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Great Canadian History

The Bloody Rebel Hat of John St. John - 1837

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

The Bloody Hat Mystery: Recently at an auction of an old estate in Brantford, Ontario, we came upon a tantalizing historical mystery.

It was the estate sale of John St. John, who during the 1880s, was the Speaker of the Province of Ontario's Parliament in Toronto, ON. Among his furniture, photos, and effects, was an old black top hat.

It was however an extremely old top hat, not one used in the late Victorian period. It's condition and design dated it to a much earlier period, probably the 1820s or 1830s.

It was moth-eaten in places and so attracted next to no interest among bidders, who could plainly tell there was no resale value in this dilapidated old hat.

But we wondered, why would John St. John have kept a hat in such condition into his old age?

Why would his descendants have kept it in the family, so long after his death? Why not have thrown it out decades ago?

What family lore - that had now died out with the last descendant - had kept it in storage, among prized family effects, for well over a century and a half?

John St. John's Bloody Rebel Hat, c 1837
Orig. top hat c 1837
Found - Brantford, ON
Property of John St. John estate, possible blood-stained interior and with possible bullet hole.

The Bullet Hole?
In checking the hat more closely, we noticed that by far the largest moth hole (above at the front near the crown, and left) had a different shape. It almost looked more like - could it actually be - a bullet hole? There was only one, so it could not have been the result of target practice. It also was ovoid in shape suggesting the bullet came in at a strong angle, either from above, or below. Which also explains why there was only one entrance or exit hole. If the bullet had come from the same level as the wearer, there would have been two holes. But was this the entrance or the exit hole?

Looking inside the hat, we noted four whitish cloth straps hanging down the four sides of the crown. The two straps nearest/beside the "bullet" hole were irregularly splotched with what looked like large spreading blood stains. The straps opposite the hole had no staining whatsoever. What was the connection between the hole and the stains? It gave rise to conjecture.

The Blood of a Loyalist?
Surmising that the stains (left with stitching of crown at top) were blood, and that they belonged to the person who was wearing the hat at the time they were made, we moved on to the next step.

Did the bullet hit the hat or the head first?

If the highly angled shot hit the hat first, it would have had to come from above - not really very likely anyway in the days of log cabins and flattish countryside of Southern Ontario - and would probably have knocked it off before the bullet had exited the head causing stains. It is much more plausible that the shot came from below and so had to hit the head first, and only then the hat.

When a bullet hits a head it makes a small, relatively bloodless hole. But the exit wound on the other side is large and blood spatters out freely.

Scenario 1 goes like this: bullet enters hat from above, enters head with small hole, exits head on far side of head spattering blood against the hat on that side.

Scenario 2: bullet comes from below, enters head with small entrance wound, travels upward and exits with blood spattering occurring all around the place where the bullet now passes out through the hat.

The staining in the hat supports the second scenario because the stains were not on the side opposite the hole, which is where the blood stains should be if the hat had been struck first, entered the head and exited on the far side causing stains there. So the bullet could only have come from below, hit the head first, exited the far side, staining the white straps on that side with blood, and lastly hitting the hat and going out the top of the crown, and finally knocking it off.

Since the bullet exit hole is in the very front of the hat, the bullet would also have had to come from behind.

So, we have a bloody 1830s top hat, with one bullet hole indicating that the wearer was shot from behind and below, with probably fatal consequences, turning up among the personal effects of a late-Victorian, long-gone Speaker of Ontario's House of Parliament.

A Great Canadian Mystery Solved?

When one connects all the dots, one possible explanation covers all the bases.

John St. John was the Speaker of the House in 1880s Ontario. Probably more than any other man, he would have been the custodian of the "History of the House." Like many men in his position, he was probably more than a little passionate about the history and traditions of the chamber of which he was the overseer.

The most exiting and turbulent period of the history of the Ontario houses of Parliament, after the War of 1812, was during the Rebellion of 1837. The entire city of York (later Toronto) was in an uproar as hundreds - some said thousands - of armed and angry rebels were reputed to be on the march to capture the Parliament and throw out the pro-British "anti-Canadian" faction. Everyone in government was frightened beyond belief of losing life and limb to the "rebel hordes." The Governor and cabinet took refuge in a ship off the port of York.

The Gallant Col. Moodie: The rebels were keeping their movements secret as they gathered around Montgomery's tavern (Yonge & Eglinton). Col. Robert Moodie was a strong loyalist from Richmond Hill who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars and in the War of 1812 at Lundy's Lane, Fort Erie, and Sackett's Harbour. He wanted to warn the Government in downtown York of the rebel plans. He galloped by the checkpoint at the rebel headquarters in the Tavern and refused warnings to stop. Shots rang out.

A contemporary litho shows a formally attired Col. Moodie being being shot from his horse. His top hat goes flying as his head snaps back.

Ultimately the revolt fizzled, and two men were hanged in downtown York, becoming the two most famous political executions in Ontario history. No one was ever tried for Col. Moodie's death. In the melee at the Tavern there were just too many men who could have done it.

But Col. Moodie remained a gallant hero in the folklore of the Province, and was the most eminent man of the few who died keeping Ontario safe from the "seditious attacks of US inspired rebel farmers." In fact so important was this event - and the sacrifice of Col. Moodie - considered to be by the people loyal to the Queen, that the litho (left) is one of only two or three pictures John Charles Dent saw fit to include in his voluminous two volume History of the Rebellions of Upper Canada. The books were published during the same period as St. John was Speaker of the House. He would have read them avidly.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
John St. John, c 1888 (detail)
Orig. photo c 1888 - Image size 6" x 10"
Found - Brantford, ON
From John St. John estate, orig. frame & glass

The Mystery Explained? It all fits: the hat and the period; the bullet hole and blood stains; the bullet trajectory from below - by someone on foot shooting up at a rider; the shot fired from behind (Montgomery's Tavern, from which the rebels spilled out into the road as Col. Moodie galloped south and away from them was on the west side of Yonge Street); the contemporary picture of the event showing the dress and hat of Col. Moodie; and the hat surviving 160 years and turning up among the treasured effects of an early Speaker of the House, John St. John (left, from the same auction, an original photo of him from c. 1880). Moodie's hat would have been a wonderful keepsake in a period when everyone tried to get souvenirs (skin, hair, cloth, etc.) of people hung, executed, or shot. No doubt there was a mad scramble to get a souvenir of this cataclysmic event in the life of ordinary farmer patriots. One can almost hear the excited rebel who grabbed first and fastest: "E'res the 'at belonged to that spy Col. Moodie we shot! Look! E'res the bullit hole did it. An the blood o' that traitor too!"

At first, tucked away secretly in a trunk by some farmer as a final act of rebellion, it was probably hauled out to show "trusted" patriots whenever drinking and socializing took place, far into the night, and far from the eyes of the authorities.

Years later, when tempers had cooled somewhat, John St. John probably heard of the hat during idle chatter about those tempestuous days of yore. He may have asked to see it, and then asked to keep it as Speaker of the House, to safe-guard it as an important piece of Ontario's history for future generations.

But it probably reminded people on all sides of the hatreds that split generations of patriots and loyalists into steaming factions. Better to tuck it away out of sight. We were building a province, thinking about the future, were we not, not fighting the old feuds? Why not just take it home John - keep it for yourself?

In his old age, pestered once again by his grandchildren and their friends to see it, one can almost hear John St. John reciting, "Yes! This is the gallant Col. Moodie's very hat. See here, there's the blood stains and the bullet hole. A great tragedy that befell a good man. Remember him. He died to safeguard Ontario. A loyal servant of the Queen who paid with his life."

The descendants of those children have now passed away and the last of the estate sold off.

It all fits. But is it true? It costs $500 to verify the stains as blood. Donations graciously accepted?