Murder on the Not-so High Seas

Bedeque Harbour in 1841 from a chart by Capt. Bayfield. Note that Summerside does not yet exist and the wharf shown is at Green's Shore .

Bedeque Harbour in 1841 from a chart by Capt. Bayfield. Note that Summerside does not yet exist and the wharf shown is at Green’s Shore .

The Capture of the Perpetrator

When the Island Steam navigation Company’s steamer St. George left Charlottetown for Pictou on the second of November 1844 she had on board a couple of extra passengers who had been charged with a dangerous and urgent task.  A week earlier an altercation between one William Hiscox, the captain of an oyster boat called the Dart, and officers of the law has resulted in shots being fired leaving one constable, Harry Green, slightly wounded, another man, Isaac Scales struggling for his life, and a third, George Tanton, dead.

On Board the St. George were  T. Heath Haviland and John Morris who had been dispatched to Pictou to see if any news was to be had of the oyster schooner which had fled from the scene of the tragedy. It had last been seen when it closely escaped a night-time collision with the steamer St. George on her way to Miramichi a few nights earlier and the expectation was that it had escaped and was well on its way to the Gut of Canso or some other safe harbour. Haviland and Morris were to make inquiries at ports up and down the strait but there were many places in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick where the Dart could be hiding.

However, as the Morning News and Semi-Weekly Advertiser reported it appeared that “the hand of Devine Providence was pointed at the arrest of the offender and that a more severe punishment should not at present overtake him; but that he should be placed before the justice and mercy of the civil law.”

No sooner had the St. George cleared Point Prim when a suspicious boat was seen and confirmed to be the escaping villains. The St. George’s Capt. Mathewson came close aboard and ordered the vessel but it dodged back and forth in front of the steamer heading for shallower water where the St. George could not follow. To prevent this it was decided to go aboard the sailing vessel, ramming her if necessary. Given warning of the plan Hiscox replied “If you do I shall go down with her.” Finally the St. George was able to dash into the Dart and carried away the smaller boat’s main mast. Haviland jumped aboard and seized Hiscox and another man found on board. They were taken onto the St. George and secured.  The steamer then proceeded to Pictou and the next day returned to Charlottetown with the English mails and the prisoners aboard and the Dart in tow.

Oyster Scarcity, a Boarding Party, and death in the Bay

In the first half of the nineteenth century the oyster fishery was a profitable one but without re-seeding techniques it was also fragile. Overfishing could wipe out beds and exhaust the supply. Worried about the  need to supply the local market in 1843 the Island legislature passed legislation limiting the exportation of oysters to quantities of less than 10 bushels. At the time Bedeque Bay was a prime location for harvesting oysters.

The following year found a Halifax Oyster Schooner, the Dart in Bedeque harbour. On reports she was buying oysters in excess of the limits, a boat with a constable aboard was dispatched  to board her but he was warned off.  Seeking more force to arrest the schooner’s captain the boat returned later with the Under Sheriff of Prince County, a Justice of the Peace, two constables and two other men aboard.  Shots rang out as the row-boat neared the schooner and three of the boats passengers were wounded, one of whom later died from his wounds.  With no local constabulary the nearest force was in Charlottetown and after a hurried ride to the capital a ship’s boat from the Survey Vessel Gulnare with an armed party was sent to Bedeque on a somewhat futile mission as they were unable to find the Dart which had fled in the darkness.  Given the size of Northumberland Strait and the number of available ports the chance encounter between the Dart and the St. George almost a week later was indeed a slim possibility and a matter of luck.

Trial and Resolution

Island newspapers were quick to convict Hiscox for what the Morning News called a “Daring Outrage” and the Islander took consolation from “the fact that the perpetrators of this vile and inexcusable act are not inhabitants of the Island.”  In order to deal with the matter in a prompt fashion the court issued a hasty commission of Oyer and Terminer for Prince County for 3 December 1844 but even in the short period between arrest and trial some doubts were beginning to creep in.  The Halifax Times suggested that Hiscox was unaware that he was taking oysters illegally and that those attempting to arrest him acted unlawfully.

At the trial there was colourful testimony about the events of the fateful day but as the trial progressed Hiscox’s skillful lawyers, Charles Binns and Charles Young were able to introduce evidence and argument undermining the oyster legislation itself as well as the right of the constables to board Hiscox’s ship.  Although Hiscox had been indicted for murder the jury returned a manslaughter verdict and he was sentenced a three years hard labour.  About a year into the sentence he escaped and was rumoured to have had made his way to Boston.

Sources

Several PEI newspapers in December of 1844 provided detailed information concerning the trial evidence. The matter is also noted in John Mollison’s chapter on the history of Prince County in Warburton and MacKinnon’s Past and Present on Prince Edward Island.

 

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