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The dead man on the wagon: Part 2 (4 photos)

In this edition of 'Remember This', Mary Harris shares part 2 of the story about the 1881 murder of Thomas Slight

William Ney, did not look like a killer. In fact, the young man in his 20s looked the part of a simple-living son of Irish immigrant farm folk, and was described by all who knew him as being of good character, pleasant, and hard working. Yet, he sat in the Barrie Jail through the fall and winter of 1881/1882 awaiting trial, accused of the most serious charge imaginable.

In those early days, court cases were heard twice a year, during the Criminal Assizes in the spring or the fall. The trial began on May 2, 1882 and lasted four entire days. Imagine a such a short murder trial today!

D’Alton McCarthy, who usually acted as a prosecutor, had been retained to defend William Ney. He was an extremely well-respected man, known to everyone in Barrie and beyond. In fact, McCarthy had made a special trip to Barrie from Ottawa, where he had a seat in the House of Commons.

Colin MacDougall, who conversely worked usually as a criminal defence lawyer, was taking the part of the prosecutor for this case. The Northern Advance of May 11, 1882 aptly summed up the appearance of this brilliant but unusual-looking legal man.

“Colin MacDougall has an ungainly look; and a total disregard for personal appearance is evidenced by his ragged gown; but a grand massive head fringed with snow white hair crowns that tall form, and in the flow of his eloquence you forget the ragged gown and awkward gesture. The words are fitting of the occasion, calm, temperate, forcible, at times thrilling, always convincing.”

William Ney was the only suspect in the case. The accusation against him was based on two things. The victim, Thomas Slight, had been robbed at the time of his murder, and the accused had suddenly come into some money where he had none before. Secondly, more than one witness had reported seeing Thomas leave Barrie with a passenger on the day of his death, and they identified that person as William Ney.

On the first day of the trial, only the facts of the case were laid out – the finding of the body, the clues on site, what the witnesses observed at the scene, and a general setting of the stage ahead of the second day. The name of William Ney was not even mentioned that opening day.

James Hambly, the first person to suggest that William was the mysterious passenger on the wagon, was the perhaps the star prosecution witness. He was an upright and truthful man. However, as the Northern Advance put it, D’Alton McCarthy took Hambly’s testimony and “struck it with all his force and shattered it into atoms.” Perhaps James Hambly was an honest man, but his memory and eyesight were possibly lacking.

Not to worry, the prosecution had another eye witness. Mrs. Warner had a house just across from the Foundry on Bayfield Street and had a clear view of the comings and goings there. She was absolutely certain that the rider in the Slight wagon was William Ney, and she would swear to it.

Well, this was 1882 and things happened a little differently in those days. It was brought up in court that Mrs. Warner was not to believed, that she was “notoriously indecent’’ having been convicted of using obscene language and indecent exposure in the past.

The last prosecution witness was Ellen Donahue, a young girl who had been sitting by Mrs. Warner’s window. Less than virtuous by association it would seem, her testimony was also discredited. Both women stuck to their conviction about who they had seen, but the upright jurors and spectators of Barrie were not about believe anything out of their unseemly mouths.

The defence called 32 witnesses, who succeeded in muddying the waters about who had seen Thomas Slight when, where and with whom. On the matter of the money, it was suggested that Thomas had stopped at a shop in Allandale, on his way home, and that the money may have been spent there.

In the end, the verdict came back as not guilty. There was simply not enough evidence to put William Ney into a hangman’s noose. No one has ever been convicted for the murder of Thomas Slight, and it remains one of the coldest of the cold cases.

In an interesting twist, a local business man, who would find himself standing exactly in William Ney’s shoes several years later when he took a gun to a house called Ovenden, placed a cheerful ad in the local newspapers. He thanked the court for entrusting the housing and feeding of the jury to his establishment, and apologized to his regular customers for any inconveniences, while inviting all citizens to come and enjoy the amenities there.

It was signed, Michael Brennan, proprietor of the Victoria Hotel.

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.


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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