Anne Powell, daughter of a prominent jurist, belonged to one of the most prestigious families in York (Toronto). She was well travelled for the times and had lived with her mother’s family in New York. In 1811 she studied in Montreal with the intention of obtaining a teacher’s certificate. Before the outbreak of the War of 1812 she returned to York and indulged her desire to teach by becoming the tutor of her two orphaned nieces. Despite her expensive education, Anne’s mother considered that she “requires knowledge” still. After the capture of York in April 1813, Anne devoted herself to tending the convalescent soldiers who were quartered with the Powells.
Anne’s first romantic involvement had occurred in 1807, when she was courted by the French adventurer Laurent Quetton St George. Her mother had dismissed his presumptuous suit. Later it became apparent that she was, in Dr John Strachan*’s words, “distracted after” a charming young lawyer, John Beverley Robinson*. Robinson had performed creditably during the war and had gained the post of acting attorney general as a result of the influence of judge Powell. It was unlikely that the ambitious Robinson would discourage familiarity with his benefactor’s daughter. When Robinson decided to further himself by attending the English Inns of Court, Anne found a way to follow him: in 1816, the year her father was seeking the chief justiceship, she travelled with him to England. Upon her arrival she again took up with the young lawyer, who gallantly escorted her about London.
Yet, unknown to her, Robinson had developed a passionate attraction to an English girl, Emma Walker. This lady delivered an ultimatum to Robinson. If he wished their courtship to continue, he had best advise Miss Powell that he was no longer a free man. He complied, and also informed Powell, now chief justice, that he was engaged to another. The individual most annoyed by this announcement was the rector of York, John Strachan, who wrote to Robinson to ascertain whether he was “under any engagements directly or indirectly to Miss Powell.” Admittedly, Robinson was not “eligible.” His stepfather, Elisha Beman, was, after all, a tavern-keeper. Yet everyone in York had taken the marriage of John and Anne for granted. It appeared that ability counted for more than status in weighing the desirability of marriages among York’s gentry. But although Robinson’s marriage to Emma may have disappointed the Powells, it did not diminish their affection for him. Anne herself hoped that “nothing will ever interrupt the friendly intercourse between the families.”
Anne remained in England with her relatives until her stubborn disposition and disregard of the expenses to which she put others made her an unwelcome burden. It was not long after her return, in the summer of 1819, that her parents began to question her sanity. She displayed a bitter hatred for them, a suspicion of her sisters, and a tyrannical domination over her nieces. The orphans came so much under her sway that she flew into a rage when her sister merely attempted to take them for a walk. Perhaps her most embarrassing eccentricity was her continuing infatuation with John Robinson. She sent him correspondence which his brother William Benjamin* described to Samuel Peters Jarvis*, Anne’s brother-in-law, as “some of the D—ndest letters you ever saw.” Anne considered Emma Robinson to be possessed of a “romantic history” and hardly a fit companion for her beloved John. For her part, Emma routinely burned Anne’s letters and refused to admit her to the Robinson house.
Her most bizarre behaviour occurred during the winter of 1822 when Robinson, now attorney general and leader of the government in the House of Assembly, was dispatched to England to negotiate a customs dispute with Lower Canada. At the end of January 1822, just as the Robinsons were about to leave York, Anne called on the attorney general and begged to be allowed to accompany him. He positively refused. Anne’s brother Grant* and even Dr Strachan tried to reason with her. At last, her mother, although scandalized by Anne’s “want of feminine indeed of decent feeling,” sanctioned her departure. In deference to the attorney general, however, Mrs Powell promised him a 48-hour head start, and to that end had Anne locked into her bedroom. However, once Anne learned of her beloved’s departure, she escaped, without either money or luggage, and chartered a sleigh in pursuit. Mrs Powell, considering Anne’s motive “derogatory to feminine decency – it can be viewed in no other light,” collapsed in despair at the “scandalous part she has acted.” One of her daughter’s letters after this episode she described as “a tissue of unladylike observations, or rather details of a systematic persecution, in which she perseveres convinced that she is acting the part of a Christian . . . they are so unlike the style of a delicate or sane woman.”
As Emma was ill it was necessary for the Robinsons to make frequent stops; Anne quickly managed to catch up with them and accompanied them to New York City. Once there, Robinson approached his ship’s captain and explained to him that under no circumstances was Anne Powell to be permitted on the vessel. Consequently, she was compelled to take a later ship, the Albion. This packet was caught in a violent gale off the south coast of Ireland and was wrecked off the Old Head of Kinsale. Anne Powell’s body was washed ashore and was identified by a brooch which had been given to her by her father. The chief justice, who was in England at the time, had been infuriated by his daughter’s perverse conduct. After learning of the disaster, he interviewed the surviving crewmen and arranged for her burial.
Charles Fothergill*’s Weekly Register reported the wreck of the Albion in lurid detail, but, tactfully, it only mentioned in passing Anne’s presence on the ship. Nevertheless, Anne’s mad infatuation had made the family, as Mrs Powell put it, the subject of gossip “from the Government House to Forests Stable” and hastened the decline of its prestige. The object of her obsession was held at least partly to blame and there was now an open rupture between the Powells and the Robinsons. Anne’s eccentric conduct and tragic death contributed to the declining influence and weakened mental state of William Dummer Powell, although his career was already on the wane for other reasons. For Robinson the incident was socially awkward, possibly even embarrassing, but little else. As he was well established in government, neither the event itself nor the break with the Powells affected his career in the slightest.
AO, ms 4, Emma Walker to J. B. Robinson, June 1816; John Strachan to Robinson, 30 Sept. 1816; ms 787, Anne Powell to Mrs Powell, 6 Sept. 1818; W. B. Robinson to S. P. Jarvis, 28 Jan. 1822; Eliza Powell to M. B. Jarvis, 12 June 1822; S. P. Jarvis to M. B. Jarvis, 21 Nov. 1823. MTL, W. D. Powell papers, Mrs Powell to G. W. Murray, 4 Sept. 1807, 16 May 1811, 4 April 1812, 25 Feb. 1822. Weekly Register (York [Toronto]), 13 June 1822.