Oxford County Archives: Beyond the Vault

Archives Blog

The Trial of Reginald Birchall

Reginald Birchall's trial for the murder of Frederick C. Benwell was one of the most famous and captivating trials Oxford County had ever seen.

By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

At the age of 24, J. Reginald Birchall was hanged in Woodstock on November 14, 1890, for the murder of fellow Englishman F.C. Benwell. The murder and subsequent trial attracted international attention due to its sensational nature and Birchall was treated like a celebrity at the gaol, where he was provided with a rug and writing desk (where he wrote his own autobiography), fancy foods and unlimited visitors. A year before the murder, Birchall and his wife, Florence, arrived in Woodstock posing as Lord and Lady Somerset and would soon disappear with a number of bills unpaid. It was later learned that Birchall was an actor, notorious gambler and conman.

When Benwell’s body was discovered in the Blenheim Swamp, he had two bullet wounds in the back of his head and his clothing was tampered with in order to remove identifying markings. Local authorities called on Detective John Wilson Murray (the inspiration for TV’s Detective Murdoch) of the Attorney General’s Office to help solve the case. With the new technical advancements in photography, Detective Murray had the body photographed and placed the image in all the major newspapers of the day. Witnesses soon emerged who saw the two men together the day of the murder and Birchall himself came forward to identify the body, though he claimed he had left Benwell at the swamp with a man known only as the “Colonel”. It was soon believed that Birchall shot Benwell as part of a fraud scheme.

Although he readily admitted to fraud, Birchall maintained his innocence to the end. He was hanged within the walls of the jail and subsequently buried there, following English tradition.

As part of our education outreach initiatives, the Archives offers a programme for grade 11-12 law classes that examines the trial of Reginal Birchall. Using archival records such as newspaper articles, court documents, autopsy reports, historical notes, and even Birchall’s own words, students are asked to formulate evidence and present their findings, for and against the charges of murder, in a mock trial facilitated by Archives staff. This programme has been overwhelming popular with teachers and students and surprisingly the majority of students have found Birchall not guilty of the charge of murder, based on current legal practices and the circumstantial evidence they felt was presented during the actual trial. Many also felt that his wife, Florence, most likely played a larger role in the fraud scheme and murder of Francis Benwell, though she was never accused of anything and quickly disappeared following her husband’s death. It’s also interesting to wonder what would have happened if modern practices of using forensic evidence, such as fingerprinting and DNA sampling, were used in the case. Would Birchall still have been found guilty, without a reasonable doubt?

For more information on our educational programming and links for teachers and students, please check out the Archives webpage.

The Woodstock Sentinel-Review

A brief history of the Woodstock Sentinel-Review newspaper.

 By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

Recently the Oxford County Archives received a donation of a bound set of 1894 Evening Sentinel-Review newspapers. Although the archives has an almost complete set of Sentinel-Review newspapers on microfilm for researchers to access, there’s something to be said about handling an actual newspaper and flipping through its pages. Early editions of the Woodstock newspaper were jammed packed with local stories and notices, fascinating world events, advertisements for an assortment of goods and services, and even included fictional stories, household tips, and cartoons.

The Sentinel-Review has been published in Woodstock since January 1, 1854 when it was known as the Woodstock Sentinel. It was started by John McWhinnie and Sandy Hay as a reform weekly. However, soon after its formation McWhinnie bought out Hay’s share of the newspaper and brought his son Robert in as publisher. They ran the newspaper until 1870 when George Pattullo assumed management and editorial duties. In 1878, The Sentinel would merge with another local reform newspaper, the Woodstock Review, which first appeared in town on October 1st, 1870 and was published by F.J. Gissing, formerly of Princeton.

Operated by George Pattullo until 1880 (when he became chief Liberal organizer for Ontario), sole propriety of the Sentinel-Review was given to his brother Andrew Pattullo (first President of the Ontario Good Roads Association in 1894 and elected Oxford North MPP in 1896). Andrew retained ownership of the newspaper until 1901 when a joint stock company took control of the Sentinel-Review and brought in William Taylor, business manager of the Montreal Herald, as president and managing editor.

In more recent years, the Sentinel-Review was formerly part of the Sun Media chain of newspapers and was purchased by Postmedia Network in October 2014. Since its inception, the newspaper has been printed as a weekly and then ultimately a daily newspaper, which included at one point a morning and an evening edition, and now is read as an online news source.

Other early Woodstock newspapers included the Woodstock Herald and Brock General Advertiser (1840), Woodstock Monarch (1842), The Oxford Star and Woodstock Advertiser (ca. 1848), British American (1848), Weekly Gazetteer (1854),Woodstock Mercury (1855), The Times (1855), Canadian Conservative (1862), Weekly Review (1869), Oxford Standard (1885), and Oxford Express (1898).

We are grateful for this new addition to our archival holdings, and are always appreciative of the materials individuals, organizations and businesses are willing to donate. The Oxford County Archives has a firm commitment to preserving and making available the County’s total archival heritage and are always excited to see what sorts of historical records are brought into our institution by the public.

For more information on how to donate to the Archives please visit our webpage: https://oxfordcounty.ca/Explore-Oxford/Libraries-museums-and-archives/Archives/Our-services/Record-Docations

Not Your Average Recipes

Eating skunk was not always considered "unorthodox". Our Archivist delves into the history of eating wildlife. 

By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

We had so much fun compiling recipes for our online exhibit: Spanish Food: Food for Thought (which looks at the types of meals Canadians were eating at the end of World War One and during the years of the Spanish Flu Epidemic), I thought it might be fun to share some other recipes with you from the Archives.

In our reference library we have a vast amount of cookbooks that were printed by community groups and organizations (often as a fundraising endeavor) or were printed by large scale publishing houses for nationwide distribution. One of my favourite cookbooks in our collection is the “Wild Life Cookbook” produced by the Oxford Fish & Game Protection Association sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Originally known as the Oxford Fish and Game Gun Club, the Association was organized in 1936, with a small clubhouse located on the 11-acres behind the Woodstock Fairgrounds. In 1956 they purchased a 25-acre property on Concession 3 in East Oxford Township. In 1977 the club became incorporated and the name changed to the Oxford Fish and Game Protection Association with the aim to promote active, safe participation in all shooting sports and interest in conservation of fish, fauna and wildlife. Presently, the organization is known as Oxford Fish and Game and is located on Pattullo Avenue in Woodstock, Ontario.

What I love about this cookbook is that it goes beyond just your typical meats like beef, pork, chicken, and fish and contains recipes involving a large variety of wildlife including moose, bear, skunk, porcupine, squirrel, raccoon and even turtle.

For the more adventurous I’ve include a couple of recipes below to try:

Deep Fried Squirrel

Dressed Squirrel

4 tbsp. cracker crumbs

2 egg yolks

Fat for frying

Cut squirrel into four portions. Drop pieces in boiling water and boil 15 mins. Remove pieces and dry on towel. Prepare batter of egg yolks and cracker crumbs. Dip meat in batter and deep fry in smoking hot fat (375 degrees F.)

Roast Skunk

1 c. clear soup (bouillon cube)

2 sliced carrots

1 tsp. onion juice

Dissolve 1 bouillon cube in 1 c. hot water. Skin, clean and remove insides. Remove scent glands. Parboil in salted water for 15 minutes. Drain off water. Then place meat in fresh water and steam until tender, about 1 hour. Transfer to roasting pan and put in over at 375 degrees. Add 1 c. clear soup (bouillon cube), 2 sliced carrots and 1 tsp. of onion juice and cook uncovered for 2 hours.

For those interested in learning more about our cookbook collection, please contact the Archives. For those interested in learning more about our online exhibit: Spanish Food: Food for Thought please check out our exhibit page.

What Was Life Like for Early Settlers in Oxford County?

The Oxford County Archives has a new online interactive story about the life of early settlers in Oxford County!

By Megan Lockhart, Archives Technician

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like living in Oxford County as an early settler? We certainly have! Now we have an online interactive story that takes you through the choices an early settler would have to make and the challenges they faced while starting their homesteads. It is a pioneer “choose your own adventure” story!

The online program follows the life of a Scottish immigrant and his family settling in Oxford County in the 1850s. The interactive story fits well into the Grade 3 social studies curriculum for “Communities in Canada: 1780 – 1850”. The program allows students to take on the role of homesteader and discover through their own choices how different life was for farmers, pioneer women, and children. Students will learn how early settlers built their homes, barns and how they grew crops and raised animals. They will also discover the different responsibilities children had on early farms.

For the 2020-2021 school year we will be offering a range of new online and virtual programming for teachers and students. Our “Pioneer Life in Oxford County” program is available on the educational page on our website in the “students” resource section. Stay tuned to our blog for updates on new services and programs in the coming months.

Oxford County Gaol: A History of Imprisonment

Read and discover a few stories of inmates in the County Gaol and the House of Refuge.

By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

At the beginning of the year, I gave myself the lofty task of compiling a complete list of prisoners housed at the County Gaol based on the Return of Prisoners lists we have at the Archives. The Return of Prisoners lists were quarterly reports submitted by the County Sheriff that listed the prisoners at the gaol during that time period, for how long they were in for, and for what crime they committed. Although the Gaol officially opened in 1852, our Return lists don’t begin until 1869. However, they provide a fascinating insight into the people confined there and for the types of crimes being committed. Inmates included men, women, and even children. For example, in June 1880 James Smith, age 10, was arrested for stealing the horse and buggy of Dr. Murray while he was visiting a patient on the 10th line in East Zorra Township. Following his conviction he was sent to the Reformatory in Mimico for six years.

The types of crimes committed ranged in offences such as abortion, assault, drunkenness, forgery, horse stealing, insanity, keeping a house of ill fame/disorderly house (this would have been classified as a house where immoral activities would occur, usually prostitution and/or gambling), leaving an employer, murder, poisoning dogs, profanity and obscene language, rape, refusing and neglecting to maintain your family/spouse, rioting, selling liquor without a license, and vagrancy.

The County Gaol at night, late 1800s - early 1900s

Sentences ranged from a matter of a couple of days, to months, to even years. Usually such crimes as being drunk and disorderly would lead to $1 fine and sleeping it off in the gaol. Other crimes received longer sentences. Fanny Hague, a woman described in the local newspaper as “silly and loose”, spent 269 days in the gaol from July 1879 to April 1880 for procuring an abortion. In 1887, she makes the headlines again this time as a “simple minded old creature” who was the partner of guilt of one, John Harrison, charged under the Charlton Act for carnally knowing an imbecile woman. For his crime he only spent 7 days in the gaol. The longest resident at the gaol was a woman named Nancy Legg, whom in 1882 was charged with murdering her child. Although she was found not guilty of infanticide due to insanity, she was placed in the gaol due to the lack of an asylum in the area. She would remain in the gaol until 1890, when her son from Michigan agreed to take her.

In the 1800s the majority of residents of the jail were deemed to be vagrants, either ones picked up by the police on the street or those that requested a stay, as there were no shelters or agencies at the time to deal with the homeless. In some cases, vagrants that could pay the fine (again usually $1 and costs) were permitted to leave, while others that promised to leave the County promptly were often just let go. Compiling my list there were definitely repeat residents to the gaol, often for years at a time (a few even passed away there), while in some cases, whole families were listed as being charged with vagrancy. By the late 1880s there was a large push in the County to erect a House a Refuge to care for the indigent and elderly, as the gaol was deemed to be inadequate to house them. In 1891 work began on a new House of Refuge and Industrial Farm on Lot 3, Concession 10 in East Zorra Township. It would officially open in March 1893 and would remain in operation until 1969, when the first Woodingford Lodge was opened in Woodstock.

Strangely enough some inmates preferred the living conditions at the gaol over the House of Refuge. In 1921 a gentleman named Edward Gill, who had been an inmate at the House of Refuge, had refused to stay, preferring the confines of the gaol instead. The Gaol Surgeon makes mention in one of his reports that even after 18 months of confinement at the goal Edward still refused to leave.

I still have a long way to go in completing my list of prisoners, but once finished I hope that it will be a useful tool for researchers. In the meantime, I hope to share more interesting stories about the gaol and its prisoners.

About this Blog

Welcome! Our blog provides a perspective on the Oxford County Archives beyond the vault and delves into the fascinating stories found within our collection. Get to know our staff, discover what we do at the archives and learn more about Oxford County's cultural heritage. Updates on our services, programs and events will also be shared right here on this blog! 

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