Frontenac’s 3rd Warden ‘a Rather Fast Gent’

Frontenac’s 3rd Warden ‘a Rather Fast Gent’

Looking at the 1878 Meacham Illustrated Historica Atlas of Frontenac, Lennox and Addington Counties, one of the featured civic leaders is then Member of Parliament Schuyler Shibley.

A farmer, politician and businessman, Shibley’s public life included a series of scandalous incidents that paint a stark picture of the man who was once Frontenac County’s third Warden.

Born in what was then known as Portland Township on March 19, 1820, Shibley was of German and United Empire Loyalist (UEL) origin and of the Methodist faith. He represented Addington in the House of Commons from 1872 to 1878, winning election at times as a self-described conservative and later as a liberal.

In his youth he attended the Waterloo Academy near Kingston. After completing his education in 1851-52 with an extravagant European tour, he returned home referring to himself as “one of the best-informed farmers of the province.” He settled at Murvale, south of Harrowsmith, remaining based in Portland Township where he combined farming with business.

In 1854, he married Mary Ann Green, the daughter of a prominent furrier and hat maker in Kingston, Thomas Green, and they had at least three children.

According to biographer Donald Swainson, Shibley worked together with David Roblin and “speculated extensively in UEL scrip, became possessed of very large tracts of real estate, good, bad and indifferent, and was at times reputed to be

very wealthy.” Many of his holdings were at times rented to tenant farmers – an often shady practice that helped fan the flames of rebellion at various times in Upper Canada’s salad days. Looking specifically at the Meacham map of Loughborough Township (http://bucklake.ca/about-us/maps/) one such property was located on Buck Lake.

Home to a square log cabin, erected in about the mid-1850s, the lot was primarily accessible at what is today the top of Roost Lane. The property was comprised of 70 acres split in two sections. One on the north side of the South Arm of 25 acres, and the other across the lake on the south shore of 45 acres.

This sketch from 1878 shows what Schuyler Shibley’s Murvale estate looked like at the time.

While the later had road frontage too, the former had tremendous access via the Old Perth Road (then under construction), included a freshwater spring that area property owners would drink from safely for more than a century, a mica mine that operated into the 1950s, several large natural sand beaches, and – almost unheard of in the immediate area – multiple, somewhat level, areas with soil and easy lake access for raising livestock or crops that nowadays are home to no fewer than 13 homes and cottages. (These early maps are not to scale, so it can be hard at times to discern exact property lines.) The cabin stood for over 100 years and was said to be the fourth overall dwelling constructed on the lake. Shibley is thought to never have actually lived there, though a cement marker on the property still bares the family name.

Swainson writes that Shibley was described by one observer as “a rather fast gent,” and had a “paramour,” Kate Davis, “a rather good looking person,” who lived in Brooke Township, Lambton County, where he owned 400 acres. The liaison resulted in a child.

These details became public knowledge in early September 1866 when they were arrested and charged with murdering this child, Kate Shibley, then three years old.

Shibley was imprisoned in Sarnia, where his condition was monitored from a far by family acquaintance and Kingston-area politician John A. Macdonald, then Attorney General for Canada West (Ontario). Macdonald was kept informed of Shibley’s situation by Thomas W. Johnston, the prison doctor. In a letter to the future Prime Minister, the doctor wrote that Shibley “seems to have been infatuated with the girl Davis and actually had his wife write her a letter of Condolence. [His] eyes poor fellow are now open. [If] he tries another, it will not be Miss Davis.”

On the grounds that he had been absent when the child died, Shibley was released from prison without having to stand trial. Evidence at the coroner’s inquest, and later at Kate Davis’ trial, however, revealed his involvement in the sordid and vicious affair. According to the trial transcripts, Davis’ mother testified that Shibley “had been there some 10 days before [the child’s death] and had given the child a most unmerciful beating for not saying its prayers and ordered her to do the same whenever it refused.” When the child would not say her prayers on Sept. 3, 1866, she was, according to another account, “whipped with rawhide.” She died during the night. A friend of the mother also testified to Shibley’s physical brutality towards the child, who had been neglected, denied food for long periods, and suffered several internal injuries.

Kate Davis was tried for manslaughter but was eventually acquitted. The local paper of record reported that the presiding judge “could not refrain from giving strong expression to his surprise and disappointment at the verdict, as well as at the conduct of both the prisoner and her paramour.”

The public revelation of Shibley’s sordid private life had no appreciable effect on his public career.

He had already served as reeve of Portland and (after losing in the 1867 federal election when he ran in Addington for the House of Commons), he began his political career in earnest in 1868 by winning the wardenship of Frontenac County. He won again in 1869 and 1872. In the 1872 federal election, he again contested Addington and this time Shibley won an easy victory, 1,495 to 849.

Although he held no real party affiliation, at the time Shibley described himself as a “conservative.”

During the Pacific scandal (Fall 1873), while he never had to cast a vote against Macdonald, he turned his back on the man who had once helped ensure his safety in prison and became Ontario’s only conservative-leaning MP to cross the floor during the entire affair.

He was re-elected in 1874, now claiming to be a “liberal” though again he never appears to have joined the party. Shibley would quickly be removed from Parliament, however, after it came to light that a number of his supporters, including his 15- year-old son, had bribed voters. His was one of many results nullified by the courts that year after the introduction of new election reform rules.

The people seemed unphased by what would now be seen as shocking behaviour and he won the subsequent by-election held soon after.

Shibley’s political wrangling from 1872 to 1874 is interesting for the fact that he still holds the Parliamentary record for three election wins in the shortest period of time. During his years in office, he had several business connections with other civic and political leaders, such as Alexander Campbell, Richard John Cartwright, and Dileno Dexter Calvin, notes Swainson.

During the 1870s he served as a director of the Kingston and Pembroke Railway as well as the Royal Mutual Life Assurance Company. When Sir John A. Macdonald and the Conservatives returned to power in 1878, Shibley was soundly defeated in his riding. His time in Ottawa was over despite his running again to serve as an MP.

The Shibley cabin as seen from the Old Perth Road in the mid-1960s.

“Shibley’s six years in the Commons were undistinguished; his voice was raised only about problems that related directly to his riding,” writes Swainson. “He died in Kingston in 1890.”

– If you’ve got a piece of history related to South Frontenac or one of its lakes that you’d like to share either through an interview or by writing it yourself, please email editor @ourlakes.ca.

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