The hanging of Charles Coghlin

In the 1840’s, the Canadian town of Guelph was wracked by antagonism between the Irish Protestant (also known as Orangemen) and Catholic elements. Two neighbouring families, the Coghlins (Catholic) and the Olivers (Protestant) lived just outside of the town. Quarrels frequently erupted and escalated until a tragic incident occurred in 1847 when Richard Oliver was fatally stabbed in a scuffle with the Coghlins. The youngest Coghlin, Charles, was charged and brought before the magistrate, Dr. William Clarke. Dr. Clarke, an Irish Protestant, had fueled much of the antagonism in recent months by finding for the Olivers in every court case brought before him. Now Dr. Clarke wanted and got a conviction of first degree murder against Charles Coghlin.

Charles Coghlin was sentenced to death by hanging. On the day of his hanging, Charles Coghlin gave a stirring speech denouncing the quality of justice in Guelph. He immediately became a hero to the local Catholics, and a huge crowd gathered for his funeral. In the following nights men would gather around his grave and fire volleys into the air. A shockwave hit the town when a mill partly owned by Dr. Clarke was burned to the ground.

At the point in which the public feelings ran hottest, a letter appeared in the local newspapers signed "A Mechanic of Guelph." The writer asked if the establishment of a Mechanics’ Institute (a precursor to the public library) would not contribute more to the happiness and welfare of the inhabitants of Guelph

and thereby foster the growth of sound and useful knowledge, than by countenancing or acquiescing in the perpetuation of feuds and party demonstrations which have their origin in ignorance and are nursed by superstition and fanaticism.

Another influence for the founding of the Mechanics’ Institute in Guelph came from the public educational programs of the various evangelical churches. The titles of these lectures from the churches’ educational program of the time capture the moral mission that was envisioned for the library:

"The utility of Knowledge in general– The special importance of religious Knowledge."

"Authenticity and Genuineness of Scripture"

"Astronomy– the character and power of the Telescope, and the character and power of the mental machinery."

The Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Institute of Guelph was founded in 1850 and was eventually replaced by a free public library, the first in Ontario built under the provisions of the Public Libraries Act. [source: Johnson, Leo A. History of Guelph, 1827-1927]

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