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Smith, Ron: Joe Ash and "The Cobourg Conspiracy"

Joe Ash and "The Cobourg Conspiracy"

presented by Ron Smith

My name is Joe Ash.  My son and I were involved in the 1839 "Cobourg Conspiracy".

The text below is taken from a report by Edwin Clarence Guillet.

Samuel P. Hart, "the son of an old soldier in the British Army", was for many years a resident of Cobourg and Belleville, where he had been a printer, and had fled to the United States during the rebellion.  It appears that his printing office in Belleville had been destroyed by Loyalists, and in joining the Patriot organization he hoped to obtain both revenge and compensation for his losses.  John Montgomery's tavern in Rochester had become a Patriot rendezvous almost as well known as his former hotel nearl Toronto, and there, about the middle of July, Hart had a talk with Henry J. Moon, another Patriot.  The scheme was to "get a schooner, put two pieces of cannon in it, and go skulking".

Arrangements fro the enterprise were being completed by Hart and on Friday, July 26, he hired the schooner Guernsey and nine more men came aboard, including Ben Lett.  Most of the others were American Patriots.

In the early hours of Saturday the Guernsey set sail from Oswego, New York.  Among the baggage was a trunkful of weapons, and the conspirators spent considerable time in practice with pistols and bowie knives, fitting on their military belts with evident satisfaction.  The sailors also observed bundles of matches and bottles of turpentine, and by overhearing chance bits of conversation were able to gather that Cobourg was to be burned after the bank had been robbed and two or three individuals plundered or murdered.  Sheppard McCormick who the Conspirators thought was still customs' house official in the town, was to be murdered for his part in capture of the Caroline, the supply boat of the Navy Island Patriots, in December, 1837.

It was after midnight when the Guernsey lay off the north shore of the lake and landed six men from a small boat.  They were Hart, Lett, Kennedy, Wilkins, Wilson and Baker and the party was put ashore near the Evans' farm, some five miles east of Cobourg.

The Cobourg conspirators wore belts loaded with arms when they landed, and a sailor observed them hiding other weapons on the shore.  They then proceeded to the farm of Joseph Ash, about two miles east of the town, which was to be their rendezvous.  Upon arrival he was taken to a neighbouring dwelling, occupied by Ash's son, Joseph Jr., to which they were admitted by the secret Patriot rap on the door.  Wilkins, Baker, and Hart were there, and in conversation with them Henry Moon learned that they planned to rob Maurice Jaynes "a wealthy farmer" some two and a half miles to the north, after which they intended to plunder the private bank operated by "Squire" Henry, opposite St. Peter's Church in Cobourg.

Moon, however, had already made up his mind to inform the authorities and had confided to a Cobourg friend named Sprague "I am not going to become a midnight assassin if I am a Patriot".  He admitted he was afraid of the consequences, and particularly he "did not like to be near Lett, who had fire in his eye and would as soon murder me as anyone else".  Moon's wife, on the other hand, urged him to go through with it, suggesting he would likely be murdered if he informed.

Early Monday morning, Moon sought an interview with D'Arcy Boulton.  Upon learning of the plan, Boulton brought Benjamin Clark, a magistrate, into his office and Moon gave full account of the conspiracy, describing the men and taking an affidavit as to the truth of his deposition. It was decided to surround the houses of the two Ashes that evening, while Moon meanwhile kept up appearances with his former confederates.

Early that evening "a body of trusty men" met at Captain J.C. Boswell's home, mounted their horses, and proceeded eastward along the Kingston Road.  They included Messrs, Manners, Tremaine, Boswell, Charles Clark, Charles Ruttan, D'Arcy Boulton, Kenneth Mackenzie and John Brady' and also R.D. Chatterton and Benjamin Clark, magistrates, who came to take down the prisoners' depositions.

Dividing into two groups, the posse quickly surrounded the houses of the Messrs. Ash.  Captain Boswell demanded entrance in the Queen's name into the home of Joseph Ash Sr., and arrested Wilkins, Wilson and Baker; while Captain Clark, after offering to blow the brains out of anyone who resisted entry, had similarly led the search of the house of Joseph Ash, Jr., capturing Hart, as he was attempting to climb out of a window.  The elder Ash was found hiding in his pigpen, and both father and son, after at first denying that any men were in their homes, later made superficial excuses for their presence.

The six prisoners were then tied up and conveyed to the Cobourg jail.  It was apparently felt from the start that the Messrs. Ash were not as deeply involved in the conspiracy as the other four prisoners; perhaps the use of their house as a rendezvous was the extent of their compliciity. In any case they were allowed to sit in front of the prisoners' box occupied by the others.

The result of the trial was pretty much a foregone conclusion, for the circumstances under which the prisoners were taken allowed for little defence; nor were the times such that any sympathy was wasted upon American Patriots.

Referring next to the informer Moon, the attorney-general gave him credit for exposing the conspiracy when he saw that murder was intended, and suggested that for this public service he should be honoured in the same measure as "the guilty sinner who repenteth deserves to be received into heaven".

The crown's case was, of course, largely built upon the evidence of the informer Moon but it was strengthened and corroborated by the story of the trip across the lake in the Guernsey as told by two of the sailors.

The depositions of the prisoners, however largely bore out the general truth of Moon's story.  The elder Ash's statement corroborated his evidence in many particulars, and Mr. Justice Jones considered there was no doubt that Ash father and son were willing participants in the conspiracy being both members of Hunters' Lodge.  As for Moon's story, the judge told the jury that in his opinion it bore "the air of truth".

A trial of seventeen hours duration was concluded a few minutes later when the jury brought in a verdict of guilty.  The following morning the judge addressed the prisoners and passed sentence upon them as follows: Hart, seven years in the penitentiary, Jospeh Ash Sr. six months in jail and a fine of £100; Joseph Ash Jr. twelve months in jail and a fine of £50.  It can hardly be said that the punishments were not fairly apportioned according to the guilt of the parties; nor, considering the times, were they as severe as might well have been expected.  The Cobourg Star considered them "trivial in comparison with their crime".

In conclusion the Cobourg Star stated, "so ended another atrocious attempt of the American pirates to murder and pillage the inhabitants of this unfortunate country, under cloak of assisting us to obtain the blessings of 'Responsible Government' recommended by Lord Durham".

After their prison terms were completed, the Ashes left the Cobourg area.  Joe Ash Sr. moved only as far as Oshawa where he spent the rest of his days.  Joe Jr. probably went to Michigan.

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