that the building is being allowed to deteriorate.

The original judge’s bench and witnesses box has been broken up, apparently put to use as sets. Peeling linoleum exposes the original wood plank floor. The courtroom reeks of decay. Paints flakes from the walls of stairwells and stair treads are worn thin.

This still handsome limestone building, a precious testament to the history of Grey County, may not long survive its current neglect.

The County turned the building over to the city in the 1990s. Space is now rented out at low rates to arts organizations. An admirable purpose. But nothing is being done to keep up the building. It’ll soon become the target of an ambitious developer looking for a cheap site.

This is a building that would have made a great case for federal stimulus funding. What a shame the City Council is so blind to its own heritage. One of the great examples of 19th century Ontario architecture — but no one in Owen Sound seems to appreciate it.

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