Taverns "producing Murder, blood and strife": The life and death of Henry Blackstone
Updated: Jul 17, 2021
Last week, we discussed the inns and taverns that were present in Holland Landing during the nineteenth century. This time, we will learn about a prominent lawyer, named Henry Blackstone, who met his untimely end in one of these places.
Henry Blackstone is a somewhat enigmatic figure. Dr. Scadding reports in his book entitled Toronto of Old, that "at Newmarket, not very many years since, was successfully practicing a grandson of Sir William Blackstone, the commentator on the Laws of England - Mr. Henry Blackstone, whose conspicuous talents gave promise of an eminence in his profession not unworthy of the name he bore. But his career was cut short by death."  This short and rather vague paragraph does not tell us a lot about who Henry Blackstone actually was.
His grandfather, Sir William Blackstone. was an English lawyer, public speaker and Tory politician. His most notable contribution was the fact that he wrote a comprehensive four volume work entitled "Commentaries on the Laws of England", providing a complete overview of English Law. He married Sarah Clitherow in 1761, and they had 8 children together, the first of whom did not survive to adulthood.
Figure 1: Portrait of Henry's grandfather, Sir William Blackstone (10 July 1723 - 14 February 1780). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, England.
The oldest son, named Henry, was born in 1763. He apparently gave the family so much trouble in his youth that he was sent to Canada in 1799. He lived in Lower Canada first as the comptroller of customs in St. Johns, then as a sheriff in Three Rivers, and finally entered the medical profession, practicing as the Coroner of Quebec for many years until he died on February 2nd, 1825.
We know that Henry Blackstone the younger was born in Quebec and attended school in that province. Afterwards he came to Upper Canada in 1831 and attended Law School at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. He was the first resident lawyer in Newmarket, and after a few years, he moved his practice to Holland Landing.
In Rowsell's City of Toronto and County of York Directory for 1850-51, Henry Blackstone the Younger is listed as living in East Gwillimbury on Lot 1, Concession 107. He married Ann Henderson, who was the daughter of Colonel Henderson, who farmed 200 acres near Holland Landing. They had two daughters, born in 1844 and 1846 but they both died in their infancy.
Figure 2: Detail of the 1860 County of York map showing the land which was owned by Henry Blackstone in 1850.
Despite his being a respectable lawyer, it was well known that Henry Blackstone had a drinking problem; he would frequent many taverns around the area imbibing the "demon rum". On a Saturday in August, he was drinking at Playter's Tavern, also known as the "Masonic Arms", where he was attacked by four men who savagely beat him to death. He was pronounced dead as a result of his injuries on August 22nd, 1852.
Ralph Berrin notes that the men who were responsible for his death were named Flannigan, Torrence, and Fleming "are guilty of manslaughter" as reported in the Toronto newspaper News of the Week.  The event generated such great interest that David Willson, the leader of the Sharon Temple, produced a sermon in verse on the evils of alcohol as a memorial to Henry Blackstone. He distributed to all the subscribers of the New Era of Newmarket in their August 23, 1853 edition.
 Scadding, Henry (1873). "Toronto of Old". Toronto: Adam, Stevenson & Co. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/scadding-torontoofold/scadding-torontoofold-00-h-dir/scadding-torontoofold-00-h.html
 Anon (1850). "Rowsell's City of Toronto and County of York directory for 1850-1". Toronto: Henry Rowsell. Retrieved from https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.8_00505_1/276?r=0&s=1
 Berrin, Ralph (1964). "Henry Blackstone or How Henry Died". Toronto: York Pioneer.