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Stephen Turney: Murderer and Member of the Markham Gang

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

Last week, we discussed a crime in Holland Landing which occurred in 1846, in which Edward Clarke narrowly avoided being killed by a stranger who had entered his store. It was later supposed that it was attempted by Stephen Turney, who was a member of the notorious Markham Gang. But what did the Markham Gang do to make them so hated, and who was Stephen Turney?

For starters, the Markham Gang was a criminal network that was active in Upper Canada after the Rebellion of 1837 and well into the 1840’s. The activities of the gang included petty theft such as stealing valuable items such as clothing, watches, and harnesses from barns, and then taking them far from the site of the theft to sell it elsewhere at a considerable markup. Some of the other high-ranking members of the gang would commit more lucrative crimes, such as horse theft and cattle stealing. Arrests were made and several members of the gang went underground due to the police crackdown against the gang which occurred in 1845. However, the gang was to be undone by a murder that would be committed by a prominent member of the Markham gang.

It occurred in Logan’s General Store, owned by William McPhillips of Markham. On the night of November 20th, passersby heard the sounds of men in the store and raucous laughter. The next morning, the body of William McPhillips was found with substantial damage to his head, possibly from blows from a hammer. Money that was supposed to be in the cash box was found to be missing, and McPhillip’s watch was also missing. The investigator in the case, George Gurnett, personally travelled up to Markham and had police constables interview witnesses and likely suspects, but every suspect that they interviewed had solid alibis. So eventually Gurnett posted a reward for £100 for information regarding the murder. Eventually, Turney’s name was produced as the one who had committed the murder, and he was arrested by the Toronto Police.

As for who he was, Stephen Turney gave a biographical account of himself when he first took the stand in court. He was apparently born in Belfast in 1806 and served an apprenticeship there. In 1831, he enlisted in the army and initially served in Spain, under the command of Colonel O’Connell. He returned to Belfast in 1834 and from 1838 – 1839 he was stationed in the province of Nova Scotia. He eventually moved with his regiment to Toronto; Turney was convicted of stealing from Lord Tullamore, and served three years in the Kingston penitentiary, after which he was discharged from the army. It was presumably after this time that he took up with the Markham gang.

Figure 1: Ink drawing of Stephen Turney, from the Toronto British Colonist newspaper on December 22nd, 1846. From the Toronto Public Library's Digital Archive.

There were several factors that let to Turney’s being declared guilty of the murder of William McPhillips. Firstly, acquaintances of his had seen him in Toronto on a spending spree, buying a gold ring, two pistols from a Toronto gunsmith, as well as purchasing fine clothing for himself and his wife. When asked to account for these purchases, he stated that he “had four or five dollars when he left Markham and that he had collected a further nine dollars from a friend in Toronto”. But these purchases amounted to more than six times the amount of money he claimed to have on his person.

Furthermore, he could not give a satisfactory account of his whereabouts on the evening of November 20th between 7:30 and 8 PM that night, as he kept changing his story and misremembering certain events. Finally, he had admitted to the robbery of McPhillips’ store, but claimed that another man named John Biggins had been the one to commit the murder. Witness testimony later proved this statement to be false. After the trial of December 18, 1846, Turney was found guilty and was sentenced to death. He was hanged in Toronto on June 23rd, 1847.

If you want to learn more about the Markham gang and the trial of Stephen Turney, you can read the first chapter of The Desperate Ones: Forgotten Canadian Outlaws, by Edward Butts (2006, Dundurn Press). It can be found here on Google Books.

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