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REMEMBER THIS: County no stranger to tough customers — Part 1

From Fulljames to Staley to McDuff, these Simcoe County families were known for their quick wicks, hot heads and fast fists

My late mother-in-law once said to me: “You know those bad kids that parents tell their children to stay away from? Well, that was us.”

She was referring to her rough-and-tumble, Irish-Canadian family from Prince Edward Island. The extended Walsh clan lived down a rural road, which now bears their name, and were notorious locally for fighting.

As a girl, my mother-in-law had been sent home from school for getting into a few donnybrooks herself.

Some families are just that way, I suppose.

My mother-in-law wasn’t too bothered about the Walsh reputation. To her, it was just one facet of her family history.

Quite likely, you remember such folks yourself. Who knows why they were the way they were. Naturally hot-headed, unhappy with life, poor or uneducated, or just loved the thrill of a knock down drag out brawl. Hard to say.

In the 1870s, a family by the name of Fulljames operated the Green Bush Hotel on the eastern edge of Barrie. The establishment had its fair share of rowdies pass through its doors, and many of those passed back through the same doors in unceremonious fashion, knocked senseless, pummelled by the Fulljames boys, who relished the task.

Most of the rural townships of the county had a family or two of similar description.

Oro Township had a native son who took his brawling and law-breaking to a national level. Big Sandy McDuff was the stuff of legends during the latter part of the 19th century.

Collingwood had the Wonch family. They lived in extreme poverty and much of their notoriety was fuelled by the local rumour mill.

I submit that the Staleys of Flos Township could be added to a list of the quick-fisted families of Simcoe County. An article in the May 1, 1873 edition of the Northern Advance recently caught my eye.

A Mr. Staley had bitten off the thumb of another man in a fight at a tavern in 1873. The victim was Alexander Rowat, who had been living in the township for four years at the time. He had the misfortune of meeting Staley the previous January during one of those typical old-time, liquor-fuelled municipal government meetings.

Frustratingly, the article never once supplies a given name for Mr. Staley, so I went in search of that information. As it turns out, numerous members of Flos' Staley clan were involved in all sorts of hijinks over the years.

As the story goes, the local politicians were happily plying their supporters with drinks at Harbor’s Tavern in early 1873. Mr. Staley was loudly regaling the group with tall tales when Rowat questioned him about a particular anecdote.

“Not understanding what the speaker said, I asked him to explain when Staley told me to shut my mouth or he would slap my jaw. I told him I didn’t think he was able. He then dared me to go out so I went out," he said. 

According to the witnesses, the fight was a short one. Staley rushed Rowat and grabbed him around the waist, flipping him onto the ground on his right side. Staley then kneeled on him and bit one of Rowat’s hands hard ... so hard that when he was pulled off Rowat by a bystander, two of Staley’s teeth fell out!

The thumb of the injured hand was badly damaged in the attack and infection soon set in. After two weeks of treatment by the local doctor, the thumb was deemed unsalvageable and amputated. This landed Staley in court, charged with wounding with intent.

He was eventually found guilty.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.

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Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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