A Piece of Canadian Legal History

I happened to be in St. Thomas, Ontario, recently, and was taken on a tour of the old cemetery, which dates back to the founding of the town in about 1810. One of the residents, so to speak, of that graveyard is Hugh Richardson, the judge who presided over the trial of Louis Riel and pronounced the death sentence.

His gravestone was “cleaned” inexpertly some years ago and is now covered with lichen, making the inscription difficult to read, as you’ll see from the photograph to the left (click on it to enlarge it somewhat). I’ve taken another photograph from the Old St. Thomas Church website that shows the stone in close-up and have tried to do the magic thing that CSI shows on TV do when confronted with blur. You can pretty much make out the “Richardson” name, but most of the rest is still illegible. Again, click on the image to make it larger:

There’s a decent small biography of Richardson on the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, tracing his life from his birth in London, England, through residence in Ontario and education at Osgoode Hall Law School, to the post of a stipendiary magistrate for the North-West Territories and the famous trial in the summer of 1885. If you haven’t read about this important legal event, you can do so (curiously) on an American website: Doug Linder of the University of Missouri in Kansas City has included the Riel trial in his site of famous trials. There you’ll find, among other things, Judge Richardson’s (wrongly, I think, called “Justice Richardson”) instructions to the jury and his imposition of the sentence of death.

I was told by the person who took me on the tour of the cemetery that there are no funds available to restore this (or other) gravestones of historical importance. It seems to me important that a marker such as Richardson’s stone should be well preserved because of the role he played in a signal event in our history, regardless of how one feels about the event itself. It might be appropriate for the legal profession and groups from the Métis community to combine efforts to preserve this relic and in so doing to help to ensure that Louis Riel and the struggle of the Métis people will not be forgotten even here in “the East.”


  1. I have a friend who looked up his family tombstones. And to find out what inscriptions said, he had brought large sheets of paper and then he scribbled over to bring to life the ridges. Rub art from elementary school. Don’t know if it would have worked in this case.