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During the elections of 1861, several serious disturbances occurred on the Avalon Peninsula, the most serious of which took place at the small community of Cat's Cove in the district of Harbour Main. This riot resulted in the death of one man and the injury of several others. The far-reaching effects of the riot were also of rather major importance. The Harbour Main return would prove to be a determining factor in deciding whether the Conservative party under Hugh Hoyles would post a victory over the Catholic Liberal party under John Kent. And it would also play a major role in causing the St. John's riot on May 1st of the same year. How did both parties stand in the election at the time of the Cat's Cove riot? Just what happened at Cat's Cove and what was the reaction to the outbreak? I shall examine these questions in the following pages and attempt to gain a better insight into the whole affair.
The election of 1861 saw the Liberal Party in Newfoundland struggling to stay alive against excessive odds. In the election of 1859 the Liberals, under John Kent received a total of eighteen seats, with the Tories under Hugh Hoyles receiving twelve. It was clear that with such a slim majority the Liberal party would need all the support it could get from Catholic as well as Protestant factions. However, Kent, unlike his predecessor Little, could not continue to draw this badly needed support from the two opposing parties. Nor could he whole-heartedly win the confidence of Bishop Mullock, a truly influential man at this time in Newfoundland politics whose support, as religious leader of the Catholic congregation, was vital to Kent. Though a veteran Liberal and office-holder, Kent seems to have been the victim of past compromises, parasitic supporters and an uncertain temper. Nor could he command loyal and true leadership of the party, being impaired by a rivalry for leadership with the speaker of the House, Ambrose Shea.
Within months, things started looking quite bad for the Liberal party. Due to overspending, its inability to curtail relief to the able-bodied poor and a lot of political patronage, the party began to lose face more and more every day. Finally, in June 1860, in a rather inept and unprecedented move, Bishop Mullock published a letter denouncing the Kent administration. In the letter he referred to the government members as locust-like officials and accused them of legalized robbery. This scathing denunciation by the Bishop made it clear to everyone, and to Governor Bannerman in particular, that the party was in great disarray and that unity within the party was virtually lost.
Mutual desire for the ousting of the Kent administration strongly suggests, though does not prove, collusion between the Governor and the Opposition for this end. Finally, the Governor got his chance when Kent played right into his hands in February of 1861 on the matter of salaries paid to judges. Bannerman dismissed the Liberal officials, after Kent had lost his temper in the House and accused the Governor of conspiring with the judges. Hugh Hoyles was appointed Premier with a minority government. It was in this state of disorder and disunity that the Liberals were forced to fight an election in the spring of 1861.
There was, however, no highly organized campaign. Contests were held in only four districts and in one of these the contest was between Liberal candidates. The Conservatives were returned by acclamation in all the districts they had formerly represented. The most troubled areas during the election were the districts of Burin, St. John's, Carbonear, Harbour Grace and Harbour Main. In Burin, a traditionally Liberal district, Hoyles and his colleague Edward Evans were returned without contest. It seems that the Liberals were unwilling or unable to incur further financial losses by a campaign in this district. The Conservatives seemed almost certain of a minimum of fourteen seats. All but two of the remaining districts had large Catholic majorities and the remaining two, Harbour Grace and Carbonear, had since 1855 voted Liberal, as did Burin, even though the majority of the electorate was Protestant. However, with sectarian bitterness at a height, one really couldn't tell for sure how these two districts would go in the election. If they voted as they had since 1855, the Liberals were assured of a majority. The importance of the voting in these two districts increased the danger of election disturbances.
At Harbour Main there were four Roman Catholic candidates for the two seats. But the riot that occurred here was much more serious than in any other area. The Newfoundlander for Monday, May 6, 1861, reports only briefly upon the occurrences in the Harbour Main district, apparently because news at this time was quite scanty and inaccurate. The paper says:
This paper, on May 9, expresses doubt that Messrs. Hogsett and Furey are actually elected at Harbour Main. The editorial declares the government's intentions to override the functions of the Legislature and to persist in refusing Harbour Main its representation because, whoever might be the members, their votes would be hostile to the present Executive. The Catholic Newfoundlander was naturally quite eager that Harbour Main not be robbed of its Catholic representation in the Assembly. In the Monday, May 13 issue there appears what they call evidence so conclusive that these men were duly elected. A letter appears therein from Mr. Patrick Strapp, the returning officer for the Southern division of Conception Bay in which he says: I do hereby declare that Charles Furey and George James Hogsett have been duly returned members of the House of Assembly...and I have publicly declared them returned accordingly.  This letter, a copy of one sent to His Excellency Sir Alexander Bannerman, the Governor, is dated Harbour Main, May 4, 1861. It is included in another letter from Messrs. Hogsett and Furey to the paper which gives reasons why they feel that they were elected. They declare that they made application to the Government to allow the Salmon Cove voters to poll at Harbour Main and were refused. They felt that had this been permitted, the murderous scene at Cat's Cove could have been avoided. They go on to give a more detailed account of what happened then has yet appeared in the Newfoundlander. They say:
How stands our case? Simply this: The Salmon Cove voters were peacefully proceeding to register their votes at Cat's Cove when they were met by a body of armed men who shot three of their number, and by barricade and murder, prevented their approach to the polling station.
They go on then to give reasons why they feel they were justified in voting at Harbour Main instead of at Cat's Cove:
... they accepted the more peaceful and rational cause of retiring from such a contest and registered, with the sanction and approval of the Returning officer, their votes in Harbour Main...
They further declared that the law requires the election be simultaneous and that there is nothing in the law, nor is there any power vested in the Governor or Executive to disenfranchise voters voting within a district. With reference to the above please with the sanction and approval of the Returning officer, witnesses Patrick Jordan and James Hackett declared that the Returning officer, Mr. Strapp, signed the certificate...without any threat or intimidation on the part of any person or persons....
Protest to the Cat's Cove incident came from all over, and a letter appears in the May thirteenth edition of the Newfoundlander from Bishop Mullock condemning the government for its handling of the situation and supporting the role played by the Catholic clergy in the affair. He says:
Surely, if there be any form of Government existing, four days would not be allowed to elapse without an inquiry into the shooting of seven persons. Justice demands an investigation, and the persons who fired the shots should either be declared justified by the circumstances or indicted as assassins.
Further details of the incident are given again in a letter from Messrs. Hogsett and Furey in the May 16 edition of the Newfoundlander. They report:
that on the day of polling the Salmon Cove voters, when proceeding peaceably to record their votes, were fired upon by thirty or forty armed men, a portion of the Cat's Cove voters. One of the supporters of Petitioners was shot dead and ten were very seriously wounded, owing to which and a barricade which was directed across the street or road, leading to the polling booth, the Salmon Cove voters were obliged to retreat and thirty-six of said voters registered their votes at Harbour Main...
In the Tuesday, May 7, 1861 edition of the Public Ledger this early and conflicting report of the Cat's Cove incident appears:
From Harbour Main accounts of most serious outrages have been received, resulting in the death of a Mr. Furey and we believe of a person named Meaney. It happens that on Thursday last a large body of electors were prepared to meet the supporters of Mr. Hogsett, who went to Cat's Cove, with Father Walsh, to oppose their favourite candidate. Shots were fired when fourteen persons fell, Furey to rise no more, Meaney died the following morning and some of the others were reported as dangerously wounded. Reports respecting the results of the Election are conflicting, but it appears that one of the poll books was destroyed and another represents a majority of votes in favour of Messrs. Nowlan and Byrne who were opposed to Messrs. Hogsett and Fury. This statement we believed to be substantially correct...
The editorial appearing in the Ledger on May 14, 1861, takes some exceptions to the reasons given here already of why Messrs. Hogsett and Furey felt they were duly elected at Harbour Main. Hogsett and Furey argued that if the thirty-six voters from Salmon Cove had been allowed to vote at Harbour Main that the murderous scene would not have occurred. However, the Ledger in turn agrees that Mr. Furey, the man who was murdered, was not a Salmon Cove voter, but a resident of Harbour Main and the mob who were fired upon were Harbour Main men; how, then, can they assert that had these voters been permitted to vote at Harbour Main the scene would not have taken place? The Ledger holds that the people of Cat's Cove had declared in writing their intention of permitting the voters of Salmon Cove to vote freely at Cat's Cove, but they would not let a Harbour Main mob enter the community and disrupt the elections. According to the Ledger, the Harbour Main mob persisted and the violent scene resulted. The editorial goes on to speak of the daring of Messrs. Hogsett and Furey who go about declaring their intentions to take their seats in the Assembly. Apparently they could not do this for Messrs. Nowlan and Byrne were to receive the majority of votes according to a letter in the Ledger from the returning officer Mr. Strapp who declares:
I am afraid of injury to my property and life for that I cannot make a return to this writ. Patrick Nowlan and Thomas Byrne have the majority of votes, leaving thirty-six votes out that were taken in the wrong place and in a separate list.
The explanation for this sudden change of heart by Mr. Strapp appears in the May 21 edition of the Ledger. A small paragraph states:
information was received in town on Sunday morning that the house of Mr. Strapp, J. P., the returning officer for the Harbour Main district, was destroyed, as well as his cattle and other property. A child was also missing...
Another letter in the Times of May 15, 1861, from Patrick Strapp further declares:
On this day (May 4, 1861) I signed a return written by Hogsett, which I was compelled to sign from threats made towards me that the lives of myself and family would be taken and my property destroyed if I did not do so...
Proof is also presented to show that the return of Hogsett and Furey was forced on Strapp. The poll returns are shown:
Much more information was given on the Cat's Cove event by the inquiry that took place from May 23, 1861 to June 21, 1861, before a select committee of the House to inquire into what occurred earlier that month. At these hearings several people testified who were among those to register their votes at Cat's Cove. The testimony of Father Kryan Walsh appears, who played a big part in the activities. He tells of leaving Harbour Main on the morning of the election with a large body of persons to proceed to Cat's Cove. Upon arriving at the Riverhead of Cat's Cove about a mile-and-a-half from the polling booth they met up with threats by an armed party warning them not to proceed any further. Father Walsh then proceeded toward the barriers and armed crowd in order to speak to them. He says:
I removed a sufficient portion of the barrier to get in among the crowd...I observed at the time a great degree of excitement amongst the armed party and I said to Brian (Mr. Edward Brian) - "What do you mean." He replied - "We want you to send home the mob." I then asked him whether he included the voters among the mob - I said - "Are you satisfied that the voters should proceed to the polling booth and those who accompanied them should return back." He said - "Yes, but all our voters should poll first." - I replied - "All the voters on both sides should vote indiscriminately, as is usual." He partly consented, I immediately called on our voters to come on, and the others to return; and immediately the firing commenced...
Father Walsh went on to report that ten of his party were wounded, one of whom was mortally wounded - George Furey.
Other evidence appears that supports the testimony of Father Walsh. Mr. Charles Furey, a candidate for the District, who was hit by gun-fire but not wounded gives the following account:
There were guns fired by the Cat's Cove people - the first gun was fired at me - I know the man who fired the gun at me - I had used no violence, by speech or action, towards the Cat's Cove people... One grain of shot from that gun went through my hat, without wounding me... I heard other guns fired, besides the one fired at me. There were stones thrown, and some little spars placed across the road... I heard seven or eight guns fired - nine or ten persons were wounded - George Furey was killed...
In his testimony before the inquiry Patrick Strapp, the returning officer, tells what expired for him on the days of and following the election. He tells how the Poll books were taken from Mr. Hackett, the returning officer at Topsail, while journeying to Mr. Strapp's. He says also that he did not think it right to return Hogsett and Furey, because they did not have the majority of votes. But, he states:" I said I would return them on condition that they would bear me out in case there was any trouble."  He did so. So, here we have Mr. Strapp's sworn testimony that he falsely swore in, under fear of injury to himself or his property, Messrs. Hogsett and Furey on May 4, 1861.
With further reference to the destruction of the property of Mr. Strapp, a petition appears before the House of Assembly for compensation for loss of property which states:
...on the eighteenth day of May last, A. D., 1861, Petitioner's premises in Harbour Main, numbering seven erections, were attacked by a mob of about two hundred and fifty persons; himself and his family were obliged to fly for the safety of their lives, his goods, some were stole, others were destroyed and all the erections, consisting of dwelling-house, stores, out-offices, etc., razed to the ground. 
Also before the committee appeared such documents as the Election Writ and Return thereto, issued to Hogsett and Furey; letters addressed by the candidates, Messrs. Nowlan and Byrne, to the colonial Secretary, requesting that they should be gazetted as members for Harbour Main, sworn in and take their seats as such members, letters from the candidates Hogsett and Furey to the same effect; a letter from the Returning officer to the Attorney General, acquainting him that he had made a false return under intimidation; and several other items.
On June 25, the committee, comprised of Messrs. Rendell, as chairman, Flood, Prowse, Knight, McGrath, Whiteway, and WalBanks, returned a majority and two dissenting votes. Five members declared that, having examined the evidence presented before them, they must recommend that Nowlan and Byrne be pronounced duly elected. Of the two dissenting members, both Liberals, one found that Hogsett and Furey should be returned or that, alternatively, the election should be declared null and void. The other, contending that to admit these uncast votes was to condone the principle of intimidation, called for another election.
However, another election was not called and Messrs. Nowlan and Byrne were declared duly elected and took their seats in the House for the district of Harbour Main. As a result, the Conservatives formed the new government with a precarious majority over the Liberals, the district of Harbour Grace having been disenfranchised. A by election there later that year returned the two Protestant candidates. Most significantly, the Conservatives had now been successful in ousting the weakening Catholic Liberal party out of office and the Cat's Cove event, a startling example of the sectarian bitterness that existed at this time, seemed to make people suddenly aware of how bad the situation had become. From this time on, sectarian bitterness becomes less and less of an issue in Newfoundland.
Gertrude E. Gunn, The Political History of Newfoundland 1832-1864, (University of Toronto Press, 1966) p. 201
Ibid., p. 155
Ibid., p 155
Ibid., p. 155
Ibid., p. 158
Edward C. Moulton, The Political History of Newfoundland 1861-1869 (Unpublished M. A. Thesis, MUN; July 15, 1960) p. 80
Moulton, The Political History of Newfoundland, pp 80-81
Gunn, The Political History of Newfoundland, p. 162
Moulton, The Political History of Newfoundland, p. 81
Newfoundlander, May 6, 1861
Newfoundlander, May 9, 1861
Newfoundlander, May 13, 1861
Ibid. May 13, 1861
Hogsett and Furey, in Newfoundlander, May 13, 1861
Jordan and Hackett, in Newfoundlander, May 13, 1861.
Mullock, in Newfoundlander, May 13, 1861
Hogsett and Furey, in Newfoundlander, May 16, 1861
Public Ledger, May 7, 1861
Ibid., May 14, 1861
Strapp, Ibid., May 14, 1861
Ibid., May 21, 1861
Strapp, in Times, May 15, 1861
Sworn evidence of Reverend Father Walsh, Journal of Assembly, Appendix, pp 58-59
Sworn evidence of Charles Furey, Ibid., p 87
Sworn evidence of Patrick Strapp, Ibid., p 109
Ibid., p 50
Ibid., p 121
Gunn, The Political History of Newfoundland, p 167
Page contributed by: Barbara McGrath
Page transcribed by: Ivy F. Benoit (February 2001)
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)
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