THELLER, EDWARD ALEXANDER, Patriot raider and author; b. 13 Jan. 1804 in Coleraine (Northern Ireland); m. c. 1827 Ann Wilson, née Platt, in Burlington, Vt, and they had five children; d. 7 Feb. 1859 in Hornitos, Calif.
As Edward Alexander Theller’s family was a “highly respectable” one, he gained a good education in Ireland, eventually becoming a teacher at the Belfast Grammar School. When his father, an auctioneer, died in 1825 he left “a large family in comparative penury.” An unverified report has it that about this time Edward became an assistant surgeon in the Royal Navy, serving in that capacity for some while, but this report seems unlikely, for in 1826 he set sail for Lower Canada. In Montreal he studied medicine briefly with Dr Daniel Tracey*, a fellow Irishman and later a radical editor, who, according to a distant relation of Theller, eventually formed “a very bad opinion of his character and spoke disparagingly of his abilities.” By his own account Theller was “wild and reckless” in his youth. In 1827 he rushed off to Vermont with his intended wife; over the next few years, unable to obtain a medical licence and in frequent trouble with the law, he moved constantly, living for periods in Burlington, in Lower Canada, and in Washington, D.C. Finally, about 1836, he settled in Detroit, where he practised medicine and ran a grocer’s store and an apothecary shop. His eloquence and easy charm won him influence among “the lower class of voters” and minor public office.
After the abortive rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada, Canadian refugees and American sympathizers plotted to invade the two provinces. Theller felt that it was the duty of Americans “to assist” the cause. He was secretary in December at two Patriot meetings in Detroit, then he became a “general” in the “western division of the Patriot army.” In early January 1838 he participated in an attempted attack on Fort Malden at Amherstburg, Upper Canada. On the 9th, while he was cruising the Detroit River in command of the schooner Anne, she ran aground near the fort. Canadian militiamen under Colonel Thomas Radcliff* opened fire, stormed the vessel, and took all 21 on board, including Theller, who was sporting “a kind of uniform” and a wound.
In April he was tried in Toronto for treason. He “conducted his defence principally himself,” arguing that the charge against him was inapplicable since he was a naturalized American citizen. Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson*, who presided, disagreed, asserting “that the obligation of natural allegiance . . . was . . . perpetual and inalienable.” Theller was found guilty and on 10 April sentenced to die. Though some, such as Attorney General Christopher Alexander Hagerman*, thought that “Law and Justice require that Theller should be executed,” he was not, largely because Robinson now feared (rather oddly) that the doctrine of indefeasible allegiance had been carried too far. After being sent to the Citadel at Quebec in June, Theller learned that he was to be transported to New South Wales (Australia) for life.
At Quebec he shared a cell with other Patriots. Though they had enough guards “to prevent the least shadow of hope of escape,” they did manage to file through the bars on their window. In the early hours of 16 October, aided by Charles Drolet* and John Heath*, Theller and four others fled; “a short stout man,” Theller had difficulty getting through the window. Three were soon captured but Theller and William Wallin Dodge remained at large. Aided by sympathizers, they travelled south, crossing the American border on November 6. The escape created a sensation, and Theller made a triumphant tour of several major American centres. To his delight, he was “feasted and made a hero of.” He deemed the tour “an impudent, but a successful move,” which did “more for the cause of suffering Canada” than anything else.
Arriving back in Detroit in December, he was promptly arrested for violating American neutrality laws, but was freed, likely on bail. His trial during the summer of 1839 produced his acquittal and in no wise diminished his enthusiasm for the Patriot cause. He began, in August, a newspaper, the Spirit of ’76, and was “in almost daily communication” with Patriots across the border. Writing to William Lyon Mackenzie*, with whom he often corresponded, in warm and friendly terms, he happily contemplated the prospect of all once again running “the risk of being shot or hung.” Declining personal finances, however, prompted him in 1841 to take his family to upstate New York, where they eventually settled in Rochester. That year his Patriot convictions led to his involvement in an attempt to blow up a lock on the Welland Canal and to his planning the destruction of two Canadian vessels moored in the Niagara River. Another blow for the cause was struck in 1841 when his book Canada in 1837–38 appeared. At the time anglophobia was reaching a crest in the United States. Grandiloquent but highly readable, the book did little to check the wave, as Theller vividly recounted the Patriots’ struggles against the British tyrants and his part in them, which he was careful not to undervalue. The next year he became involved with John Sheridan Hogan and others in an unsuccessful attempt to inflame American opinion once more over the destruction in December 1837 of the Patriot supply ship Caroline and the death of Amos Durfee of Buffalo [see Andrew Drew*; John Elmsley*]. All in all Theller was a dedicated Patriot, a dangerous one in the eyes of Canadian authorities and one to be watched in case of any future incursions.
Why did Theller play such an active role within the Patriot movement and prove such an ardent foe of the British presence in North America? One reason is suggested by Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur’s term for him, a “Supreme Vagabond”: Theller was the sort who would seek out and revel in adventure. But another explanation lies in the fact that he also acted out of ideological conviction. In Montreal he had associated with political radicals and had come to regard their cause as the cause of the Canadas. Here his conclusions were reinforced by his Irish background as he saw parallels between English oppression in Ireland and the despotism that in his view existed in the Canadas. And he seems to have worked to link the two cases in the public mind. Significantly, in early 1838 it was to be his particular task as a Patriot leader to make a revolutionary appeal to the Irish and French Canadian residents of Upper Canada. At his trial in Toronto, according to his book, he denounced England for the wrongs it had inflicted on Ireland. During his triumphant tour of the United States he preached the Patriot cause in several cities with large Irish-American populations. Further, in Canada in 1837–38, he attempted to bring his Patriot and Irish ideologies into line with nationalist thinking in the United States, by means of references to the Greek struggle for independence, Russia’s repression of Poland, and the creation of a republic in Texas. He never forsook Ireland. After settling in Rochester he became a leading figure in the Irish community there, appearing at public dinners and meetings and becoming a secretary of the local Repeal Association, which sought dissolution of the parliamentary union between Ireland and Britain.
Theller’s Patriot activities were also influenced by the broad utopian streak in his make-up. Chosen in 1843 as a director of the Fourier Association of Rochester, he hailed those joining the first communitarian settlement in the area as the “pioneers of industrial combination; may their success be such that others may soon follow their glorious example and make the earth what God intended it.” It was clear to Theller that men of good will must be active (else God’s plan would be long in the realization), they must unite, and they must recognize the essential unity of their cause. Hence he enjoined the members of the Repeal Association to proclaim themselves “the enemies of slavery in every form and in every clime, and the friends of the oppressed of every creed and color.” He was later described by the historian Robert B. Ross as an “earnest and self-sacrificing man, a warm friend and a bitter enemy.”
Theller was certainly prepared to help those in other climes. In 1849 he moved to Panama to fight an epidemic of yellow fever; he eventually operated a hotel there and edited a newspaper. Characteristically, he reportedly became caught up in a rebellion to separate Panama from New Granada (Colombia). Like the Canadian rebellion, it failed and once more he was cast into jail.
In 1853 he settled with his family in San Francisco, where he edited two newspapers and, in 1856, was elected superintendent of public schools. About two years later he moved to Hornitos, in the California gold-fields, where he practised medicine. He died suddenly there in 1859, leaving, in the words of the San Francisco Daily Herald, a memory of himself as a “warm-hearted” and “talented” individual, one “generous to a fault.” Closer to the scene of Theller’s Patriot activities, the Boston Weekly Courier (which claimed that he had visited the Massachusetts capital in the late 1840s to collect money on behalf of annexationists in the Canadas [see Thomas D’Arcy McGee*]) had more precise recollections to offer. Theller, the paper opined, “was a clear and direct writer, but did not understand the business of conducting a newspaper much better than a revolution. In both kinds of enterprizes he made several spirited starts, but always stranded in the course of a few months. He was as courageous, honest, and true, as he was restless and visionary.”
Edward Alexander Theller is the author of Canada in 1837–38, showing, by historical facts, the causes of the late attempted revolution, and of its failure; the present condition of the people, and their future prospects, together with the personal adventures of the author, and others who were connected with the revolution (2v., Philadelphia and New York, 1841).
AO, MS 4; MS 74, package 10, item 11; MS 516. PAC, MG 24, B42; RG 5, A1: 103568–69, 103704–5, 106067–70, 106335–38, 106356–62, 106571–72, 109700–2, 109727–28, 110317–26, 125306–34, 126569–74, 136912–26, 139298–99; RG 7, G12, 62: 175. PRO, CO 42/446 (mfm. at PAC). Arthur papers (Sanderson). Rochester Daily Advertiser (Rochester, N.Y.), 21 March, 16 April, 8 July, 19 Aug., 8 Sept. 1843; 12 Nov. 1850. Rochester Daily Democrat, 25 March 1842; 18 April, 7 June, 8 July, 8 Sept., 15 Nov. 1843; 8 Jan., 8 Feb. 1844. Rochester Union and Advertiser, 11 March 1858, 11 March 1859. Western Herald, and Farmers’ Magazine (Sandwich [Windsor, Ont.]), 5 June 1838. “Calendar of state papers,” PAC Report, 1936: 588–89; “State papers – U.C.,” PAC Report, 1944: 28–29. E. T. H. Bunje et al., Journals of the Golden Gate (Berkeley, Calif., 1936), 14, 29, 46. A. B. Corey, The crisis of 1830–1842 in Canadian-American relations (New Haven, Conn., and Toronto, 1941). W. R. Cross, The Burned-over District; the social and intellectual history of enthusiastic religion in western New York, 1800–1850 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1950). Guillet, Lives and times of Patriots. O. A. Kinchen, The rise and fall of the Patriot Hunters (New York, 1956). Hereward Senior, The Fenians and Canada (Toronto, 1978), 1, 19–20. R. B. Ross, “The Patriot War,” Mich. Pioneer Coll. (Lansing), 21 (1892): 509–609.
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Cite This Article
Colin Frederick Read, “THELLER, EDWARD ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/theller_edward_alexander_8E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Colin Frederick Read|
|Title of Article:||THELLER, EDWARD ALEXANDER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||April 1, 2023|