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“If Jarvis had not shot him, he might have shot Jarvis”: The Duel at Yonge & College

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When you systematically go through a large collection such as our rare book collection, occasionally book titles will catch our eye and leave us wanting to know more. One such title that caught our attention was the Jarvis-Ridout Duel. Upon further inspection, it turns out this “book” is actually a collection of pamphlets, three of which deal with the aftermath of a fatal duel.

While duels are something you might think of happening in 17th and 18th century England, they actually still happened well into the 19th century. By the law of England, and therefore Canada, a deliberate duel was unlawful, though this law was not applied very vigorously in the early 19th century. Ontario (back then known as Upper Canada), has seen its fair share of duels. Incidentally, most of these duels involved lawyers or government officials. For example, in 1800, John White, the first Treasurer of the Law Society, died as a result of a duel with John Small, a Clerk of the Legislative Council. The duel started due to White failing to withdraw some insults he said of Small’s wife [1].

Seventeen years later, on the 12th of July, 1817, Samuel Jarvis shot and killed John Ridout in another duel. According to the first pamphlet [2], written by Jarvis, he had a long-standing feud with members of the Ridout family. The duel itself had to do with a misunderstanding over money owed (about £100) by Jarvis to the Ridout family for taking care of his sister in Quebec. Bad feelings simmered to the surface more than once: before the duel, Ridout was thrown out of Jarvis’s office, and a few days after the two met on the street and came to blows, which ended with Ridout shattering the bones in Jarvis’s right hand. As a result of this scuffle, Ridout challenged Jarvis to a duel.

Jarvis and Ridout, along with their seconds, met at Chief Justice Elmsley’s barn, not far from the present day corner of Yonge and College. They stood “eight paces” apart and agreed that the signal should be “one, two, three, fire.” One of the seconds, James Small (son of the John Small who killed John White), was in the act of pronouncing “two” when Ridout raised his pistol and fired at Jarvis. He then tried to flee but was reprimanded by Small, who told him to take his place. He was originally given another pistol only to have it taken away again by the seconds who decided that Jarvis was entitled to a free shot. Jarvis fired and Ridout fell. According to an account by Jarvis, “[Ridout] was supported sometime after he received his wound shook hands with all parties present, fully forgave Mr. Jarvis, and declared ‘if Jarvis had not shot him, he might have shot Jarvis,’ & never intimated that there was anything unfair, but expressed himself satisfied with the conduct of all parties,” and then promptly died.

Despite Ridout’s so-called “forgiveness”, Jarvis was quickly arrested and taken to prison. He remained there until he appeared before Chief Justice Powell and was found “not guilty” after a few minutes consideration by the jury. Unfortunately this was not the end of Jarvis’s legal or political troubles. The duel haunted him for years and was often used by his enemies against him. One of them, William Lyon Mackenzie, a liberal newspaperman and later Toronto’s first mayor, used his paper the Colonial Advocate to call Samuel Jarvis a murderer.

Jarvis was furious at the slander and decided to gather together a group of his friends and attack the Colonial Advocate’s office on Front Street. Mackenzie’s entire business was destroyed. Jarvis’s revenge backfired when Mackenzie sued the men and won, using the money to fund an even bigger business.

Two out of the three pamphlets in our collection address this attack on Mackenzie’s business, but unfortunately only from the perspective of Mr. Jarvis and his defense. In the first pamphlet [3], Jarvis doesn’t deny that attacking the office was wrong, but he does downplay it by insisting it was “an expression of indignation, rather than deliberate destruction”. Jarvis also suggests that Mackenzie brought this act of aggression upon himself by using the Colonial Advocate as a “vehicle of the grossest and coarsest slanders, and of the most malicious lies.”

In the third pamphlet, Speech of Mr. Hagerman: counsel for the defendants in the case of McKenzie v. Jarvis, et al., Mr. Hagerman [4] again argues that Mackenzie brought the trouble upon himself by printing such detestable content that caused Jarvis and the other defendants disgrace. Hagerman goes on to claim that Mackenzie printed libel and slander, essentially claiming that Mackenzie was printing the “fake news” of the 1820s. To downplay the vandalism, Hagerman asserts that the defendants entered and only overturned a press, scattered some type & “[threw] one of the type at an apprentice, more in jest than otherwise.” Unfortunately, Mr. Hagerman’s speech did not impress the jury at trial, who ended up siding with Mackenzie. After the trial, Samuel Jarvis was able to continue on with his life and career.

So the next time you find yourself walking around the Yonge and College area in Toronto, think about poor John Ridout, who lost his life at 18 over a dispute about money.


[1] For more information on this duel, see a blog post written by the Law Society of Ontario Archives titled “First Treasurer John White: Killed in a Duel

[2] This pamphlet has a lengthy title: “To the Public. A contradiction of the libel, under the signature of “A Relative,” published in the Canadian Freeman of the 28th February, 1828; together with a few remarks, tracing the origin of the unfriendly feeling which ultimately led to the unhappy affair to which that libel refers by Samuel P. Jarvis 8th April, 1828.”

[3] This pamphlet has another lengthy title: “Statement of facts relating to the trespass on the printing press in the possession of Mr. William Lyon M’Kenzie in June 1826 addressed to the public generally and particularly to the subscribers and supports of the Colonial Advocate.”

[4] For more about Christopher Alexander Hagerman, see the Canadian Encyclopedia entry.

Secondary Sources:

William Renwick Riddell, “Duel in Early Upper Canada,” 6 J. Am. Inst. Crim. L. & Criminology 165 (May 1915 to March 1916)

Adam Bunch, “The infamous, bloody 1817 duel at the corner of Yonge & College,” SpacingToronto (February 5, 2013) http://spacing.ca/toronto/2013/02/05/the-infamous-bloody-1817-duel-at-the-corner-of-yonge-college/

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