December 10, 1828
near Balderson, Ontario
On a cold, dark, December night, right around midnight, Sinclair Tullis’ mother woke to a blood-curdling scream coming from the direction of their neighbour, Thomas Easby’s house. She sent her son to investigate and he could see that the Easby home was engulfed in flames, and heard his neighbour’s voice call out, “Who is there?”
Tullis asked him what happened, and Easby replied, “Go home. The fire is under control. I will be awake until morning.”
When Tullis returned the next morning Easby told him that all of his family had burned to death except his youngest son, Joseph, who sat quietly on the ground, not far from his father. Thomas’ wife, who was eight months pregnant, their daughter, and three sons, were all dead.
Mrs. Martha Richardson, a neighbour, volunteered to look after young Joseph Easby, age four, and although, understandably he was still in shock, she found that he was doing some very odd things. He often sang morbid songs while he was playing, “Father killed mother, sister, and three brothers.” Mrs. Richardson found these songs quite disturbing, as well as some of the games he played. Sometimes he would point to the handle of their shovel and claim that his father had struck his mother with one just like it. He also played a game where he pretended to cover his dead siblings with hot coals.
After a few weeks, when Christmas had past, and young Joseph continued to play the strange games, and sing the shocking songs, she informed her neighbour, Sergeant John Balderson, a former infantry soldier. He began to make inquiries and spoke with some of the legal officials in Perth about the young lad’s odd behaviour.
In February two magistrates, along with Dr. James Wilson and Coroner William Matheson went to speak with Thomas Easby and grew suspicious after he gave them his explanation of what happened that fateful night. They ordered an exhumation of Easby’s wife and children, and an examination was done by Dr. Wilson, who determined that Mrs. Easby’s skull was fractured in five places, and the children’s skulls also showed signs of blunt-force trauma. Easby could not explain how these injuries happened.
The following day, John Balderson, Dr. Wilson, and the local Jailer, James Young, told Easby that his family had been murdered. Easby began to cry, and said that he’d killed them all with a thick branch from a Birch tree. He insisted that he had only intended to kill his youngest child, Joseph, but that the child had looked up at him and smiled, and so he killed all of the others instead.
At his murder trial, Easby addressed the court, “I was in a perplexed and insensible state of mind at the time of the murder and had only a faint recollection of what occurred. I seemed to have no power of myself, no volition of my own. But, I was impelled to the act by some mysterious agency, which entered my abode and appeared to assist me. After the dreadful tragedy I called some of my family by name, and discovered what I had done, and I exclaimed to myself, “Oh! My God, I have murdered them.”
The trial judge, Chief Justice Sherwood, after pronouncing Easby guilty, declared, “Your days are numbered, your mortal course is finished.”
Easby was hanged on November 13, 1829, before the largest crowd ever gathered in Perth, Ontario. Local newspapers praised the skill of the hangman in his execution of the guilty man.
Easby’s body was buried in the Anglican section of the Craig St. cemetery, but later that same night, his remains were exhumed and delivered to the local surgeon and his medical students for the purpose of dissection. According to “The Perth Courier”, “They first skinned the body, and the hide was rolled in salt and afterwards tanned in a local tannery and cut up into small squares, which were sold to the public, bringing as much as two dollars.”
In the 1980s, a reporter from “The Perth Courier”, Michael Taylor, decided to search the area for anyone who might still be in possession of Easby’s skin. Eventually, he located Mrs. George Smith, of Balderson. She had made a purse from Easby’s hide. Another area resident, Alex Balderson, had a strip of the ‘Easby leather’, and had made it into a bookmark. He claimed that it was kept in an old family bible. In faded ink, on the back of the bookmark there was a quote from the Bible, “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.”
Hide was Sold
Jail Employees Recall
Stories of Easby
It’s been said that of all the convicted criminals who were hanged in Perth, Thomas Easby was perhaps the most notorious. When it was announced in the summer of 1994 that the Perth jail was closing, “The Ottawa Citizen” sent a reporter, and the employees recalled hearing the stories of Easby’s hanging.
According to one of the workers at the Perth jail, “He (Easby) was kept in the original Perth Jail for several months before he was publicly hanged, the rope adjusted with great dexterity in front of a huge crowd of townspeople. Then his body was dug up, skinned, and tanned, and the bits were sold off and made into wallets and knick-knacks.
Chuck Stewart, the Superintendent, said that many more people were hanged over the years in Perth, and that the last hanging was in 1910, at the permanent gallows, at the back of the jail. The noose hook has since been covered by a light fixture, and the lever which activated the trap door in the floor has been removed. In its place is a chair on the wooden floor overlooking the exercise yard.
“Murder, as foul as it comes.”
When asked about the future of the jail, Stewart said the cells and prisoners’ areas are tiny and the plumbing and electrical systems are a nightmare. There are rumours of turning it into a bed and breakfast, but according to Stewart, “Bed and breakfast people don’t like sleeping in cells.” Ottawa Citizen Reporter, Kelly Egan, added, “…and who would rest easy on the ground where Thomas Jeremiah Easby met his gruesome end, for murder as foul as it comes.”
What Became of
Little Joseph Easby?
And what became of young Joseph Easby, orphaned at the age of 4, and the only surviving member of his family? In a letter dated in 1857, regarding the estate of Joseph Easby, he had drowned at age 32, unmarried, after falling from a ship in the Toronto harbour.
In the small community who lived around Balderson, the story of the tragedy that took place at the Easby farm was told and re-told down through the generations; and although they are fewer in number these days, some still claim to possess items fashioned from the hide of Thomas Easby.
Anyone who has visited the pretty hamlet of Balderson, and knows their long history and stellar reputation for cheese-making, would no doubt be surprised to learn of the gruesome and grisly events that took place at the Easby house, on that dark, cold, winter’s night in 1828.
Further reading: A book was published in 1903, written by Robert L. Richardson, the grandson of Martha and Thomas Richardson, who cared for little Joseph Easby, until he was adopted and raised by a couple in Toronto. His book, “Colin of the Ninth Concession”, was loosely based on the Easby murders.
Author of: “Lanark County Christmas”, “Lanark County Comfort”, “Lanark County Collection”, “Lanark County Calling”, “Lanark County Classics”, “Lanark County Connections”, “Lanark County Calendar”, “Lanark County Chronicle”, “Lanark County Kid”, and “Recipes & Recollections”