BRASS, WILLIAM, fur trader, merchant, and convicted rapist; baptized 8 May 1796 in Kingston, Upper Canada, son of David Brass and Mary Magdalen Mattice; m. Elizabeth –; they had no children; d. 1 Dec. 1837 in Kingston.
Born about 1792, William Brass was the son of a respectable and wealthy loyalist settler at Kingston. In 1821 William received a grant of land north of the town, in Loughborough Township, where he earned on business as a merchant and fur trader. Little is known about his life except that he spent considerable time trading among the Indians. After one such expedition, in 1834, he was reported to have been devoured by wolves – part of a skull and some bones were found 12 miles from Kingston and identified as his. The rumour proved false, but is illustrative of his nomadic, rather wild existence.
As a result of the settlement of Loughborough in the 1820s and 1830s and the diminishing economic importance of the fur trade in the province, Brass’s business began to falter. He attended the occasional reform meeting, but he seemed to care little for the social and moral conventions of most of the Upper Canadian community. He began to drink heavily, and his wife left him. In June 1835 he hired lawyer Henry Smith* to straighten out his financial problems. Instead, Smith obtained the patent for Brass’s property in his own name by taking advantage of his client’s excessive drinking. During one of these terrible bouts, in June 1837, he was arrested on a charge of raping eight-year-old Mary Ann Dempsey of Loughborough, who had been left in his care.
After eight days of delirium tremens Brass sobered up to what was going on around him. In September he launched three separate legal actions against Smith: one on the alleged land fraud, one for damages, and another of forcible entry into Brass’s house. To defend him against the charge of rape he employed lawyers Henry Cassady and John A. Macdonald*. The Kingston British Whig reported that Brass had “fallen victim to an infamous conspiracy commenced by a rascally individual in whom he placed confidence, and carried into execution by wretches as worthless as himself.”
The trial, which took place on 7 October before judge Jonas Jones, was a major sensation. Solicitor General William Henry Draper* prosecuted. He called the alleged victim to the stand and she described the incident. Two medical practitioners and a midwife gave evidence which established the probability of the child’s having been violated. John Caswell, the last witness for the crown, claimed to have seen the rape but not to have interfered, because, he said, the defendant was armed. The “very able defence” was led by the 22-year old Macdonald, who impressed the British Whig as a rapidly rising young lawyer. He and Cassady tried to prove that Smith, Caswell, Stephen Acroid, and other neighbours of Brass were conspiring against him in order to deprive him of his lands. The defence attempted to show further that he was drunk at the time of the alleged rape and incapable of intercourse. Even if he had committed the crime, they argued, he was unquestionably insane at the time and therefore not accountable in law. After a little more than an hour’s deliberation the jury found Brass guilty. Jones sentenced him to be hanged on 1 December.
Many people felt Brass did not deserve to hang. Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head* was petitioned by 135 inhabitants of the Midland District, among them 18 justices of the peace, to grant Brass his life, but without success. By stressing his father’s military service to the crown in Butler’s Rangers the petition made clear the tension that existed in Loughborough between loyalist families and more recently arrived groups of immigrants. John Solomon Cartwright’s preface to the petition reveals the preference loyalists expected from colonial administrators in matters where judicial discretion could be exercised. Meanwhile the defence tried to get a new trial, and depositions, many from loyalist descendants, were taken which discredited Caswell’s testimony. Three individuals swore that he was somewhere other than Brass’s house when the alleged rape took place; one deponent, Filinda Chadwick, swore to having overheard a conversation a few days before the trial in which Caswell told Mrs Brass that he could either save her husband or hang him. The controversy raged in Kingston until 1 December.
On that day Brass and his executioner, both clad in white gowns, appeared upon the temporary gallows built out of a window in the court-house. Brass, who had been vilified and feared by his neighbours, was now a public spectacle. In a resolute, calm voice he declared his innocence and repeatedly accused Smith, Acroid, and Caswell of conspiring against him. He asked if these men were present, for he hoped to look down upon them for the last time. When he finished speaking; part of the platform gave way and he dangled, suspended by it for a moment. He was then kicked from the platform and fell, not into eternity, but all the way to his coffin, waiting below. The crowd began to shout murder and a rescue was attempted, but soldiers prevented a riot. The bumbling sheriff, Richard Bullock, cut the noose from Brass’s neck and dragged him up the court-house stairs. Brass shouted triumphantly to the crowd: “You see I am innocent; this gallows was not built for me – ‘tis for Young Henry Smith.” He was thrown from the window a second time, with a shorter rope around his neck, and he plunged to his death with Smith’s name on his lips. Brass was buried the following day, not in the family plot in Kingston but on his farm in Loughborough.
Reaction to Brass’s conviction and death was hotly mixed. To many farmers in Loughborough, struggling against the wilderness, Brass had seemed almost supernatural because of the ease with which he slipped in and out of that hostile environment. Reduced finally to a near animal state, he was hated as a symbol of the wilderness and this enmity possibly made the farmers more willing to believe in Brass’s guilt and less receptive to evidence suggesting his innocence. Elsewhere, however, others were shocked by the uncertainties surrounding the case and by the botched execution. A letter to the British Whig, written from Adolphustown and requesting more information on the hanging, stated that the “intense feeling produced by the account of his m–r” surpassed any response to a crime the writer had ever witnessed in that area. It was rumoured there, he continued, that through surgical aid Brass had been resuscitated and was still alive.
PAC, RG 5, A1: 98346–93. The parish register of Kingston, Upper Canada, 1785–1811, ed. A. H. Young (Kingston, Ont., 1921), 89. British Whig, 28 Feb. 1834; 12, 28 Sept., 7 Oct., 1, 8 Dec. 1837. Chronicle & Gazette, 26 April, 17, May 1834; 11 Oct. 1837. Upper Canada Herald, 10 Oct. 1837. W. [R.] Teatero, “He worked in shadow of the gallows,” Whig-Standard (Kingston), 13 July 1978: 7, 15.