A Brush with History: Where were you when Louis Riel was tried?

Deeds are not accomplished in a few days, or in a few hours. A century is only a spoke in the wheel of everlasting time – Louis Riel

Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, news agencies across the continent were in a flurry publishing memorial articles entitled, “Where were you when JFK was shot?” The phrase has become a commonplace that speaks to the individual experience of a shared national event. On the fateful day when the presidential motorcade passed through Dallas, only a small handful were actually where JFK was, as compared to the millions who learned of the event via radio or television. But no matter how far removed from the situation, each and every contemporary has their own story that places the unforgettable event in the context of their own lives. I was not alive for Kennedy’s term as President, but I can answer different “Where were you when…?” questions in my own way.

I remember returning from recess on the second day of Grade 6 to have my teacher address my class: two planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, a suspected terrorist attack. I was eleven years old and entirely failed to grasp the significance of the situation, but I could tell from the comportment of the adults around me that something big had happened. After school, I turned on the news for the first time in my life. Ten years later, late on May 2, 2011, I remember sitting in a quiet bar with my friends from university. We had just finished the final exams of our final year, and we’d all be splitting up the very next day to head for home. As we chatted and casually watched sports highlights, one of my friends received a text and asked the bartender to change the channel. President Obama was addressing his nation to let them know that Osama bin Laden was dead. I had an eerie sense of my personal life aligning with the “everlasting wheel of time” to simultaneously mark the end of two eras, one personal, the other global. My presence in that bar with my friends in front of the television is of no relevance to posterity, but I will never forget what I witnessed and what I learned there. Individual experience is important only individually.

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These days, the answer to “Where were you when…?” is usually where your eyes first locked on a screen of a television, computer, or smartphone. Before the invention of these technologies, the answer might be where you first heard it via the radio. Before that? It might very well be where you heard cry of the corner paperboy. A book I chanced upon recently in our Special Collections, A Review of the Authorities as to the Repression of Riot or Rebellion, with Special Reference to Criminal or Civil Liability (London, 1868), demonstrates how one Archdeacon Dixon of Guelph, Ontario, answers in his own way “Where were you when…?” and finds an intersection of his life with the epic of national history.

The Archdeacon’s book bears two inscriptions.

Archdeacon's Inscription

The first reads, “Archdeacon Dixon, Rector of Guelph, May 1884”. The second inscription, in what looks to be the same hand as the first, though with lighter ink and smaller letters, reads “This book was lent by me to Christopher Robinson, my old college friend, to take with him to the trial of Riel, he being crown prosecutor, May 1884. A.D.”

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Louis Riel (1844-1885)

The Trial of Louis Riel (one hundred thirty years ago to the day as of this writing) was a cause célèbre in the young Dominion of Canada, and to see why the Archdeacon Dixon would want to mark his book’s involvement isn’t difficult. After all, Dixon’s dear friend, Christopher Robinson, prosecuted a man who was controversial in his day and who wound up among the most divisive figures in Canadian history. Riel was, depending on who you ask, a folk hero or seditious traitor, and already nationally known for his role in the Red River Rebellion and the killing of Thomas Scott in 1869. He fled to the States, and resurfaced in Canada in 1884 to lead the North-West Rebellion in 1885, for which he was eventually tried and executed later that same year. I imagine that to see a man so prominent in the cultural psyche answer for his deeds years after committing them would resonate for Dixon much in the same way bin Laden’s death resonates for me. As I have my story, the Archdeacon has his, and his book was a part of it; while he left little for later generations to remember him by, he had his brush with history, and that is enough. Can you picture him entertaining guests, taking this book from the shelf and telling his tale? How he might trump up his involvement with the trial so as to seem of greater importance?

Next to an autograph of John A. MacDonald (also accompanied by a note detailing the books historical provenance), this is probably the most fascinating inscription I’ve chanced upon in my short time here at Osgoode, not only for its slight historical connection, but for the Archdeacon’s motivations in writing it. This is what I love about inscriptions, that they are often so personal and intimate, of real importance to the writer but to no one else.

Once I finished musing, I realized something didn’t add up, and that something was the second inscription’s date of May 1884. We can tell, ex post facto, that this date must be an error, since Riel’s trial transpired in July 1885. The Archdeacon could not have written the inscription in 1884 since the information contained within it (i.e. the fact of Riel’s trial; Christopher Robinson’s appointment as crown prosecutor in the case) is contingent upon the events of 1885. By the same logic, since Dixon necessarily wrote the inscription at a point after Riel’s trial in 1885, we must conclude that the date of 1884 was written in error. I think it is likely that the Archdeacon signed only his name in May 1884 as a simple mark of ownership when lending the book to Robinson, and was simply muddled when wrote the later inscription and copied the same date upon the book’s return to him.

Unfortunately, if Robinson employed the book during his preparation for the trial, he did not leave us any markings by which we could trace how he used it. I’d like to add, however, that though he deprived later generations of what would be a remarkable (if minute) insight to the case, Robinson earns top marks for observing proper book-borrower’s protocol, returning the pristine volume to Archdeacon Dixon in the same condition in which it was first lent. Christopher Robinson: a prosecutor and a gentleman. Take note, readers of today — if you find yourself amidst history in-the-making, pull out your pen and mark the occasion, and do so in a book if one is handy.

 

Recent Acquisitions, July 20 – July 27, 2015

77 new acquisitions in Osgoode Hall Law School Library, including 21 from 2015:

Recent Acquisitions, June 22 – July 15, 2015

88 new acquisitions in Osgoode Hall Law School Library, including 65 from 2015:

A Canadian Pirate, and Other Notable Trials

We at the library would like to offer heartfelt congratulations to Osgoode’s Class of ’55, who recently celebrated their 60th Anniversary reunion! Helmed by Mr Morley Wolfe, the Class of ’55 took this occasion to offer the library a sum collected at their get-together, to be dedicated to collection development. This donation allowed the library to purchase a rare piece of Canadiana, an eight-page pamphlet detailing the trial of a pirate, “a Canadian by birth”, published in Philadelphia in 1800: The Confession of Joseph Baker, A Canadian by Birth, Who, For Murder & Piracy on the High Seas on Board the Schooner Eliza […] Was Tried On the 25th of April, 1800. As far as we can determine, ours is the only copy in Canada.

Our bookseller, from whom we acquired the pamphlet, summarized the already brief account thus:

Baker, whose real name was Boulanger, with La Croix (alias for Peterson) and La Roche (alias for Berrouse or Brous) killed the mate and supercargo on the schooner Eliza, but only wounded Captain Wheland. They agreed to let him live so he could navigate the ship ‘to the Spanish Main.’ Seizing a chance when two of the culprits were below deck, Wheland locked them in the cabin, and with an ax, drove the third into a rigging. He reached St. Kitts fourteen days later, and his three prisoners were brought back to Philadelphia in the U.S. sloop of war Ganges. Baker states that he was born at Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, in 1779, and came to New York City in 1799, where he joined with La Roche (Brous) and La Croix (Peterson), probably “a Dane or Swede,” according to Captain Wheland, whose Narrative of the Horrid Murder & Piracy was also published by Folwell at the same time as Baker’s Confession. Wheland’s account is detailed and graphic; Baker’s is even more so. Baker claimed to be a reluctant pirate who was forced into action by La Roche. As he tells it, Baker was ordered by La Roche and La Croix, who had also capitulated to La Roche, to “take the captain’s sword, and if he was a-sleep, to run it through his body, and if I did not do it, they would kill me: I went down but I could not find it in my heart to kill the captain, but struck him on the hand with a hatchet; he then jumped up and made a catch at me, and I then struck him on the head. Immediately I ran up on deck: Brous then attempted to kill me, because I had not killed the captain …” In his Narrative Wheland draws no distinction between Baker and the others that might reduce his culpability. Nor did the court. All were sentenced to hang. The confession is dated May 8th, 1800, one day before Baker and two accomplices were to be executed.

Reading Baker’s confession, I cannot help but be touched by his affirmations of innocence and reluctant participation in the crime. Apparently I’d make a terrible judge. The pamphlet is available online through the Library of Congress here, but if you have a connection through York, you can find higher quality scans through HeinOnline and Early American imprints, Series I, Evans (1639-1800). If Baker’s confession is of interest to you, the Library of Congress maintains an excellent collection of piracy trials, most of which are available online here.

Mr Wolfe, pleased to hear about the purchase facilitated by his class’s generous donation, was kind enough to stop by the library to see our new pamphlet first-hand.

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While visiting, Mr Wolfe also took some time to admire another donation of which he was a major part – that of his Notable Trials Library. These book club editions, with their decorated, quarter-leather custom bindings and gilt edges agleam, add distinction to any shelf. These editions are reprints of classic works of trial literature, covering everything from the trial of Socrates right up to the Cold War era’s most contentious courtroom battles. Each book features a short introductory essay by celebrated American lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz that contextualizes the trial and explains just why it is “notable”. From historic precedents to the attendant media frenzies, reverberations from these trials ring throughout the legal landscape still. Dershowitz himself is, among other things, a noted criminal lawyer. He is perhaps best remembered in this capacity for representing Claus von Bülow for the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny von Bülow, recounted in Dershowitz’s own Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case (which is, of course, one of the volumes in this collection). A list of Mr. Wolfe’s trial library can be viewed here.

A sincere thank you to Mr. Wolfe and the rest of the Class of ’55 for their donations to our collections! We’re always on the lookout for Legal Canadiana and were happy to be able to add this curious account of a Canadian pirate to our trial holdings.

Canada Added to the Library of Congress Indigenous Law Portal

Law Library of CongressThis is a wonderful gift from our neighbours to the south. On June 21, in celebration of our National Aboriginal Day, the Law Library of Congress opened the Canadian portion of their Indigenous Law Portal, expanding the portal’s coverage for the first time beyond the United States. The Canadian portion of the Indigenous Law Portal is divided into three regions: Eastern, Western, and Northern Canada.  These regions closely follow the recently updated K Class – Law Classification.  There is an alphabetical master list of Individual First Nation, Inuit and Métis peoples. The list can also be browsed can be accessed from one  of , or browsed either by region or by province.

National Aboriginal Day began in 1996. A Proclamation declaring June 21 of each year as National Aboriginal Day made the summer solstice, June 21, a day to recognize the heritage, culture, and achievements of Canada’s indigenous peoples. National Aboriginal Day is the first of the a series of national celebrations, followed by Saint Jean-Baptiste Day (La Fête nationale du Québec) on June 24 and Canada Day on July 1.

Read more on the Law Library of Congress’s blog post.

 

Recent Acquisitions, June 15 – June 22, 2015

100 new acquisitions in Osgoode Hall Law School Library, including 20 from 2015: