SOVEREENE (Souvereene, Sovereign), HENRY, farmer, shingle weaver, and convicted murderer; b. c. 1788, probably in the vicinity of Schooley’s Mountain, Morris County, N.J., eldest son of David Sovereen and Anne (Nancy) Culver; m. Mary (Polly) Beemer (Beamer); hanged 13 Aug. 1832 in London, Upper Canada.
Young Henry Sovereene was among a large party of Sovereen and Culver relatives who immigrated to Upper Canada in 1799. Travelling in some 20 wagons, together with 40 yoke of oxen, 300 sheep, and a large number of horses and cows, the group arrived about July at Long Point, where Jabez Collver* had settled a few years earlier. By 1802 David Sovereen’s family was living at Round Plains in Townsend Township. Henry was a farmer in Windham Township and probably married, when in 1812 he purchased a 200-acre lot in that township from his uncle. Four years later he sold part of this lot.
In August 1819 he was tried and found guilty of “knowingly, wilfully, and maliciously shooting a horse” and was sentenced by Mr Justice William Campbell to be hanged. Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland*, however, commuted the sentence and by 1821 Sovereene had resumed farming in Windham. Having sold the remainder of his land, he took up residence on the north part of lot 1, concession 5, owned by Ephraim Serles, his uncle by marriage, who lived close by. Although later described as industrious and a good provider – he made shingles as well as farmed – he had long been addicted to alcohol. Generally he got along well with his neighbours, many of whom were relatives. When sober he was “rather affectionate to his wife and children” but when drinking he could be abusive and had at times even threatened their lives.
Before sunrise on the morning of 23 Jan. 1832, Sovereene informed the Serles household that two men with blackened faces had broken into his house. He feared for the safety of his family as the men had stabbed him in the arm and on the chest. In his house neighbours found the bodies of two children; a third was fatally wounded, and a fourth was sleeping unharmed. Outside were discovered the bodies of four more children and the “perfectly cold” corpse of Sovereene’s wife. When one of the murder weapons –a son’s knife – was found by a constable, suspicion immediately turned to Henry. A blood-stained jackknife, believed to have been used by Sovereene to inflict wounds on himself, was found in his vest pocket; another weapon, a beetle or maul used to split wood in the making of shingles, was discovered, gory and almost covered with human hair of different colours, concealed between the straw and feathers of a bed in the house. Following his arrest and an inquest, Sovereene was transported to the London jail.
Prior to the assizes, London had been ravaged by cholera and most of its residents had fled. Only nine grand jurors were present for the opening of the court and bystanders were recruited to fill out the jury. Sovereene was tried on 8 Aug. 1832. After retiring for less than an hour, the jury found him guilty. Mr Justice James Buchanan Macaulay* sentenced him, on the basis of extremely strong circumstantial evidence, to be hanged two days later. This date was subsequently postponed until 13 August.
Sovereene, who had always been extremely obstinate and self-willed, had shown no emotion during the trial, steadfastly and calmly maintaining his innocence. On the day of his execution he firmly and resolutely ascended the scaffold. After his death, witnessed by a crowd held to some 300 by fear of cholera, his body was handed over to surgeons for dissection. According to legend he was later interred in the Oakland Pioneer Cemetery. He was survived by three older children, away on the night of the murders, and by Anna, aged three, who had been found unharmed. No motive for the murders was ever established. When Sovereene called at the door of the Serles household that early January morning, he had “exhibited no signs of insanity” and “was perfectly sober.”