Benjamin Lett: Early Canadian Terrorist | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Benjamin Lett: Early Canadian Terrorist

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

In the early morning of Good Friday, April 17, 1840, a terrific explosion shattered the peaceful atmosphere of the village of Queenston in Upper Canada (now Ontario). Brock's Monument, burial place of General Sir Isaac Brock, the much-revered hero of the War of 1812, was in ruins. Immediately, Benjamin Lett, an Irish-Canadian rebel, was accused of engineering the violent act. Who was Benjamin Lett?

In 1798 one of Ireland's many rebellions against the English was more like a civil war. United Irishmen, Catholics and Presbyterians rose up in several counties in a failed attempt to drive the English out and make Ireland independent. Many families were split, with some members joining the rebels while others fought for the Crown to crush the rebellion. The rebellion was particularly divisive in County Wexford and members of the Lett family were found on both sides of the struggle.

S.E. view of Brock's Monument on Queenston Heights as it appeared on 9 May 1841 (courtesy Archives of Ontario/F596).

According to oral tradition, 11-year-old Elizabeth Warren was molested and her brother Benjamin lynched by other Irishmen during this uprising. Elizabeth married Samuel Lett of County Wexford and together they had six children, including Benjamin, born in 1813. Elizabeth Lett had developed a great hatred for sectarian violence and for the local militia officers who condoned excesses of behaviour during the uprising in Wexford. This hatred would be passed on to young Benjamin.

In 1819 the family emigrated, settling in Lower Canada (Quebec). Five years later Samuel was killed in a farming accident, leaving Elizabeth alone to run the farm and raise her young family. In 1833 she moved the family to Darlington, Upper Canada.

Benjamin was working on his mother's farm when rebellion broke out in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837. William Lyon Mackenzie had started the rebellion in Upper Canada with a failed attempt to capture Toronto's armoury in early December. Mackenzie fled to the United States and then invaded Navy Island in the Niagara River, proclaiming the Republic of Upper Canada there on December 14.

It is likely that Benjamin sympathized with the rebels but took no active role in 1837. In Darlington, members of the local Orange Lodge, a right wing anti-Catholic, pro-British institution, mustered to root out rebel sympathizers in the area. The Orangemen persecuted the Lett family because they would not actively join the organization. Something in Benjamin snapped. He left home to join Mackenzie's rebel army on Navy Island.

The Caroline Incident

On Navy Island, the rebels dug trenches and cannon emplacements to defend against a possible British attack. Supplies and reinforcements came from Buffalo, New York, ferried to Navy Island by the steamer Caroline. On December 29, a small Canadian force under the command of Royal Navy Captain Andrew Drew captured the Caroline, set it on fire, and cut it loose to plunge over Niagara Falls. A week later, militia artillery began a ten-day bombardment of Navy Island, finally forcing the rebels to retreat.

Rebel forces invaded elsewhere and were defeated at the battles of Fighting Island and Pelee Island near Windsor in February and March 1838. Lett was involved in both actions and must have shared the frustration of the continuing failure of armed military-style actions. This frustration led Lett to undertake a series of individual acts of terrorism.

Militia Captain Edgeworth Ussher, who had been one of the participants in the Caroline incident, became the target of Lett's first act of terrorism. On the night of November 16, 1838, Lett crossed from Buffalo and shot Ussher on his own doorstep near the village of Chippawa, Upper Canada. The murder caused a great deal of outrage. Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur offered a £500 reward (the equivalent of roughly $60,000 Canadian today) for the apprehension of Lett who had gained notoriety as "the Rob Roy of Upper Canada ... always prowling about our frontier devising and committing all manner of mischief." He was suspected of plotting to destroy the British Lake Ontario fleet in Kingston harbour in January 1839 and of launching a failed raid on Cobourg in June to kidnap prominent citizens who had also been involved in the Caroline incident.

In June 1840 Lett was in Oswego, New York, and was blamed for the attempted destruction of the Canadian steamer Great Britain after a bomb was set off on board that vessel. He was arrested and sentenced to seven years in the state prison in Auburn, New York. He escaped from the train taking him to Auburn and remained at large for the next 15 months.

While on the run, sought by British and American authorities, and dogged by bounty hunters, Lett set the bomb that irreparably damaged Brock's Monument. Although Brock was almost considered a saint by the Loyalists of Upper Canada, some viewed his monument as a symbol of the arrogant Tory militia and of British rule; it made an ideal target for vengeance. It would be 13 years before work could begin on a new monument to replace that destroyed by Lett.

A Terrorist's Final Years

In September 1841 Lett was in Buffalo, where he was recognized and seized by the authorities. He was taken to the Auburn prison to serve the sentence imposed 15 months earlier. Behind bars, Lett's health failed. By 1845, a lung ailment had rendered him so frail that he was not expected to live. Many prominent New Yorkers petitioned the governor to release Lett from prison, which was finally done on March 10, 1845.

His days as a terrorist over, Lett joined some of his siblings who had moved from Canada to Illinois. In early December 1858, Benjamin became deathly ill, possibly poisoned by an agent of the British Crown. He died on December 9 and was buried in the family burial ground in Northville, Illinois.

The rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837-38 played a major role in the granting of Responsible Government to Upper and Lower Canada. However, Benjamin Lett's acts of terrorism had no such result. While other rebels would be revered as heroes in the establishment of democracy in British North America, Benjamin Lett is mainly remembered as the miscreant who destroyed Brock's Monument.

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