She Said What?

Gavel

(Photo: Wesley Tingey | Unsplash)

Ellen Sim is one of the more enigmatic characters to appear in The Haweaters. A sworn deposition she gave in Manitowaning on June 28, 1877 about the deaths of William and Charles Bryan at the hands of her boss and his son is recorded in the "Murder on the Manitoulin" pamphlet put out by the Manitoulin District History and Genealogy Society in February 1993 and reads as follows:

"I am hired at Mr. Amer's. I was at Mr. Amer's house last Tuesday night on the 26th of June. I have never seen the baton now produced before. I did not see or hear anything that took place between Mr. Amer and the Bryans on that night. I don't know anything of the whereabouts of Laban Amer. I have not seen him since yesterday morning. On reconsideration, it was the morning previous -- the same morning on which the constable came out to Mr. Amer's house -- that I last saw Laban Amer. I don't know of any person supplying Laban Amer with provisions. Mr. Amer's little girl was at the house until last night."

Ellen Sim didn't know anything about anything. Or so she was willing to testify. Another servant, Samuel Blanchard, was also at the Amer house on the night of the murders. He too saw and heard nothing and his deposition is remarkably similar to that of Ellen Sim. It appears as though both servants had their testimony dictated to them in advance, presumably at the behest of their boss, George Amer.

More than likely Ellen knew more than she was saying. It's also more than likely that she was the one bringing provisions to Laban Amer when he hid in the woods on the north end of the Amer homestead in his ultimately failed effort to avoid the law. What's not as clear is what Ellen gained by lying. Was she appeasing a ruthless boss for the sake of employment? Was she financially compensated? Was she merely being loyal? We'll likely never know.

That deposition is the only place Ellen turned up in my research. I could not locate an original copy of her deposition, just the pamphlet's rendering of it. Ellen does not testify at the trial nor is there any suggestion she spoke at the coroner's inquest held just a few days later on July 3, 1877. There is also some confusion as to what her name really was. It's recorded in the pamphlet as Ellen Sim, but I could not find any suggestion that she ever went by that name. Her stepfather was Robert Sims (spelled with an "s"), so presumably that's why a version of his last name was recorded as hers. However, Ellen seems to have gone by her father's last name of Ritchie.

Whatever her name was, she was most likely born in Collingwood in 1857. Her father, Joseph Ritchie, was born in Armagh, Ireland and died when she was young. Her mother, Hannah Ritchie, subsequently married Robert Sims. Both her mother and stepfather were born in Scotland. As a child, Ellen lived in Angus, Ontario and later in Sarnia until her stepfather, a retired sailor, purchased a boat in 1868 with the intention of taking settlers to Manitoulin Island. As the legend goes, he fell in love with the island at first sight and decided to immediately move his family to Michael’s Bay. Once there, he worked at the local sawmill as well as in the lumber camps. He also continued to use his boat to transport settlers and their belongings to the island and haul much needed supplies to Michael's Bay from South Baymouth. The family continued to live in Michael’s Bay until 1872 when they moved to Hilly Grove where they were living while Ellen was employed on the Amer homestead. They would later move to Assiginack.

Ellen had two brothers, William (James) and John, and three half siblings, David, Annie, and Robert. The youngest sibling, Robert, was born in Michael’s Bay in 1870, making him one of the first European settlers born on the island. In 1898, Ellen married William Courish in Providence Bay. The couple would have no children. She died of cancer on November 26, 1922 in Carnarvon Township and is buried in the Providence Bay Cemetery.


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.