MURDER ON THE MANITOULIN ISLAND
By George Skippen
Taken from “Through the Years” Vol X February 1993 No. 4
When the government began surveying, and advertising the Manitoulin Island for settlers in the mid-1800’s, the price was very attractive, and many people came from Southern Ontario to make a new life for themselves.
My story takes place in part of Tehkummah Township, in the area which is known as the “five corners”, on lots 26,27,28,29,30 and 31, Con. B. The north half of these lots were owned at the time by the following: Lot 26-Strachan; Lots 27 &28-Amer; Lot 29-Bryan; Lot 30-Boyer; Lot 31-Cowan. The south half of these lots were owned by: Lots 26,27,28,29-Porter and Lots 30 and 31-Sloan. In this small pioneer farming community a tragic event occurred which would not be forgotten for years to come.
George Archibald Amer and his family occupied Lot 28, and the adjoining Lot 29 was occupied by William Bryan and his family. The Amer family consisted of George, his wife Annie, a son Laban, and a daughter; a hired girl Ellen Sim, and a hired man Samuel Blanchard. The Bryan family at that time included William, his wife Eleanor, and sons Charles and Arthur;-(five others having already left home.) The Amers were quite well to do and able to afford hired help;-comparison, the Bryans were very poor.
These people had been homesteading about two to three years. Land was being cleared, fields were being fenced-not well enough at times, and some had no fences at all, which created most of the trouble between these two neighbours. George Amer, in his mid-forties, was a large, stout and muscular man. Before coming to the Manitoulin he had been a policeman in Owen Sound. He got along fairly well with neighbours who were not too close, but at times he had a tendency to run roughshod over them. The Bryans, being the closet neighbours, he quarrelled with most. Amer’s son Laban was much different than his father; being of slight build, and of a meek disposition, he was apparently quite contented to do as he was directed.
William Bryan, in his late fifties, was in stature the very opposite to George Amer and weighed only about 130 pounds. He had gray hair and a beard, and was known as “Old Man Bryan”. He also had a bad disposition, and at times was prone to quarrel with his neighbours. But he considered himself a God-fearing man, and disliked Amer’s habit of working on Sunday. Bryan’s son Charles was larger than his father, and had some of his father’s quarrelsome nature.
That spring of 1877 Bryan had completed clearing a field next to Amers, and had planted grain in it. George Amer also had fields cleared close by in which grain was planted. Both men did not have their line fences completed. As a result Bryan’s oxen were getting into Amer’s field from time to time and Amer’s horses were getting into Bryan’s grain. The two sons, Charles Bryan and Laban Amer had been fighting, which did not help the relationship between the families; and neither did some neighbours who kept telling tales back and forth to fuel their dislike of one another!
On June 26, 1877, the bad feeling between the two families came to a head. Bryan’s found Amer’s horses in their grain field, so leading the horses up to their house, they tied them up. That evening as George Amer was going to bed, he sent Laban out to bring the horses in for the night. Laban eventually found them tied to the fence at the Bryan house. It was apparently at this time that the Bryan’s put their plan in motion-: Charles chased Laban and sent him home without the horses. When Laban told his father what had happened Amer became very angry and decided to teach the Bryans a lesson. Arming himself with a police truncheon and giving Laban a pistol- both of which he had brought from Owen Sound-, they started off to reclaim their horses. It being a bright moonlight night, Wm. Bryan and his son Charles watched them coming up the road, and stayed out of sight in the shadows of the fence where the horses were tied. Being armed with hardwood sticks, the Bryans confronted the Amers as they approached the horses. The fight that ensued was vicious. Close neighbours, the Porters, were awakened by the noise and could hear the sticks striking on wood and skulls. In a short time they heard Amer order his son to shoot, which he did,- shooting Charles in the head, and Bryan Sr. in the neck. It was after this that the Porters heard more sticks striking, and Old Man Bryan, as he was referred to, saying- “Stop!- Please!- we are murdered enough!”. Amer then ordered his son Laban to untie the horses and take them home. Amer also left and went to a neighbour, Samuel Sloan. After getting him up, he had to tell who he was, as he was so battered and drenched with blood. He asked Sloan to go to the Bryans as they had had a “fearful fight”!
In the meantime, Mrs. Bryan, who had been watching the fight from within the house, came out with her eight year old son Arthur, and dragged the two men into the house. They place them on the floor on either side of the stove, and removed their “cloth boots”. One can only imagine how terrified she and the little boy must have been! When she asked little Arthur to go and get the Porters, he said “Oh no, Mother, I cannot-you holler!” Then Mrs. Bryan ran to the Porters, calling “Murder-Murder!” as she ran. The Porters agreed to go, but were a bit reluctant to go by themselves. So Porter with his two sons, joined with neighbours Samuel Sloan and Benjamin Boyer, and together they went to Bryans to see what they could do. The only means of light in the Bryan house was to light a sliver of wood from the stove so one of the men went back home and brought a lamp to see the wounded men. When the men arrived Charles-who had been shot in the forehead above the right eye- was unable to speak; but Wm. Bryan raised his hand to where he had been shot in the neck and said, “If they had not shot Charlie and me, we would have cleared the field of them!”
When George Amer arrived at his home, he wakened the hired man and directed him to go to Manitowaning and get the Doctor to tend to his wounds. When Dr. Wm. Francis arrived in the morning he went directly to Amer’s home where he stitched and bandaged Amer’s wounds. He was then told of the fight with the Bryans and of course went to the Bryans place where he found them both on the floor. Charles was still unable to peak, and his father had lapsed into unconsciousness. After examining them. Dr. Francis considered them both to be hopeless cases. Charles died later on in the day, and Wm Bryan died two days later on Friday, June 29.
Mr. J.C. Phipps, Mr. W. Haner, and Mr. Thos. Gorley were the Justices of the Peace in Manitowaning, and Mrs. Charles Boyd was J.P. and acting Constable from Tehkummah. On Saturday, June 30, Mr. J.C. Phipps, J.P., began taking depositions from the following witnesses, who would later testify at the trial; Charles Boyd; Andrew Porter (signed with an X); Andrew Porter Jr.; John Porter; Benjamin Boyer; Samuel Sloan(signed with an X); Arthur Bryan, (8 years old); Samuel Blanchard; Ellen Sim. I might add here that when Constable Boyd went to get George Amer and son Laban, he found that Laban had disappeared. Word of his disappearance was sent to Sault Ste. Marie and “Reward” notices were printed, but before they got to the Manitoulin Laban Amer had given himself up.
On September 11, 1877, the trial date was set for October 2, 1877, to try George Amer and Laban Amer for the murder of William Bryan and Charles Bryan, to be held at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. On October 2, court was opened with all its pomp and ceremony. A total of twenty-three was picked for the Grand Jury. A total of forty-eight persons were listed for the Petit Jury, from which twelve were chosen. The Honourable Walter McCrea was the presiding Judge, Mr. John Hamilton was Crown Attorney, and Mr. M.C. Cameron was Queen’s Council for the Amers. Because of technicalities, the actual trial did not begin until October 6. During the trial the depositions of the witnesses were heard, and some were recalled and questioned by the court. Also during the trial Mr. W. Sproat had to retract some of the statements he had made while going to the Sault on the boat. One example was “—that his evidence would lift Amer’s leg up on the scaffold as high as he could reach”! This comment was made within hearing of Mr. Reed who was George Amer’s brother-in-law. Dr. Wm. Francis testified regarding this autopsy, “that Wm. Bryan died of heavy blows to the head,-not by gunshot, and that Charles Bryan died from the result of a bullet wound to his head”. On Oct. 12 the Jury brought in a verdict of “guilty” for both prisoners, but with a recommendation for mercy. At the end of the trial Mr. Cameron raised an objection that Judge Walter McCrea had not been appointed properly, so sentencing was postponed until the appeal was settled. On Feb. 4, 1878, there was a court hearing to place the appeal before the Supreme Court of Canada. On June 11, 1878, the Supreme Court met, and ruled that the appeal be quashed.
On July 25, 1878, Judge Walter McCrea sentenced George Amer and Laban Amer to be hanged on September 12, 1878, between the hours of six in the morning and twelve noon. Although this was devastating news for Annie Amer, she was a woman of action, and had been busy even before the verdict was announced. Making more than one trip to Owen Sound, she was able to recruit friends in high places to assist her. Petitions were arranged and circulated. George Amer, having been on the Owen Sound Council, as well as having been a police constable, was well known in that area. A petition from Owen Sound, started by the Mayor, Mr. Rick Noltes, and Clerk Norm Gordon, was signed by them and all the council. Petitions were sent by all the surrounding townships, and also by the professional and business people of Owen Sound. A total of 185 signatures came from Owen Sound; 202 from the Manitoulin, and 119 from Sault Ste. Marie. (The Amers had been in jail in the Sault since June of 1877). All petitions were sent to The Right Honourable the Earl of Dufferin, Governor General of the Dominion of Canada. Mr. S.C. Dawson, M.P.P. for Algoma also sent a letter on behalf of the Amers.
The hard work and dedication of Mrs. Annie Amer paid off, for on August 12, 1878, just one month before they were to have been hanged,- the Sheriff’s Office in Sault Ste. Marie received word that His Excellency the Governor General was pleased to commute the death sentence of George and Laban Amer to ten years each in Kingston Penitentiary, with instructions to remove them to Kingston immediately.
After being in jail for two years, Laban Amer became quite ill. Mrs. Amer began gathering petitions to free her son, and on October 6, 1881, Laban was discharged from jail, and the hospital where he had been, and returned to the care of his mother. Two years later on October 1, 1883, the Warden received the Governor General’s instruction that George Amer be release from Kingston Penitentiary,- being thereby excused of five years of the original ten year sentence.
One year following George Amer’s release from prison he became Clerk of Tehkummah Township. He died in 1908, and Laban died in 1917, and they are buried in Hilly Grove Cemetery. I have been unable to find the date of Mrs. Amer’s death, or where she is buried. Their daughter, Annie married Alex Brinkman; they had a son William Herbert who died in 1892 at the age of 7 years, and a daughter Pearl who died in 1905 at the age of 5 years. They also are buried in Hilly Grove Cemetery.
William and Charles Bryan are buried beside the Anglican Church in Manitowaning. Eleanor (Boyce) Bryan is buried in Green Bay Cemetery,. Besides Charles and Arthur, the Bryan family included Harriet, William, Abe, Carrie and Annie. In later years Arthur was the proprietor of the Queen’s Hotel in Gore Bay, and was known by all as “Crusty Bryan”. Harriet married William Skippen and was my Grandmother. I remember her telling me that she walked from Green Bay to Tehkummah to be with her mother at the time of the murder. I don’t know where Eleanor Bryan and Arthur lived while Arthur was growing up, as they left the farm shortly after the tragedy. But I am told by two cousins, Ross Skippen, and Reva (Skippen) Montgomery, that when they were very young, they remembered seeing her at Grandma Skippen’s in Green Bay, when she was an old lady. Reva also recalls hearing her great grandmother Eleanor Bryan comment on how she used to do things,-“when she was on her own floor!’
So far I have been unable to find any family history regarding Eleanor (Boyce) Bryan; and I would also be interested in more information regarding the Amers and Brinkmans. If anyone may have information contact me at Sheguiandah, Ontario, P0P 1W0.