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Remember This? The Ovenden murder (photos)

John Strathy was shot dead on a sharply cold day in 1896

At the junction of Dunlop, Blake, Dundonald and Collier Streets where Duckworth Street also once crossed, stands a mid 20th century apartment building on a site of some notoriety. The name above the front entrance hints at the past life of the property – Ovenden Place, 1 Blake St.

The fine house that once stood there was called Ovenden, and it was just inside the front door that John Strathy was shot dead on a sharply cold day in 1896.

Mr. Strathy was only loosely connected to the people whom his assassin blamed for his woes, but he became the focus of a troubled man looking for answers, and had the great misfortune of meeting his killer on a day when that tortured mind had reached a breaking point.

Two families came to Barrie. One of them was of the upper class, you might say, and the other was from the working class. Both were determined to carve out a life for themselves in the small town, and raise a good strong family. Things went very well for one, while the other struggled to keep their family together. It was this domestic upheaval that eventually put all of them on a collision course.

John Alexander Strathy was born a barrister’s son, in Toronto, in 1849. His wife, the former Agnes Grasett, was a Toronto girl from a good family. One of her brothers was a doctor, and the other was Henry J. Grasett, the longest serving police chief in Toronto history. John Strathy was a banker and was appointed branch manager for the Bank of Toronto’s Barrie office in 1879.

Mr. Strathy had two brothers who practiced law. R.J. Strathy was a Toronto barrister while H.H. Strathy was a Q.C. in Barrie. His mother was well connected too. Susan Gowan Strathy was the sister of Sir James Robert Gowan, lawyer, judge, senator, and a man well known to all in Barrie. Judge Gowan’s wife was a member of the equally renowned Ardagh family.

In his first few years in Barrie, before he married, John Strathy lived with his uncle, James Gowan. He resided in the famed Ardraven mansion. It is very likely that during his time there he made an innocent connection that would later cost him his life.

The big house naturally had a number of servants. Some of these were even rewarded for long service in the judge’s will – Mary McMillan and Richard Bidwell got $1,000 each, and Edith Horn received $100. For a time, the Gowan’s employed a cook named Mary Hurley. She left her job when she married in January of 1877.

Mary came from Tiny Township, not far from Penetanguishene. At some point, she met Michael Brennan, a young carpenter from an Irish family who homesteaded on the 14th Line of West Gwillimbury Township. Interestingly enough, their farm nearly backed onto the site of Sank Lowe's moonshine operation, just across from where I grew up.

Like the Stathys, Gowans, and others, the Brennan family made it their goal to make a comfortable home for themselves and to raise a fine family. At the time of their marriage, the young couple would certainly have hoped for some healthy children, and to live well and happily, and to grow old together.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Michael worked as a carpenter, and for a while as inn keeper at the Victoria Hotel, on the southeast corner of Mulcaster and Collier Streets where the McLaren Art Centre is located now. Mary tended to the expanding family which eventually grew to four; three girls and one boy, all of them born in Barrie.

Some time in the 1880s, the Brennan family moved to Midland, Ont. and it was there that the trouble began. Michael began to believe that his wife had been unfaithful to him and, despite her constant denials, he was determined to find out who she was running around with. He checked behind doors and under beds for concealed interlopers, accused neighbouring gentlemen and businessmen of misdeeds, and generally pestered Mary Brennan constantly to confess her transgressions.

With his moods varying from sad and depressed to angry and paranoid, Michael’s wife had nearly reached her limit. The final straw came when Michael was arrested for assaulting a Mr. Steers who had visited the house on church business. In 1892, Mary took the children and went to her mother’s house.

After that, Michael Brennan went to Toronto and got work at the Massey-Harris factory. Always on his mind though were his wife and children. He still believed that Mary was untrue to him. Nevertheless, he wanted his family back again. The main obstacle to that reunion was the fact that Michael had no idea where to find them. Not surprisingly, they had gone into hiding.

In early February 1896, Michael took the train to Barrie. He was on a mission to find someone who knew where his family might be found. Nobody seemed to know anything. Then he encountered someone who would surely know their whereabouts, someone with connections, a former household member of Mary’s past employer. He met John Alexander Strathy.

John Strathy did not die that day – no not that day. He did, however, give Michael Brennan a curt answer to his query, one that further inflamed his irrational senses. “Now Brennan, you’ve got work and you better stick to it, and make no more fuss.” Michael returned to Toronto without his family, but he was fairly sure that certain Barrie residents were conspiring against him and deliberately blocking his efforts.

In two weeks, he was back in Barrie again. He had come to visit his attorney, Mr. Pepler, to find a way to reconcile with Mary and the children, although he later said he didn’t expect to get any real help there. He also booked a ticket to Penetanguishene. He had heard that one of his daughters might be there.

First though, he wanted try one more time to get John Strathy to admit that he knew full well where his family was residing. Michael Brennan hitched a ride on a horse and sleigh, and arrived at the front door of Ovenden in a big fur coat, a winter hat, and with a revolver in his pocket.

Inside, John Strathy was getting ready for an appointment. He was lacing his shoes when the doorbell rang. When his servant girl announced a caller at the door to see him, Strathy was less than happy to be disturbed, as he was on his way out. Strathy was even more irked when he saw who was standing in his vestibule.

“The devil, Brennan, you here again?”

Michael Brennan pleaded his case once again but John Strathy was beyond annoyed by then and told him to leave. Brennan kept pressing until Strathy caught him by the collar and started to push him out the door. It was then that Brennan remembered the gun in his pocket, the one that he said he had only purchased for safety while living in the big city.

“Take that, damn you!” Michael Brennan shot John Strathy once and walked to Blake St. where he caught another sleigh back to the Victoria Hotel, where he was staying.

He made no attempt to get away. In fact, Michael Brennan freely told anyone that he would listen that he had just shot John Strathy. He apparently thought that he had been completely justified in his actions, and that Strathy was merely wounded. So secure was he in his thinking that he walked right up to Constable Marrin at the Market, and confessed.

Back at Ovenden, John Alexander Strathy, aged 45 years, died from a bullet to the heart about a half an hour after being shot. He died in his wife’s arms, still in the vestibule where he was struck down. He left six small children.

As was the custom of the time, Dr. Wallwin, the coroner, assembled a jury immediately and they all visited Ovenden to view the body and the scene. They determined that the dead man had been the victim of a murder. One week later, Michael Brennan was in court in front of Police Magistrate Ross where he was officially charged with the crime. His trial was set for April 6.

As he languished in the jailhouse, the notoriety of his situation caused one positive result – the return of Mary Brennan. The Northern Advance made mention of the turn of events on April 16.

“Mrs. Brennan visited the gaol on Tuesday and saw her husband, to whom she became reconciled. After leaving, she sent him a beautiful bouquet.”

The trial lasted four days and was attended by large crowds from all over the area. Both the victim and the accused were well known to many. As Michael Brennan had made no secret about his involvement in the killing, all his lawyer could do was try to keep his client away from the noose. William Lount used the insanity defence for Brennan and pleaded for a finding of manslaughter.

Mr. Lount was unsuccessful. Only one hour after retiring to deliberate, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of willful murder. The judge sentenced him to hang on May 29 and Mary Brennan became hysterical and had to be removed from the court room.

Michael Brennan became a shell of himself in prison. His mental state became worse and he stopped eating or caring about anything. He did accept his fate, and he became quite eager to get his trip to the gallows over with.

Mr. Lount was not done fighting though. He took the case to a higher court and won a new trial on some technical grounds. Likely, the family and friends of Michael Brennan were elated, but the prisoner was crushed. He was mentally and physically worn out and another trial was the last thing he wanted.

The second murder trial of Michael Brennan lasted one day. On Nov. 4, he was convicted of murder once again and given a new execution date of Jan. 19, 1897. Brennan, a mere skeleton of a man by then, had no fight left in him and returned to his jail cell quietly.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Strathy could not bear to live at Ovenden any longer. She moved her family away from the no longer happy family home, and her brother-in-law, H. H. Strathy, left his home, Boulderfel, and moved into Ovenden.

Six days before his appointment with the hangman, Michael Brennan’s sentence was reduced to life in prison. The word came straight from Ottawa and the reasons given for the change included a recommendation of mercy from the jury, lack of apparent premeditation, the prisoner’s unsound mind, and the fact that the prisoner was in a dying state.

Local folks sympathetic to the victim were particularly displeased with the last reason. They felt that Michael Brennan’s poor health was of his own doing. They must have been angrier still when this little notation appeared in the Aug. 26 edition of the Northern Advance.

“It is said that Michael Brennan, now in Kingston Penitentiary, now weighs 227 lbs.”

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.