The Notorious Brooks’ Bush Gang

Note: This is Part I of a two-part series about the history of the Brook’s Bush Gang. You can read Part II here.

From the 1850s to the early 1860s, the east end of Toronto on both sides of the Don River was terrorized by the criminal dealings of the infamous Brook’s Bush Gang, a mix-gendered gang of desperadoes and thieves. The history of the group is an interesting, rare, and dangerous chapter in Toronto history.

Gerrard Street East bridge over Don River (”Bell’s Bridge”), looking southeast, 1860.
Source: Toronto Public Library

“A Batch of Disorderlies”

In January 1855, Sergeant McCaffrey received some information that the eastern end of the city “was infested by a number of depraved young females who lived more like brutes than human beings.” He proceeded to the place known as “Brook’s bush” and found a gang of “unfortunates” living in an “Indian hut” made of several layers of large pines, “rudely thrown together and a cavity preserved in the centred by upright poles and cross pieces”. They were huddled around a fire. He found a large pot, some bread, some herrings, and a jar of whiskey. There were some men and the females were a “motley group”, with one having a “contusion on her nose” and two with black eyes. The others had scratches and scars. The Sergeant brought them before the bar and charged them with “living disorderly, good-for-nothing lives”. McCaffrey noted the group’s experience ranged from twelve or thirteen years old to about twenty years old. The men — four of them — were fined 10s. each and the seven women received gaol (jail) time of a month each.

Jail (1840-1860), Front Street East, south side, between Berkeley & Parliament Streets, 1850s. This was Toronto’s jail at the time of Brook’s Bush Gang; some members may have seen time in it.
Source: Toronto Public Library

In August 1856, The Globe described the locality of Brook’s Bush as “being infected with a horde of the most dangerous characters of both sexes, and has become such a ‘prodigious public nuisance’ that coercive means must be adopted to rid the place of the gang of plunderers, from whom life nor property are safe.” William Davis, a councillor who owned property in the bush, lodged a complaint and five persons of each sex — “the lowest of the low” — were arrested.

These two accounts are telling representations of who the Brooks Bush Gang were and their miscreant dealings in the mid-19th century. The gang would go on to have multiple shady episodes culminating in their alleged involvement in a high-profile murder.

Many fundamental details about the Brook’s Bush Gang are unclear, such its origins, nature, and size, and structure. One can infer Sergeant McCaffrey’s account in early 1855 that the group was set up in the area at least in the year prior and perhaps had already had a reputation with the police for them to warrant a visit resulting in being taken into custody, fined, and sent to prison. Their shabby living conditions also suggests their lower-class status. It is not clear what work the members did, if any. The size of the group is also difficult to measure. In some accounts eleven or twelve members of the group are arrested at one time. The roster of characters also likely changed as members exited the group, most prominently from going to jail. The newspaper note at least seventy individuals part of or affiliated with the gang at some point between 1856 to 1861.

Where was Brook’s Bush?

Brooks Bush, the home base of the dangerous group, was located on the east side of the Don River. Jennifer Bonnell, a historian on the Don River, wrote the east end of Toronto in the 19th century was a place for the undesirables, so it offered the conditions for a miscreant group like the Brooks Bush Gang to exist. The community now known as Riverdale was not annexed to Toronto until the 1880s and police enforcement of the group and area was a difficult because of this reason.

In an August 1931 issue of Maclean’s, Brook’s Bush is described as a forty-acre woodlot with a clearing in the middle and an abandoned barn where the group’s headquarters were located. Toronto environmentalist Charles Sauriol similarly described the Brook’s Bush as a “forty acre heavily-wooded area, just east of the Don River.” He also cited an ‘old-timer’ in saying the area “above Winchester” was the “territory where gambling, cock-fighting, and bull pitting flourished.” There is some dispute over the bush’s exact location and its size.

In the Woods near Toronto, Ontario, 1860. Perhaps a characterization of what Brook’s Bush, or the wild parts of it may have looked like. Holly Brook Creek ran through parts of it.
Source: Toronto Public Library

Bonnell stated both Maclean’s and Sauriol placed the bush north of the Don Jail. However, maps may lead us to a different conclusion. She cited the 1860 and 1878 County Atlases of York in stating that bush was on the property of a Daniel Brook. The identity and history of Brook are vague and confusing, highlighted by the fact that there are at least three different spellings of his name to refer to him, the bush, and the gang. Scarborough historian David Boyle published in his The Township of Scarboro, 1796-1896 that a Captain Daniel Brooke “owned the bush in York township which, in after years, formed a rendezvous for the notorious ‘Brooke’s Bush Gang'”. According to maps, Brook owned at least two properties east of the Don River in 1860. The first was a 10-acre property found directly east of the Don Jail, bordering on the west side of Logan Avenue just north of Gerrard Street. It appears in the 1860 map as “D.B.” but is later labelled in the 1878 map as Daniel Brook. The northern property is slightly more confusing. In the 1860 map, “D.B.” appears again on the east side of Logan, north of today’s Bain Avenue. It was about 10 acres. In the 1878 map, this property is attributed to George Vincent; however, two lots totaling 20 acres north of it are found under Daniel Brooks. Bonnell stated local historians have corroborated the location of Brook’s Bush on the modern site of Withrow Park.

Tremaine’s Map of the County of York, Canada West, 1860. The possible locations of Brook’s Bush are circled, along with The Butcher’s Arms Tavern, the hangout of the gang.
Source: Old Toronto Maps
Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of York, 1878. The possible Brook’s Bush locations are circled.
Source: Old Toronto Maps

There is evidence to support both Brook’s Bush location hypotheses — that is, whether it was located east of the Don Jail or on the site of Withrow Park. In his 1908 Landmarks of Toronto Volume V, storied Toronto historian John Ross Robertson wrote about the Butchers’ Arms Tavern, which was located on Broadview Avenue between Sparkhall and Hogarth Avenues. Robertson stated the establishment was a gaming bar, both for cockfighting and betting men who came from the nearby racetrack south of Queen Street near the Don River. He also wrote it attracted more “objectionable characters of the notorious ‘Brooks Bush gang”. According to Ross, the gang’s headquarters were “a short distance to the east.” Indeed, at its shortest length, the Butchers’ Arms and The Bush is about 600 metres and corresponds to the Withrow Park area.

The Butchers’ Arm Tavern.
Source: Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto Volume V
Gehle Reconnaissance Sketch East of Toronto between the Don River and Scarboro, 1868. The Bucher’s Arms Tavern is noted. Brook’s Bush may have been east in the shaded section denoting a ravine and/or south in the area labeled “Rough Hilly Track”.
Source: Old Toronto Maps

In 1912, The Globe reported the Butchers’ Arms was being torn down to accommodate new housing. The tavern was described here as the rendezvous of the notorious Brooks’ Bush Gang of highway robbers and murderers. John Playter of Danforth Avenue (and of the modern Playter Estates), the great-grandson of early York settler Captain John Playter, relayed the history of the tavern and the gang to the newspaper. He remembered them as a group of “low class men and women” who were “called the Brooks’ Bush gang because they camped in the bush owned by Mr. Brooks near the thoroughfare now known as Simpson Avenue”. Mr. Playter’s description seems to corresponds to the southern Brooks lot close to Gerrard and east of the Don Jail. The property was roughly bordered by Simpson Avenue, Langley Avenue, Howland Road, and Logan Avenue. To add a layer, Simpson Avenue between Howland and Logan was named Brooke Avenue; it was renamed to Simpson by 1910.

Toronto Fire Insurance Map, 1899. The approximate location of Brook’s Bush around Simpson/Brooke Avenue is noted.
Source: Goad’s Toronto

The 1856 murder of Isaiah Sewell may offer some geographic details which might clear things up. As Leslieville historian Joanne Doucette wrote, the Sewells lived near Queen Street and Logan Avenue (Logan itself was Sewell’s Lane for a time). On the day of the murder, Sewell was to travel to Broadview Avenue to purchase some hay. William Rhodes, a witness who lived about twenty acres from the Sewells, mentioned to go from the Sewell’s at Queen and Logan to Broadview that “it would not be the nearest road to go through Brook’s Bush”. He also stated Sewell was no more than twenty acres away from the bush when he was found dead. On that day, Rhodes was returning back from Toronto when crossed the Grand Trunk railway (now the Canadian National railway) track north of Queen Street and was near the “edge of the bush” when he saw a crowd. When he went to investigate, he was told by one of the members Sewell was killed, at which point Rhodes went to Sewell as he knew the boy. Another witness, Andrew Jenkins of the gang, first saw Sewell standing near the railway track about 40 yards near some women of the gang. Sewell went to go talk to Catherine Cogan when he was struck and killed from behind. Cogan stated she went to the creek after he was struck to get water to bather his forehead and breast. There are other depositions of gang members going for water at the time of the murder.

The geography of the murder suggested Sewell was murdered near the Grand Trunk Railway where it crossed Logan Avenue. This was on the edge of Brook’s Bush, likely within 20 acres of it as suggested by Rhodes’ account. Taking the two locations, the distance was roughly 15 acres for the southern Brook property and roughly 35-acres for the northern property. In regards to the creek accessed by the gang, according to Lost Rivers Toronto, the Holly Brook Creek meandered east and west of Logan Avenue north of the railway. A longer branch flowed east of Logan, including in the northern Brooks lot in Withrow Park where its physical indent is perhaps most visible. It had smaller branches flowing northwest from Logan toward Simpson and Howland in the southern Brook lot.

Perhaps the matter is settled most in an April 1861 Globe article covering the John Sheridan Hogan murder trial. The trial itself shown a lot of light on the gang. The newspaper noted that police reports had appeared on averaged once a week for the last four years on the Brooke’s bush gang, but the exact locality was never actually known. The newspaper said:

Brooke’s Bush was one of ten lots selected by well-known citizens at the time Toronto was incorporated. The other two lots have been cleared but there was still a lot of Brooke’s Bush to be cleared. It is beautiful situated east of the Don, and about a quarter due mile east of from the Industrial Farm and New Gaol. The trees afford good shelter to the “gang” who have made it their place of resort. In the winter they take take possession of a dilapidated barn which stands on the adjoined lot — there being no building whatever on the lot known as “Brooke’s Bush” — and of an old stable in the rear of a brewery which was built near the place a few years ago since the owner of which gave up building some time ago.

The Globe, April 8, 1861

It is also possible, as Doucette has pointed out, that both properties were part of the bush and they operated as a sort of region. In March 1859, a collector advertised in The Globe the sale of cordwood and timber at Oxleys’ Tavern on Queen Street “for arrears of taxes due on the property commonly known as Brook’s Bush, situated and lying in School Section No. 6, in the Township of York East.”

The Women of Brook’s Bush

A fascinating dimension to the Brook’s Bush Gang is the presence, nature, and involvement of women in a very visible way. It is not clear why so many women found themselves in the gang or what were their origins and circumstances. It is, however, apparent that women played a noted role in the history of the Brook’s Bush Gang.

There have been general descriptions of the group as a band of desperado, thieves, and prostitutes. The focus on the latter as an identity and behaviour for women is a curious topic. Jane Ward and Catherine Cogan, particularly the latter, might have been acting in those roles in the murder of Isaiah Sewell. Joanne Doucette wrote Jane Ward was “a vicious English prostitute” and was known as the “The Bandit Queen of Riverdale”. She was born in Yorkshire and came to Canada at age 4. By 1861, she was about 25 years old; and she was “seduced from the paths of virtue”, right around the time she left her parents’ care and joined the Brook’s Bush Gang”. She was described as “a small and rather sharp-featured woman” in one account, but tall, well-made, and a “regular” appearance with marks on her face in another. She was “very passionate and vindictive” and long ruled the members of the gang, suggesting she had a prominent placement in the group, if not actually leading it. After her time in the gang, she was noted as having two self-indulges: tobacco and cheap whiskey. In fact, “she was rarely seen in pub­lic without a pipe in her lips, and trailing a haze of smoke from the cheapest and strongest tobacco she could find.”

Ward and another prostitute Ellen McGillick engaged MPP John Sheridan Hogan before murdering him in December 1859. McGillick was described in the MacLean’s article about the murder by W. Stewart Wallace:

“Though only twenty-three years of age, she had been “on the street” for four years; and had, prior to that period, been married and deserted by her husband. She was a tall, strapping girl, and would have been attractive had her face not been scarred by smallpox. She had often been in the police court, but the police magistrate afterward testified that he had always found her frank and truthful. She had sunk so low, perchance, that the only way she could keep her selfrespect was by telling the truth.”

Maclean’s Magazine, August 15, 1931

In April of 1859, another woman of the gang named “Yankee Mary”, described as “of frail character”, accosted a retired militia man with her seductive words. It is unclear if she herself was a prostitute, but they bought some spirits and he followed her to the east end. He woke up without clothes and without his possessions, namely his watch, stock, hat, and wallet with a few dollars contained it it. Mary was tracked to the Brook’s Bush and found with a man named Wagstaff. They were searched and arrested after the soldier’s items were located.

Following this, women of the Brook’s Bush Gang seemed to have played important roles in the gang’s crimes, even committing them themselves. In February 1859, a woman was stopped on the Queen Street (then Kingston Road) between the Don River and the first toll gate and stripped of her shawl and other articles. Three women were the attackers, whose refuge was said to be the “notorious locality”, called Brooks’ Bush. The Globe noted travellers dread passing on the road as of late, which was “feared with thieves”. In the gang’s two connected murders, women played active roles. In the Sewell case, in addition to engaging with the man, Cogan picked up a piece of newspaper with the man’s money, which Ward then had her possession and said she would return to the authorities. It is unclear if the money ever was returned. As noted, Ward and McGillick also played roles in the murder of Hogan, engaging with the MPP on the Don Bridge and with Ward robbing him.

Finally, there is also an interesting and repeated allusion to female gang members as “abandoned” individuals in the records. Susan McCormack and Mary A. Walton were described as such when they were charged by the police in August 1857. In December 1857, Sergeant Smith found a mother lying in little hay and snow and rain with her dead infant in her arm with no covering. The mother, Bridget McGuire and her baby, was brought to City Hall Station and then the Hospital. The child died from the cold. McGuire was described as a woman of “abandoned character.” In June 1858, a similar story occurred as another abandoned woman Mary Ann Walton had given birth in Brook’s Bush but “the infant had not been seen for some time” and it was thought it had been “foully dealt with”. It is unclear what an “abandoned woman” directly entails, but one can infer these women lacked familial ties, were vagrants and homeless, and/or prostitutes. It is worth mentioning the bush was “known was the resort of abandoned characters, and has been more than once the scene of robberies and outrages”, which means the term may not have been exclusive to women.

The Isaiah Sewell Murder

In July 1856, The Globe reported the murder of a Isaiah Sewell, a “coloured boy”. Michael Barry was identified as the killer and he was tried for murder in the following montj. Barry was at Brook’s Bush on the day of the murder, but he did not seem to have been part of the group officially. Sewell lived on Kingston Road (today’s Queen Street) near the Don River and was sent to Mill Road (Broadview Avenue) by his father with 10 pounds to buy hay. Instead, he found himself at or near the bush which was not the most direct path to his destination. Sewell was not part of the gang.

Sewell was standing near the Grand Trunk Railroad tracks when he was then engaged by Catherine Cogan of the Brook’s Bush Gang. Someone present recalled hearing that “it was a shame for a white girl to be seen with a black man”; it is not known who uttered the words. The party had been drinking and Sewell gave Cogan money for a drink. Cogan had spoken to Sewell for about 5 minutes. Barry then came from behind Sewell and cracked his skull with a glass bottle. As he did, he called him a “black b–g-r” and told him to go away. Barry also said “he [Sewell] was scheming” and would kick him to make him leave. After the strike, Sewell turned or was turned onto his back. Cogan picked up a piece of newspaper and money which had fallen from Sewell. A passer-byer investigating the murder later got the money from Jane Ward but he only counted it and Ward would return it to the authorities. Several members went to the creek for water and Sewell’s hands or face was washed. Some of the gang claimed they did not see the blow and did not know Barry or Sewell. A doctor confirmed Sewell died from the blow from a “concussion of the brain”. Barry was tried in October 1856 for Sewell’s willful murder and found guilty of manslaughter.

Looking north on Logan Avenue south of the Grand Trunk Railway, 1890s. The Sewell murder may have taken place near here nearly fourty years before.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Historian Joanne Doucette contextualized the murder in social terms. It was the first racially-motivated murder in Toronto and possibly Ontario. The Sewells were Black gardeners and landowners in Leslieville. Part of Logan Avenue was for a time named “Sewell’s Lane”. The family was part of Leslieville’s Black community in the 19th century. Doucette described the Brook’s Bush Gang as “all white, mostly Irish”. The gangs way of operating was to ply a victim with alcohol, lure him with sex, and then rob him. Doucette also noted the gang boasted for years about the murder. Barry allowed the group to take the fall for the murder as a affiliate of the gang. None of the members were directly implicated for the murder as no one ever claimed direct involvement.

The Sewell case was an extreme case of the capabilities of the Brook’s Bush Gang. At the same time, it was a precursor to their activities over the next five or six years, which included at least one more high profile murder.

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