Monday, August 29, 2011

Bill Johnston: 14. Feted in Prison, Released, Accused of Robbery

Following Bill Johnston's arrest at the hands of Captain William Vaughan in December 1838, Johnston awaited trial in an Albany, New York, jail cell. His faithful daughter Catherine (Kate), 19, moved into his cell to provide company, carry messages (she freely came and went) and attend to his needs. Theirs is an early example of celebrity incarceration.

Thanks to newspaper accounts of Kate's heroic efforts to avoid the British patrols as she took supplies to her fugitive father the summer before, Kate was as famous as her Bill. Together, they entertained an unending list of journalists, dignitaries and well-wishers. Kate reportedly turned down several marriage proposals from well-to-do admirers.

One newspaper account from January 26, 1839 reads in part: "He holds a sort of involuntary levee in his prison every day. People flock to see him, especially strangers. He is certainly a very respectable person in appearance; but there is a restlessness in his manner with a tremulousness in his eyes and an indisposition to look you honestly in the face, which gives a very unfavorable impression.

"His daughter, the adventurous girl of the Thousand Islands, is here also—the lioness of the hour. She was in the Senate Chamber the day, the object of course of much curiosity. I am also informed she attended a ball the other evening and was well received."

Bill's jailers provided privileges usually reserved for the rich and famous. Visitors came and went. In his scrapbook, he recorded the names of 84 people who donated money to help sustain him in prison.

On January 29, 1839, he attended, under police escort, a fund-raising benefit held in his honor in Albany. He appeared at another benefit March 5 in Auburn, New York, escorted only by Kate, through the journey was two days each way.

Not everyone spoke or wrote favorably of Bill. On the coach ride to Auburn, a journalist traveled part way with them. In his report, he wrote, "If Bill Johnston is not a pirate, he 'swears like one' at any rate and wears that sunken, degraded and cunning look which would condemn him anywhere justly or otherwise."

In the mid-April 1839, the court granted Bill bail. While he visited friends in New York City, Kate went home to Clayton. At the end of the month, Bill returned home and ordered new boats to be built in Cape Vincent. With winter over, spring on the river proved too strong a lure: he declined to return for his court appearance.

Royal Mail Robbed

While many of the men who helped Johnston burn the Sir Robert Peel were bona fide Patriots, a few were examples of the vagabonds and lawless breed of men who inhabited the islands in that era.

On April 24, 1839, a long and lightweight rowboat, painted bright red inside, pale red outside and decorated with black stripes, landed in a hidden cove near Gananoque, Upper Canada. In it were two of Johnston's crew, Robert Smith and John Farrow, accompanied by another ne'er-do-well named Washington Kelly.

As darkness fell, they ambushed the mail rider, Maxwell Greenwood, on his way to Kingston. With a gun pointed at the rider's chest, Kelly said he was Bill Johnston and ordered the rider down. (Greenwood had met Johnston and saw through Kelly's lie.)

The bandits tied Greenwood to a tree and departed with the horse and the mail bag containing ₤191. Greenwood wiggled free and went to the nearest farmhouse for help.

The British complained about the robbery to American authorities. Investigators suspected Kelly, Smith and Farrow but had no proof. But when the three started to spend money that everyone knew they could not honestly possess, that sealed their fates. Kelly, Smith and Farrow were arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned in New York State.

Several newspapers, especially on the Canadian side of the river, speculated that Bill Johnston was behind the robbery. While the boat used by the robbers matched boats used by Bill, he had not returned from New York by that point.

On August 9, 1839, Kelly, Smith, and Farrow escaped from jail and returned to the protection of the Thousand Islands. They were never recaptured.
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