The Mysterious Mr. Henderson

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Part 3: Secrets and lie

For a few years in the 1830s, it looked as if the momentum for change lay with the Reformers. They were increasing their presence and influence in the Legislative Assembly, and men like John Henderson were hard at work promoting attractive innovations, such as the secret ballot in elections, the end of the Clergy Reserves and the power of the Anglican Church in Upper Canadian politics. It seemed all was going their way, until, that is, a new Lieutenant Governor arrived in the province and entered the fray on the side of the conservatives.

Francis Bond Head was an arrogant man of strong opinion and without any diplomatic background. Once an election was called in 1836, he quickly entered the fray by printing thousands of flyers in which he simply stated: “The people of Upper Canada detest democracy; they revere their Constitutional Charter; and are, consequently, staunch in allegiance to their King”. In his memoirs, Bond Head interpreted this statement most clearly. What he had asked the voters was: “Do you vote for the House of Assembly or for Sir Francis Head?, which amounted in plain terms to this, Are you for a republican government or are you not?

As each voter had to state aloud, in front of their employers, ministers and neighbours which way they were voting, this clarion call to reject the Reformers worked extremely well, and they found themselves in a minority in the Assembly. This was too much for many extreme reformers, led by the journalist-politician, William Lyon Mackenzie, and they took up arms in York (Toronto) in one brief and hopeless night of agitation. Some died, and the Reformers were seen as disloyal, American-loving republicans, opposed to the King and the country.

John Henderson, so far as we know, was not involved in Mackenzie’s sad adventure, though, as we saw in the first installment, he was soon writing from exile in Ogdensburg, seeking to join Mackenzie’s plans for invasion of Upper Canada. Was it the Rebellion that led to his departure from Kemptville, or was there some other factor involved?

We do know that there were a good number of residents of Kemptville at the time who supported Mackenzie, who visited the village on at least one or two occasions for public meetings. Henderson refers to those meetings in his letter. He says that he was not introduced to Mackenzie then, “as I was almost a stranger there at the time”. But he went forward with Milo McCargar to guard the wagon from which Mackenzie addressed the people. By December, 1837, John Henderson was calling himself as one of “us poor refugees”.

Henderson says that his business partner, Baxter Bowman, “by devious and fraudulent transactions…extracted” the whole of his estate, amounting to around £3,000, some time around August, 1836. He was, he says, labelled “an infamous Rebell…driven from the Country by those Sainted hipocrits”.

But this happened, he says, almost six months before Mackenzie’s rebellion, so could there be another story here? Henderson and Bowman owned 3.5 acres at what is now Curry Park, where they had a thriving, prosperous merchant store. Then, in December, 1836, after Henderson says he was defrauded by Bowman, they sold the property to one, Albert Wallace, for £540. The very next month, Wallace sold the property back to Bowman only, for the same amount, £540. What happened to Henderson’s share?

In July, 1838, Bowman sold the property again, and again it was to Wallace, for the much greater figure of £1,000 – a very large increase in value in one year. Then something stranger happens to the property: Wallace sold it to Peter McGill in 1839, though no price is mentioned. However, in 1842, we find Bowman selling the same land to Peter McGill, this time for £1,500. John Henderson had lost out on a very successful, albeit shady piece of real estate transactions.

But by then, the mysterious Mr. Henderson had left the stage of history, his ultimate destination unknown.

But the events in which he played such an interesting role in the little village of Kemptville had ramifications that lasted long after he was gone from the scene. The property at Curry Park, worth so much in 1842, was mortgaged for only £150 in 1848, sold again in 1852 for just £230, and finally sold for taxes in 1893 for just $6.50. Nor did the fellow-republicans of John Henderson all disappear with him: their legacy remains in one of Kemptville’s most historic buildings.

Next: Part 4: The legacy

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