This lovely 1860 photograph is one of the earliest images of St. Marys. It shows the Hutton flour mill beside the Thames River with the miller’s house on the north side of Queen Street. These buildings symbolize the ability of early settlers to combine natural resources with technology to prosper. But there was another side of life in early St. Marys that existed side-by-side with Victorian era respectability and prosperity.
When the village of St. Marys was incorporated in 1855, it was in many ways a rough and ready pioneer settlement. The village council passed bylaws to lay out basic rules and procedures for the smooth running of the community and through the years bylaws continued to be passed to meet various situations, such as curbing “furious driving,” maintaining fences and controlling stray animals.
In November 1858, Bylaw 39 called for the suppression of “ill-governed and disorderly houses kept or frequented by lewd and debauched characters.” This bylaw was in response to a series of complaints about brothels operating along Water Street South. Arrests were made and these establishments were closed — temporarily!
However, a year later, a group of citizens apparently felt that the local police and magistrate were failing to act effectively. The Argus, December 1, 1859 reported: “The indignation of some of the inhabitants of St. Marys against the keepers of a brothel in almost the very centre of our village culminated on Wednesday night in an assault upon the house.” The vigilantes removed the village’s fire engine from the Town Hall, drawing it quietly along Water Street to the target. The house apparently spanned Hutton’s millrace north of the miller’s house and so there was plenty of water for the fire hoses. The attackers broke the windows with stones and then “blazed away upon the unconscious sleepers, completely drenching the beds and flooding the house.”
The Argus editor concluded: “We do not approve of a set of men taking the law into their own hands but we heartily rejoice that one of the results of their summary proceeding has been the removal of the keeper of the house and some of its inmates from the village.”
This incident is just one of a number of stories about the dark side of life in early St. Marys that will be included in the first Museum seminar of the 2015-16 season. Entitled Murder and Mayhem, it will be led by Ken Telfer, a follow-up to last season’s presentation on local taverns. It is scheduled for Thursday, September 17, at 7 p.m. at the Museum. Preregistration is required as seats are limited. The cost is $12 ($10 for Museum members). Call 519-284-3556 for information.