Terrorism along the border! It’s not new. In the wake of William Lyon Mackenzie’s ill-fated uprising at Montgomery’s Tavern in Toronto in December of 1837, rebellious activities shifted to Niagara as Mackenzie’s “Patriots” moved to Navy Island in the Niagara River. For the next three years certain border activities from Buffalo to Kingston took on terrorist proportions. Those activities are the ones attributed to one, Benjamin Lett. Charging that his brother had been shot and his sister and mother assaulted by rampaging Orangemen, for which he held the British responsible, Lett nursed a powerful and destructive resentment against Britain and colonial rule in Upper Canada. After the destruction of the steamship Caroline off Navy Island on December 29, 1837, Lett continued to act as a guerilla “devising and committing all manner of mischief.”1
In November, 1838 Captain Edgeworth Ussher, pilot of the crew which destroyed the Caroline, was murdered, shot in cold blood at his front door by Benjamin Lett. The Niagara Courier proclaimed this act “... but the introductory act of a ‘reign of terror’....” 2
In January, 1839, Lett tried unsuccessfully to burn all the ships anchored in Kingston Harbour. Later that year, in July, he participated in an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap and kill a Cobourg resident who had also been involved in the burning of the Caroline. He was later captured in the United States but promptly escaped.
On April 17, 1840, Good Friday, Lett arrived in Queenston from Lewiston with a keg of black powder. He placed it under the winding stairs inside the Brock monument, laid his train and fired it. The shaft of the tower was cracked from top to bottom, about half the parapet and roof were blown off. He fled back to the United States. Lieutenant Governor Arthur offered a 500-pound reward for Lett’s capture, but there were no takers. He sent secret agents to kidnap Lett and return him to Canada, but the plot was discovered; the American authorities refused to extradite him, causing Canadians to accuse the Americans of harbouring the terrorist who was so intent on opposing British rule.
Later, however, in Oswego, New York, Lett attempted to blow up the Canadian steamship Great Britain. The bomb failed and Lett was captured, brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to seven years hard labour at the State prison in Auburn. On the train ride to prison Lett escaped.
Shortly thereafter, in September, 1840, the aqueduct on the Welland Canal was bombed. Lett, of course was blamed. A year later, near Buffalo, Lett was captured once more and sent to prison in Auburn, where he was kept in solitary confinement. The experience weakened him physically and he was pardoned in 1845; ill, he went to live with his family in Illinois. On a trip to Milwaukee in 1858, Benjamin Lett died mysteriously of strychnine poisoning. The “reign of terror” of 1837-1841 brought Canada close to war with the United States after the War of 1812. Brock’s tower was replaced in 1858 by a taller, grander monument, a 56-meter high Corinthian column with a statue of General Sir Isaac Brock rising above it, his arm raised in defiance.
1 Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur - The Beaver Oct/November 2002). (www.uppercanadahistory.ca/tt/tt7.html)
2 The Beaver October/November 2002