WILSON, JOHN, lawyer, politician, and judge; b. 5 Feb. 1807 at Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland, eldest son of Ebenezer Wilson and Jean Adam; d. 3 June 1869 in Westminster Township, Ont.
John Wilson’s family, having first gone to Halifax, Nova Scotia, from Scotland, settled near Perth, Upper Canada, about 1823. John attended district common and grammar schools, then taught school himself before beginning the study of law at Perth in 1830 in the office of James Boulton. On 13 June 1830 he shot and killed fellow law student Robert Lyon in what was, reportedly, the province’s last duel. Wilson, who despised “unchaste conversation,” had informed Lyon’s fiancée of some insulting remarks Lyon had made about her. She disavowed Lyon, and he blamed Wilson; a fist fight followed, then the fatal duel. Wilson and his second, Simon Robinson, surrendered, were tried for murder, and were acquitted.
Admitted a lawyer in 1835, Wilson assumed responsibility for Boulton’s office at Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), then moved to London to establish his own practice. He married Joanna Hughes on 20 May 1835 at St Thomas; the couple were to have eight children. Wilson quickly established himself in London; at one time he was in partnership with his brother-in-law, D. J. Hughes. In 1836 Wilson was a commissioner of the Court of Requests and a returning officer for London in the elections for the assembly. It was said that he abetted Tory attempts to intimidate Reformers at the poll, charges which he rejected. During the rebellion, Wilson helped disarm the local radicals, participated in the organization of a force to defend London from an expected attack, and joined other London volunteers to subdue suspected traitors of the St Thomas area. He was commissioned a militia captain in 1838 and served against the Patriots until January 1839, yet at the same time acted on behalf of people accused of treason.
Wilson was warden of the London District from February 1842 to November 1844, and in 1843 became a district superintendent of education; he held a succession of offices until 1863, including that of solicitor for London from 1845 to 1849. Noted as an able lawyer and a generous man, he was affectionately nicknamed “Honest John Wilson.” His great popularity led to his election to the Legislative Assembly as a Conservative for the town of London in 1847 and 1848. Although opposed to responsible government and the Rebellion Losses Bill, he denounced the Tory violence that greeted both. In 1849, declaring that if annexationist sentiment constituted treason in 1837 it did so in 1849 as well and damning the “ultra part of the Conservative Party,” he felt obliged to offer himself for reelection, probably as an independent. He was successful, but in the 1851 election T. C. Dixon, whom he had defeated in 1849, bested him.
Re-elected in 1854 as an independent Conservative, Wilson found himself allied with Francis Hincks* and his Reformers. When Hincks’ government resigned in September 1854, Hincks was prepared to instal Wilson as leader of his faction, but eventually decided to stay on and agreed to take his supporters into the coalition formed by Allan MacNab and A.-N. Morin. Wilson declared that he was “happy” at thus avoiding the leadership but he would not support the new government, perhaps because it encompassed the “ultras” of 1849, and in 1857 he refused to stand for re-election. Although he had previously asserted that he had forsaken politics, he secured election to the Legislative Council in May 1863. He never took his seat, for on 22 July he was appointed a judge of the Court of Common Pleas (he had become queen’s counsel in 1856). He moved to Toronto, but retained his Westminster home. In the fall and winter of 1866–67 he presided over the trial of 16 of the Fenians captured after the invasion of Canada West the previous summer; eight were found guilty. Wilson sentenced seven of them to death, but all these sentences were commuted. Although his life was threatened at the time, it was reported in January 1867 that Wilson had travelled through the northern states “to show the Fenians that he is not afraid of them.” Ironically, however, the strain of the trials apparently hastened his death.
London Public Library and Art Museum (London, Ont.), City of London scrapbooks, 35. PAO, Inderwick coll. Daily Advertiser (London), 3, 4 June 1869. Documents relating to the resignation of the Canadian ministry in September, 1854 (Quebec, 1854), 21–27. Trials of the Fenian prisoners at Toronto, who were captured at Fort Erie, C. W., in June, 1866, reporters G. R. Gregg and E. P. Roden (Toronto, 1867). Read, Lives of judges, 337–45. History of the county of Middlesex (Brock), 133–35. Fred Williams, “A notable election in London, C.W., 1850,” Globe and Mail, 18 Jan. 1939.