Monday, August 15, 2011

Benjamin Lett: 1. Begins His Personal War

Throughout the Patriot War, the majority of Patriot and Hunter raiders tended to follow rules of engagement on par with their British enemy. That is, they behaved as soldiers, not murderers. While the British called them pirates and brigands, they were no more or less prone to abuses on the battlefield than the Upper Canadians. There was one notable exception, Benjamin Lett.

Lett (November 14, 1813-December 9, 1858) was born County Kilkenny, Ireland, to Samuel Lett and Elizabeth (Warren). They immigrated to Lower Canada in 1819 and settled in Chatham Township near the Ottawa River, northwest on Montreal.

In September, 1824, Samuel died from a fall, leaving his widow and seven young children. In 1833, Elizabeth moved her children (consisting of Benjamin, Robert, Thomas, Elizabeth, Anne, Maria and Sarah) to a farm in Darlington Township on Lake Ontario, east of Toronto.

Benjamin Lett took up the Reform banner in the 1830s, but did not start out as a rebel. Like many Canadians who supported William Lyon Mackenzie, he became radicalized after the rebellion by loyalist gangs in Upper Canada, usually referred to as Tories or Orangemen, who terrorized Reform sympathizers while the government turned a blind eye to their thuggery.

Lett, himself an Orangeman, refused to join them in their marauding and was in turn set upon and fled Canada. Legend has it, and it may be apocryphal, that Lett's hatred of the British solidified into rage after loyalists shot one of his brothers and sexually abused a sister.

Lett did not march on Toronto with Mackenzie in December 1837, but became an early volunteer in the Navy Island occupation. Historians list him as one of the handful of Patriot casualties. Whatever his wounds, they were minor.

Various sources described Lett as 5 feet 11 inches tall, rather slim with sandy hair and whiskers. He had a ruddy and freckled face, light-skin, and light blue eyes that were remarkably penetrating. His hands were large and muscular with long, round, very white fingers. Many published accounts state Lett wore four pistols and a Bowie knife hidden under his coat.

After the abandonment of Navy Island in January 1838, Lett journeyed west with Donald McLeod. Lett joined the rebel brigades that occupied Fighting Island and Pelee Island. After both defeats--Lett's third frustrating campaign--he turned from soldier to terrorist.

Aside: Some historians state that Lett helped Bill Johnston burn the Sir Robert Peel. There is no evidence of that connection.

Lett Settles a Score

Lett harbored a grudge for the British burning of the Caroline, and he made it his personal business to avenge that act. Late on November 15, 1838, while all eyes were turned to the siege of Hunters near Prescott, Upper Canada, Lett and two accomplices crossed the Niagara River by boat from Navy Island. The next morning, they knocked on the door of Captain Edgeworth Ussher's home. Ussher had piloted Captain Andrew Drew's fleet of boats during the attack on the Caroline.

Ussher awoke and sleepily opened his door. Seeing armed men he slammed the door. Lett fired his pistol through the door's sidelight, killing his victim instantly with a ball in the heart. Lett's gang returned to the United States.

Sir George Arthur posted a reward of ₤500 for Lett and demanded that the American government capture and return the murderer. The comeback from New York Secretary of State, John C. Spencer (January 8, 1788-May 17, 1855), was priceless. He replied he would hand over Lett if Arthur first agreed to turn over Colonel Allan MacNab and Captain Andrew Drew for the murder of Amos Durfre.

By that point, the British had already knighted Colonel MacNab for the Caroline raid that killed Durfre--a fact Spencer must surely have known.

Arthur would later have more reasons to post rewards for Benjamin Lett.
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