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By Bob Kostoff

Both Samuel Chandler and Benjamin Wait, Canadians and British subjects, were indicted for high treason. Their trials followed the pattern of James Morreau's trial. The trials were held in the courthouse at Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) with the same judge, prosecutor and defense counsel.

Nine witnesses testified against Chandler, and the defense called five witnesses. The jury deliberated "a very considerable time" before returning a guilty verdict with a recommendation for mercy.

Benjamin Wait's trial followed on Aug. 3. The defense counsel was Alexander Stewart. There were eight witnesses for the prosecution and none called for the defense. The jury returned a guilty verdict with a recommendation for mercy.

The lieutenant governor considered the recommendation for mercy in each case, but imposed the death sentence.

Wait's young wife, Maria, 20, and Chandler's eldest daughter, Sarah, 18, immediately decided to travel to Quebec to see the Earl of Durham. The two had a difficult time getting an audience, but they persisted doggedly. Lord Durham finally saw them and wrote a letter of clemency.

They took the letter to Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, who at first said, "I cannot accede to this request and prevent the due course of the law upon offenses of this nature."

Maria threatened to return to Lord Durham and the lieutenant governor reluctantly acquiesced. He tried to stall getting word to the jail. With the executions set for Oct. 30, word came on Oct. 29 to the jail that both men would be spared and given life in "one of Her Majesty's penal colonies."

Both Wait and his wife, Maria, kept extensive journals of these occurrences, which Maria called a tale of "thrilling sorrow, misery and woe." The two prisoners, along with others, all in hand and foot shackles, were taken to Kingston and Fort Henry. Maria followed and visited her husband once before they were transferred to Quebec.

Maria returned to Niagara to pick up her daughter, Augusta, then went to Lockport to stay with friends.

The journey across the Atlantic took 25 days in, as Wait put it, "abject misery." The prisoners were not allowed out of the hold. Two buckets sufficed for toilets. The food consisted of hard, black biscuits, gruel and meat "that was nearly putrid," Wait wrote. He added that the conditions "were too revolting to be described."

Maria, who refused to give up on her husband, traveled to London to beg the queen for a pardon. Maria wrote in her journal, "The queen expressed herself as being much touched by the circumstances of the case and was pleased to say that she would consult her ministers."

But nothing came of this entreaty, so Maria returned home, while Wait and Chandler, along with other prisoners, were shipped to the penal colony at Van Diemen's Land, an island off the southern coast of Australia. The journey took four months.

It was an unpleasant trip. Wait wrote, "Surely, if there are places in human abodes deserving the title of Hell, one is a transport ship, crowded with felons, culled from England's most abandoned criminals."

They arrived at Van Diemen's Land on July 18, 1839. While the English penal colony was no picnic, still the prisoners fared better than on the transport ships or in the temporary jails that housed them during the long journey. And it was far better than the French penal colony of Devil's Island.

There will be more about the penal colony and the fate of the two political prisoners next time.


Bob Kostoff has been reporting on the Niagara Frontier for four decades. He is a recognized authority on local history and is the author of several books. E-mail him at RKost1@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 29 2003