From about 1855 to 1862, the dangerous, disorderly desperadoes of the Brooke’s Bush Gang terrorized Toronto. Headquartered in a wooded area and shanty on the east side of the Don River, the group made their mark assaulting and robbing travellers along Kingston Road near the river. Their actions culminated in the murder of Ontario politician John Sheridan Hogan on the Don Bridge and led to the trial and execution of one the gang members.
The Brooke’s Bush Gang provides an interesting window into the criminal history of Victorian Toronto. In particular, it speaks to some of the early workings of organized crime. However, the group was not the only criminal collective in the period and area. Two other groups existed in the decades before and after the Brooke’s Bush Gang — that is, the 1840s and 1860s. These were the Markham Gang and the Ridout’s Bush Gang, respectively. The groups resemble and differ from one another in the level of sophistication of their operations and information available about them.
The Markham Gang
The Markham Gang was formed by 1841 and, like the Brooke’s Bush Gang, enjoyed a relatively short existence which was ended by several high-profile trials involving violent crimes. As the name suggests, the group focused their activities to the north and east of Toronto. Its origins have been linked to the 1837 Rebellions.
The membership and function of the Markham Gang were an interesting subject. Gang members were young, often related to each other (in prominent local families) or neighbours. Unlike the Brooke’s Bush Gang, which seemed to be more of an amorphous group of desperadoes and unfortunates, the Markham group was comprised of rich, well-to-do men — which made their tendencies toward burglary more curious. Members were sworn to secrecy by oath to protect each other. The Markham Gang also operated in a very distinct way to its later counterpart. First, the group was quite sophisticatedly organized with leaders and prominent members. The gang posed as ‘avant couriers’ who would conduct reconnaissance on their future victims — noting where money was located in houses and their occupants’ activities.
There are two defining events in the history and end of the Markham Gang: (1) the robbery and assault of John Morrow and family and (2) the murder of William McPhillips.
The first case occurred in the Morrow home on the night of November 7, 1845. This was the year the gang gained the most notoriety and began to be reported on almost regularly by The British Colonist. The Morrow household was located in Reach Township, near the hamlet of Jockey Hill (now Epsom) halfway between Uxbridge and Port Perry. Just after midnight, Hiram and James Stoutenborough, Nathan Case, and Robert Burr violently entered the home and began wielding clubs while demanding money (the Morrows had sold some livestock earlier that day). John Morrow was repeatedly beaten and left badly injured.
In the subsequent arrest and two trials (Burr was charged separately from the others as a ringleader), all were found guilty and sentenced to hang. These were commuted to life sentences at Kingston Penitentiary, but they were released and pardoned by 1853, long after the gang ceased operations.
In the second, the William McPhillips killing occurred in Logan’s General Store in Markham on November 20, 1846. It was deduced that someone entered the store and struck McPhillips viciously on the head while he was working. Among the identified culprits were Stephen Turney who was arrested and tried successfully for murder. He was hanged in June 1847 in Toronto.
Other criminal activities took place in Whitby, Vaughan, Pickering, Sharon, and other nearby localities. Although the methods differed, much like the Brooke’s Bush Gang, they were often larceny involving money, watches, grain, and livestock. From 1845 to 1846, other members of the gang were arrested and tried for varying crimes to varying results. The end of the gang was likely spelled by several members being dead or, if still alive, mostly jailed, eventually returning to society and distancing themselves from their criminal pasts after their served terms.
The Ridout’s Bush Gang
The first mention of Ridout’s Bush was in June of 1859 when members of the Brooke’s Bush Gang were found in another ‘bush’. A group of “unfortunates” consisting of Maria Reid, Mary Sheppard, Catherine O’Brien, Harriet LeGrasse, Mary Martin, and Ellen McDonald were “charged with conducting themselves in a disorderly manner in the bush in the rear of Mr. Ridout’s residence, head of Sherbourne Street”.
The events had Sergeant Major Cummings receiving word of what was happening behind Ridout’s home and proceeding to the area with a posse of constables to apprehend the girls. In court, one of the captured girls, Reid, defended that she was just “out for a walk for the good of her health” when they saw some boys catching birds. What followed was a humourous exchange with laughter in the courtroom in which Sergeant Cummings asserted to the Magistrate the girls were “notoriously bad characters.” Reid replied how can they be bad characters if they are in gaol all the time where they can’t have any mischief. The episode ended with a sentence of one month gaol (although the Magistrate added that it probably wouldn’t help) and the prisoners left “laughing and jeering”.
John Ross Robertson noted in 1894 in an anecdote about another “historical sketch” that “Ridout’s Bush” was now Sherbourne Street. The naming of the street and the bush both relate to the Ridout family, who from 1818 owned Park Lot 4 — consisting of the modern borders of Sherbourne Street to Ontario Street and Queen Street to Bloor Street. The lot seems to have been subdivided into thirds with different Ridout members holding ownership at different times. The 1858 Boulton Altas of the area indicates two marked Ridout houses (to a T.G. Ridout and J. Ridout) and a third at the head of Sherbourne which may refer to the house in the 1859 episode with the Brooke’s Bush Gang. The area from Sherbourne to Bleecker Street, north of Carlton Street (which corresponds to the western third) is illustrated in a grassy motif. In 1845, Thomas Gobbs Ridout donated a 30-foot wide strip of land which straddled his property and the adjacent property to the west. It was initially called Allan’s Lane (William Allan was the adjacent owner) and, by request from Ridout to honour his family’s birthplace, was changed to Sherborne (without the ‘u’). Allan’s Lane was a grassy road with a wagon trail in the middle and straddled the pasture to the west and the bush to the east.
The next time Ridout’s Bush seems to appear as a locale for disorderlies was in May 1862. It was noted in The Globe that following the final Hogan trial and execution of James Browne in March, the Police disbanded the Brooke’s Bush Gang. “Depredations” in the city had been reduced since then. Some persons, including some formerly belonging to the gang, began to gather in Ridout’s Bush, and like in their former hangout, began to behave “in a very unbecoming manner”. A posse of constables visited the bush and apprehended Catherine Dunn, John Wiley, and Edward Finagan, charging them with disorderly conduct. In a subsequent court appearance, the women were charged with 30 days in gaol and the men were discharged.
The Ridout’s Bush Gang’s antics seemed to continue into the next years, although references were sparse in the historical records. In May 1863, police arrested members in the bush in connection to a robbery near the Blind Tollgate at Bloor Street and Dundas Street. A woman approached a travelling victim and invited him back to the bush with her, at which point he was surrounded and “requested money” to buy a drink. He attested he had little money and was subsequently attacked and robbed of his coat which had seventy-five sovereigns (British pound sterling). There was no direct mention of the idea at the time, but the action resembled the tendencies of the Brooke’s Bush Gang.
Commenting on the episode, The Globe did warn:
“This gang is becoming quite notorious, and if it be not soon completely broken up and dispersed, will, in all likelihood, finish its career by some scheme of villainy equal to that of the late Brooke’s Bush party.”The Globe, June 1, 1863
In July of the year, two men and four women were arrested for robbing hen roosts and disorderly conduct; one man was fined and the others sent to gaol for a month. In September 1864, police stopped “a band of ne’er-do-well’s” who “were holding high carnival at Ridout’s Bush, near Sherbourne street.” They found seven persons in “the midst of the riotous mirth” and “their conduct was disgraceful in the extreme”. Four women and three men were arrested and sentenced to hard labour in gaol.
The Ridout’s Bush Gang seem to disappear in the historical records after the fall of 1864. Their activities while akin to the Brooke’s Bush Gang did not seem to reach the level of notoriety of the more eastern-situated group. Also, the Ridout’s Bush Gang, unlike the Markham Gang and the Brooke’s Bush Gang, did not have a high profile trial pertaining to a violent crime which led to their end. While no record points to any possibilities towards their disbandment, it may be that the group quietly ceased their mischief.
The similar activities and timeframe between the Brooke’s and Ridout’s Bush Gangs, as well as the possibility that one gang was an offshoot of the other, led to some subsequent reporting that may have confused the two. In 1920, a Colonel Grassett, born 1847, recalled in The Globe that “Ridout’s Bush, above College Street” was a “pleasant place” for young persons “in long ago summers”. He did, however, distinguish it from “the black pine woods east of Sherbourne Street”, which were to be avoided. Grassett noted there were a lot of robbers and people in them. He also recounted how the gang murdered Mr. Hogan, although he seemed to have them confused with the Brooke’s Bush Gang. It seems like The Globe may have also made the mix-up as well when they reported that “trinkets and valuables” from the Brooke’s Bush Gang were found while tearing down a home at the corner of Carlton Street and Homewood Avenue in 1924; the site was written to be the shanty headquarters of the gang. The house was located on the sizeable lot of former Homewood Estate, which was located on the west side of Sherbourne Street opposite Ridout’s Bush and may explain its association with the latter gang.
The Markham Gang, Brooke’s Bush Gang, and Ridout’s Bush Gang paint a very interesting picture of organized crime in and around Toronto in the mid-19th century. While the nature of the crimes between the three groups were quite similar, their execution, scale, and frequency differed. The first group was a complex and layered gang with pre-meditated crimes and secret oaths. The second was an amorphous collection of individuals with a great frequency of thefts and assault. The third gang had the least presence of the three. Both the Markham and Brooke’s Bush Gangs were associated with significant violent crimes. The Brooke’s and Ridout’s Bush Gangs operated in similar fashions and may have been tied together. All three seemed to have a short existence of less than ten years, but their stories are notable aspects in local history.
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