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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The infamous, bloody 1817 duel at the corner of Yonge & College

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In 1781, William Jarvis got shot. They say it’s probably the best thing that ever happened to him. Before that he was just an ordinary soldier, one of tens of thousands of Americans who stayed loyal to the British and fought on their side during the American Revolution. But when Jarvis was wounded during a battle in Virginia, he caught the attention of his commanding officer. And that commanding officer just so happened to be John Graves Simcoe, the man who would soon be running all of Upper Canada as our first Lieutenant Governor. When Simcoe decided to build a brand new capital on the north shore of Lake Ontario, one of his first steps was to give a bunch of free land to men he knew from his fighting days. Men like William Jarvis.

That’s how Jarvis ended up in Toronto. He was given some property at Sherbourne and Adelaide, along with one of the hundred-acre “park lots” just outside town — it was where Jarvis Street is now, in a strip running between Queen Street and Bloor. In return, all Jarvis had to do was to move here with his family, build a road around his property, and totally suck at being a government administrator.

When you read anything about William Jarvis, the same kinds of adjectives keep popping up: “inefficient and careless”, “incompetent and corrupt”, “incompetent, lazy, selfish and dishonest”. Even in early Toronto — a town rife with selfish officials — he and his wife Hannah had a terrible reputation. They complained about everything: William once tried to challenge four men to a duel all at the same time; Hannah called the rest of the city’s ruling class “a lot of Pimps, Sycophants and Lyars.” They were also one of the very few Toronto families who owned slaves.

Their son Samuel followed in his father’s footsteps. As a young man, he fought with the British against the Americans in the War of 1812, and then relied on his connections to land a cushy government job. He settled down to a life of scandal and financial impropriety, just like his dad. And like his dad, he made lots of enemies.

One of them was John Ridout. The details of their feud are a bit sketchy, but it seems like Jarvis probably owed the young law student money. He owed a lot of people money. What we do know for sure is that one day in the summer of 1817, Ridout came to see Jarvis at work and got thrown out of his office. Soon after that, they were fighting in the street. That’s when Jarvis challenged Ridout to a duel.

They met at dawn the next day in a meadow, at what’s now the south-east corner of Yonge and College. Once they and their seconds had agreed to the rules, Jarvis and Ridout drew their pistols, turned their backs on each other, took eight steps, and then waited for the count: one… two…

Ridout fired early. And missed.

At first, there was confusion. No one was quite sure what to do, what the rules and honour dictated. But they eventually came to a decision: Ridout would return to the spot where he’d fired his gun so that Jarvis could take a free shot. Which he did. The bullet hit Ridout square in the chest.

According to the autopsy, Ridout died pretty much instantly, but by the time the authorities arrived, Jarvis and the seconds were telling a different story. They claimed Ridout had lived just long enough to forgive them and absolve them of all responsibility. The ploy didn’t work: Jarvis was arrested and charged with murder.

Luckily for him, there were still plenty of people in those days who thought firing guns at each other while standing a few meters apart was the proper way to settle a dispute. Plus, the Jarvises were a powerful family. And so young Samuel was acquitted.

But the controversy was far from over. The duel haunted him for years, and would end up playing an important role in the politics of Upper Canada. A decade later, his enemies were still using it against him. By then, William Lyon Mackenzie — a liberal newspaperman — had moved to town. He loathed the Jarvis family and the other anti-democratic, pro-monarchy Tories who ran the province. He nicknamed them the “Family Compact” and used his paper, The Colonial Advocate, to criticize them at every turn. To him, the duel and the murder trial were examples of the special treatment the members of Toronto’s ruling class gave themselves. He called some of them demons, some of them jackals, some of them fungus, and Samuel Jarvis a murderer.

Jarvis was incensed. He rounded up a group of his friends, dressed them in “disguise” as First Nations, and then attacked the Colonial Advocate’s office on Front Street, which was also Mackenzie’s home. The newspaperman was out of town; his family hid in the basement. Mackenzie’s entire operation was destroyed: his printing press broken, the typeface thrown into Lake Ontario.

But the Types Riot backfired. Mackenzie sued the vandals, won, and then used the money to fund an even bigger operation. His newspaper continued to argue in favour of democracy and against the Family Compact. Meanwhile, Jarvis was forced to defend himself in pamphlets with catchy titles like “A Contradiction of the Libel Under the Signature of ‘A Relative,’ Published in the Canadian Freeman, of the 28th February, 1828; Together with a Few Remarks, Tracing The Origin of the Unfriendly Feeling Which Ultimately Led to the Unhappy Affair to Which That Libel Refers”.

Mackenzie, of course, would go on to become one of the most famous figures in the history of our city. Within a few years, he’d been elected as Toronto’s first Mayor and led a failed revolution in the name of Canadian democracy and independence.

Jarvis was there the day Mackenzie’s army marched down Yonge Street — he fought for the government side and won. But the victory was short-lived. Soon, democracy would come to Canada anyway and the power of the Family Compact would fade. By then, Jarvis had already been forced to resign in disgrace from his position as the head of the Indian Department. He, like his father before him, was being accused of corruption and incompetence. In the end, he had to sell off the Jarvis family’s park lot in order to pay his debts. Their home was demolished to make way for the street that bears their name. Beyond that, Samuel Jarvis is mostly forgotten.

There is, however, one place where you can still find a reminder of his infamous duel. At the entrance to St. James Cathedral, there’s a gravestone mounted on the wall. It reads: “In memory of John Ridout… Filial affections, engaging manners and nobleness of mind gave early promise of future excellence…but a Blight came and he was consigned to an early Grave on the 12th day of July 1817, aged 18. Deeply lamented by all who knew him.”


A version of this post originally appeared on The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog.

Image: portrait of William Jarvis and his son Samuel — on display at the Royal Ontario Museum.



  1. It’s not like Mary Jarvis was necessarily wrong about the rest of the ruling class, though.

    It should be pointed out that there is a separate branch of the Jarvis family, led by William Botsford Jarvis (a cousin). He was sheriff of Toronto and in command when the 1837 rebellion was crushed.

  2. No matter how much things change they always stay the same.

  3. Love these stories. More please!