The Gustaff Beer-Poisoning Case!

Oh, gentle readers, do I have a story for you. It’s a story of attempted murder, an international manhunt, incompetent criminals—and yes, beer.

The year is 1865; the place, Toronto. Alexander McKinnon runs a bookshop. In July, he decides to advertise for an agent, and eventually hires a man named George Gustaff.

So far, so normal. Until you realize that Gustaff and his pal, known only as “Davis” are passing themselves off as doctors and running practices. They’re often seen around town together and known as “Doctors Gustaff and Davis.” Although it seems Davis might be a slightly more legitimate doctor—there is a listing in the 1865 Toronto City Directory under “Physicians/Surgeons” for an Arthur Davis, living at 41 Adelaide St. East. This is right at the corner of Bay and Adelaide, which tallies with a witness statement later on in this story.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Point is, Gustaff and Davis are using their medical reputations to buy drugs without suspicion.

Also, Davis is apparently a doctor specializing in “private diseases.”

Yeah.

*cough*

So in September 1865, Gustaff invites McKinnon to the London Exhibition. McKinnon says no. Then Gustaff invites McKinnon on a fishing trip, suggesting that “[McKinnon] should bring the eatables and he should bring the drink.” McKinnon declines this invite as well.

Fast-forward to October 3rd. Gustaff and Davis go to Brummel’s druggist on King Street East and purchase some Prussic acid. You may know this chemical better as hydrogen cyanide. It is colourless, smells of almonds, and it is extremely poisonous.

And apparently used in nineteenth century medical practice. Gotta love those Victorians!

This neck of the woods: King Street East, ca. 1856. (Courtesy the City of Toronto Archives.)

Acid in hand, the duo go to McKinnon’s office and check out a family Bible. Davis says he’ll have to ask his wife before buying it. Gustaff then tries to purchase a ten-cent bottle of ink with a ten-dollar bill. McKinnon says, “No worries, it’s not worth making that kind of change. Just pay me next time.”

“No, no,” Gustaff answers. “I’ll—uh, I’ll throw this 25c thermometer in, too!”

(I may be paraphrasing.)

Anyway, McKinnon then opens the safe to make change, and Gustaff says, “Whoa! You got a lot of money in there!”

(Still paraphrasing, but seriously, it was like $200 in bills.)

Taking directly from McKinnon’s eventual statement, he then continued, “As you are so flush, you should treat to a bottle of ale.”

McKinnon says sure, so Gustaff runs off and comes back a short time later with a bottle and a tumbler. The bottle’s cork won’t come out, so they break the bottle’s neck (which was a legit method back then), spilling most of the beer on the floor. “Have a glass,” Gustaff says, twirling his mustache diabolically.

(Okay, okay, I don’t know if he had a mustache, but he ought to have.)

“Why bother?” says McKinnon. “There’s hardly any beer left in the bottle now.”

“No, no, I insist.” Mustache-twirling intensifies.

And so the beer is poured. McKinnon wraps a package; Davis tries out their new ink. Eventually, McKinnon takes a mouthful of beer and realizes, “Whoa, this is bitter!”

Not the good kind of bitter, either.

Immediately, he feels dizzy. Suspecting he’s been drugged, he tries to run down the stairs, but collapses insensate at the bottom. Davis and Gustaff clean out the bottle and then pass directly by him, heading off for a celebratory drink at Gregor’s saloon.

It just occurred to me that nowhere does it say whether Gustaff and Davis actually stole the money after poisoning McKinnon, or if they abandoned their mission.

In any case, McKinnon comes to, his stomach burning. Pretty much everyone assumes he’s drunk, but he manages to drag himself to the Sergeant-Major of Police. There, he explains that he’s been drugged with poisoned beer.

Like this guy, but worse!

A manhunt ensues! Davis remains in the city, but Gustaff flees to the United States, apparently leaving luggage and unpaid hotel bills will-nilly behind him. By the end of the year, he’s arrested by J. Eustacio, of the New York Metropolitan Police. And to top it off, Gustaff has been going under the alias Dr. Swift.

Gustaff might itself be an alias. He’s not in any census records.

But wait! This is happening in the US now! To face trial in Canada, he must be extradited back to that country!

“Case under the Extradition Treaty,” The Globe, December 1st, 1865.

After a little finagling (the American judge wasn’t wholly convinced of the legal authority of the first batch of papers), Gustaff is extradited on February 6th, 1866. He’s first arraigned on March 22nd, 1866, but two witnesses don’t show (of course), so the trial is postponed until April.

And then –

Oh, and then –

Like, people are pretty sure he did it. Apparently, he went around to several people in the weeks before the poisoning, boasting that if he killed a certain man, he’d get $200. He also bragged about possessing a certain acid, “…one drop of which would kill a dog or cat; two drops, a man.” AND he talked about his failed attempts to lure McKinnon on a fishing trip.

He’s not really very good at this.

Plus, Robert Johnson, barkeeper at Gregor’s saloon, testifies that at 2:00 the afternoon of the attempted murder, Gustaff bought a bottle of ale “tightly corked, without either foil or wire.” (At that time, it was common for beer bottles to have a wire hood to help hold the cork in place, similar to what you see on champagne bottles today. In this specific incident, it’s a historical detail that makes me entirely too happy.) At the same time, he bought a glass tumbler.

Corked ale bottle from Black Creek’s collection. Note the “blob top,” very characteristic for bottles of this time period.

Suspicious much?

So the trial doesn’t really focus on whether he put something in McKinnon’s beer, but rather, what that something was. If it was really hydrogen cyanide, the defense asked, wouldn’t McKinnon have smelled it as soon as he raised the glass to his lips? And if Gustaff really put a full drachm (roughly a teaspoonful) in McKinnon’s beer, wouldn’t that mouthful have proved fatal?

The beer’s alcohol might have impeded the poison’s efficacy, the prosecution argued. Same for the apple McKinnon had eaten shortly before. You know what they say: an apple a day keeps false, murdering doctors away. Or something like that.

Anyway, to the surprise of exactly no one, Gustaff is found guilty and summarily sent to Kingston Pentitentiary.

“York and Peel Assizes,” The Globe, May 1st, 1866.

“It was a thing almost to make one shudder,” writes the Globe, “that they [Gustaff and Davis] came to McKinnon’s to purchase a family Bible, in view of their subsequent proceedings.”

And that, my friends, is such a Victorian response that my vision just turned sepia.

We are quite amused.

So there you have it: a case of attempted murder in 1860s Toronto that centered on a glass of beer. To embark on such crime, Gustaff must have been an… (wait for it, wait for it) Extra-Special Bitter.

BAM.

On a slightly more serious note, this thrilling tale marks my final entry for the Black Creek Growler. Since 2013, it has been a wild ride. We’ve had some good ales, shared some good tales, and I’ve loved every sip of history. Thanks for everything, beer-lovers. You’ve been wonderful companions on this journey.

Also, the specialty brew for December is our Winter Warmer (amber ale, coriander and orange peel notes), and the brewery closes until spring on December 23rd, 2017.

All my best to you. Now, all together, one last time:

To Queen and Country!

– Katie

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“They Drank Beer Because the Water Wasn’t Safe” …OR DID THEY?!

Beer-Lovers, let’s have a chat.

When I was in the Black Creek Brewery, I often received the question, “Did Victorians drink beer because the water was unsafe?” I’d like to spend some time answering that question.

The short answer is, “In Toronto, the water was often unsafe, but that didn’t actually link to beer consumption very much.”

Let’s start at the beginning.

Toronto, 1850s-1860s. Yes, indeed, the water is not terribly safe to drink. Until the 1870s, the drinking water supply was handled by private companies. As you can imagine, they were mostly concerned with profits, and so sometimes let matters of safety slide. Most drinking water came from private wells, which was fine unless they got contaminated. Animals were slaughtered throughout the city streets, and their offal tossed in the sewers. Animals’ manure ended up in the sewers as well. So did untreated human waste. And where did these sewers empty?

Into the bay.

Toronto, 1851. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.

An article from The Globe, simply entitled, “The Cholera,” describes Toronto’s water situation thusly:

“The water used in Toronto is a byword through the Province. Thick and cloudy with feculence, it is unfit for human use until purified. No one who can possibly afford it should be without a filter to strain the impurities they are compelled to drink. Crystal clearness instead of yellow decoction of dead plants and animals, must be a blessing to any one”

The Globe, November 2, 1857.

Well, then.

So, yes. In 1860s Toronto, the water was not always safe to drink.

However.

Remember that germ theory was still developing at this time. In England, Dr. John Snow had established a connection between cholera and contaminated water in 1848, but his work wasn’t entirely accepted until later in the century. Louis Pasteur’s experiments in killing bacteria through heat (i.e. pasteurization) didn’t get rolling until the early 1860s. Obviously, Victorians linked filth and sickness. They knew the water wasn’t safe. They likely didn’t entirely realize the mechanism of why.

In fact, The Globe provides helpful tips on cholera prevention:

“Make a city clean; purge it from every foul smell, bury its reeking corruption, cleanse its drains permit no stagnant cess-pools; make it in fact what decency and common comfort demand, and cholera will pass along our streets harmless…”

The Globe, November 2, 1857.

Get rid of the ick; you won’t get sick!

An 1866 article is still preoccupied with the water quality—it suggests that allowing a more abundant supply might help flush the city’s pipes and keep everything cleaner. However, it also has good advice for disinfecting water.

Namely, these include solutions of hypochlorite of soda, lime, and “Condy’s fluid” (solution of alkaline manganates and permanganates—you could drink it, or use it like Windex!). These solutions could be poured into cess-pools and chamber-pots. Cooking/drinking water ought to be filtered through charcoal; you could burn a little wood in your hearth at night to encourage air flow.

Still sick? Placing iodine in a box or “in the ornamental cases on the mantle or shelf of a room” was thought to disinfect it. They suggest taking 8-10 grains of sulphite of magnesia when cholera is rampant. And most importantly, protecting one’s self from waterborne diseases by practicing “perfect sobriety” and avoiding all employments which “exhaust nervous energy.”

In other words…no one is suggesting an alternative to water. They’re trying to find ways to make it as safe as possible. In fact, the exhortation for sobriety (immorality = disease, obviously) directly contradicts any notion of drinking beer in place of water.

Indeed, there are calls from this time period for more drinking water. See these letters to the Editor talking about the joys of public drinking fountains—so people can have an alternative to beer.

The Globe, July 6, 1863

 

The Globe, October 24, 1862

 

Look, beer tastes nice. It has calories. Small beer gives a mild buzz (which Victorians assumed was a stimulant effect). Given the choice—without my modern knowledge of health and the effects of alcohol—I’d probably choose the beer too.

So the water in mid-Victorian Toronto wasn’t always safe. But the response does not seem to have been, “Break out the beer.” Rather, the city seems to have reacted by trying to make the water supply safer. Their beer consumptions seems driven by reasons other than health concerns. As they say in the sciences, “Correlation does not equal causation.”

To Queen and Country!

Katie

Half Way House’s Doors: Doors Open Toronto 2017

Hello, Beer-Lovers! Guess what?

Doors Open Toronto is this weekend! In keeping with 2017’s sesquicentennial celebrations, this year’s theme is Fifteen Decades of Canadian Architecture, highlighting each decade of Canadian history since the 1860s…along with a few buildings from before Confederation!

That’s us! Yes, Black Creek Pioneer Village is once again participating in this annual cultural event, and most of our buildings date from the first half of the nineteenth century. The brewery was built in 2009, but it’s located in the Half Way House, which was originally built ca. 1847/48.

The idea of doors is an interesting one to apply to the Half Way House. Since our inn has seen many different owners and purposes, one can’t help but imagine how many people have walked through its doors…

There is the front door, of course—once used by travellers taking the stage coach route along Kingston Road. At the time of Confederation, those thirsty travellers would have been greeted by Mary and Alexander Thompson: the inn’s original owners.

F.F. Passmore did many sketches and surveys of Scarborough in the 1860s. The Half Way House is visible at right (north is down). Courtesy the City of Toronto Archives.

And let’s not forget the taproom’s side door, for patrons who may have accidentally had one too many.

The Half Way House, ca. 1918. (Courtesy: Toronto Public Library)

In 1872, the Thompson children—James and Delilah—left by that door for the final time. Following Alexander and Mary’s respective deaths in 1867 and 1872, the Half Way House was sold to a man named Ignatius Galloway.

By that point, the Grand Trunk Railway had mostly replaced travel along the Kingston Road. Thus, the people passing through its door likely would have been locals and boarders renting the upstairs rooms. However, Galloway did add an extension featuring a kitchen on the ground floor and a ballroom above—one hopes revellers came through the doors as well, eager for a night’s dancing!

A fine-looking group, ca. 1901 (Courtesy: Toronto Public Library)

In the early years of the twentieth century, the Half Way House was a popular rendezvous for a local bicycling club—invigorated friends, breathlessly chatting as they trooped through the front door for a break.

The Half Way House, ca. 1912. Can you spot the bicycles on the porch? (Courtesy: Toronto Public Library)

By mid-century, the Half Way House’s doors had changed greatly. It was subdivided into two stores, the doors constructed where our taproom and parlour are now. Still heavy traffic, I’d imagine, but customers rather than guests.

The Half Way House in 1952. (Courtesy: Toronto Public Library)

There was a time when no one passed through its doors…

Then in 1966, the Half Way House was moved to Black Creek! Its doors (and the rest of the building) were restored, once again ready to welcome travellers and guests—of history!

The Half Way House Inn: home of the Black Creek Historic Brewery.

And since 2009, a steady stream of beer-lovers has passed through the Half Way House’s front door to the brewery sheltered in its basement.

So there you have it: the history of the Half Way House, told through its front door. Come be part of the story this weekend as you enter the building for yourself. Last entry to the village will be at 4:30 pm both Saturday and Sunday, so come early to avoid disappointment!

To Queen and Country!

Katie

 

Interview with Robin LeBlanc: Beer Writer

Hello beer-lovers!

Welcome back to another installment of our interview series! This week, I am thrilled to welcome Robin LeBlanc to the Growler. Robin is a respected beer expert and reviewer, talented writer, and all-around awesome person. You may recognize her name from her blog, The Thirsty Wench, from Twitter (@TheThirstyWench), or from The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, which she co-authored with fellow beer expert Jordan St. John.

And guess what??? A new, second edition of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide releases May 20th! Packed with nearly 100 new breweries, this book promises a comprehensive survey of the Ontario craft scene. I’m stoked for its release, and I was very glad the chance to chat about the book with Robin!

Without further ado!

KT: We’re always keen on origin stories! Can you tell us how you got into craft beer?

RL: I got bitten by a radioactive brewer, and…
No. That’s a lie. What really happened was I was in a friend’s apartment in 2007 and their roommate brought over a bottle of Chimay Première, a Trappist dubbel and shared some of it with us. Considering the most adventurous with beer I had been at the time was a pint of Guinness, I can safely say that I experienced an explosion of flavours that were earth-shattering. Dark fruits! Caramel! A subtle alcohol burn! From then I was hooked. I started going to the original Bar Volo with friends, which then led to picking up books on beer, which then led to starting a blog about beer, and that ended up with being a columnist and author on beer. It’s amazing how much it just escalated.

 

KT: The Ontario craft beer scene has exploded over the last number of years; what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen?

RL: Well the big one is that there is no more craft beer out there. As you said, the Ontario beer scene has exploded and we’re seeing more and more breweries pop up every WEEK in areas both urban and rural. The great thing has been seeing the places outside of the city fully embrace craft breweries opening in their area because it adds to part of their identity. So really that’s the biggest change, where we are now at a point where one could take a weekend trip to almost anywhere in the province and chances are really good you’ll be able to visit many breweries throughout.

KT: Researching “The Ontario Craft Beer Guide” was an impressive undertaking! Were there any surprises along the way?

RL: There definitely were! In doing research we would get to as many breweries in the province as possible and more often than not I found myself in small areas getting a feel for the context of which the brewery makes their beer and the local inspiration that drives them. Places like Sleeping Giant in Thunder Bay, or New Ontario in North Bay, and Haliburton Highlands in Haliburton. All breweries that are shaped by the places they call home.

KT: And finally, what can readers look forward to in the second edition?

 RL: A more massive book than the first one, for sure. We’ve completely expanded and revised this second edition, revisiting many of the breweries from the first edition and adding nearly a hundred new breweries in the book, with ratings for over a thousand beers. On top of that we have chapters covering the history of Ontario beer, where to purchase the beer, and Ontario ingredients. We’ve also expanded the suggested pubs list from 50 to over 100, showing all the great places in this province to get a decent selection of local beer. And finally, we have colour pictures, giving a nice visual representation of Ontario beer.

*

Robin, thanks again for sharing your time with us! Remember, you can pick up your copy of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide on May 20th – a perfect start to the long weekend!  Here’s to many more fantastic beers ahead!

To Queen and country!

Katie

We’re (Almost) Back!

Greetings, Beer-Lovers!

This is just a quick note to remind you all that Black Creek Pioneer Village’s 2017 season begins on Saturday, April 29th, 2017. It’s Canada’s 150th birthday, and we are ready to party like it’s 1867!

Check out the Black Creek website for a whole slew of special events happening this year, and make sure to see our Canada Day event details on Facebook! And of course, we’ll have new programming and activities rolling out throughout the season!

Photo de Black Creek Pioneer Village.
Did someone say, “Historic trades and activities, History Actors, musicians, animals, Discovery Stations, Pioneer Day Camps, and more?” I’m pretty sure someone said ALL of that! 😉

Down in the brewery, Ed has also been preparing. I won’t give too much away right now, but rest assured  – we’ve got the sesquicentennial well in hand!

And if your stocks of historic beer are a little low after the long winter – well, you can always swing by the brewery to pick up more historic brew. Ed will be back brewing on weekends, so feel free to come say, “Hi!”

Getting excited? So are we – so until Saturday, here are some pictures we love.

Coming through the hop garden one summer morning.

 

Our beautiful mill…
Photo de Black Creek Pioneer Village.
Our campers having fun!

 

Hard at work!

 

Our lambs are skipping!

 

And of course…

To Queen and Country!

Katie

The Red Lion Inn: An Early Local Pub

Welcome, beer-lovers! This week at the Black Creek Growler, we’re delving into another chapter of Toronto’s beer history: the Red Lion Inn!

You can’t get very far into researching Toronto taverns without running across the Red Lion. It was built somewhere between 1808-1810 by Daniel Thiers. Like Black Creek Pioneer Village’s Stong family, Thiers was of Pennsylvania German origin, settling in Upper Canada in the late 1700s.

The Red Lion, ca. 1888. (courtesy Toronto Public Library)

The Red Lion sat on Yonge St, just north of modern-day Bloor (near the Toronto Reference Library today). When Thiers built the Red Lion, the area was still quite undeveloped—Toronto grew largely northward and westward from the lake. However, it was already an important crossroads: Davenport, Yonge, and Bloor were all established travel routes, and seemed likely to become even more heavily-travelled as the young city grew.

The inn itself was always large: its façade was about 100 feet along Yonge St. As wings and extensions were added, it eventually encompassed a two-acre site—including its outbuildings and yards. And of course, it had a sign emblazoned with a red lion rampant.

The bar area: 1912 painting based on an 1888 sketch. (Courtesy Toronto Public Library)

In the early days, the Red Lion served as a stopping point for travellers, particularly for farmers taking their goods from Holland Landing to York. An 1808 advertisement states Thier’s intention to open a public house, selling, “…[the] best strong beer at 8d, New York currency, per gallon, if drank in his house, and 2s 6d New York currency if taken out.”

(A few things to note about this: first, we can see the absolute mishmash of currency that pervaded the colony during this period. Second, takeaway beer is more expensive than beer drunk in-house—perhaps a tactic to get patrons to settle in, order more pints, and eventually take a room for the night?)

In his Landmarks of Toronto (1894), publisher-politician John Ross Robertson imagines what the Red Lion Inn might have been like: “…bronzed farmers, patriotic reformers, intriguing politicians, bright eyed girls, and spruce young men—all classes that made up the society of York and its environs.” Contemplating the ballroom, he writes, “Perhaps here many a maiden breathed that wonderful ‘Yes.’”

The ballroom, ca. 1888. (Courtesy Toronto Public Library)

While his tone is a touch sentimental—even by Victorian standards—it’s clear that he considered the Red Lion Inn a focal point for the community. Indeed, it proved to be the nucleus around which Yorkville developed (ably assisted by Joseph Bloor, as we learned here).

In addition to facilitating socialization, the Red Lion also played an important role in civic life. It was used for polling and political debates, and Reformers met there frequently through the 1830s—including William Lyon Mackenzie itself. After his expulsion from the legislature in 1831, a by-election was held at the Red Lion Inn. Following the vote, a triumphant Mackenzie greeted his supporters in the ballroom, receiving a medal and making a speech before leading a procession into town.

But alas, the good times could not last forever. The Temperance movement did not treat the Red Lion Inn kindly. After a series of struggles, it closed in 1892. Two years later, Robertson wrote, “Most of the characters who figured in the Red Lion’s history have gone over to the great majority, and soon the old inn will follow the course of all mundane things.”

The Red Lion Inn, ca. 1885. (Courtesy Toronto Public Library)

Sadly, he was right, for no trace of the Red Lion remains today. Yet it remains in memory, “The Most Famous Hostelry in the Annals of York.”

To Queen and Country!

Katie

PS. Keen for more? You can read a digitized version of John Ross Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto here!

Colonial Williamsburg and Eighteenth Century Beers

What a ride!

Once again, your trusty beer journalist has gone international! Last week, my colleague Blythe and I spent a wonderful few days exploring Colonial Williamsburg. Depicting the city of Williamsburg just prior to the American Revolution, Colonial Williamsburg is one of the largest and oldest living history sites out there. Our time was not nearly long enough, but it was most entertaining and improving…

…and we got to sample some eighteenth century ales!

Displaying FullSizeRender.jpg
We may have taken some home, too…

We’ve discussed Colonial Williamsburg’s brewing on this blog before. Essentially, Colonial Williamsburg does not brew itself—at least, not for public consumption. Rather, they partner with Alewerks Brewing Co, a microbrewery in Williamsburg, VA.

(Colonial Williamsburg is separate from, yet still part of, the actual city of Williamsburg. Imagine dropping Black Creek Pioneer Village where Toronto’s Distillery District currently sits.)

So, Frank Clark, master of historic foodways at Colonial Williamsburg, adapted three eighteenth century ales. The original three beers were the Old Stich (a brown ale), the Dear Old Mum (a golden ale flavoured with coriander and grains of paradise—almost a Belgian Wit), and Wetherburn’s Bristol Ale (a lighter brown ale, a little hoppier). Since then, they’ve added Toby’s Triple Threads (a very nice porter).

Of course, learning about eighteenth century Virginia’s beer scene made me wonder about Toronto’s. What was happening with 1770s Toronto brewing?

The answer is…not much.

Remember, Colonial Williamsburg is set almost a century earlier than Black Creek. While Jean Talon established the first Canadian brewery in 1668, there weren’t many other large breweries until later. In fact, John Molson didn’t set up shop in Montréal until 1786—a good three years after the American Revolutionary War ended.

Map of the Toronto Purchase.
Map of the Toronto Purchase.

But here’s where the histories intersect. After the war finished, newly landed Loyalists were settling on land recognized as belonging to the Indigenous populations. Since Governor-in-Chief Lord Dorchester needed somewhere to put these Loyalists, he began negotiating the Toronto Purchase.

In 1787, the Mississaugas of the New Credit exchanged 250,808 acres of land (most of current Toronto) for various goods and money. However, they understood the deal as not so much purchase as land rental. Thus, the Toronto Purchase was renegotiated in 1805, though a land claim settlement was not reached until 2010.

In any case, the site wasn’t even surveyed for town planning until 1788…which explains the dearth of breweries. I can’t imagine there was much of a market. 😉

So, if there wasn’t much beer scene in 1770s Toronto, what were Williamsburg’s brews like?

They’re not too dissimilar from Black Creek’s, really. Like our summertime Best Bitter, they are brewed with East Kent Golding hops. That said, the hop character is very muted, as per the style of the time. Though all were flavourful and well-balanced, the Triple Thread porter was my favourite, with hints of molasses and licorice.

And of course, the beers were served in stoneware mugs, which I’ve never actually experienced before. I was entirely too excited!

Photo de Katie Bryski.

Thanks, Colonial Williamsburg! We’re sure to return soon!

-Katie