A Tragic Bar Fight, 1884

A terribly true story of my great-great grandfather, Lorenzo, and his brother, Rufus, taken directly from eyewitness
accounts in court records.

On the afternoon of September 16, 1884, Rufus Eldridge and Lorenzo “Ron” Stevens, farmers living on adjoining properties in London, Ontario, drove their horse-drawn wagon to Nilestown, Ontario to purchase “domestic supplies”.

Lorenzo was a 41 year-old bachelor who managed the family farm and cared for his mother. Rufus was his 48 year-old half-brother and close friend who was recently married and had just become a father for the first time. His son Freddie was a little over one year old.

The two journeyed to Nilestown that day, as they had so often in the past, probably to purchase goods like sugar, fabrics, or fencing. As the pleasant afternoon turned to evening, the brothers were apparently in no great rush to get home. They settled in at the Nilestown Hotel with drinks, their wagon and horses stationed nearby. It was there, at the saloon, where they came across strangers John Richards, William Butt, Edward Noulty, and Henry L’Ansette, among others.

The group caroused well into the late evening, when sometime after 10pm an argument broke out between Rufus and Edward Noulty about which man was the better man–especially which man could “draw brick” better. Rufus began to brag that he could “lick” any man in the room, pressing his hand onto Noulty’s shoulder he exclaimed “I can draw more brick than you, or I can lick you either”. 

Noulty turned to L’Ansette and suggested “Here’s a man can ‘lick’ you”, indicating the inebriated Rufus.

Jeremiah McRoberts, proprietor of the hotel came over, grabbed Noulty by the shoulders and took him to the corner of the room to reprimand him not to cause a fight. Noulty relented and agreed, but as soon as he returned a scuffle broke out between him and Rufus. Shoves. Jabs. Maybe even a punch or two.

 

The dispute, which began at the Nilestown Hotel soon shifted just down the street to the Byers Hotel. Rufus and Lorenzo had left the first hotel, and walked down the street a short way to the Byers, not ready to end the evening, and presumably to lick their figurative wounds and grouse about the troublemakers. 

The two weren’t long at the Byers before Noulty and L’Ansette reappeared. Almost immediately, “Rufe” threw Noulty to the ground and began choking him, prompting the hotel-keeper to pull him off.

At the same time, Ron had started brawling with L’Ansette. The latter hit Ron, knocking him down to the ground. Witnesses differ on whether Ron crawled or ran behind the bar, but all agree that then, with L’Ansette reaching for him over he bartop, Ron grabbed a liquor bottle and broke it over his attacker’s head. As blood ran down the Frenchman’s head, Ron reached for more bottles to start throwing, when he was grabbed by a witness and pulled to a hallway at the back of the bar. Rufus was escorted back there as well.

Noulty and L’Ansette were ejected out the front door.

After much protest by Noulty and L’Ansette, they were shortly allowed back in and L’Ansette was said to be quite worked up, holding his bleeding head and muttering that “a man that would do that would kill his own brother.”

The aggravated Frenchman was about 27 years old, and was said to be stout and powerful in appearance, with a “bulldog”-like head and an aggressive countenance. He was well known around the neighborhood as a fighter with a bad temper–a trait that was on full display as he paced, threatened, and ranted, hoping to get revenge against the older men. He was heard shouting “Rufe, you —–, I can lick you, and I will!”

By that point, Ron and Rufus had moved into the kitchen, where a witness told them to sit tight for a while before leaving. The altercation had already gotten too hot, and the brothers were determined to leave. Rufus pulled out a knife saying that no one was going to prevent him from going home. 

What happened next changed the course of history: Rufus handed his knife to his younger brother, Lorenzo, so he would have means of protecting himself.

The two headed out the back doors–Rufus went to the wagon nearby on the main road, while Ron went to the stables to retrieve the horses. As Ron hitched the horses up successfully, Rufe took a seat in the wagon. Ron joined him shortly and the two attempted to get the wagon turned around. If they had known what would come to pass, they would have just sent the horses flying forward, regardless of direction or purpose.

Back inside the Byers Hotel, someone heard the wagon moving and alerted the room to the fact that the two brothers were leaving. L’Ansette and Noulty headed out right away and caught up with the Stevens men before the wagon was turned completely.

Noulty went to one side and caught Ron by his coat, pulling him out of the wagon seat and punching him squarely in the face. 

This is where the story gets muddied, depending on the witnesses. All agree, though, that Lorenzo held out the knife and began swinging it. He later testified that the threat of the knife was enough to hold off his attacker, but other sources swore that Noulty suffered several cuts and stabs–at least seven, though he was said to be resting comfortably by the next day. Ron took a few more hits to the nose.

Over on the other side of the wagon, L’Ansette had gone after Rufus. The Frenchman was allegedly clubbed in the head with something heavy, prompting him to pull out his own knife and stab Rufus in the heart.

Rufus was carried to one of the nearby hotels, where he died before medical help could arrive.

Lorenzo, L’Ansette, and Noulty were all arrested later that night, and remained in custody for, at minimum, a few days. L’Ansette was later charged with manslaughter and faced trial. If Lorenzo was ever charged with anything, no record has been found, though police were certain to search his posessions and confiscate his knife and gun.

L’Ansette’s trial was held within in the ensuing two months. Several witnesses corroborated Lorenzo’s account of the incident.

The defense, on the other hand, asserted that the brothers were the violent participants who brought weapons into what would have otherwise been a fistfight. According to L’Ansette, while Rufus clubbed him, Lorenzo was flailing wildly with his knife and stabbing at the air, trying to hit anything. Noulty’s stab (or slash) wounds tend to corroborate this part.

Both Noulty and L’Ansette testified that it was Lorenzo who accidentally stabbed Rufus, with the victim shouting “Oh my god, it’s me you struck!” Some witnesses agreed that L’Ansette had staggered back into the bar during the brawl shouting that he had been clubbed in the head, and upon hearing word of the stabbing, immediately pulled out his knife to show witnesses it wasn’t him and that his knife was clean.

After about thirty minutes of deliberation, the jury rejected L’Ansette’s version of events, finding him guilty of manslaughter. The judge sentenced the Frenchman to four years in the penitentiary. It is not known what became of Noulty.

Lorenzo faced no criminal charges, and went on to mourn his lost brother deeply in years to come. After that horrible night, he swore never to touch a drop of liquor again, and, as far as anyone knows, he held true to that promise.

Not long after that Lorenzo married and settled down to raise a family, including two sons, Alva and Oliver Stevens.

1890s, Lorenzo Stevens & Annie Maude Bletcher StevensLorenzo Stevens and his bride, Annie, approximately 10 years after the fight

We will never know for certain whether a panicked Lorenzo accidentally stabbed his brother, or whether the belligerent Frenchman was the murderer. While clearly, Ron was no innocent actor in the fight, it seems such a stretch to imagine that he could accidentally plunge his knife into his brother’s chest. At least, I hope for his conscience that I am right, and so was the jury.

While I read the court transcripts of the trial and testimony, I can tell you that I flinched at every mention of Lorenzo being pulled from the wagon or hit. And I sighed at the notion that Rufus may have saved his brother by giving him that knife. Selfishly, my entire existence depended on Lorenzo making it through that fight and changing his life. So, to Rufus I offer my gratitude, and hope that this story, as sensational as it is, pays tribute to his memory in some small way. This compilation of reports is the first time their story has ever been written down in full.

eldridge-rufus-gravestone.jpg
The faded gravestone of Rufus Eldridge in London, Ontario,
picture taken during my last visit

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