Getting away with murder has always been a difficult, and ultimately, unlikely affair, even in the 19th Century, before DNA analysis, fingerprint databases, or even any real, proper detective agencies, it was still a challenge that many criminals tried and failed. There were some however, that did manage to achieve the feat, whether it be through cool calculation, or dumb luck, there was always opportunity for the enthusiastic murderer willing to think outside the box. In Canada during the mid-19th Century, one man, William Turner managed to commit and get away with murder, either through dumb luck, due to an unlikely double being framed for the crime, or through an incredible talent for acting. After more than 150 years, the question has always remained, which was it? Luck, or the long game?
Townsend The Murderer. (1857, June 10). The Montreal Gazette, p. 3.
Stewart Wallace, W. (1931, April 15). The Townsend Case. Maclean’s, p. 19.
The Alleged Murderer Townsend – The Singular Circumstances of the case – And the Proofs of his Identity. (1857, June 10). The Montreal Gazette, p. 2.
The Alleged Murderer Townsend – The Singular Circumstances of the case – And the Proofs of his Identity. (1857, June 17). The Montreal Gazette, p. 2.
The Townsend Excitement on the Wane! (1857, September 26). The Montreal Gazette, p. 2.
Arraignment of McHenry alias Townsend. (1857, September 28). The Montreal Gazette, p. 2.
Gault, Robert H. (1918) Journal of the American Institute of Law and Criminology Vol. IX. Chicago. Northwestern University Press.
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The Curious Case of Not Townsend
Getting away with murder has always been a difficult, and ultimately, unlikely affair, even in the 19th Century, before DNA analysis, fingerprint databases, or even any real, proper detective agencies, it was still a challenge that many criminals tried and failed. There were some however, that did manage to achieve the feat, whether it be through cool calculation, or dumb luck, there was always opportunity for the enthusiastic murderer willing to think outside the box. In Canada during the mid-19th Century, one man, William Turner managed to commit and get away with murder, either through dumb luck, due to an unlikely double being framed for the crime, or through an incredible talent for acting. After more than 150 years, the question has always remained, which was it? Luck, or the long game? This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
In the early years of the 19th Century, Black Rock in New York State was a standalone city of important nautical industry that rivalled it’s neighbouring city of Buffalo. Named after a 200 foot ledge of solid rock that protruded out into the Niagara River, naturally protecting the harbour, the heart of Black Rocks shipbuilding industry. Townsends father was a carpenter and shipwright, like many Black Rock residents, and was descended from Sir Robert Townsend, a British emigrant, who had come to the new world, settling in an upstart colony that would become Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Robert Townsend had moved to Black Rock during the War of 1812 with his brothers, With ties to such early pioneers and with skills in a much needed trade, the Townsend family quickly picked up an excellent reputation in the local area and once the war was over, Robert married a recent war widow, Mary-Ann and the new couple bought a patch of land near Fort Porter, building a house and settling down to start a family. Their first child, a son which they named William, was born in 1828, followed by a further two children. After the birth of their three children, the family crossed over the international border to Canada to work on the Welland Canal and helped to build the docks in Port Dalhousie on the shores of Lake Ontario and buying a small patch of farm land, two miles from the port itself named May Farm.
At the age of 13, William, the Townsend eldest son left home and went to work on the ship “Mohawk” as a Galley hand, though he left service in 1844 to help on the family family farm during due to his father falling ill. Robert Townsends illness proved fatal and in 1846, he passed away. Soon after his fathers death, William left the farm for the second time in his life and rejoined service, this time aboard the ship “Montreal”, where he worked as a “Second Class Boy”. This didn’t last too long. Within two years, he deserted, though inexplicably, went back into service on the Mohawk a year later. Once again it wasn’t to last. This time his service extended for only three months before he deserted again whilst docked in Cleveland in order to shirk his orders to paint the hull of the ship. Aside from his desertions, his conduct whilst in service was seen as good and he was well liked by the crew, earning the nickname of “Little Davy Crockett”.
After his desertions, William floated around jumping from employ to employ, taking work as a sailor, a farm labourer, a Cooper, eventually winding up back in Ontario working as a cab driver, running the stage line from Hamilton to Cayuga. So far so normal in the life of William Townsend, but as a drifter and jack of all trades, William dreamt of more. Known as a skilled mimic, with the ability to impersonate dialects and keen to show off his musical talents with the tambourine and violin, he formed a minstrel troupe, blacking up and touring the country, giving concerts, although it’s likely these were more along the lines of street busking rather than stadium epics.
As the troupe scraped by to make enough money to fuel their humble existence, William began turning his hand to the darker arts. He quickly fell in with a gang of pickpockets and found that crime was a much more lucrative business than the arts. Dropping his minstrel troupe, he instead replaced them with a gang of a handful of men. The leader was an Englishman named Lettice, and Townsend fell in line with five others under his orders, named King, Blowes, Bryson, Patterson and Weaver. The gang operated around the Hamilton area of Canada, on the shores of Lake Ontario. They made enough money involving themselves in petty crime, pickpocketing and robbing people akin to a low grade gang of highwaymen. This did the gang well enough and they evaded the law whilst keeping their crimes under the radar enough to not cause too much attention on the gang by the local law enforcement, who were busy dealing with what might now be called a crime wave. Townsends gang were not the only group in the area and highway robberies were becoming commonplace. Some police even theorised that the gangs were organised and working together under a larger umbrella, though any lines of inquiry that went down that route never appeared to bear any fruit. For reasons unknown, whether it was grander designs or a simple robbery gone wrong, the gang stepped up their operations in October of 1854. William Townsends outlaw life turned upside down, when he took part in a home invasion which saw him go from petty criminal to murderer in quick time.
The Murder of John Hamilton Nelles
At 10 pm on the evening of October 18th, 1854, Townsend and his gang were wrapping up a long day of criminality that had seen them execute a string of robberies around the Lake Eerie area. On their way home, they decided to hit Nelles Corners, a small crick in the road that housed a local store owned by John Hamilton Nelles. Rumour had it that Nelles was to take a large sum of money and would need to keep it in the house overnight, until he could bank it the next day. The Nelles family were a well known family and had settled in Nelles Corners years prior. As night fell and John Nelles family retired to bed, his mother, wife, child, brother and sister-in-law were all asleep in the rear bedrooms of the house, leaving only John awake by himself in the lounge. John was waiting up as he was expecting a visit and so when he heard a knock on the door, he thought nothing of swinging it wide open to greet his guest. The visitors however, were not who he had been expecting. Townsend, along with two other members of the gang stormed into the house, their faces blacked up as a manner of disguise. John Nelles attempted to react quickly to the dire situation and as he turned and made for his revolver in the chest of drawers at the back of the room, Townsend shot him in the back, killing him in his tracks. The gang panicked, and as Nelles family members woke and entered the lounge, the scene quickly turned to one of commotion. The gang ordered Nelles family to turn over their money, though it quickly became apparent that no money was held on the property in cash. As they threatened the women, Townsend took John Nelles gold watch from his wrist as a consolation and the gang quickly took off into the night before the police could even be alerted to the commotion.
The gangs getaway was no less panicked or chaotic. Realising they were still short of much needed money they needed to make a clean break, they held up a pair of farmers travelling on the road between Nelles Corners and Cayuga. The next morning, when the High Constable of Cayuga was alerted to the crime, immediately went in search of the gang and quickly wound up taking testimony from the pair of farmers allowing the authorities to gain n understanding of a direction to follow. Following the gangs chaotic trail, the constable of a local township named Robert Flanders told the high constable that the gang had spent the night in his barn the previous night and he’d seen them board a train bound for Buffalo at first light from the nearby Canfield station. Flanders was also able to furnish the High Constable with a name for one of the men they were chasing. It was Townsend, he said, a local vagrant that was well known to authorities in the local area for his previous misdemeanours. Flanders joined the gang of authorities in the chase for Townsend and his gang, boarding a train for Buffalo. When they arrived the next day, they joined forces with the American police, shared the information they knew and together carried out a sweep of all the cities hotels, bars, dives and dens. Though there were positive ID’s in several establishments, including reports of the gang staying in a room at the United States Hotel, they trailed the gang back to the station, only to find that they had doubled back and returned to Canada already, leaving the police chasing their shadows.
Townsend needed money desperately and within just a few days upon their return to Canada, reports reached the authorities that Nelles gold watch had been pawned in St. Catherines, East of Hamilton. Whilst there, a posse had surrounded him, recognising him as wanted, though he managed to shoot his way out of the situation and by the time the trailing authorities reached St. Catherines, he had boarded a ship bound named the Westchester, for Oswego, another port on Lake Ontario on the American side of the border. Flanders once again turned back and chased down the ship, which had sailed against difficult, contrary winds, allowing him to arrive in Oswego before it had docked. Upon the Westchesters arrival, he quarantined the boat in the dock and questioned the captain only to learn of yet another disappointment. Once again, Townsend had obfuscated his escape route, switching ships during a stopover in Port Dalhousie, where he boarded another boat bound instead for Kingston. Later it was learned that whilst police trapped around in search of the elusive criminal, he had jumped overboard from the second ship, swam to shore and had taken up hiding in his Brother-in-laws house, apparently dressing as a woman in order to lay-low until the heat dispersed from his warrant.
By the way of consolation, the rest of Townsends gang had not been quite as resourceful as Townsend himself and by now, the police had caught up with three of the members. Blowes was caught in a brothel in Hamilton ran by a mistress known to the locals as “Limping Jenny” and Kings had also found himself caught up with in a house on the outskirts of Hamilton. Bryson had made it furthest of the gang, but found himself cornered and picked up some seventy miles North of Toronto. In April of 1855, all three were tried in Cayuga on the charge of murdering John Hamilton Nelles. Although none admitted to firing the shots, they were found guilty of colluding and as such, were tried guilty as charged and sentenced to hang. Bryson, however, had turned Queens evidence, giving information on the rest of the gang and having his sentence downgraded to life imprisonment in the process.
Meanwhile, Townsend had found himself bored of his inactive lifestyle, laying low in his family home. Perhaps in need of excitement, or perhaps just tired of dressing as a woman, he hit the road after several weeks. Rather than keeping his head down and travelling quietly, he quickly took it upon himself to rob a Farmer in Port Robinson, by the Welland Canal named Mr Gainer. Gainer proved to be hardier than Townsend had wagered, however, and he later followed him to a local inn, alerted Charles Ritchie, the local constable, and the pair went to arrest Townsend. Ritchie approached Townsend from behind, placed his hand on his shoulder and informed him that he was under arrest. Townsend whipped out his revolver, turned it over his shoulder and shot, killing Richards dead on the spot. He made a clean break from the inn, with none fo the locals daring to follow, though authorities were alerted to his boarding a train bound towards Woodstock. Once again, a locomotive chase was on, and the authorities in Woodstock, after being alerted met the train as it arrived on the platform. The Sheriff, four constables and the local Gaoler boarded the cars and searched for a man matching Townsends description. It wasn’t too long before the Gaoler came upon man who he felt matched the facial description of the wanted man, however, things, he felt, were not quite right. For one thing, the man was exceptionally well dressed and appeared to carry himself with a classier aura than most criminals he had met in the past. After staring at the suspect for a time, the man finally spoke out to the Gaoler,
“Oh, I know who you are at, You take me to be Townsend.”
Somewhat taken aback, te Gaoler replied in the positive, confirming to him that yes, he was tasked with finding Townsend and held suspicions against him as to be the wanted man.
“I do favour the description very much. I have been taken for him once before today already. But I am not he, I am going West and come from the East of Rochester.”
Still somewhat suspicious, the Gaoler went to seek advice and to alert the other constables of the man that had peaked his suspicions.
“He was so well dressed, and had such a smile on his face, that I did not arrest him. I went to take counsel with the other constables, and when I went into the car again he was gone . . . We saw’ him again afterward, on the platform, and concluded we would detain him. He said it was very hard, for he wanted to go west. We said it would only be for a short time, for people were coming on the next train who could identify him. He then stood still while the train was moving away, but, as it had attained a good rate of speed, he darted away like a deer and jumped on the last platform of the last car, leaving us behind.”
Townsend had once again escaped authorities, this time with a level of theatre and audacity the police had simply not expected. After this event, things went quiet on the trail of Townsend, although there were rumours that he had joined a circus troupe for a time, travelling the states, only leaving when the ringmaster caught wind from the Sheriff of Rock Island that the authorities held suspicions on his employee. The ringmaster was said to swiftly pass this information on, telling Townsend that if he really was the man the police sort, he should probably flee quick-sharp. That night, the man did indeed flee, apparently in the direction of California. And so it was that for over two years, William Townsend disappeared into the Canadian underground. It appears he managed to keep his head low, or at least, not get caught for any crimes he had committed, because it was not until April of 1857 that he would resurface, when a chance encounter would once again land him in the hands of the law.
Capture at Last
On the afternoon of April 11th, 1857, John Lies was cleaning glasses in a Hotel bar in downtown Cleveland. It wasn’t a roaring shift and the bar was quiet, when a railway conductor stumbled through the door, with a grumpy looking man in tow. “This man owes me $3.50 for a fare” he told Lies, sliding a revolver over the bar, “when he pays you that, and his lodging, let him have his revolver.” The conductor had caught the man trying to bunk his train and when caught had been unable to pay the fare and so, had offered up his revolver as pledge of payment. Not fully trusting the man, the conductor had dragged him into the hotel bar and now expected Lies to ensure the mans promise was kept. Lies, however, was not fully taking in the details the conductor was spouting at him. As soon as he had seen the man in tow, he had dropped the glass he was cleaning in shock. Lies recognised the man instantly as none other than William Townsend. Agreeing to the conductors demands, as soon as he left the bar, he gave Townsend a drink and quietly removed himself to call the police. Townsend was arrested in the bar, jailed and left in his cell awaiting extradition to Cayuga where he was to be charged and trialed with the murder of John Hamilton Nelles in the coming assizes in what should have been a normal, open and shut court case. But here, things took a turn for the strange.
Townsend was placed in a jail cell in Cleveland with two other inmates. The room had no natural light but was lit by a small candle. There were no windows, although in the day, the Iron-Barred door was opened to allow the prisoners to freely exercise in the courtyard. It was in this dank cell, that Townsend whiled away his days awaiting extradition, which was not happening at any real pace. Daily, people came to see him to identify him, or just to exercise their own morbid curiosity and to look in on the murderer they’d read so much about in the paper. The problem that officials were having, aside from holding on to a prisoner who had not yet been tried, was that Townsend was claiming not to be Townsend at all. Instead, he told the jailers, authorities and anyone else who would listen to his protest, that he was named Robert McHenry and was, he said, the son of a weaver from Glasgow, Scotland. This should have been obvious either way, but it appears it was anything but. Of the hundreds that came to visit him whilst he wasted time in jail, those that should have ID’d him, were decidedly split on the matter. When a journalist for the Hamilton Spectator visited his cell to meet him, the journalist himself admitted that in Canada, opinion was split upon the matter and many believed that if he was Townsend, he would not have allowed himself to be arrested so easily, such had become of the legendary chase that led to his many attempted arrests years prior.
The mystery man asked the journalist if he would be tried in Haldimand, but when the journalist told him it was likely to be in Cayuga, he asked him if Haldimand was a city in Cayuga and professed his ignorance of Canadian geography. As the journalist made to leave his cell, Not Townsend then passed him a letter he had written whilst in jail and asked him to publish I, which the journalist promptly did, on June 10th, 1857. By the time, Not Townsend had been in prison awaiting extradition for three months already. It was a long ranting letter, but showed a key point in the case. The man could write and appeared educated, a fact which no one was sure tallied with Townsend. The letter read,
“In Jail, Cleveland, Ohio, Monday, June 1, 1857 –
Mr Editor – Ever since I was arrested on the 11th day of April, 1857, charged with being William Townsend, the murderer of one Nellis, in Canada, I have been subjected to endless insults and annoyances.
For weeks after I was arrested, crowds of people of all conditions rushed into the jail to gratify their morbid appetites for the wonderful, gazing at me with feelings similar to those entertained by little boys when looking through the bars at the untamed “Gyasticutus.” A hundred and fifty policemen from all parts of the Union with their pockets filled with descriptions of “murderers”, “pickpockets”, “burglars”, and desperadoes of every description have intruded themselves into my cell, to discover if possible that I was a great criminal escaped from somewhere. But none of them have recognised me or seen me before anywhere, they say.
A number of witnesses who knew Townsend came here to see me, and unhesitatingly expressed their opinion, after a full opportunity to view me, that I was not the man Townsend, and after being put in training, bamboozled and bedevilled by the virtuous policeman of this city, they came into Court and swore that I was the man, and that, too, without having seen me, since they had said positively I was not what they swore I was.
The papers of this city have very unjustly prejudiced my case, forestalled and created public sentiments, misrepresented the evidence, and some of them announced, without knowing one word of me or of my history, that I was surely Townsend the Murderer, and that further, if I was not Townsend, I was surely some other great criminal.
As Don Quixote could perceive a Helen’s beauty in the brow of every scraggy which. He met, so these editorial gentlemen (taking their cue from policemen who were eager for the price of my blood) could perceive arson, burglary and murder distinctly written on every feature of a face that I had flattered myself was tolerably good looking.
But my object in writing to you is not to complain, as I intend to right my wrongs in due season before an impartial tribunal.
I am very anxious to go to Canada, to the County of the alleged murder, as soon as possible, but the officers are neither willing to take me over there without a requisition or warrant, or to bestir themselves in procuring the necessary papers in any reasonable time. Consequently I am compelled to lay here in gaol, but if ever I get overthrew, this accursed and ridiculous persecution will fizzle immediately, and old John Bull will drop me like a hot potato, and will swear that the whole thing was a “damned Yankee trick” to swindle him out of his money.
I shall then return to this city, and test to the utmost the question whether there is any legal redress for the cruel wings I have been compelled to endure and I shall hold every man who has been a participator in this vile onslaught on me responsible for his conduct.
But the police have not been satisfied with the assistance of pudding-headed Canadian knaves and fools, and red-mouthed Irishmen, residents of this world, in their crusade against me, but since that has failed they have actually invoked the assistance of sorcerers and witchcraft to detect me of some great crime.
A day or two ago I received visit from a glum faced sorcerer, or “Spiritual medium”, as he terms himself, named James Church, accompanied by an ex-policeman by the name of Bramley, and his honor Mayor Starkweather – all sent on a missions, as I afterwards learned, by the “spirits” to my cell, to get me to confess some great crime. James Church appeared to be the chief after. He commenced the jugglery by either praying or muttering some wizard-like incantations or spells, for the purpose of bringing me under his influence ; I could not tell which. Then commenced a great deal of mysterious talk about “spheres,” “communications,” “developments,” and “manifestations,” and also about a plan that was devised by the spirits for my liberation, together with hints and insinuations (which I did not understand) about some case in New York they wanted me to tell about, on condition of being liberated and receiving plenty of money. When I inquired what case it was that I knew anything about, they, with mysterious and knowing looks, informed me that I Knew as well as they did what case it was.
I said but little, (wondering all the time what they were driving at and suspecting some conspiracy to injure me) but finally I got them to express their ideas in plain language.
And now, Mr Editor, what do you think that I, poor Bob McHenry, som of a Glasgow weaver, am charged by these gentlemanly emissaries from the spirit land, with having been guilty of? Why, nothing more nor less than a connection with the late dreadful murder of Dr. Burdell in New York City! Whew! Stand aside, oh ye worldly policemen! You are a defunct institution. Telegraphs and locomotives, you’ll soon be forgotten! You are no longer any use in the detection of crime! Let James Church be made United States marshal, with instructions to extend his ropewalk to the “Spirit Land” ; let “Meg Merrilies” be made chief of police, with instructions to employ the “Witch of Endor”, or some of her compeers, as an assistant in detecting crime, and then all wickedness will be revealed and punished. Let only lazy, mercenary policemen be the mediums of communication, and then George Washington himself, if necessary, could be convicted of treason, or the amiable Melanchton of the most malignant crimes!
I was, by the instructions of the spirits, they said, to confess this murder – to tell about it, the instigators of it, and procure their conviction ; then the spirits were to effect my escape (in the same manner, probably, as the liberated Paul and Silas when they were in prison), and the policemen were to get the big reward.
So you see our policemen, with the assistance of our worthy mayor and the spirits, are bound to make money out of me. If they can’t succeed in swindling John Bull out of the seven thousand dollars, by making him believe that I am “Billy Townsend”, they then can fall back on the New York Times and Herald, and recover ten thousand dollars of them, by proving that I am the murderer of Dr. Burdell.
Let a reward be offered for the discovery of the individual who lately attempted to assassinate the Emperor Napoleon, and they will bring plenty of men to swear that I am the man ; or that I was the prime mover in the late attempt to poison “Old Buck” at the National hotel. That I am. the very man who murdered Mrs Sigsby, or the veritable and much enquired for “railroad baby”, while whereabouts I am informed by some of my fellow prisoners the editor of the Plaindealer is anxious to discover, and James Church will get George Washington or Old Tom Jefferson to send a message along his rusty spiritual wires to confirm the story.
All this, as well as the charge of being somebody else besides myself, would be vastly amusing, were it not for the stern reality of being kept a close prisoner for two months on this ridiculous charge in this unwholesome prison.”
The letter was signed off, “respectfully yours, Robert J. McHenry”. It painted the picture of a man who was apparently reasonably well educated and clearly angry at his current treatment. The letter was printed in newspapers in both the US and in Canada and whilst it achieved nothing in allowing him freedom, opinion on who the man actually was became more and more divided. Seven days later, on June 17th, the prisoner was extradited to Canada and ordered to stand trial on 27th September, 1857, over six months from his original arrest. During the wait for his trial, the press spoke of him as such,
“If he really be Townsend, he is one of the coldest blooded murderers on record, and if he be not, is decidedly one of the most cruelly persecuted men we know of.
At least, as far as the authorities could see, the issue of who the man was would soon be cleared up. In Cleveland, authorities only found sixteen witnesses who had known Townsend at all, and many were unsure if they would be able to positively ID him still, their originals relations either being not strong enough, or so long ago. Of these sixteen, only two said they could positively identify him as Townsend, a clergyman who he lived with for several years and a sailor who he knew during his years ins service. Now the extradition to Cayuga was complete, hundred would know him by site, such was his reputation and both social and criminal life in the Cayuga area. For Townsend, or Not Townsend, he still maintained up until his trial that he was McHenry and had been in California prospecting for gold at the time of the murder. During his extradition process, he was incarcerated for a stop over in Toronto, where the visits to his cell immediately began. Many visitors spoke of how they thought the prisoner was not Townsend, his mannerisms, they said, bred an air of innocence, enough so that they were willing to bet money on his freedom being granted in court and many did just that, as the trial had attracted a thriving betting market, even amongst men in the government. At the same time, during the same stop over, he tried to escape his incarceration by feigning illness. His escape attempt had caused such an alarm that the jailers saw fit to call in a blacksmith to rivet him into extra shackles. As he arrived in Cayuga to await trial, the public opinion in Canada was none the clearer than it had been in Cleveland.
Finally, Thursday September 27th rolled round and the trial of the man for the murder fo John Hamilton Nelles was underway. The day before had seen such an influx of interested parties come to Cayuga that the hotels were completely full, with people paying to sleep only in vacant armchairs. During the process, the mystery prisoner was addressed and tried as William Townsend. His appearance as he entered the courtroom was, according to the press,
“Anything but repulsive, and his countenance indicated a degree of intelligence which we did not expect to see.”
The previous Monday had seen a fresh new suit arrive in the Cayuga jail, allowing Townsend to dress himself in clean suit for the occasion. He showed “no symptoms of fear”, however, it had been noted that during his time in prison awaiting trial, he had lashed out towards many of his visitors in irritation, which had played against him, with many now “bitter enemies” who “hesitate not to express their hope of his conviction and punishment.” The prisoner was so confident in his conviction of being Not Townsend, that he went to court with no Counsel at all. His only defence was to plead that he was not guilty, simply by the fact that he was Not Townsend at all. Upon the commencement of the trial, when asked by the judge if he had counsel and was ready to be tried, he simply replied,
“I have not asked for any one to assist me. I don’t think there is any necessity. I was ready for trial three months ago.”
The prosecution, however, came well armed. As witnesses, they had the deputy Sheriff of Cayuga, who had sailed with Townsend in service many years prior, as well as a whole string of men and women, from victims to sex workers, who claimed to know Townsend intimately enough to be able to recognise him down to minute details. Upon seeing the bleak situation that surrounded him, the prisoner decided to take on the counsel that had previously been offered to him in the form of solicitors Mr Freeman and Mr Start, both men were well known and relatively infamous for their defence duties and importantly for the prisoner, both believed him to be Not Townsend, offering their services gratis. The day before his trial, the prisoners beard was saved on order of the Crown Prosecutor. The barber who carried out the shaving later said that he was sure the man was Townsend, who he knew well. Bryson was also bought into the prisoners cell on the day before the cell and he too immediately confirmed him to be Townsend. As far as the prosecution felt, they were in a good position as the trial began with the slamming down of the judges hammer.
“The prisoner is a man of about 5 feet 7 inches, as near as I can judge. His complexion is fair, inclined to be “sandy”. He has a very large eye, of a peculiar light blue. His hair is brown, neither very dark, nor very light. His forehead is large, heavy, and rather high than the reverse. His eyebrows are of a lighter tint than his hair, well arched, and do not meet. His nose is large, thick at the tip and rather bent from the bridge downward. His mouth is no tin any way singular. He has a scar above his left eyebrow, about half an inch long, and inclining towards the temple. Also one on his under lip, the same size as the other. His chin is long and prominent. His cheek bone, downwards, a large broad scar extends, nearly three inches long. He appears to be about 30 years of age.”
The trial was focused on one simple question from the outset. Was the man standing in the dock Townsend, or was he McHenry?
The first witness called to stand was Lucy Humphrey, John Hamilton Nelles Sister-in-Law who had been in Nelles Corner on the night of the failed robbery and Murder, although she told the court she would be unable to recognise the men due to their disguises which apparently consisted of a fake beard on the part of the ringleader Townsend. Next up to the stand was Augustus Nelles, John Nelles brother, who was also in the house on the night of the crime, though once again, was unable to positively identify any of the culprits. The Doctor who attended Nelles gave a brief description of the state that he had found Nelles in upon his call and then saw Bryson in the dock, Townsends fellow gang member, turned Queens evidence to save his own skin. Immediately he told the court that the prisoner was William Townsend, which caused the courtroom to erupt into sensation. Once the courtroom had settled down, he continued,
“I have not the slightest doubt that I am speaking to the man who charged and discharged the pistol which shot Nelles. The prisoner, the leader of the party, planned the robbery at Hamilton. The Prisoner put on a false moustache and whisker made of Buffalo hair. He put them on before robbing Mr Nelles. No one could easily recognise Townsend when he had the whiskers on. The prisoner is a good hand at imitating voices.”
Happy to give the government they pennies worth, he then went on to detail a host of other crimes and murders that Townsend had committed and admitted to him in the past, before pleading his own innocence in the murder and expressing his hope that his life imprisonment could be shortened, though he was eventually stopped by the judge for providing evidence which had nothing to do with the case for which he was standing trial. He went on to explain that both he and Townsend had worn earrings in their ears when they were in the gang together, though now they appeared to be closed up in the prisoners case. After Brysons meandering testimony, Mrs Hatch was called, a woman from Hamilton who claimed to the court that “there is no one in Hamilton that I knew better than Townsend.” She then told the court that she believed the prisoner to be Townsend. The opening day had been a drawn out affair with many long, meandering testimonies and at 5 o’clock and the court closed session, none were really any more the clearer.
The second day of the trial opened with the continuation of Mrs Hatch’s testimony. She told the court that although she had never heard Townsend read, she had been lead to believe that he had “pretty good learning” and that she had known him to be “good at handsprings” though it’s fairly unclear exactly what relevance that held for anyone. Next came testimony of two men who had known Townsend from his days sailing on Lake Ontario, the first stating he ce could positively identify the prisoner as Townsend due to his scars, however, the second man gave a somewhat more muddled testimony,
“He spoke in Toronto with a more Scottish scent than previously. He used to mumble his words rather. He used to raise his head suddenly and then suddenly put it down, after looking at a person. He was not at that time of any intellectual character. Townsend’s eye was not, I think, very large. I don’t know what colour it was, but I should imagine blue. The prisoner holds his head differently from what he used to do. If the scar were not on his face, I should doubt if ge were Townsend.”
More witnesses were called and more deliberation over the prisoners scars took place, some saying that they matched Townsends, whilst others spoke of how they had slightly changed positions, or the prisoners eyes had changed colour, or that even, his eyebrows were now further apart than Townsends that were remembered.
The third day of the trial opened to a some scandal, when it became apparent that some members of the Jury had been found to have placed bets on the outcome of the trial. Although the judge told the court that it would be a “disgraceful thing” for any members of the jury to have been found betting on the outcome, and despite the fact that several members openly admitted they had bet “some”, it appeared that none were removed from duty and the days testimonies kicked off as usual. More debate was expressed as to the prisoners scars, this time talking of scars all over his body and even went into the business of Townsends toe joints being larger than the prisoners. The conclusions remained split, with around half the witnesses claiming the prisoner to positively identified as Townsend, whilst the other half were entirely unsure. Many were asked if they were aware that a reward was on Townsends head for any information given that would end in his arrest and positive judgement, all of which said they were aware and only a few speaking out against the insinuation that they were motivated to identify the prisoner by the promise of the cash reward.
The final day of the trial saw Townsends own family take the stand as witnesses along with close friends of the family. One fo the most damning testimonies for the prosecution was that of Ezra Smith, a family friend who claimed to have known the Townsends for over 15 years and who told the court that she had little doubt that Townsend was the murderer and that she had “no sympathy” for him. In the case of the prisoner however, she stated,
“I have not the least doubt I should know Townsend if I saw him. I know I should. The prisoner is not William Townsend. If these were my last words, I should say the same.”
“I do say that if the court were all to swear the prisoner was William Townsend, I would not believe it. He had dark eyes – not blue ones. If the prisoner himself were to say his name was William Townsend, I should not believe him.”
The next person on the stand was a sailor who knew Townsend during the days he sailed in the governments service and who told the court, for some reason or another that Townsend had often talked a great deal about Pumpkin pie and of how he could not grow a beard as he had a woman face, concluding that the prisoner “was not the man, unless he had another head on”.
When Townsends mother took the stand, she told the court how William could read and write, though in a course hand and was a poor speller. Then came the evidence of both his sisters, all three of the Townsend family spoke of how Townsend had a small anchor tattoo on his wrist with his initials that he had had tattooed during his time on the Mohawk, which the prisoner did not have and all three claimed the prisoner was not their family member.
The jury finally retired at 3pm to make their deliberations after being told that they had only one question to answer, which was whether the prisoner had murdered Nelles or not. By this point in the trial, this was a drastic oversimplification of their duty and one which was evidenced by the fact that seven hours later at 10pm, when the jury were called upon, a spokesperson, one Mr Hopkins, was put forward to explain to the court that the jury was still split, over a decision.
“Mr Hopkins said that the minority were so firm in their opinion, that no unanimous conclusion could be arrived at. One of the jurors is said to have asserted that he would sit on his seat until he was carried out a corpse, rather than convict the prisoner.”
With 7 members of the jury standing for a conviction, 4 against and 1 doubtful, the judge finally gave in and disbanded the jury, forcing the trial to end with an inconclusive verdict, the prisoner to remain in jail for a further 6 months, whereby he would have to stand trial once again in the next assizes. Upon hearing the verdict, he only stated that it was “The damnedest piece of business he ever came across.”
And so it was that Townsend, or rather, Not Townsend, wound up wasting away the days, weeks and months in jail for a further six months to await his second trial.
The first trial of Townsend, Not Townsend, had come dangerously close to a complete farce. Many fo the witnesses both for the prosecution and defence appeared to hold ulterior motives and many gave evidence which baffled the court, either in its contrary opinion, such as the boarder who had lived with Townsend for some time, who in court swore he didn’t know the prisoner at all, or just for the sheer insignificance of the details provided. The second trial, it was therefore decided, would not be for the murder of Nelles, but for the murder instead of Constable Ritchie. This, they evidently assumed, would have a higher success. In the downtime between trials, rumour swirled around Canada. Stories that the judge had been an uncle of Townsend, or that the bailiff who escorted the prisoner from the trial to his cell in Cayuga, was in fact Townsend himself in disguise. Thankfully, the prisoner was keen to break such rumour and fill the void himself, with information he felt needed to be made public. He once again wrote a letter with details of which he said were his past, and managed to secure it into the possession of a visiting journalist. His letter was printed on October 10th, 1857, and read,
“My Dear Sir – You ask me why Ikeep my identity in the dark. That you may not fall into the same error as some of the others of the press have done, to consider me as a very questionable character from he fact of my not proving who I am, my motives and reasons for pursuing such a course are many. It is a momentary triumph I am running for, nor am I in any haste about establishing my character and identity beyond dispute.
I have several times in my life been considered a very eccentric character, and fond of experimenting upon things that were considered desperate by others ; In fact, my whole life has been a succession of experiments. As I considered this this prosecution a wanton persecution – nothing else but an experiment with a view of making money by the operation, as the mainspring to everything that is undertaken in this money-loving age – I conceived the idea of experimenting upon human nature, as I considered this the best opportunity I had come across, for my life has not been passed in crowded cities, but in isolated places where I had no opportunity of seeing the machinery of society and law in operation.
I will not dwell upon the particulars at present, but say there was such a strong prejudice raised in Cleveland that I was William Townsend, that any person of respectability who raised his voice to the contrary was hotted at. I was always ready and willing to come to Canada. Previous to the time I was brought, when Sheriff Hobson came to Cleveland I volunteered to go with I’m, but the authorities would not allow it. Their object was to go through the regular course, and receive the expenses they might be at.
I will here state my knowledge of Canada. In the summer of 1837, I left the village of Camlachie, the place where I was residing at the time, on the Glasgow and Edinburgh road. In the fall I arrived at Quebec ; stopped a few weeks at Montreal ; came to st. Johns, Lower Canada ; stayed with my cousin, guy sergeant in the 71st regiment, then lying at St. Johns, between the barracks and Chambly, a small village down the lake ; I stopped there the winters of ’39 and ’40. When navigation opened on Lake Champlain, I bid good bye to my cousin and British North America ; arrived in New York, and have resided all the time since in the United States, or territories, with the exception of about two years. I sailed out of the port of Liverpool, in England, in the fall of 1852 ; in December I left Buffalo on board the brig Powhattan, with a load of railroad iron, bound for Cleveland. Coming p the lake, a dreadful storm set in from the Southward and Westward ; as we were far out in the lake at the time, our best chance wa to run for the Canada shore. With difficulty we made the mouth of the Grand River with some fifty more vessels. There, I think, was beached the Hamlet, of Buffalo. We staid there a few days and then put to sea again for Cleveland.
Now, Sir, notwithstanding all that has been sworn to, published, talked of about my being in Canada, and knowing the different localities of places, what I have stated of the Grand River, coming through as an emigrant boy, is all I know of Canada or its people.
When I landed in Canada as the supposed Townsend, from the reception I received in Toronto, from the fact of certain parties pretending to recognise me as Townsend, from the fact of my being informed I could not have a hearing before September, unless I had money to sue out a writ of habeas corpus – that commodity I had not, consequently I had to dispense with the idea of enjoying what it always brings – protection, peace, honour, and plenty.
After a few days I arrived at Cayuga. From fifty to a hundred, of a day, who knew Townsend, came to see me, and said I was not the man ; and the first announcement from the press was in my favour.
In the meantime Eli Tupper, who swore to me in Cleveland as Townsend, came along, and a few more of the conspirators.
Gradually the village journalists commenced to mystify what was made a positive fact, as I lay in my solitary cell, viewing the contending elements of human nature conjuring up ideas that I might be the man, or one of the gang.
This became necessary to those who had bets on the identity. If they could not swear themselves, it must be done by proxy. So hosts of persons came, and by every means tried to make me believe they had seen me such and such a place, and tried to have me make admission to the same. The jobbers, speculators, pimps, stuffers, and things, under the influence of liquor, came, an in a familiar manner wished to shake hands with me as old acquaintances, as I could read in the countenances the wish came from the thought, and seemed to say what a pity he is not a little more like the Townsend.
As I always was of an enquiring turn of mind, my experimenting propensity had a beautiful opportunity to prove was amount of corruption there was in the country ; what a corrupt and degraded press would bring forth, what the love of a few paltry dollars would weigh in the scale of human integrity and justice, for I could see as plain as day their objects to prostitute the truth, and sell me, if they could, for the reward.
It is not necessary to mention names at present, but they are well known to me. Some who did not appear on the stand against me were largely interested in backing up Tom, Dick and Harry to view me, to examine me most particularly. I was conscious of never being in a country, and having seen a family in jail, having had correct descriptions of him, of our total dissimilarity, both physically, mentally and morally ; as my very motion was watched, runners enquiring what effort was making to bring forward testimony, I came to to the conclusion they were balancing the case ; I then came to the determination to see what Canada was made of, and rest the whole case with them – not that I was entirely indifferent to the opinion of the public, nor will I be ; when I consider the proper time comes, I am too sensitive a man not to repel the base slanders that has been heaped upon me.
As considerable prejudice existed against the very name of Townsend, I wished to see how far this would affect the Judge, Jury, and Solicitor General. How far their reason has been blinded by passion I have proved. Would nt change places with the judge, Solicitor General, or one of the Jury who were opposed in any shape to acquitting me on such evidence. No in my opinion, I have as good a thing on Haldimond County, the best perhaps that ever man had.
What will any man of common sense say who knows the circumstances? Within a few miles of his residence, within a few miles of where the murder was committed, a man known by thousands, with three years to meditate on the subject of identity, and then try to a man n that mature deliberation of three years ; then for a judge to raise a doubt as to who killed Nelles. Why the idea is preposterous.
If his Lordship had been candid enough to have said in the beginning, before one witness was examined, you (the prionser) must prove you are not William Townsend, and after that, you must prove you did not kill John Hamilton Nelles, and the same evidence must come from some place out of Canada ; and besides, you must prove who you are. Had this been candidly stated, the sham trial might have been dispensed with, fo ritz’s was evident to any man of medium intelligence, that he would not be satisfied with the fact proved beyond dispute, that I was not Townsend, or in the gang.
From the fact fo ym not proving on the trial who I am, should not dispose persons to imagine that I am a bad character. I looked at the charge as a gross absurdity, a fraud so glaring that for the life of me I could not see how they could palm me off as Townsend. No, gentleman, I am in no manner diffident to reveal to the world who I am, and every act fo my life. With reference to my character, it may e proper to say it is quite probable I am not free from the faults, follies, and vices which are too commonly associated with humanity.
It has not been set up for an example for others, and no claims have been made before the public on account of excellency and virtue, neither is there any matter before the public where the excellency of my virtue, or its efficiency, is involved as a necessary subject on inquiry. The question before the public is whether I am Townsend, or somebody else. In pursuing the course I have in this case, I wish to shew up the gross absurdity of the charge, by giving the people of Canada the privilege of deciding whether I am the man or not.
I claim that what is Caesar’s should be rendered unto him :- I claim, by right of discovery, all credit that may be attached to the circumstance of laying bare the nest of perjurers that have been lurking about the country to the danger of life and property.
If I have gained a single point by doing a service to the community by putting them on their guard against such reptiles in human form, I shall be amply repaid by the consolation that will be derived from doing the same.
To those who have kindly manifested a disposition to see I had justice done me, receive my kind regards, and be assured you will have no reason to regret the steps you have taken, to see an innocent man and a stranger in the country have justice done him.
Until I have collected all the perjurers’ names who will be wiling to slip up and swear to a falsehood, in consideration of money, or to please some interested party in my conviction, will I say but little who I am, for never was there such a gross fraud attempted upon the public. What a compliment this decision will be to the intelligence of Haldimand, when handed down to posterity, when the rising generation will raise the finger of scorn an say, “there goes a Townsend juror” or, “You are as intelligent as a Townsend juror.”
When I have exposed to the public the base and diabolical plots that have been organised to convict me of this charge, then will you pause to think on what base purposes the machinery of the law is applied to. If I suffer in your estimation in those imputations that have been cast upon my character, I earnestly desire you to be patient, I am willing to suffer that good may come thereof. As Buron says :- “The white rose shall bloom in his bonnet again, should he prove the true son of Donald McBane.”
Respectfully yours, R. J. McHenry.”
From this second letter, it appears that either Townsend was playing out some kind of ingenious long game, or Not Townsend was somewhat unhinged, intent on the idea that he was providing a great public service in uncovering deep corruption through his unjustful incarceration. Finally, with doubt settling in, witnesses were called to visit the prisoner with Scottish backgrounds to vouch or discredit his Scottish dialect. The prisoner was soon enough said to have spoken with a convincing enough accent, but stranger still, was that he was able to give details of the village he claimed to have been from in Glasgow, that were confirmed by other members of the public who had also came from the same town. The press too, were now beginning to change tact, describing him as,
“Fluent and fearless in conversation, and is evidently a man of considerable intelligence.”
Three days later, the headline in the paper ran, “McHenry all but proved innocent!” This headline was influenced by a sworn affidavit, written by the mate on the ship Powhattan that Not Townsend had written of in his letter, swearing that he had sailed with McHenry during 1852 and that he was an excellent cook and had left the ship in December, declaring his intention to travel to California and seek his fortune prospecting for Gold. If any of this could be proven, then it would have placed the prisoner in California at the time of the Nelles murder, but of course, he also still had to prove that he was Not Townsend in the first place.
The second trial begun on March 26th, 1858. Much of the evidence both for and against the prisoner played out in the same vein as the previous trial, with witnesses claiming both for and against his identification as either Townsend or McHenry. For every witness the prosecution bought to the stand who could outright claim the man to be Townsend, the defence hit back with a witness who would claim him to be in California at the time of the murder, going by the name McHenry. The court ran late almost every night of the trial, at times standing for over 12 hours and not concluding until past 10pm at night. On the ninth day, the defence finally gave their closing speech to the court, highlighting that in the first trial, the hordes of witnesses for the prosecution had given testimony only on promise of reward, and were people of “low character”. The jury went out to make their deliberations and on the tenth day returned their verdict that,
“The prisoner at this bar was McHenry and Not Guilty.”
With he trials wrapped up and no charges brought against him, the prisoner, now officially Not Townsend, was promptly discharged on £100 bail. Contrary to his previous protestations in his long and overly dramatic letters, however, Not Townsend did not charge the state for injustice, nor any of the witnesses for perjury. In fact, he didn’t appear to do anything at all, other than to disappear from history altogether. For a man with so much fire in his belly, he appeared to bow out, without so much as a whimper. Had then, he really been McHenry, or was it all just smoke and mirrors by Townsend in order to escape prosecution? Why had he not raised more of a fuss for being wrongfully incarcerated for over 13 months? If the prisoner really was Townsend, the answer is obvious, he felt it better to turn tail and keep his head down, rather than try his luck any further. If the man had been McHenry however then the silence seems entirely against the mans character. It’s a troubling question which has no answer. Failing this, if the prisoner really was Not Townsend, why had he not confessed to being McHenry during his first trial? And why had he wanted to keep his past so secret in the first place? If he really was McHenry, had the two men really appeared so much alike, as to confuse so many witnesses, leaving so many completely unsure as to his identity at all, even after they had known Townsend for so many years? Why were some more convinced than others? Or had Townsend, who had enjoyed a reputation as a skilled impersonator, played the greatest long game the legal courts of Canada have ever seen, hoodwinking so many in the process?
One curious, final twist, came in 1931 with the publication of a book by William Wallace Stewart, titled “Murders and Mysteries”, in which the author sort to get to the bottom of the case. He found that there never was a Robert J. McHenry in Scotland during the time he was meant to have been there, nor was there any record of him travelling to Canada. In fact, in his book, Stewart suggests that the man tried twice for the murders committed by Townsend was neither Townsend, nor McHenry, but he was very possibly, a deserter from the British Army in Canada, who could not give his real identity through fear of being captured and facing capital charges.
In conclusion, we are left with the words of the defence, spoken in closing concerning the case as a whole,
“We have all heard of cases in which an innocent man was convicted of an offence committed by some one else. We have heard, too, of cases in which the corpses of dead men have been sworn to as those of persons yet alive. But there does not occur to my recollection a single instance in which a man, whom “everybody” knew, and who having committed a grave offence, returns whence he fled after a long absence of three years, could not be identified by at least the majority of those who were formerly acquainted with him. Yet such, some say, is the fact as it regards the present prisoner.”
Just who was Not Townsend anyway?