The Proton Murder of 1861

Paper files in an archive

(Photo credit: Fabien Barral | Unsplash)

Why did George Amer kill William and Charles Bryan and what made him think he could get away with it?

It seemed like an important question to answer and the more I studied the trial transcripts, the more I came to believe that the violence that exploded on that hot June night in 1877 was premeditated and that Amer's actions in the hours, days, and weeks following the murders were part of a calculated effort to shape reality into what he needed it to be in order to get away with the cold blooded murders of his neighbours.

In the summer of 2014, I stumbled across a newspaper article at the Toronto Reference Library that would further buttress my belief that Amer was a ruthless man who would stop at nothing to get away with a crime he had so obviously committed. That article, published in the Globe & Mail on November 12, 1861 under a headline reading The Proton Murder, gives a swaggering account of the arrest of William Hall, who was suspected of murder in the burgeoning community of Proton Station (now a ghost town) located roughly a dozen kilometres northwest of present day Dundalk, ON.

The arresting officer was Owen Sound constable George Amer and it's immediately apparent that by 1861 he had gained a reputation for doing just about anything and everything it took to arrest a suspect. In this case, Amer turned up at Hall’s home with two men identified as “assistants”. When the men confronted Hall, he fled indoors with Amer in hot pursuit. A struggle ensued during which Hall allegedly went for his gun but, unable to get a clear shot, ordered his son to shoot Amer instead. Before the boy could do so, Amer broke free and drew his service revolver, aiming it at the boy who responded by lowering his weapon only to raise it again a moment later when his mother swiped the handcuffs from Amer, triggering the constable's assistants to storm the house and subdue the boy and his mother while Amer made the arrest.

It's not evident who Amer's assistants were that night, but what is plain is that whomever they were, they did not travel with Amer to the courthouse where Hall, according to the story, attempted to escape into a river only to be thwarted by yet another heroic effort on Amer's part. All of this bravado is meant to explain why Hall turned up at the courthouse in a frightful state as a result of having been beaten and half drowned. His wife and son had also been beaten and this story -- which could easily have been cribbed from one of the dime novels that were popular at the time -- was Amer's way of explaining why he and a couple of thugs felt it necessary to rough them up as well.

Whatever the truth of that arrest actually was, several elements find their echo 16 years later when Amer gives his account of what happened on the night he killed William and Charles Bryan. It's hard not to wonder how often some variation of this story was used by George Amer to justify his violent behaviour. He trotted it out twice, that we know of, but only because those incidents were publicly documented. How many similar incidents were not? That, unfortunately, is something we may never learn.

Based on the real-life 1877 killings of two members of one family by two members of another, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain the prosperity they know they deserve in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.