Happy Birthday Toronto: What One Man’s Preoccupation with Death Tells Us About Early Toronto

On 15 December 1853, William Henry Pearson took up a new and oddly macabre hobby. In a hardcover notebook he would write out his first entry under the auspicious title: "Dates of the decease of those who are my friends, or with whom I was slightly acquainted." For 67 years, Pearson would record the names, ages, occupations, causes and date of death, and his own recollections or judgements of 4,200 individuals, nearly all who lived in or had a connection to Toronto.

In 1914, Pearson would pen his memories of living in early Toronto, Recollections and Records of Toronto of Old. He wrote in the preface that he believed, "I could add something new, interesting and of some value, and in some cases from a different viewpoint from what had already been written and under the belief that it was a duty I owed to the community." Together the two sources - Pearson’s manuscript notebooks (it can also be viewed online via this link) and his published book of memories - function as a valuable research tool of one man’s experience in early Toronto, with the latter book providing additional information and context to his Dates of Decease. Writing in 1914, Pearson is 83 and far removed from the 23-year-old who had first recorded the deaths of his friends, neighbours and acquaintances in the early years of Toronto. Yet even sixty years later, he acknowledged his bizarre six-decade preoccupation with death: "It seems a very strange thing to have done, and I hardly know why I commenced keeping it – possibly because the keeping of statistics and records is one of my hobbies."

By the time Pearson wrote his first entry, "J.B Osborn, ‘a gentleman,’" death was for Pearson a well-acquainted part of life. At the age of 16, his mother had died. A little over a year later, his father died suddenly while visiting England, leaving Pearson to support himself. At the time of their deaths, he was employed with the post office in their distribution warehouse; a "wretched, dingy hole with its foul atmosphere" on Wellington Street. Seven days a week, for up to 14 hours a day, Pearson toiled, recalling it as "very dark, and occasionally the odor from a dead rat permeated the place, in addition to the dampness and the odor from the sour paste on the wrappers of the papers from the newspaper offices." In 1851, he was promoted above ground, where he sorted the mail and greeted residents who came to collect their letters. It was here that he was "brought into contact with a very large portion of the residents," and soon became familiar with the names, firms and residences of nearly everyone in the city. This position gave him unique access to the gossip of the city - life and death - which he would hear about at the post office.

Pearson's first page dedicated to recording the deaths in the city captured Toronto’s last major cholera epidemic. For him, it was a close-to-home reality as he penned in the names of four "playmates" or "school fellows" - Sherwood Olmsley, R. Brewer, Thomas Carfour and J. Statesbury, all under the age of 20 - who died within three months of each other in the late spring and early summer of 1854. But while epidemics like cholera were deadly, they were comparatively short lived. Throughout Pearson’s pages, consumption would prove to be a far deadlier and constant threat to his friends and acquaintances. Consumption – the historical term for tuberculosis – was the leading cause of death among young adults in Victorian Toronto for decades. Between 1854 and 1856, consumption accounts for over half of Pearson’s recorded deaths. His remarks on two friends emphasized the lingering and malicious disease, in which death provided the only relief. Martha Wilson with whom he notes that they "met in the same class," would die "in Peace of consumption" in October 1858. A little over a year later, he’d note that for fifteen-year-old Mary Price, "consumption a moment of God’s mercy. Died in peace."

Pearson arrived in Toronto at the age of 8 in 1839, with its population of 12,000, just five years after its incorporation. Like 97 percent of the citizens who then lived within the confines of Toronto, Pearson’s origins were in the United Kingdom, where he was born in 1831, before immigrating with his family as a young child, first to a farm in Brantford and then to the city. He would witness enormous change in the physical confines of the city, its buildings and its people. For the latter, Pearson’s notebooks paint a realistic, personalized and grim account of everyday life in Toronto. In Pearson’s records, between December 1853 and October 1856, the average life expectancy of adults is 42 years old, with common causes of death including consumption, cholera, typhoid, small pox and heart disease. Nearly sixty years later, in the two years preceding the outbreak of the First World War, the average had gone up by over twenty years to 67, with the illnesses of the 1850s and 1860s replaced by old age, 'general decay' and illnesses such as cancer and stroke.

 In 1852, Pearson converted to Wesleyan Methodism, likely the most decisive choice in his life. He would become an adamant and life-long adherent to the denomination and was fiercely dedicated to his church, its tenets and rules. His home church was the Richmond Street Wesleyan Methodist Church, located at the "south side of Richmond street midway between Yonge and Bay streets," which he described in 1914 as "perhaps the … largest and most influential Wesleyan Methodist church in Canada. It had the largest membership, and indeed often was called the 'Cathedral of Methodism'" with a seating capacity of 1,800. It also had the "largest Methodist Sunday School in Canada" - a point of pride for Pearson who taught Sunday school for a time and was later elected superintendent. After Pearson left the post office to work his way up to General Manager at the Gas Company, a position he would hold for 54 years, the Richmond Street Church and its Sunday School became a key place to make new friends and acquaintances, and subsequently, record their deaths. 

 In 1860, he changed the formatting of his entries to include comments or remarks on the opposite page. Here he described the cause of death in more detail, such as "fell down stairs while under the influence of liquor found dead in morning" in the case of Thomas Hutchinson, or "died of the effects of fright from hearing lecture by Rev. Wm Baxter on the Second coming of Christ," for 40 year-old Mrs. W.L Perind. He also used this space to remark on his own relationship with the deceased, in which "attended Richmond St S[unday]S[chool]” or “SS Scholar” became a popular refrain.

Perhaps the only description more popular than attendance at Sunday School was to pass judgement on the decedent’s morality and to declare them 'dissipated.' Pearson’s definition of the term was most likely influenced by John Wesley's sermon, "On Dissipation" (1784). The founder of Wesleyan Methodism, his published sermons were popular reading material and source material for the pulpit. Wesleyan defines a dissipated man as "separated from God  … this character to those who are violently attached to women, gaming, drinking; to dancing, balls, races … whoever is habitually inattentive to the presence and will of his Creator." In October 1858, he records the first account of death by dissipation in the shape of 35-year-old tavern keeper, Joseph Bird. Not an established medical cause of death, Pearson seemingly adapts the term to describe one who has caused their own death by dedicating their life solely to vice.

 A dedicated teetotaller, Pearson had a particular loathing for the drink, and those that supplied it, and nowhere is this more obvious than in his description of tavern keepers. Those in this particular occupation tended to die young: of consumption, through violence or dissipation. Perhaps the most telling example is John Blair, aged 46. Blair died in 1865 and was described in Pearson’s remarks as, "formerly Carpenter. Took to Tavern keeping + drink. Became insane and fell into the River. Knew him when a prosperous man." Pearson would further elucidate on the unacceptable nature and multitude of taverns in his book: "the number of taverns for the population was exceedingly large … there were about 300 licenses during the sixties … or about one [tavern] to every 166 persons." Yet, while certainly the most prominent, tavern keepers were not the only ones to be defined by dissipation. Pearson noted 38-year-old, John Roddy, a constable who died in 1863, "died in Lunatic Asylum but once a man of wealth + strong constitution but through dissipation lost all." Pearson even tied dissipation to significant events, including the last ever public hanging in the city. Maurice Malone, who died at 26 years old of unstated causes, had served as a witness against members of his own gang - the Brooks Bush Gang - for the notorious murder of John Sheridan Hogan who was found dead in the River Don. James Brown, the leader of the gang, was hanged in 1862 for the crime and less than a year later Pearson would pass judgement on Malone, "knew him from a boy. Always dissipated one of the Brooks Bush Gang."

 Similarly, well-known figures were not immune from proclamations of their supposed dissipation. Ned Hanlan, a professional and world renown rower from Toronto, received the description, "champion oarsman of the world. Dissipated in later years" when he died in 1908 at the age of 52. Likewise, Major Hampden Zane Churchill Cockburn. A hero of the Boer War, a recipient of the Victoria Cross, and a graduate of Upper Canada College, he had been memorialized by the Ottawa Journal as one of "Toronto’s worthiest sons." Yet for Pearson morality was on par, if not more important, than historical fame, "Son of G.R.R Cockburn. Victoria Cross. Dissipated."

Pearson’s dedication to recording the immoral and dissipated also resulted in the listing of a large number of suicides.  The 1990 article "Death in Victorian Toronto, 1850-1899," which contains a comprehensive analysis of death through cemetery records, proffers that "suicide was rare" with only six cases between 1850-1867, and an additional 23 cases between 1868-1885. Yet, Pearson records 12 cases of suicide between 1856 and 1867. His descriptions are, at times, gruesome with a particular focus on the vices that led to moments of ultimate desperation. Such examples include John Astley who at age 49 shot himself, "under depression caused by want" and John Samuel Blogg, a 45-year-old shoemaker, who cut his own throat in 1863 after he became "somewhat deranged through drink."

Another side of Pearson’s staunch Methodism, was his dedication to the abolition of slavery.  Perhaps because of this, Pearson included Black residents of Toronto in his Dates of Decease, occasionally remarking on their race, but more frequently listing them as just another resident of Toronto. Such is the case with Mrs. James Wilson, the wife of the Reverend of the African Methodist Episcopalian Church in 1864, James Mink, a 70-year-old former livery stable keeper who died "in peace" in 1868, and Wilson Ruffin Abbott, a Toronto businessmen, who died in 1876. Pearson dedicates two pages to Mink in his 1914 Recollections, describing him as "a very well-known citizen, a man of marked individuality, considerable intelligence and good business ability" who owned a livery stable and a hotel called the Mansion House Inn. Pearson recounts in an attempt to "improve [his daughters] social position," Mink encouraged his daughter to marry a well-to-do American white man, only for the "disreputable scoundrel" to sell her into slavery in South Carolina. Distraught, James Mink posed as the slave of his white wife, and together they went to the American south to "repurchase her and brought her back to Toronto."

Pearson’s commitment to abolition may also led him to pay attention to the Civil War raging in the United States between 1861 and 1865 and to record the deaths of young men from Toronto who died fighting for the Union. While not a commonly discussed matter of Canadian history, over 30,000 men from British North-America served in the Union Army. The vast majority had already been living in the United States prior to the outbreak of war, but Union recruiters were known to come to Canada looking for eager soldiers. Pearson lists the death of four young men from Toronto who fought in the American Civil War. These men, presumably Union soldiers, include J.H Taverner, who Pearson describes as "an excellent young man. Shot through the breast at James Island" and 19-year-old Christ McCoarey, "died of wounds from Battle of Malvern Hill."

Pearson’s Dates of Decease, especially in its first two decades of the 1850s and 1860s, records many individuals who have left little or no footprint in history. Ontario did not start maintaining comprehensive death records until 1869, and the 1851 census returns for Toronto and Scarborough have been lost to history, resulting in a significant lack of details for early residents of the city. Written in loose script over two volumes, Pearson’s Dates of Decease details the life and death of 4,200 Torontonians, both the regular citizen and the more prominent. They are distinguishable from historical records like census returns or headstones through Pearson’s casual comments, recollections and descriptions which reveal a more personalized account of history. 

As a collection, Pearson’s books stand out as a valuable social history tool, with the ability to demonstrate the rapid change of Toronto over six decades. Together they provide the building blocks for analysis on epidemics, mortality, causes of death and demographics of the changing citizenry of Toronto. Pearson’s perspective as a staunch Methodist dedicated to statistics allows us to glimpse into the beliefs of a teetotaller and abolitionist, and how he viewed his friends, neighbours and fellow residents of the city that he faithfully committed himself to record. Buried within its pages, it provides names and details of those lost to history and the gives an interested researcher an opportunity to learn more about how people lived and died in the earliest decades of Toronto.

- Danielle Van Wagner, Special Collections Librarian