New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Pride versus Rascals and Villains in Saint John in 1791

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Simonds and White had some commercial establishments in Saint John before 1783 when the Loyalists arrived; and there was a fort on the high ground. Other than that, there was nothing to distinguish Saint John as a ‘place’. And so, the city was in its infancy in 1791 when the following story unfolded.

William Sanford Oliver was the Sheriff and was involved in all of the city’s early events. The following dispute of 1791 was between him and the Grand Jury, but both sides were so uncompromising as to indicate that Oliver had not been getting along with other officials. This seems to have been a ‘last-straw’ event.

These documents are from Oliver’s A Collection of Papers and Facts relative to the Dismission of Wm. Sandford Oliver, Esq., from the Office of Sheriff of the City and County of St. John, New Brunswick, London, 1791. It is a story of petty differences and pride running amok and ruining the sheriff’s career.


Fort Howe in 1781

From the New Brunswick Museum, via the McCord Museum


Pride versus Rascals and Villains in Saint John in 1791

To a Man of feelings nothing is so dear as his Character,—Injuries offered to hit property, may be repaired, but it is not so with those that affect his reputation. When a Public Officer is dismissed from his employment on a charge of misbehaviour, the world takes it for granted that his disgrace is justly incurred and should it be otherwise, it is incumbent upon him to undeceive them. This has induced me to publish a collection of papers and facts relative to the late dispute between me and the Grand Jury—for the authenticity and veracity of which I pledge my honor. The perusal of them will enable every candid reader to determine how far my conduct has been excusable and how far it has been reprehensible; and should it prove the happy means of rectifying the misrepresentation which have been most industriously propagated concerning this business, the pleasure to be derived from such an events will, in a great measure, counterbalance what I have suffered in being deprived of my office. — W.S.O.

A Collection of Papers and Facts

On the 16th of March last, my duty, as Sheriff, leading me to the County Goal, where there were then no prisoners, excepting criminals, I was informed, by the Turnkey, that the Grand-Jury had been there that morning, examined the upper part of the Goal, narrowly and curiously inspecting the rooms where debtors were usually confined, and the lodgings of the Goaler and Turnkey—and had been very inquisitive respecting the treatment of debtors, and the appropriation of their several apartments; that he had given them all the information in his power, and was willing to have shewn them the lower part of the Goal, where criminals are kept, but they declined seeing it, saying they had seen enough and departed. This visit somewhat surprized me, as it was altogether unexpected, and no complaint had been made to me respecting the treatment of any prisoners under my care.

From the Goal, I walked down to Mallard’s tavern, where the Quarter Sessions were sitting, and found the Grand Jury had broken up, after finishing their business for the day; seeing one of their number, a Mr. Squires, standing upon the stoop, I entered into conversation with him, and the late visit to the Goal being mentioned, I expressed my displeasure in pretty strong terms; what was said on the occasion, was scarcely uttered, before a number of the Grand Jurors collected round me, whose behaviour I am almost ashamed to relate.—The language they addressed me in, was highly menacing and insulting; they repeatedly declared “they would visit the Goal whenever they pleased in spite of me;” they dared me to prevent them, and went so far as to declare “they would force me to open the doors for them.” Many threats, and much opprobrious language, were bestowed on me, and on my returning homewards, a number of them forgetful of their characters as Grand Jurymen, unmindful of my office of Sheriff and in open violation of all decency and decorum, followed me down the street in a riotous disorder and actually MOBBED me as far as market house at noon day. They after[…?] repaired to the Attorney General, who […?] no opinion as to the right they claimed of visiting the Goal, but informed them, if they had been ill-treated in the discharge of their duty, they might indict the offender for a misdemeanor, and furnished them with the form of a bill for that purpose which they did not think proper to find.

On the Friday and Saturday following, there passed the papers subjoined, in the order in which they are numbered.

No. I: We the Grand Jury for the current sessions of the City and County of Saint John, having met together on Wednesday last, for the dispatch of our duty, a proposal was made, and unanimously agreed to, that we should go and examine the present condition of the County Goal. After having gained admittance in the usual way, from the common Goaler, we Examined the different rooms of said Goal, and returned to our place of meeting but to our astonishment, were attacked in the public street by William S. Oliver, Esq., who insulted us in a most abusive and threatening manner, by calling us “a parcel of rascals or villains, and impertinent fellows; that it was a rawcally proceeding to go to the Goal without his leave, and had he been there, he would have locked us all in.”

As this insult, so offered by the said William S. Oliver, to us as Grand Jurors, in the discharge of our duty, is so flagrant an infringement of our constitutional rights, and an abuse as individuals, we cannot think of proceeding farther in the business for which we were summoned together, until a sufficient reparation is made by the said William S. Oliver, and ’till we are assured of the protection of the Court in our future proceedings. In this we are unanimous. — (Signed) A.L. Black, Foreman, with witnesses Isaac Bell, Jun. and Moses Ward.

No. II: The Worshipful the Grand Jury, for the body of the City and County of Saint John, have anticipated my intention of bringing before the Court a question of great importance to me in my office of Sheriff, which is, whether, any set of persons have a liberty to enter the Goal of this County, without my permission.

The Court will recollect, that I am responsible for the safe custody of the prisoners in it—and that when I bring up a prisoner by Habeas Corpus, I am entitled to an indemnity against his escape, before he quits the, prison; but if twenty persons (whatever may be their description) are at liberty to throw open the doors, and enter at pleasure, I conceive myself to run a much greater risque than in trusting a prisoner abroad under the care of my own officers.

I have hitherto supposed, that the admission or exclusion of persons, not having legal business in the Goal, was vested entirely in me as Sheriff, and this I hope to be further informed of by the Court, as well as whether it is part of the duty of the Grand Jury to enter and examine the state and condition of the Goal, and form their conclusions on what they may see there, without an order from a Court of Justice for that purpose.

That the Grand Jury, as the Grand Inquest of the County, should enquire into, and present, all nuisances within the County, whether existing in the Goal or elsewhere, I by no means deny; but what I contend is, that this enquiry, like other enquiries of a Grand Jury—(I say Grand Jury as having no reference to a Coroner’s Jury) must be made by witnesses.

The present Worshipful Grand Jury, allege, that for dispatch of their duty, they are free to go and examine the present condition of the County Goal. If this was part of their duty, they certainly performed it in a new method, as the principal object to which this duty of theirs led them, was to examine the private apartments of the Goaler’s wife and sister, especially the latter and this part of their duty, they discharged with a diligence and minuteness of investigation beyond all praise! What impression the objects they there met with made upon their imaginations, I know not, but it certainly affected their memories very materially, they forgot their errand and entirely omitted examining the lower part of she Goal, which contains four of the strong rooms in it. They forgot, when I casually met them on their return, that I never made use of the words rascals or villains; and from anything that appears on the face of their complaint, they have since forgot that I am High Sheriff of this City and County, and consequently that I had a principal concern in whatever passed in the Goal,—The words I used were, that they were a set of impertinent fellows, and I might perhaps add, that had I been there, I should have locked them in.

I confess it would have been, perhaps, as well to have laughed only at their inexperience, and not have remarked the impropriety of their behaviour quite so forcibly; but the very ungenteel manner in which they had intruded on my premises, in my absence, without notice, without leave, and for the purpose of picking up some cause of complaint, drew from me the words I used, before I had time for recollection; and if the Court think they need any apology, I hope it will be preceded by an apology from the Grand Jury to me, for having given me the provocation. — (Signed) W.S. Oliver, Sheriff

No. III: From the grievous complaints that have often been made respecting the condition of and manner in which the common Goal of this County has been appropriated We, as Grand-Jurors for the present session, thought it an incumbent duty to make enquiry after the grounds of those complaints.—And for that purpose, we went to the said Goal, and inspected its different apartments.

The upper floor, we find, is divided into four rooms, three of which are occupied as private lodgings, and one only appropriated for the reception of debtors—and that one, we conceive to be, in its present situation, very unfit for accommodating any description of prisoners—from its noufeous smell, and dirty appearance. The inconveniences that must arise from employing the principal part of the Goal as a dwelling house, are obvious. In the first place, it is contrary to its original design—and in the second, it is incapable of accommodating the different denominations of prisoners.

It is therefore hoped, that the Court, in its wisdom, will devise means to remedy a grievance which has been long and too justly complained of. — (Signed) A.L. Black, Foreman. Saint John, March 18, 1791, with witness Isaac Bell, Jun.

No. IV: To the Grand Jury for the City and County of Saint John, now sitting: A disagreeable misunderstanding and altercation having taken place between the Sheriff and Grand Jury, and the Court being desirous that there should be unanimity and concurrence in the different public bodies and officers, in the discharge of their public duties, have endeavoured to discover the cause of an event so unpleasant—and, upon enquiry, find, that the language made use of by the Sheriff to the Grand Jury, arose from a supposed intention in the Grand Jury, to treat him with pointed disrespect, in visiting and examining the Goal without his knowledge, which the Court is satisfied was by no means their design, but that they visited the Goal from motives of duty, in discharge of their public trust.—The Court, therefore, earnestly recommend, that such an explanation may take place between the Sheriff and Grand Jury, as will reconcile them to each other, and bury in oblivion the unfortunate dispute that has taken place. — (Signed) Elias Hardy, Clerk, March 18, 1791

No. V: The Grand Jurors having already put it in the power of William Sanford Oliver, Esq., High Sheriff, to make acknowledgment for his misbehaviour—and having received a contemptuous answer to their presentment, from the said William Sanford Oliver, Esq., conceive that they are perfectly justified in applying for redress to the fountain from whence this office originates. Yet, from motives of sympathy and compassion, and from a firm persuasion that the abuse proceeded from ignorance in Mr. Oliver, the Grand Jurors are willing to accept of a public acknowledgment as shall be approved by them.—Unanimous. — (Signed) A.L. Black, Foreman, Saint John, March 18, 1791.

No. VI: Mr. Oliver, upon the recommendation of the Court, is willing to acknowledge to the Grand Jury, that it was in consequence of an impression upon his mind, that the Grand Jury intended to treat him with pointed disrespect, that he made use of the language he did, and made the reply given to their complaint; and that, had he not thought it was so intended, he would not have made use of any expressions which could have been exceptionable, or given the least offence. If this explanation is satisfactory to the Grand Jury, Mr. Oliver wishes that both the complaint of the Grand Jury, and his reply to it, may be withdrawn, and considered as having never existed. — (Signed) W.S. Oliver, Saint John, March 19, 1791.

No. VII: The insult was given by Mr. Oliver in a public manner, and an acknowledgment MUST be made in the same way, either in the open Court or in public print, by asking the Jurors’ pardon.—And it is the earnest wish of the Grand Jury, that the difference may be accommodated without going any further. — (Signed) A.L. Black, Foreman, Saint John, March 19, 1791.

No. VIII: The finding of a Committee to the Court of Sessions, Saint John, March 19, 1791:

The Committee appointed by the order of yesterday, report that they proceeded to examine the state of the County Goal, and the ground of the complaint preferred by the Grand Jury—and found, upon that examination, that only one room on the upper floor, is kept for the confinement of debtors; but they are of opinion, that room is the most commodious for the purpose, being the large and best situated, and they found that room in proper order for the reception of prisoners, although, at present, there is no debtor in the Goal, the last having been discharged yesterday. Upon examining the Sheriff, the Committee were informed, that the debtors were put together in this room for the purpose of being accommodated by one fire, where either of them was able to procure fuel that, when occasion required it, the room now occupied by Pontius, the Goaler, was cleaned for the reception of debtors; and that debtors and criminals had not been confined together and that no complaint had ever been made to him by any debtor, of the mode of his confinement. The Committee do not see any cause to impute blame to the Sheriff, in any particular instance; they are, however, of opinion, that the hall ought to remain undivided—and that, for the convenience of confining debtors, of different description, in separate apartments, two rooms, upon the upper floor, ought to be kept constantly unoccupied for any other purpose than the confinement of prisoners. The Committee proceeded to examine the rooms upon the lower floor, which the Grand Jury did not inspect, which are kept for the confinement of criminals , these they found by no means fit for the reception of any prisoners, by reason of the water, at this season of the year, making its way through the floor, which is occasioned by the want of proper depth to the drain, which was dug or cut in the rock to carry off the water; they are, therefore, of opinion, that as soon as the season will admit, the drain ought to be cut to a proper depth, for that purpose, and such other work done, as will render the rooms upon the lower floor, habitable, without danger to the lives of the prisoners. — Ordered—[That the City make the repairs, etc.]

No. IX: [W.S. Oliver writes to his lawyer, Elias Hardy, Esq., on April 5, I791, asking how he should reply to the following letter, item X.]

No. X (Enclosed letter from the Grand Jury to the Sheriff, dated April 5, 1791): Sir, Having formerly informed you, that the Grand Jury intended laying their complaints against you, before His Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor, I now acquaint you, that it has been transmitted to the Secretary, and by him laid before the Governor. — (Signed) A.L. Black, Foreman of the Grand Jury. (N.B. Mr. Oliver applied for a copy of the complaint, but was refused it.)

No. XI: [Letter from Elias Hardy to W.S. Oliver, Saint John, April 7, 1791 (slightly abridged)] In the first place, I take it to be clear law, that you are keeper of the Goal, and that, as such, no person has a right to enter it, without your permission: This I lay down as a general rule, and I know of no exception to that rule, in favor of the Grand Jury, unless it can be supposed, that because they may present the condition of the Goal, when out of repair, they have, therefore, a right, at pleasure, to examine whether it wants repairs. As the Act of Assembly, recognizing their right to make such presentments, is silent on this head—and as the exercise of such a right must materially interfere with your responsibility for the safe custody of the prisoners under your charge, I am inclined to think they have no such right—but if they have it, it is, at most, only a right to examine whether the Goal wants repairs.

In the present case, such right is out of the question, as the intention of the visit (as I understand it) was not to examine whether the Goal wanted repairs, but to enquire how the particular apartments in it were appropriated; and even this enquiry, was restricted to the apartments for debtors: In this enquiry, I am of opinion, the Grand Jury exceeded the line of their duty,—Debtors may be confined wheresoever the Sheriff pleases (though it is otherwise with felons—and if there is any just ground of complaint against the Sheriff, the remedy is by action upon the case, at the suit of the party aggrieved, and not by presentment of a Grand Jury, it being a private injury, and not a public wrong. As to the words you made use of, viz. that the Grand Jury “were a set of impertinent fellows,” and that, “if you had been there, you would have locked them in.” In words addressed to public officers (and the Grand Jury I consider in a similar light) the law makes a great difference, whether, at the time the words were spoken, they were in the execution of their office or not… Mr. Black is wrong in stating himself Foreman of the Grand Jury, as the functions of that body ceased, when the Court dismissed them.—Nor can I see the propriety of preferring a complaint to the Lieut. Governor, when the Grand Jury, if insulted, had their legal remedy in the Supreme Court.

No. XII [Jonathan Odell to W.S. Oliver, on May 6, 1791, on behalf of the Lieut. Governor (abridged)]: I am directed to inform you, that, as the Grand Jury had an undoubted right, in their public capacity, to visit, and by their own inspection, ascertain the state and condition of the Goal—His Excellency thinks it was highly unwarrantable to offer the smallest insult, on that account, to a public body, whose importance in society, requires that they should be universally held in respect, and supported in the execution of their duty.—And His Excellency, therefore, expects that you will make an unqualified apology, to be delivered in writing under your hand, to the Foreman of the Grand Jury, asking their pardon for the insult of which they have complained.

No. XIII [W.S. Oliver to Jonathan Odell, on May 20, 1791, in reply to his letter (abridged)]: You are pleased to mention a memorial laid before his Excellency the Lieut. Governor, by the late Grand Jury, together with copies of certain proceedings in the Court of General Sessions of the peace.—This memorial, for reasons unknown to me, was denied both a sight and copy of by the Grand Jury, I cannot possibly say anything, therefore, as to its contents.

And, with regard to the proceedings before the Sessions, many material facts are entirely omitted, and others so defectively and erroneously stated, that no fair judgment can be formed from those papers, of the dispute to which they relate.—This I infer from my knowledge that the Grand Jury have never given themselves the trouble to possess themselves of some papers respecting the matter, which are materially explanatory of others. Had I been so fortunate as to have been indulged with a hearing, which I fully hoped, and the rather expected, as I flattered myself my conduct in office had been before unimpeached, I conceive I could have shewn, from the whole tenor of my behaviour, that I meant no unprovoked insult, and that I have acted consistently with the character I have hitherto supported.

The paper, signed by me, at the recommendation of the Court, will shew, that I have been no ways averse to an amicable adjustment of differences: This paper, with the further concessions offered at the time to the Grand Jury, on my part, of which the inclosed is a copy, and which the Grand Jury did not think proper to lay before the Governor, the Mayor and Recorder, and, I believe I may say, the whole Bench, considered as sufficient: My sentiments were in unison with theirs, nor have they since changed. After this declaration, I can only add, that, though the emoluments of my office are my sole dependence, yet, if his Excellency deems me unworthy of filling it longer, I shall receive his commands with the most profound respect and submission.

Notes by W.S. Oliver: To the foregoing letter no answer was returned—but sometime afterwards, a letter from Mr. Odell to the Mayor, desiring him to nominate to his Excellency the Lieut. Governor, a fit person to be appointed Sheriff of Saint John was communicated to a friend of mine, that he might acquaint me with it; and in a short time, John Holland, Esq. was appointed Sheriff in my room.

The reader being now in possession of all the material facts relative to this business, I beg leave to ask him the following Questions:

I. Supposing the Grand Jury had a right to visit the Goal, without my consent, was it civil in them to do it, without acquainting me—and, on the contrary, studiously to conceal their intentions?

IL When we consider that at the time the Grand Jury visited the Goal, there was not a single debtor in confinement—that no complaint whatever had been made to me, and no regular complaint to them, must it not appear singular that they should think of visiting the Goal at all? And yet more so, that they should restrict their examination to only a part of it?

III. With what propriety, after the unhandsome treatment I had experienced from them, in mobbing me down the street, could the Grand Jury complain of any expressions that had escaped me?

  1. Was it generous in them, to suppress entirely all mention of their behaviour to me?
  2. Was it candid to state, that I attacked them in the discharge of their duty, when they had broken up before the time alluded to?
  3. What could induce the Grand Jury to decline the mediation of the Court, to throw out the bill prepared by the Attorney-General, and insinuate so early in the dispute, a disposition to apply for redress, “to the Fountain from whence my office originated?”

VII. Was the demand of the Grand Jury, that I should make a public acknowledgment, “such as should be approved by them,” consistent with what they profess of an earnest wish that the difference might be accommodated without going any further, and the sympathy and compassion which they affect to feel?

VIII. Which party appeared most in earnest as to an accommodation?

  1. After the mobbing one through the public street, what would my friends have thought of me, had I asked the Grand Jury’s pardon?
  2. Ought not the Grand Jury to have, at least, allowed me a fight of the complaint preferred against me?
  3. What reason can be suggested to justify their refusal?

Written by johnwood1946

March 8, 2017 at 8:17 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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