I REACHED the Corners that night and obtained legal
authority to release Colin, also a constable and a warrant for Wasby’s
arrest on a charge of abduction. We set out next morning at daybreak. As
we approached the Wasby clearing, on which the shanty stood, I noticed
smoke rising above the treetops. I quickened my steps, and in a moment
found myself in sight of the shanty, which had been almost reduced to a
mass of charred logs.
About the scene stood a group of awe-stricken settlers,
whose faces betokened great agitation. I was informed that the shanty had
caught fire in the morning, during the absence of Wasby, who had gone to
the bush at daylight to fell trees. According to his statement, when he
returned for his breakfast he found the house burned, and in the cellar he
discovered the charred bodies of his wife and children.
Colin, then, had perished. My poor, poor Eleanor! How
could that bruised reed bear this! I felt damned forever that I should
have been so near at hand and yet have failed to avert this calamity.
"Where is Colin’s body?" I asked.
"Oh, Colin’s not dead!" exclaimed several neighbours standing about.
"The little lad was saved."
"Colin not dead!" I cried, scarcely comprehending the words.
"No, the boy is alive and well, and is now at Dooley
the blacksmith’s. The good wife took him home," was the answer I received.
Before leaving the tragic scene we thoroughly examined
the surroundings. The bodies of the unfortunate victims were frightfully
charred, and on the blackened walls near the fireplace, which had not
fallen, were finger marks, which some of the spectators thought were made
by the victims in trying to escape.
I could see by the remarks dropped by the men that
there was no suspicion of foul play in their minds, and I resolved to say
nothing for the present about the scene in the shanty the previous
The shocking tragedy, as might naturally be expected,
created a profound sensation in the settlement, and for that matter
throughout the entire colony, for nothing so frightful was known to have
occurred before in Upper Canada. No doubt the grewsome details were
exaggerated in proportion to the distance from the scene; but only those
who have lived in a country place can appreciate the nature of the
impression made by such an event. This impression was deepened into horror
when the sequel became known; and to this very day there are hundreds of
homes in which the old people relate the story to awe-stricken young
people. The event became a landmark in the popular calendar, and the year
of "The Burnin’" was remembered like the year of the "Big Storm," the year
of the "Great Plague," or the year of the "Big Flood."
I found Colin safe in Mrs. Dooley’s house. Singularly
enough, he was sound asleep when I reached there. Doubtless, on his
arriving at a quiet haven, excitement had given way to the weariness
caused by days of ill-usage and nervous strain.
When the child awoke, the effects of his stay with the
Wasbys were still only too obvious, yet we gladly found that with good
treatment his former health would soon be restored, and he would be ready
in a week or so for the fatigue of the journey to England.
Fate, however, interposed. Two days later Mrs. Dooley
told me that Colin had been repeating some strange words. "Come and hear
him for yourself," she added.
We found him in the yard near the back door playing at
piling up the sand, and talking to himself: "Jerry till (kill) Mammy.
Jerry till Johnnie. Jerry till Betty. Jerry till Willie."
Then he would pause a moment or two and go over the
recollection again. Sometimes he would mention the instrument with which
the act was accomplished, as for instance: "Jerry till Mammy wif ‘e stick.
Jerry till Betty wif ‘e stick. Jerry till Johnnie wif ‘e stick."
Mrs. Dooley exchanged significant glances with me as we
listened to the boy, and a dreadful possibility began to dawn upon us
both. It could not be that the boy was soliloquising idly. "Jerry" was
Wasby’s Christian name, by which his wife addressed him, and we knew that
Colin would have heard the other children calling Mrs. Wasby "Mammy." The
other names he repeated were those of some of Wasby’s children who were
victims of the terrible tragedy.
After we had listened to Colin, we concluded that it
would be well to interrogate the child. He replied: "Jerry did till Mammy,
and Jerry did till Betty, and Jerry did till Johnnie," and so on, going
over the entire family.
The impression that had been slowly dawning upon me
that a frightful crime had been committed became a terrible conviction, as
I listened to Colin’s words.
The authorities deemed my suspicion too horrible to
admit of belief, but they were completely aroused, and it was determined
to make a thorough examination of the Wasby premises.