Willoughby Tragedy - The Murder

Charles Willoughby was first married to Sarah Langrill (1849, Ireland). She was the mother of the three (or four?) older children (including my ggrandmother, Sarah Willoughby and her younger sister Mary Jane (Potter)).

After the death of Charles' first wife, Sarah (nee Langrill) ca 1859, Charles married a woman named Margaret Moore. She was of the Church of England. One night, (in a state of mental imbalance which subsequent testimony indated he had had for some time), Charles killed her and was subsequently jailed for the remainder of his life. To his eldest son, William, was transferred the Eramosa farm (Lot 6, Concession 6) and the inheritance shares of the rest of the family were also 'bought out' by William when each of them reached his or her age of majority.

Willoughby, Charles, Mrs., News , appeared in Canadian Champion, 9 Feb 1871 , page 2 , column 6
SHOCKING MURDER. - A shocking murder was committed last Friday morning by a man named Charles Willoughby, a farmer residing a mile and half from Rockwood - the victim being his own wife. It seems that while under the influence of liquor he asked the unfortunate woman to rise and get him a drink of water, but as she did not comply with his request he sprang out of bed, seized an axe, and striking her a fearful blow with it on the head, killed her almost instantly. The wretch then tried various but unsuccessful methods to commit suicide. He was subsequently arrested and is now in confinement awaiting examination.

Willoughby, Charles, Mrs., News , appeared in Canadian Champion, 30 Mar 1871 , page 2 , column 6
THE ROCKWOOD TRAGEDY. - Willoughby, who was tried at the late assizes at Guelph for the murder of his wife, was found "not guilty," on the ground of insanity. He will remain in Guelph jail to await the Governor's pleasure, and will probably be sent to the criminal lunatic asylum at Rockwood. (now the women's prison in Kingston, ON)

The following article is from the St. Catharine’s Constitutional, Feb 9, 1871, p. 2 - quoting from the Guelph Mercury.

Wife Murder at Rockwood

"The Guelph Mercury gives the particulars of a horrid murder committed last Friday morning by one Charles Willoughby on his wife Margaret near the village of Rockwood in the county of Wellington. There seemed to be no quarrel between deceased and her husband on the day or evening previous to the murder. They and the rest of the family retired to bed as usual, Willoughby and his wife sleeping in a small room off the kitchen, and the children in a similarly adjoining room, with only a thin board partition between them.

"There is no evidence to show what had transpired between them previous to the fatal blow being struck. The children were asleep and heard nothing till their mother screamed in her death agony. The murderer's own statement is all that we know – that his wife having refused to get up and give him a drink, he without any delay or quarrel or high words, procured an axe and struck her. From the position of the bed, and the fact that there is a sort of top on it only about four feet above it could hardly be possible that he could have struck her while she was in bed and the only conclusion is that the poor woman got up to defend herself or fly out of his reach, when he met her and struck her down. He says himself that she fell on the floor where she was found, and that on examining her and finding that she was dead or dying, he placed a pillow under her head. All this goes to show that the murder, if not premeditated, was done in cold blood, for even to a passionate man, as he is, the mere refusal to get him a drink of water does not afford such an awful crime.

"That there was no quarrel or high words immediately previous is pretty conclusive from the fact that the children heard nothing, for if there had been any noise, they could scarcely fail to hear it, as they lay only a few feet off.

"On proceeding to the house the scene presented was one of the most sickening character. Close to the head of the poor woman were lying pools of congealed blood which had flowed from the wound and her mouth. Part of the frontal bone, the cheek bone, and the upper part of the jaw bone were smashed in, the eye was quite black from the effect of the blow, and the abrasion showed that the wound had been inflicted with a blunt instrument. After some little search the axe was found hid away beneath a bench in the kitchen. It was covered with clots of blood, mixed with a few hairs, and the handle was all smeared with it. Marks of blood was also on the handle of the door where the family slept, showing that the father after thrusting the girls back into the room had shut the door before he put the table to it.

"In the centre of the kitchen floor was a mass of clotted blood, which had flowed from his throat – he having attempted to cut it immediately after committing the murder. Finding that as he said too painful an operation, he struck his head with the axe several times, but that would not do. He then got the clothesline and proceeded to the barn and his steps towards it could be traced by the blood falling from the wound in his throat. Here he tied the rope to a cross beam, with two ends hanging down, for the purpose, as he says himself of catching hold of one if he found hanging was not agreeable. The noose on the rope and the rope itself was smeared with blood. After this ineffectual attempt, he returned to the house and sat there till the neighbours came in. When Dr. McCullough first arrived at the house about eight o’clock, he sewed up and dressed the wound inflicted by the prisoner on his throat.

"Willoughby was an Irishman by birth about 40 or 45 years of age, and looks to be a stout healthy man. The murdered woman was his second wife, and they had been married about 12 years. He has three children by his first wife – two daughters and a son. The daughters – one of whom (this would be my ggrandmother, Sarah who married John Barber) is about 20 years of age, the other about 15 are at home. The son, a young man about 21, had to leave home some time ago, as he could not live with his father. There are two boys by the second marriage, one about 12 years of age, the other a little younger. (I am still not clear on how many children there were, or by which mother.)

"Deceased is about the same age as Willoughby, and had the appearance of a careworn heart-broken woman. Willoughby has been some twenty years on his present farm which is the half of lot 6 in the 6th con of Eramosa, about 2 miles from Rockwood and nearly to the Rockwood and Everton road. His neighbours all give him a bad character as being grasping, mean, selfish passionate and quarrelsome.

"It seems he and his second wife never lived happily together, that he often threatened her, that more than once she had to leave the house, that he was once fined for badly using her, and bound over to keep the peace. The neighbors say that he was avaricious and could not bear to see either wife or children enjoying any comfort. That he kept a sharp eye on the money is shown in the fact that after being lodged in gaol he got the constable to telegraph to Mr. Alex Hill so[to?] open his trunk and take out his money for safekeeping. On opening it they found $500 in bills. When Mr. Dunbar proceeded to Rockwood, he at once informed Henery Strn…" (incomplete)

The following 2002 article ( author and published source unknown), seems to be based upon the above facts (perhaps same or similar newspaper reports) but appears to be research into the state or quality of mental-health care in those times in the 1800's in Ontario.

Insanity Verdict in 1871 Eramosa Homicide

Nineteenth-century medical advancements touched every area of human health, but in matters regarding mental health, progress lagged behind. Still, the lunatic asylums of 1800 gradually disappeared in favour of institutions where medical authorities at least attempted treatments. Precise diagnosis, let alone cures, continued to elude mental health specialists, but gradually, toward the end of the 19th century, an awareness of the issues and problems filtered through society.

The most tragic case of mental illness in Wellington (County) that I have come across is one from Eramosa Township, 131 years ago. Early in the morning of 3 Feb. 1871, Charles Willoughby woke, declared that he was burning up, and demanded that his wife bring him a glass of water. When she refused and rolled over, Willoughby jumped up, grabbed an axe from the adjoining kitchen, and struck her in the face, causing a frightful wound that killed her almost instantly.

Charley Willoughby moved to Eramosa about 1850, to a farm on Lot 6, Concession 6, a little more than a mile east of Rockwood. Through marriage he was related to two families, the Maudes and the Dunbars, who lived nearby.

He had a wife, and the couple produced four children before his wife died. After her death he soon remarried. Margaret, his second wife gave birth to two more sons. Willoughby's mental problems developed after his eldest son died suddenly, and shortly after the second marriage. In his grief he came to the conclusion that his wife had poisoned the boy.

Over the next few years he developed a reputation as an unpredictable and generally unpleasant character. He cultivated minor spats with most of his neighbours. He seemed to have spells when he was mean-tempered, then would appear normal again for a period of weeks. More than once, neighbours recalled seeing him huddled under a tree, crying and talking to himself. The bad spells were worse when he was drinking, but there is no evidence that Charley was anything more than an occasional imbiber.

The bad spells occurred with increasing frequency in the late 1860s. His second wife left him for a short period due to unendurable abuse. Several times he had threatened to kill her, and he continued the threats after she returned. About a year before her death, neighbour Bill Maude had to come to save Margaret from Charley's rage. His second son, as he grew to maturity, battled constantly with his father, and left home at 17 because he could endure the conditions no longer. By this time, neighbours often saw Willoughby jumping and running aimlessly about his fields. People steered a wide course when they saw him coming for there was no predicting what he might do or say.

By 1870, Charley's delusions worsened. He became certain that his wife was seeing other men, though she seldom left the farm. Over the years he had developed a suspicion that his wife was poisoning him. He frequently complained of pains, declaring that he "was burning up." Dr. McGarvin of Rockwood recalled that Willoughby had come to see him 10 or 12 years earlier to ask that the doctor not sell his wife any poison. By 1870 he was convinced that his life was in danger. On at least two occasions he took samples of food to doctors for analysis.

Despite his troubles, Charley Willoughby retained a good head for business, though no one would suspect it by looking at his house. It was little more than a shanty, consisting of a kitchen with two bedrooms leading off it, and separated by a thin partition. He and his wife slept in one room, and the four remaining children, ranging from 21 to 11, in the other. Other farmers had built new houses, or were planning to build them, but Willoughby continued to live in pioneer conditions, refusing to spend money on comforts for himself or his family. At the time of his arrest, he had more than $100 in his pocket and another $500 in a locked trunk, considerable sums in the era of dollar-a-day wages.

On the fateful morning, a single scream from her stepmother awakened Sarah, the eldest daughter (my father's maternal grandmother). She and her sister Mary immediately went to the other bedroom, but Charley blocked their way, saying he would kill them if they opened the door. He then asked Sarah to kill him. When she refused, he threatened to kill her. Sarah and Mary made a move to leave the house, but Charley pushed them back into their own bedroom, closed the door, and pushed a small table against it.

With the children barracked, Charley took out a razor and attempted to cut his throat. He seemed to lack the will to do the job with fatal results. Then he chose a different course. He picked up a clothesline, and went to the barn to try to hang himself. He tied a noose around his neck, but then extricated himself. Afterwards, he said that he "couldn't stand it."

When Charley went to the barn, Sarah and Mary pushed their way out of the bedroom and ran to the Maude farm next door. When Bill Maude heard Sarah's story, he sent his son to fetch Robert Dunbar, who lived nearby. (Note: a Robert Dunbar m. Ellen Brown, Ireland, 15 Aug. 1848 - IGI Batch: M701975)

The group returned to the Willoughby house, where they found Charley sitting in a chair. He admitted killing his wife, he said, in his rage over her refusal to bring him water. He told them he wanted to go out and throw himself down the well. Then he offered Bill Maude $100 to shoot him with a rifle, and a few minutes later he asked someone to fetch Dr. McGarvin to bleed him to death.

Meanwhile, Robert Dunbar went to Rockwood to see Henry Strange, a justice of the peace, who issued a warrant for Charley's arrest. Shortly after noon, the authorities had him ensconced in the old Guelph jail.

The Rockwood coroner, Dr. Jim McCullough, convened an inquest at 3pm the same afternoon in Jack Stull's Commercial Hotel in Rockwood. With Willoughby in jail in Guelph, lawyer James Watt acted on his behalf. With a break for supper, the jury heard evidence for about eight hours from neighbours, the children, and the coroner. It took them a half hour of deliberation to come back with the verdict that Margaret Willoughby had died from a blow with an axe "inflicted by Charles Willoughby willfully."

Charley seemed perfectly rational in the hours after his arrest, but the authorities took no chances. The jail surgeon ordered a round-the-clock guard lest he make another attempt at suicide. During the six weeks leading up to the trial he usually seemed calm, but had spells of moaning and yelling, particularly at night.

There is no record of who arranged or paid for it, but Charles Willoughby received a first-class defence during the trial, which took place in Guelph on Mar. 22. Charley's counsel consisted of Donald Guthrie, at the time the ranking lawyer in Guelph, and Hon. J.H. Cameron, a former cabinet minister and one of the two or three best men in Canada in a court room.

The jury heard most of the evidence first given at the inquest from witnesses sworn in by prosecutor Henry Peterson. J.H. Cameron called several additional witnesses, all neighbours who described Willoughby's long-standing mental instability. For his key witness, Cameron brought forward Dr. Joseph Workman, superintendent of the provincial mental hospital in Toronto, and the leading mental health expert in Canada.

Dr. Workman believed that Willoughby's delusions were permanent, but he did not rule out some physical ailment as the cause. He cited other similar cases he had encountered during his career.

Hon. J.H. Cameron's address to the jury was a lengthy one. He argued that Willoughby was insane, backing his argument up with Dr. Workman's testimony, and with abstracts from a pile of published articles. The judge supported Cameron's argument in his address to the jury. The jury deliberated about 20 minutes before returning with a verdict of "Not guilty, on the ground of Insanity."

Charles Willoughby was committed to the provincial hospital, but I do not know of his ultimate fate. This is the earliest local case I have encountered where everyone in the court room readily agreed to the verdict of insanity.

At least three doctors were familiar with Willoughby's erratic behaviour, and his "spells" were known to virtually everyone in the community. The general practitioners of that era, though, knew little or nothing about mental illness. Biochemical or glandular imbalances, or even a tumour, could have been at the root of Charley's problems, but the medicine of 1871 could not diagnose these ailments. Nevertheless, had Charles Willoughby been committed to Dr. Workman's care sooner, the tragedy of 3 Feb. 1871 might have been avoided.


Back to Willoughby Family (introduction)

Back to Charles Willoughby