LETT, BENJAMIN, Patriot filibusterer; b. 14 Nov. 1813 in County Kilkenny (Republic of Ireland), son of Samuel Lett and Elizabeth Warren; d. 9 Dec. 1858 in Milwaukee, Wis., and was buried in Northville, Ill.
Benjamin Lett immigrated with his parents and family to Lower Canada in 1819 and they settled in Chatham Township on the Ottawa River. In 1833, nine years after Samuel Lett’s accidental death, the family removed to Darlington Township on Lake Ontario and took up farming. Ben Lett did not participate in William Lyon Mackenzie*’s uprising at Toronto in 1837, but in its aftermath the Letts were forced to flee the colony when an armed band of local Orangemen sought Ben’s arrest for refusing to join with them in terrorizing reform sympathizers. He subsequently joined the Patriot forces on the Niagara frontier while his family emigrated to Texas. Later, after his reputation as a fearless, vengeful enemy had grown to romantic proportions, stories were widely circulated that his hatred of the British stemmed from an earlier incident involving Orangemen, in which one of his brothers was shot and a sister was sexually abused.
Patriot incursions along the Upper Canadian border in 1838 were marked by weak leadership, internal disunity, and a virtual absence of military planning and strategy. The result was an uninterrupted string of fiascos [see Thomas Jefferson Sutherland]. Operating largely on his own in guerrilla fashion, Lett burned, killed, and destroyed for nearly four years, but the aims of the Patriots were not advanced. In November 1838 Captain Edgeworth Ussher, who had piloted Allan Napier MacNab*’s boats across the Niagara River to burn the Caroline, was murdered in his home. A wave of outrage and indignation swept across the province discrediting the Patriot cause. Doubts were cast on the identity of the murderer, but provincial tories, convinced that it was the work of Lett, offered a reward for his capture. In January 1839 Lett made an unsuccessful attempt to burn the British ships anchored at Kingston. Six months later he joined Samuel Peters Hart and Henry J. Moon in raiding Cobourg for the purpose of robbing and murdering Robert Henry, and abducting such area residents as Sheppard McCormick, a veteran of the attack on the Caroline. The authorities were informed, the raid failed, and Lett just managed to escape to the American side of Lake Ontario. In the wake of the “Cobourg conspiracy” Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur offered a £500 reward for Lett.
After the raid, every ugly incident in Upper Canada was attributed to the man armed customarily with four pistols and a bowie knife. The Cobourg Star described him as being “5 ft. 11 inches high, rather slim, sandy hair and whiskers, very red faced and freckled, light skinned, very large muscular hands, with round, long, and very white fingers. Eyes light blue, and remarkably penetrating.” On 17 April 1840 Brock’s Monument at Queenston Heights, built to commemorate the American defeat in the War of 1812 and a symbol of British power and domination, was badly damaged by an explosion of gunpowder. Though others may have been involved, Arthur held Lett primarily responsible for this vandalism. “It has been clearly brought to light,” he informed Governor Charles Edward Poulett Thomson*, “that the wicked attempt to destroy the Monument was the deed of Benjamin Lett – the Rob Roy of Upper Canada – who is always prowling about Our frontier, devising and committing all manner of mischief.” An attempt by Lett in June to burn the steamship Great Britain at Oswego, N.Y., led to his arrest by American authorities. Convicted that month of attempted arson and sentenced to seven years of hard labour, he escaped from the train conveying him to prison at Auburn, N.Y.
For the next year he was a fugitive from the law on both sides of the border. Finally captured in Buffalo, N.Y., in September 1841, he was taken to Auburn prison and thrown into solitary confinement. According to his brother Thomas, the guards “frequently fastened him (with his head drawn backwards) in stocks, and poured water on his face,” risking his “almost instant death by strangling.” In 1845, his health broken, Lett received a pardon from Governor Silas Wright and, after a period of recuperation under Dr Edward Alexander Theller in Buffalo, he joined his brothers and sisters on a farm near Northville, Ill., where they had settled five years earlier. The Patriot cause had long since been abandoned and Lett’s border forays were now over.
In 1858, while en route to engage in a trading expedition on Lake Michigan, Lett died mysteriously of strychnine poisoning in Milwaukee – the work of tory agents, Thomas Lett later claimed. He was buried in the Lett Cemetery, Northville, where his tombstone inscription records Thomas’s bitter grief over his brother’s treatment at the hands of American authorities: “The records of American partnership in the case of Benjamin Lett – they are like a Christian hell without a Jesus Christ: NO ESCAPE.”
AO, MS 516, Benjamin Lett to W. L. Mackenzie, 10 March 1839, 26 Aug. 1840; Thomas Lett to Mackenzie, 28 Dec. 1840, 16 Nov. 1845; MU 1881, no.4675. PAC, RG 5, A1: 121712–13, 121868–916, 123661–93, 123699–725, 123838–40, 124045–47, 124290–98, 125483–90, 125670–73, 126804–7, 127937–54, 132472–73, 132484, 134543–47, 142129–30. Arthur papers (Sanderson), 2: 207; 3: 46. Cobourg Star, 31 July 1839. A. B. Corey, The crisis of 1830–1842 in Canadian-American relations (New Haven, Conn., and Toronto, 1941). Guillet, Lives and times of Patriots. Thomas Lett, The life, trial and death of Benjamin Lett, the Canadian Patriot of 1837-’38; together with the inscription on his monument (Sandwich, Ill., 1876). R. B. Ross, “The Patriot war,” Mich. Pioneer Coll. (Lansing), 21 (1892): 532, 541, 607–8.