I am shot!

On the platform of a local railway car, 23-year-old David Hunter was an innocent victim in a deadly chain of events that turned deadly one evening in 1872.

June 19, 2018 | | Historic Hills

In 1872, the Toronto Grey & Bruce Railway was still new enough for the citizens of these hills to think of a short train trip as something of a treat. So the first link in the chain that led to David Hunter’s sad demise was his decision on July 12 to enjoy a ride. It was a Friday and normally, because he had left the family farm in Garafraxa to become a carpenter in Orangeville, Friday would have been a workday. But, another link, it was Orangemen’s Day. Nobody in these hills laboured on the Glorious Twelfth!

The chain builds

Even so, as a member of Loyal Orange Lodge 22, David had obligations on this important day that ordinarily would have filled his time. But because L.O.L. 22’s observance of the Twelfth was unusually modest that year, he was free by midafternoon, and there was nothing stopping him and a few friends from planning some fun on an evening ride toward the sunset. The train they chose became another fateful link. It was scheduled out of Toronto at 3:25 p.m., with stops in Bolton and Orangeville before heading west along newly laid rails through Arthur to the (temporary) end of the line in Mount Forest. David boarded the train in Orangeville at 6:05.

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  • So far, so good, but then came a glitch in Amaranth. A bushfire on both sides of the track (during a year of prolonged drought in the hills) stopped the train until the crew could make it safe to pass through. This meant it didn’t reach Arthur station until 9 p.m. It was a scheduled stop, but two more links were added here. Conductor Thomas Sproule decided to prolong the break so his now weary passengers could get something to eat at a nearby hotel. And because this was a mixed train (freight and flat cars in addition to a passenger car), it carried extra working crew, so he set them to loading extra fuel, a timber supply beside the track.

    A separate chain develops

    The Glorious Twelfth had been far more vigorously celebrated in Arthur that year than in Orangeville, and although official activities were long concluded, a group of eight lodge members had chosen to extend the festivities, and in their own words (as testified at the coroner’s inquest) by 9 p.m. they were “well inebriated.” Unfortunately, it was at this point they suddenly decided to visit an absent lodge brother. Their path took them past the stopped train.

    The two chains meet

    The operators of the Toronto, Grey & Bruce knew that local folks at several points along the system tended to harbour some animosity toward railway work crews, often a legacy left by rowdy construction hands brought in to build the tracks. So it may have been ill feeling that created the next link, or perhaps it was just the machismo that often arises among inebriated people in groups. In any case, when the Orangemen crossed paths with the loading crew, sharp insults began to fly. Regrettably, another link in the chain – a deadly one – was that at least two of the local men were carrying revolvers.

    Duncan 1890 / iStockphoto

    Duncan 1890 / iStockphoto

    David Hunter’s fate

    Though some passengers had not yet returned, Conductor Sproule quickly perceived a developing situation so he halted the work crew and signalled the engineer to pull out of the station. By now, with all the shouting and with the train in unscheduled motion, patrons in the passenger car realized something was afoot. Curiosity drew them to the car’s rear boarding platform, led by David Hunter who had announced, “There is a fuss outside!”

    As the passenger car drew abreast of the Orangemen, several shots were fired, ostensibly at the work crew. Then, in what almost seems like the script of a Victorian melodrama, David staggered back to his seat gasping a prediction of his demise: “I am shot! I shall be dead in a few minutes!” By the time the train came to a stop safely beyond the station, his prediction had come true. David Hunter was dead.

    The official response

    Wellington County’s judicial system acted with impressive speed and efficiency. Two shooters among the Orangemen were identified as William Ludlow, a farmer, and James Moore, a local blacksmith, and they were immediately detained by a justice of the peace. By the very next morning the county coroner had assembled a jury of 16 willing citizens and opened an official inquest. After hearing testimony from no fewer than 26 witnesses, the jury declared there was sufficient evidence to indict Ludlow and Moore, and further declared the conduct of the remaining six Orangemen, while not indictable, was “highly censurable.”

    At trial four months later, Ludlow and Moore were acquitted. Because the science of ballistics was still a half century in the future, the issue came down to what witnesses had to say. Despite repeated testimony that Ludlow and Moore had randomly fired their weapons, and several assertions that Ludlow had boasted, “If I haven’t killed the man [a railway crewman], it’s not my fault!” enough contradictory evidence was presented for the court to decide it had been too late at night for anyone to be completely certain of what they had seen.

    In the chain of events that led to the sad death of David Hunter, darkness was the final link.

    Guns a fact of life?

    Newspapers throughout the province, ever ready to fulminate at length on public behaviour, covered the shooting of David Hunter thoroughly, but none asked why the men in Arthur were carrying revolvers. Was it a question not deemed worthy of comment in 1872?

    The number of other gunfire incidents reported that summer is instructive. Some were accidents. The Brampton Times, for instance, reported that a man in Waterford “shot his arm nearly off” while hunting. Some were bizarre, such as the farmer west of Orangeville who emptied his pistol at a neighbour’s house and then did the same with a rifle when he found his pistol didn’t have the range. And some were tragic. Toronto’s Globe reported murders at Tweed in eastern Ontario and in Sydenham Township near Owen Sound, and the Guelph Mercury described in great detail how a local citizen, intending to shoot his recalcitrant daughter, shot a complete stranger and her companion instead. As in the Hunter case, none of these reports included commentary on guns. Their presence, it seems, was an accepted fact of life.

    Gun Control in the 1870s

    In the 19th century carrying a handgun was not an uncommon practice in Canada and there was no legislation forbidding it. At the time of David Hunter’s death the law said only that a citizen could be jailed for carrying in a manner that would upset the public. In 1892, a new Criminal Code required handgun owners to have a special certificate if they wished to carry outside the home, although anyone with “reasonable cause to fear an assault on their person or property” did not need one.

    About the Author More by Ken Weber

    Caledon writer Ken Weber’s best-selling Five Minute Mysteries series is published in 22 languages. Ken wrote 103 Historic Hills columns for In The Hills over more than 25 years, capping his pen in 2022.

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