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Crime in 19th Century East Gwillimbury: Attempted Murder in Holland Landing (1846)

Today, Holland Landing is known as a peaceful and quiet town, ideally situated between urban and rural lifestyles. But in the 19th century, it experienced its fair share of crime. One such incident occurred in the fall of 1846 with the attempted murder of a mild-mannered storekeeper in Holland Landing.

Our story begins on November 24th, where a young storekeeper (like a modern-day cashier or general manager) named Edward Clarke who was minding N.J. Coons’ General Store on the night in question. At about 8 o’clock, a strange man knocked on the door and gained admittance to the store. Initially, he thought that the shop was closed; Clarke replied, “How could you think so, seeing the windows open, and the light [on].” In a written statement, Clarke described the man as being 35 years of age, 5 feet 8 inches tall, of stout build, and wore a dark frock coat and pantaloons, with a matching black hat.

The stranger then said that he understood Mr. Coons was up in Holland Landing, but Clarke told him that Mr. Coons was not present in the building. After some small talk, he asked where he could find some red flannel. After having been told where the red flannel was, he went from the east to the west counter to where it was located. Clarke noticed in the mirror that the man drew a pistol from his coat pocket. Clarke turned around and the man advanced on him with the pistol. The man attempted to fire it, but the pistol misfired when the cap exploded. The man immediately cried out that it was “no go” and fled the scene, closing the door very violently behind him.

Fig. 1: A muzzle loading percussion pistol, c. 1841. From the Canadian War Museum, Object # 19390002-011.

After the crime occurred, a reward was posted for £150 pounds given “to any person or persons who will give information, as will lead to the arrest and conviction of the person who thus attempted to commit this most wanton and cruel outrage”. After the reward poster was put up, inhabitants of Holland Landing were very suspicious about whether or not the story was true. During the last week of November, the weather was mild and there was a lot of mud in the village, making travel very difficult. The steamship was even tied up at the upper landing three miles up the river, due to the gale force winds that were threatening the area. Thus, it would have been very difficult for a traveler to even get to the general store at that time of day.

Fig. 2: Undated painting of the S.S. Beaver, which travelled around Lake Simcoe and was owned by Charles Thompson.

However, his story was vindicated when an ex-convict, Stephen Turney, was arrested for the murder of a Markham storekeeper William McPhillips. He matched the description that was provided by Clarke, and witnesses confirmed that he had purchased two brand new pistols on November 23rd, and was seen making bullets for the pistol in a mold.

Do you know of any other true crime stories that occurred in Holland Landing? Let us know in the comments!

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