Marion (Peg-leg) Brown
A Case of Murder!

London, Ontario

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On June 24, 1898, a murder took place in London, and all that was left atpegleg2.jpg (37847 bytes)
 the crime scene was a black slouch hat and a dead body. Immediately, a nation wide search began for the killer.

It all started when a watchman for the Grand Trunk Railway, named Mr. James Ross, noticed a tramp with a wooden leg walking down the railway tracks. Since this was a violation of the Railway’s rules, Mr. Ross followed him and called out to the man. The tramp responded by giving Mr. Ross a blow that was so powerful that he was knocked unconscious. The peg-legged man then continued on his journey. Fortunately for Mr. Ross, some of the other workers witnessed the incident, and hurried to assist their fellow worker.

Before long, the police had a description of the tramp, and their search for him began. They were on the lookout for a man with a wooden leg and a soft black felt hat. Constable Michael Toohey, of the London police force, was hot on his trail. After walking for five blocks on foot, at about 9:30 p.m., he approached the corner of Ontario and Elias Streets. Here, he spotted and confronted his suspect. Constable Toohey had anticipated a struggle, so when he found the tramp he asked a boy named Charley McIndoe to go to the nearest house and ask for help. Constable Toohey then approached the peg-legged man, who refused to be arrested. The peg-legged tramp pulled out a 38-caliber gun and fired two shots at Constable Toohey. The first shot was aimed at his heart, but Constable Toohey was saved by a silver watch that was in his left breast pocket. Determined to escape, the tramp fired again, and this time the shot entered Toohey’s forehead, killing him instantly. There were no witnesses to the murder. The black hat left at the crime scene satisfied both the citizens and the police that the same man who had assaulted Mr. Ross was now wanted for murder.

It didn’t take long for the story of Constable Toohey’s tragic death to be spread across town. Several hundred concerned and frightened citizens emerged at the crime scene. Although everyone wanted the criminal to be brought to justice, the citizens were afraid to encounter such a violent criminal. The surrounding area was searched at once, but the peg-legged man was either too clever, or too speedy to be caught.

peghead.jpg (8554 bytes)Soon, a more detailed description of the peg-legged man was circulated. The wanted man was between 35 and 40 years old, approximately five feet, eight inches in height, with a heavy build, and a dark complexion. He had a moustache, short black curly hair, and wore dark clothes. Of course, the peg-leg on his left leg was the most distinguishing feature of the suspect. It was generally believed that his peg-leg would make it easy to identify and capture him.

The search continued, but there was no sign of the peg-legged tramp. The police refused to give up their search and soon, anyone found with a peg leg became a suspect. Chief Williams, of the London police force, instructed officers that every tramp in the country, who matched the description of their suspect, was to be placed under arrest. Telegraphs were used to communicate these instructions, along with the description, all across the province. One man was arrested in Simcoe, on June 28, and when police officer P.C. Ralph brought the suspect back to London, more than 100 people were at the train station awaiting his arrival. By June 28, six suspects had already been locked up on suspicion of murder, but none of them turned out to be the right man. The peg-leg tramp was still on the loose. Detectives, police chiefs, officers and citizens were all on the look-out for the peg-legged man. Their efforts, however, went unrewarded.

On June 29, a $500 reward was offered for the capture and delivery of the suspect to any police station in Ontario. The reward was announced because the Crown attorney Mr. Magee and Mayor Wilson both felt that "the man who would take such a desperate character was deserving of substantial remuneration" (June30).

On July 11, The Daily Free Press reported that the 15th peg-legged tramp had been arrested and released. The police were unrelenting in their search, and people were arrested "from Montreal, in the east, to St. Martins, Minnesota, in the west" (July 11).

Eventually, the police tried to keep any arrests quiet, in order to avoid other officers giving up their searchers for the peg-legged man. This was done because so many arrests had been made, and still, the man they were searching for avoided detection. It seemed like an endless pursuit for the police, and it was quite puzzling that the peg-legged man could escape a nation wide hunt for him. By July 27, between 18 and 20 suspects had been arrested and released, while three or four others remained in custody in different towns. It eventually became known that the suspect they were searching for was named Marion (or Maide) Brown; he also went by the alias name of Thomas Allen.

Can you imagine being wanted nation wide by police, having thousands of circulars and telegraphs, as well as nearly 700 letters sent out describing you? What if you were being searched for not only by officers, but by the general public as well? Imagine eluding all of this for three months, and having the disadvantage of a peg-leg to run from it all? Well, that’s exactly what happened to Brown. Circulars had even been sent to every place with a population of more than 150 in the United States.

On August 1, rumours were circulating that Peg-leg Brown had been captured and arrested in the United States. The only thing that was missing now, was a positive identification by a London officer that this man was the right suspect. Although the public was excited to speculate on finally catching Brown, the number of peg-legged men who had already been arrested and released made it seem as though they would never find the right man. The rumour was, however, strengthened by the presence of an American officer in London. Police Chief Williams was not about to raise any false hopes, and stated that "there were a number of peg-legs under arrest in the United States, but he could not say positively whether the right man was among the number" (August 1). To the surprise and disappointment of everyone, they had captured the wrong man again.

Altogether, 43 arrests had been made of peg-legs that matched Brown’s description. Brown did, however, have unique features that would positively identify him as the suspect they had searched so long for. Peg-leg Brown had a scar over his left eye, and another one on his thumb.

marshall.jpg (7252 bytes)Finally, on October 11, 1898, the Daily Free Press reported that a man who matched the description of their suspect was being brought to Canada from Washington Territory. Here, he was arrested by a United States Marshall named A. L. Dilley. The arrest had been made on September 24, 1899, at a theatre in Yakima, and Peg-leg Brown was then taken to the Seattle prison. While in Seattle, morphine and alcohol were allegedly smuggled into his jail cell, and he was removed from jail believing that he was going to be put on trial for the charge of selling liquor to Indians. This was apparently done because extradition proceedings were very slow, and now that they had captured Brown, the police wanted him quickly placed in a London jail.

mapwest.jpg (22427 bytes)Brown was brought to Vancouver by ship, where he was immediately arrested and charged with murder. The officers, aware of Brown’s history and success in eluding them, kept a close watch on him. During the train ride to London, Brown was handcuffed, and his peg leg was removed.

Leg2.JPG (15381 bytes)Although Brown managed to break one of his handcuffs, during the train ride back to London, he never succeeded in escaping. Detective Nickel described him with the statement that "of all the men I have ever handled Brown is the worst. He is not only possessed of phenomenal strength, but he can talk as smoothly as any gold brick swindler and at the same time act like a man who would not do the slightest harm" (Oct. 17). The police, after three months of chasing and searching for Brown, were not going to let him get away. Marshal Dilley asked for the morphine and alcohol story to be contradicted, when he arrived in Canada.

A report from Seattle stated that Peg-leg Brown had also murdered the city marshal in Georgetown, Texas on June 4, 1898, and then wounded another deputy sheriff who attempted to prevent his escape from prison. Reports were also circulating that while in Texas, Brown killed four people, and broke out of prison several times.

Peg-leg Brown arrived in the London jail between 10 and 11p.m. on October 15. Crowds gathered in London, anxiously anticipating the arrival of this notorious criminal. Much to the public’s disappointment, the police had expected Brown’s arrival to be a sensational event and therefore eluded the public by stopping far enough off, and taking Brown to the jail without anyone catching a glimpse of (6094 bytes)

When he arrived in the London jail, Brown trembled with fear and "had nothing to say except that his name was Marion Brown, and that he was 25 years of age, and a Texas cowboy. He simply smiled when told that he was charged with murder" (Oct. 17).

The citizens of London were anxious for justice to be served to this notorious criminal. In a preliminary hearing, on October 21, there was a crowd of spectators in the courtroom. Various witnesses testified in order to positively identify Brown as the man they had been searching for.

Mr. McPhillips, who was Brown’s defense lawyer, objected to the trial. Peg-leg Brown, he asserted, had not been properly brought before the court on the murder charge. His reasoning for this claim was that Brown was an American citizen who, at the time of his initial arrest, was charged with selling liquor to Indians. Furthermore, after being held in a Yakima jail for 15 days, Brown believed he was being taken to Seattle for trial. Mr. McPhillips concluded that the only thing Brown could be tried for then, was the initial charge of selling liquor to Indians, since he had not been properly arrested. Brown was also deprived of his rights in the Extradition treaty that existed between Canada and the United States. The response of judge Mr. Magee, however, was that Brown had been found and arrested on Canadian territory. Brown was not going to get off that easy! He was formally committed for trial on November 4, 1898.

The trial was open to the public, and between 300 and 400 spectators were present. Mr. Ross positively identified Brown as the man who had assaulted him. Brown pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the murder charge, and insisted that he was unprepared for his trial. Peg-leg Brown claimed to have at least 21 witnesses from Texas and Washington who could account for where he was from June (when he escaped from prison) until his arrest in September. Brown also insisted that it would not be a fair and impartial trial, since the public was prejudiced and biased against him, and ready to find him guilty before the trial had even begun. Brown claimed that "malicious and untrue statements have poisoned the public mind against him." Brown’s concern was a valid one; the court had a difficult time finding a jury because, from the reports that had been given, the majority had already decided that Brown was guilty.

Although Brown’s trial was postponed to allow him time to prepare his case, the court would not consider allowing Brown to escape from its hold, and be returned to Washington. The judge’s response to Brown’s allegations was that he had no valid objections, even if Brown had been brought to Canada by fraud. Also, there was no proof that Brown had been taken by fraud, since the American officers reported that Brown went by his own free will from the jail in Yakima.

CRTHOUSE.JPG (39423 bytes)Everyone who attended the courtroom to watch the sensational trial was astonished when, after the Crown lawyer had concluded his testimony against Brown, the defence lawyer stated that no evidence from witnesses would be given to support Brown’s plea of not guilty. Instead, Mr. McPhillips gave an impassioned speech on Brown’s behalf. He stated that the prisoner was thousands of miles from home, in a foreign country, and friendless here. He also argued that the wrong man was on trial, and the Crown was only determined to prove that Brown killed officer Toohey so they wouldn’t be disgraced because they hadn’t found the real suspect. He also insisted that no one had actually seen who killed Constable Toohey. Peg-leg Brown wept as this address was given to the jury. Mr. McPhillips continued his argument by stating that all of the information presented by the prosecution was circumstantial evidence. The Crown prosecutor, Mr. Lount, gun2.jpg (14931 bytes)agreed that he only had circumstantial evidence, but insisted that it was strong evidence, and was strong enough to convict Brown. Mr. Lount had called between 80 and 90 witnesses to testify against Marion Brown. He wanted as much evidence and support as he could find to prove that Brown was the man who killed Toohey, and to close the case with a conviction. Mr. McPhillips disputed the evidence that had been presented by the Crown by claiming that "not one man could show positively that the man who fired the shot at Toohey was Brown" (March 29).

The trial lasted for seven days, and on March 29, the jury returned the fatal verdict to the charge of murder against Marion Brown. The jurors gave a unanimous verdict of "guilty." Surprisingly, Brown received this verdict with a smile and, aware of the impending sentence, stated to the court that "an innocent man has been convicted" (March 30). Was Brown anticipating another escape? He was sentenced by Justice MacMahon to be hanged on May 17, 1899.

Although the trial was over, and the convicted man was in jail awaiting his penalty, the controversy about the case was just beginning. Mr. McPhillips had a petition signed by over 40 lawyers. They all believed that Brown was innocent and had been wrongfully convicted. Mr. McPhillips wanted either a reprieve, or a new trial for the condemned man. He claimed that after the conviction, several witnesses had given evidence that would have established Brown’s innocence. These witnesses hadn’t previously testified because they never believed that Brown would be convicted of murder.

Reverend Robert Johnston was also deeply concerned about the outcome of the trial, and asserted that Brown should never have been convicted of murder. He believed that when Brown shot Toohey, he was "under the impulse of fear or sudden passion" (April 11). He therefore believed that Brown’s crime "should not be placed in the same class as a cold-blooded premeditated and intentional murder for which the severest punishment within the bounds of the law should be reserved" (April 11).

Police Chief Williams held an opposing opinion. He stated that "Brown premeditated the killing of Toohey and every other person who might attempt to arrest him" (April 13).

As his fatal day drew closer, Brown sang, prayed, read scripture, and quietly wept.

Despite the controversy over the verdict and consequential sentencing, Hangman Radcliffe arrived on May 14 to erect the scaffold. The next day, a telegram was received by the minister of justice with the words "No interference: ExecutionBible2.jpg (10057 bytes) Wednesday" (May 16). Between 15 and 20 people were allowed to watch the execution. This number included officials, doctors, a coroner and newspaper representatives. Many others asked to be admitted, but the sheriff was opposed to making it a public execution. Even still, a crowd still gathered around the jail yard, but it was the smallest ever present at an execution in London. On May 17, 1899, at eight o’clock in the morning, Peg-leg Brown died as the words "Deliver us from evil" were said by the pastor (May 18).

Although Brown met death calmly, the hanging was a dramatic event. Immediately after Brown was dropped through the scaffold, a vivid flash of lightening was seen, and loud crash of thunder was heard. Reverend Dr. Johnston shouted as Brown fell to his death, "Oh God forgive us. Oh god, forgive our country"

Brown’s execution was the eighth in the history of Middlesex; the first had occurred in 1831. The graves of all of the prisoners who were executed were unmarked, and did not have tombstones over them.

The trial of Brown cost approximately $4,500 once the witnesses, jury, and hotel and traveling expenses were paid. Peg-leg Brown’s trial had been one of the most expensive trials in the history of Middlesex. Alderman McPhillips, (who was also Brown’s lawyer), stated regarding these enormous costs, "that reward I am going to fight tooth and nail. You can make provision for it in your estimate, but you will find we can knock a big slice of it off the bill" (March 31). It is doubtful that the reward was ever paid to Marshal Dilley for capturing the notorious criminal, Peg-leg Brown. In 1901, he was still trying to collect his promised reward.

The trial of Peg-leg Brown has continued to haunt Londoners, even after his execution. Marion Brown had allegedly stated that "Grass will never grow over my grave." In 1985, this prophecy was confirmed as Brown’s body was dug up for the expansion of the Middlesex County Courthouse parking lot. Brown had been right; layers of concrete and tarmac were all that had marked his grave.

Some people have also said that Brown’s ghost haunts the courthouse, especially at dawn every year, on the anniversary of his execution. A guard who used to work at the courthouse would tell the prisoners that the ghost of Peg-leg Brown could not rest until everything was quiet. Do you think Peg-leg Brown’s ghost is still there, haunting the place of his execution for over 100 years?

 * All information was taken from The Daily Free Press, between
June 25,1898 to March 30, 1899.

Researched and written by Karen Allen
The London and Middlesex Historical Society Summer Student 1999

More Information:
The London Room at the London Public Library has all The Daily Free Press papers on microfilm.