A Family Massacre
My great-great-grandfather and the Sovereign murders of 1832
I come from a pretty nice family. We haven’t had a mass murderer since 1832.
But 1832 was a bad year.
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This is the story my mother used to tell. The official versions, always fluid, tell it slightly differently and obviously with more detail.
My great-great-grandfather John Moore Glover (1792-1857) operated a blacksmith shop in Round Plains, Norfolk County. He was married to Rebecca Beemer. Rebecca’s sister Mary Margaret had married a man named Henry Sovereign (Sovereene, Sovereen). These surnames represented extended Loyalist families who left the Thirteen Colonies after the American Revolution and relocated on land grants in the area. Henry and Mary Margaret lived on a farm next door to their brother-in-law John Glover. In 1832, they were 44 and 39, respectively, and had 11 children. Besides farming, Sovereign made a living as a so-called shingle weaver (means shingle maker).
According to my mother, Sovereign “was always a little odd. One day when he was a boy, he took too much butter, and his mother reprimanded him, and he lost his temper and he never ate butter again for the rest of his life.”This is comical, of course. But the point is that he had a bad temper and later drank too much. In 1819, he shot someone’s horse to death and was sentenced to hang (apparently, they took horse-shooting seriously in those days). But the sentence was commuted, and Sovereign went back to farming, making shingles, and producing children.
But early on the morning of January 23, 1832, he appeared out of the dark at the Glover door, bleeding and distraught, claiming to have been attacked by marauders with charcoaled faces, fearing they would harm his family. John raced through the snow and discovered the bloody corpses of Sovereign’s murdered family.
My mother said that John Glover was the first witness on the scene, but the official line is that Sovereign went to a neighbour named Serles. John Glover figured, officially, only as a witness at the trial. I like my mother’s version, but who knows?
There are a handful of journalistic accounts of the day, but the one I like the best appeared in the The Evening Post in New York, a little over three weeks later (February 15) under the byline of a “Rev. Mr. Ryerson.” The byline suggests Egerton Ryerson, the Canadian preacher, writer, and educator, whose name has come into disrepute of late because of his advocacy for an early version of residential schools for indigenous children. Ryerson was born in Norfolk County in 1803. In 1832, he was a Methodist circuit rider, political advocate, and magazine editor. I was never before aware that he had a sideline as stringer for newspapers in the U.S. But I can’t find another “Rev. Mr. Ryerson.” If the writer is Egerton Ryerson, well, all the more intriguing.
But I digress.
Ryerson got his evidence from Mary Beemer’s father and brother. One assumes (hopes) he got his information in person. The scene he describes is horrific, the position and condition of the bodies implying a sequence of events, Sovereign slaughtering the baby (throwing it into the fire) and another child first, then the mother and the other children racing into the night, only to be hunted down and killed one by one in the snow. The mother may have died last because that is where the broken knife blade was found.
The principle evidence, I am informed, was a neighbor, who lived between a quarter and a half a mile from the place where the murder was committed. He stated that on Monday moring, the 21st instant, some time before day, Henry Sovereign, the father of the murdered family, came to his house, slightly wounded in the breast and left arm, saying that there were murderers at his (Sovereign's) house and that he was afraid or expected they would kill his wife and family. The neighbor, in the company of Sovereign, came with all possible haste to the place. The first object tht attracted his notice on his arrival, was a little infant about three or four months old, burning on the fire, one of its legs was burnt off nearly to the knee, the back part of its head was consumed, and its body was much burnt. Near the hearth lay another child in a state of insensibility. This I believe is not yet dead, although it is not expected to survive. By the side of the door was another, in a sitting or squatting posture, having been struck on the head with a bludgeon or some large instrument, which occasioned instant death. A fourth was found out of doors at the corner of the house, lifeless, and bleeding on the ground. About a rod from the house, in a path which led to an old hovel, was seen a fifth in the same state. Nearly a rod farther in the same path was found a young woman, about 17 years of age, a corpse. In the yard in front of the hovel, lay the mother and another little boy close together, weltering in their blood. Close by the mother was observed the blade of a knife all bloody. It was found on examination, that she had received a blow on the back of her neck, which fractured her skull and dislocated her neck bone, and had also been stabbed in the pit of the stomach, so as to pierce the vitals, and divide one of the large arteries, which bled most profusely.
Sounds a bit like something from a Cormac McCarthy novel, say Outer Dark. Oh yes, oh yes. Remember this?
The man took hold of the child and lifted it up. It was watching the fire. Holme saw the blade wink in the light like a long cat’s eye slant and malevolent and a dark smile erupted on the child’s throat and went all broken down the front of it. The child made no sound. It hung there with its one eye glazing over like a wet stone and the black blood pumping down its naked belly.
No one seems to have believed Sovereign’s story about the black-face gang. There were no tracks leading away from the scene. And he had a reputation as a violent man, a horse killer and drunkard. Though he maintained his innocence to the very end.
My cousin Daniel Brock wrote Sovereign’s entry The Dictionary of Canadian Biography with the advantage of having access to later news accounts and trial testimony. He points out that there was a three-year-old daughter in the house who slept through the whole catastrophe and survived (along with three other siblings who were away from home).
A blood-stained jackknife, believed to have been used by Sovereene [the spelling in Dan’s DCB entry] to inflict wounds on himself, was found in his vest pocket; another weapon, a beetle or maul used to split wood in the making of shingles, was discovered, gory and almost covered with human hair of different colours, concealed between the straw and feathers of a bed in the house. Following his arrest and an inquest, Sovereene was transported to the London jail. Prior to the assizes, London had been ravaged by cholera and most of its residents had fled. Only nine grand jurors were present for the opening of the court and bystanders were recruited to fill out the jury. Sovereene was tried on 8 Aug. 1832. After retiring for less than an hour, the jury found him guilty.
In 2006, the Simcoe Reformer published a lengthy article about the Sovereign murders (See Tragedies** Colourful Family Histories / Norfolk History on Rootsweb), covering much the same research as Daniel Brock, but giving more detail from contemporary newspapers and trial transcripts.
Henry was immediately considered the prime suspect, an article in the Upper Canada Herald says. Constable John Massacer went to the scene of the crime knowing Henry's reputation to become violent when drinking.
As he arrested Henry for murder, Massacer found a bloodied jack knife in Henry's pocket, which Henry claimed was blood from his own wounds (during the trial, Dr. John Crouse said the wounds on Henry's chest were self-inflicted). In a later search of the house, some of Henry's clothing saturated with blood, brain tissue and hair were found.
The transcripts include testimony by my great-great-grandfather John Glover, though the snippet the Reformer quotes is neither dramatic nor revealing. Kind of meh.
Another witness, John Glover, said "the prisoner and his wife did not live happily together," and added Henry "had no quarrel with any person in the neighbourhood."
Sovereign was hung in public in London on August 13 at noon. I have seen accounts that claim up to 3,000 people flocked to enjoy the spectacle, but Daniel Brock says that due to cholera ravaging the city only about a tenth of that number actually turned up (and I trust my cousin’s research).
The St. Thomas Journal described the scene:
To the utter astonishment of the anxious crowd . . . he was found still persisting in his protestations of innocence -- declaring as it were in the open face of time and eternity, that an innocent man was about to die . . . at about half past twelve the drop fell, and there hung between Heaven and earth the body of him who, we believe, were unanimously condemned as deserving death.
I have noticed some of Sovereign’s descendants (descendants of those surviving kids) on genealogical sites wondering where he was buried. Daniel Brock says that the body was handed over for medical dissection and that the remaining bits (according to legend) were buried at the pioneer cemetery in Oakland.
Aside from his lame testimony at the trial, my 2xgreat-grandfather doesn’t seem to figure in the official accounts. But in my mother’s version he is the first to arrive on the murder scene, and Ryerson mentions Mary Margaret Beemer’s “brother” being on there. This might have been her brother-in-law John Moore Glover. In any case, it’s enough to know they were closely related and neighbours. The seven children who died were Elizabeth, Effy, David, Julia, Susan, Job and Polly. Anna, the three-year-old, slept through the murders unnoticed. Three other children were away from home and also survived. John Glover and Rebecca Beemer’s children were first cousins, contemporaries, and playmates. My great-grandfather Jacob Gloverwas only 15 when his cousins were all but wiped out next door.
It’s worth noting the brutal situation of women in this story. Mary Margaret Beemer, Henry Sovereign’s wife, was 39 when he stabbed her to death. She was married around 1809, at the age of 17. She had birthed at least 11 children (11 were alive at the beginning of 1832). The marriage sounds just awful, her husband a drunk, occasionally violent. A pregnancy every other year. Pity her.
I should also make clear that all these people were Americans, refugees from the Thirteen Colonies after the American Revolution, either born in (mostly) New Jersey or the first generation born in Canada after arrival. Most had fought on the British side during the war and found themselves no longer welcome in their former homes. They were given land grants, first on the Niagara Peninsula near Lake Ontario, then in Norfolk County and along the Lake Erie shore (the Long Point Settlement). In 1832, the farms and buildings had only existed for a mere thirty or thirty-five years.
The land they settled was largely empty of people, a hunting ground for the Mississauga, an Algonkian-speaking people who lived for the most part closer to Lake Ontario along the Credit River. The Mississauga themselves were immigrants, newcomers who had drifted down from the Upper Lakes to fill the void left by the Petuns, Hurons, and Attiwandarons (the so-called Neutrals) who had once thrived in numerous villages from Georgian Bay down to the Erie shore before European diseases and invading Seneca warriors blew them away. The Attiwandarons, for the most part, disappeared, survivors joining the upstate New York Iroqois. The Hurons and Petuns, the ones who remained, went west to become the Wyandotte or east to Montreal to seek the protection of the French where they still live.
It is a land steeped in blood and cruelty, dense with phantom peoples and forgotten stories.
Alternatively, the 1877 county atlas places the Glover homestead a couple of miles west, between Windham Centre and La Salette at Brandy Creek. This would mean my mother had somehow conflated the official story involving a neighbour named Serles with family stories of John Moore Glover’s testimony at Sovereign’s trial. She once told me she had gone door to door and located the old blacksmith shop, but I was too stupidly uninterested at the time to pay attention. Sigh.
New readers should realize that most of these family stories are located in Norfolk County on the north shore of Lake Erie pretty much due north of Erie, Pennsylvania. If you click on the “Family Stories” menu item, you’ll find other stories and various contextual details. It’s a little world all its own.
This is a story she remembered from Owen’s Pioneer Sketches of Long Point Settlement. I wish I had had the foresight to talk to my father about these murders before he died.
The article is quoted in its entirety on Rootsweb by another cousin of mine, the indefatigable genealogist Deborah Glover.
See the little rocking horse he built, still in our family house.
Oh, Doug! I knew that under your quiet and most demeanor coursed a radical flow of ancestral blood!
More seriously, though I am ready to click "Like" by this tale, it's hard to speak of as enjoyable. Yet, as ever, you present your materials masterfully. Talk soon.
Good grief! The horror! I had to scan parts of these descriptions so I could latch onto your pithy commentary. (These early journalists knew how to spin a tale, didn't they?)