Ben Lett - A Picturesque Miscreant

By J. Squair.

Darlington people have usually been of a plain, steady-going kind. Few of them fortunately have been remarkable for violent deeds. But there have been some who have attracted the attention of others by wicked, out-of-the-way conduct.

One of these was Benjamin Lett who has been spoken of by our historians occasionally, but not as often as one might have expected from the nature of some of his spectacular doings.

Mr. James B. Fairbairn, P.M. in his “History and Reminiscences of Bowmanville” at pages three and four has some interesting things to say of Ben Lett, but he leaves a number of points without clearing them up. It would be interesting to know more about the refuge of whom he speaks who came down through Darlington, who looked and acted like a gentleman, but presented the appearance of a hunted deer, without boots and only partly clothed, and who was befriended by Ben Lett.

The late Henry Powers of Clarke, told the writer in 1902, that Ben Lett and Samuel Launt came to Kirby one night not long after the battle at Montgomery’s Tavern in December 1837, and asked the Powers family for shelter, being just then hunted by the police. They spent the night under the Power’s hospitable roof, had supper and breakfast and started in the grey of the early morning through the woods to the east, and soon were lost to sight. Ben Lett may have been one of the pair, but it is pretty certain that Samuel Launt was not the other.

Next we hear of Ben at Navy Island. By what route did he arrive at that spot? It is pretty certain that he was there with W. L. Mackenzie.

J.C. Dent in “The story of the Upper Canadian Rebellion” (1885) at page 224, volume II, speaks of Lett as one of the few who were wounded in the fighting between the rebels and the militia.

After the capture of the Caroline and her destruction by the brave men of Captain Drew, Mackenzie and his “Patriots” were forced to evacuate Navy Island, January 14, 1838. From that date until May 1850 Mackenzie was a fugitive in the United States, part of the time in prison for having set on foot a military enterprise in the United States against Canada, and part of the time at liberty, gaining his living with much difficulty. It is likely that Lett was in close touch with Mackenzie during part of this period, but not may particulars seem to be known regarding him.

Mr. Fairbairn in the book already spoken of page 4 refers to the Lett family as worthy people and the writer has just seen an advertisement in the Christian Guardian of March 6, 1839, in which Robert Lett offered for sale his farm in Darlington, lot 27, concession 7, consisting of 200 acres, of which 60 were cleared and ten under fall wheat. It is also stated that there were a frame house, a log barn, and excellent water on the place. There was a small stream crossing the lot and Mr. Fairbairn at page five of his book gives a poem called “Memories” written by a sister of Lett’s in praise of this stream. The farm was later owned by Mr. Eber Millson.

The next reference to Ben Lett that the writer noticed is a short article in the Christian Guardian of August 21, 1839, stating that Lett has not yet been captured, and that the reward of £500 is still offered for his capture.

In the following Spring (1840) Canada and the United States were shocked by the news that on April 17, Brock’s monument on Queenston Heights erected in 1824, had been rent by a discharge of gunpowder. Ben Lett was the perpetrator of the deed and a reward of £250 was offered for his apprehension. He fled to the United States and was not captured.

Naturally many public meetings were held and great indignation expressed, amongst others one at Queenston Heights on July 30, 1840, at which the Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur presided and at which a thousand people sat down to dinner. It was decided to rebuild the monument and this was consummated, but not until October 13, 1859.

It was believed by many that Lett blew up the mountain at the instigation of Mackenzie. The writer has not seen the evidence for this belief. It does not seem necessary to believe that Lett needed any instigator. He was apparently quite capable of imagining such wickedness without any help.

But while Canadians were busy holding indignation meetings, Lett kept up his nefarious trade of destruction. He and another miscreant placed vessels of explosives in a ship called the Great Britain, lying in Oswego harbour.

Owing to some defect in their manoeuvres the explosion was not a success, and the ship was not burnt. In June Lett and Dafoe were tried at Oswego for attempt at Arson. Lett was found guilty and was sentenced to seven years in Auburn State Prison. But on the way to Auburn, while the train had slackened its speed to about four miles an hour, going through a cedar swamp, Lett jumped from the train and escaped. William H. Seward, afterwards famous as one of Lincoln’s cabinet at that time governor of the state of New York, offered a reward of $250 for his apprehension. From the proclamation we learn that Lett was about twenty-six years of age, five feet ten inches in height, and light complexion, stout and muscular in build, having neither cap, nor shoes and with one skirt of his coat torn off. He had lost these things in leaping from the train. He was not captured and there was a strong suspicion according to the Press that he had been allowed to escape.

Shortly thereafter in the end of September 1840, a break occurred in the Welland Canal aqueduct over the Chippewa River, on account of which traffic was suspended for a few days. The public mind was so excited by the things done by Lett that this accident also was attributed to his malevolence, and a sensational paragraph went the rounds of the newspapers that Lett had blown up the Welland Canal and this, too, at the instigation of William Lyon Mackenzie. There was similar story going about in 1838, which Dent refers to in the book mentioned at page 271, volume II.

The next source of information regarding Lett is a book called “Recollections, 1837-1910”, published in 1910, by Charles W. Marsh, well known as the inventor of the Marsh Harvester of the middle of the nineteenth century. The book relates that the Marsh family went from Canada to Illinois in 1849, and that one of them driving in his wagon one day overtook a man on foot whom he invited to “take a lift”. The man turned out to be Ben Lett and he talked about the past, of killing Capt. Usher at Navy Island and of blowing up Brock’s Monument. Marsh said that Lett settled down in DeKalb Co., Illinois, and lived there for years, but later moved to Milwaukee and died there a good many years ago. But unfortunately the author does not give dates for these events.

It is remarkable that so little has been said about Ben Lett. Although a violent miscreant, there is about him a picturesque quality, such as has kept many a name green in the memory of men. Some sensational novelist may some day take him for a hero, and squeeze him into the category of great men who have endured much suffering for political ideals.

Chronicles of Ben Lett by his brother Thomas Lett


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