George Herchmer Markland was the closest thing to royalty that existed in the Canadian colonies. Born in 1790 at Kingston, in what was still the Province of Quebec before it became Upper Canada, Markland grew up in ease and comfort, and was educated by the Family Compact’s patriarch himself, the Anglican Bishop John Strachan.
At 20, Markland was coming into elite society. The lawyer John Beverley Robinson – the same man who named Alexander Wood “the Inspector General of private Accounts” – said that Markland was, “a good fellow, and very friendly.”
Yet Markland made Robinson uneasy. The lawyer confessed, “I prefer seeing a person his age more manly and not quite so feminine in either speech or action.”
Markland was in training to be an priest, but changed his mind. In 1812, he went to war as an ensign in the Frontenac militia, defending Canada from American invasion. At some point he married, as all men of his class were expected to, but he and Anna Markland never had any children. In 1820, he went into politics. He ran in Kingston, but lost.
Losing the election didn’t damage his political career – just the opposite. The Family Compact raised him up into their own ranks – he was promoted (unelected) to the highest lawmaking body in the land, the Legislative Council, probably thanks to Bishop Strachan. At 37, in 1827, he was given a full seat on the Executive Council, at the heart of government.
Not yet forty, Markland was now one of the most powerful people in the colony. He sat on numerous committees and boards, and was in charge of the leasing and sales of much of the land administered by the government. Most importantly, he was put in charge of the sale of school lands – lands sold to support the colony’s education system, and fund institutions like Upper Canada College.
In 1833, he was made Inspector General of Public Accounts – it was his job to inspect all government spending. This was a high position of trust. But Markland had reached his apogee – his star was about to fall.
In 1838, when Markland was 48 years old, rumour started to go around that he was meeting young men – mostly soldiers – in his office at the government buildings at night. Some began to get suspicious.
The housekeeper of the government buildings, a woman named Margaret Powell, tried to warn Markland in a note, writing, “Your Movements about this Building are watched, and have become the Subject of conjecture.” Markland did not take the warning seriously.
The rumours reached Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur, the colony’s chief official. He decided upon an investigation. Markland agreed, saying it was the only way to clear his name.
However, Markland begged the lieutenant governor to make his old teacher, Bishop Strachan, the only investigator. The bishop had remained a close friend of Alexander Wood’s even after the scandal, and Markland probably figured Strachan would be willing to look the other way when it came to his sexuality, too.
The lieutenant governor refused to appoint such a biased detective to the case, and instead turned to Markland’s fellow members of the Executive Council. And after only a week of investigation, these investigators turned up a mountain of dirt.
Most of this was rumour and innuendo. Two of the witnesses before the inquiry claimed that they’d heard that Markland had got several men out of the military and supported a law student named Frederick Creighton Muttlebury in exchange for promised sexual favours. The soldiers denied having promised anything.
Some of the evidence, however, was more telling. One witness claimed that Markland had tried to feel up his brother. Muttlebury said he got away from Markland because of (what The Canadian Biographical Dictionary called) Markland’s “increasingly bold and possessive attitude.” But Muttlebury added that nothing Markland did was actually illegal.
Margaret Powell – the housekeeper who had tried to warn him – gave the most damning evidence of all. She said that she had once listened at his office door and heard “such movements as convinced me that there was a female in the room, with whom some person was in connection [having sex].” When the door opened, it turned out only Markland and a military drummer had been in the room.
Markland became desperate. He begged for time to put his defence together. He claimed there was a witness, a soldier named James Pearson, in Toronto whose testimony could help clear his name. But then, strangely, he decided he didn’t want Pearson to appear before the enquiry. Frantic, Markland wrote a letter to the lieutenant governor, stressing all the good he and his family had done for the colony.
The evidence kept increasingly. Finally, the lieutenant governor agreed to drop the charges if Markland would quietly resign his post as inspector general. Markland agreed. Over the next three years, he was gradually forced out of every government and military position he held. He retreated to Kingston.
In 1841, there was another Markland scandal, this time involving finances. It seems that while Markland was in charge of the school lands fund, he’d lost (or stolen) £5000 of money belonging to the schools. His enemies screamed embezzlement, and Markland agreed to pay back every cent in instalments, finally paying the rest of it in his will.
It has been suggested that the money was spent on his “favourites,” but this remains pure speculation.
Alexander Wood staged an astonishing comeback after a similar scandal forced him to flee to Scotland. George Herchmer Markland lacked his friend’s chutzpah.
Markland exiled himself to Kingston, and spent the last 24 years of his life as a recluse. From the time of his scandal on, he vanishes from history. He disappears from the biographies of political figures of the time, disappears from the history of the Family Compact. His story has been largely reconstructed by the efforts of 20th-century historians.
Most astonishingly, his name disappears even from the lips of his enemies. This is no small feat – politics in early Canada was a brutal game, and the mudslinging, rumours, and accusations outstrip even the most negative ad campaigns in American politics today. Anti-Family Compact newspapers were quick to spot the slightest opportunity to launch an attack on the morals of their enemies.
And Markland was a favourite target of the enemies of the Family Compact. He was being accused of mismanagement of funds long before the £5000 turned up missing from the school lands account.
These anti-Compact papers often took cheap shots, mocking Markland for things such as his pride in his family’s traditions – talking about “The ancestral pride of Mr. Markland, his proud escutcheon [coat-of-arms] and Ducal Coronet” (Correspondent and Advocate, February 22, 1836).
Yet no one has ever found a newspaper describing the investigation. I did my own search as well, and turned up nothing. Editors of the day were well-informed, and the rumours about Markland were widespread.
Markland’s fall from power in August, 1838, came less a year after the Mackenzie-Papineau Rebellions, which had nearly toppled the Family Compact and established a democratic republic. Britain was investigating the grievances, and grievance number one for the rebels in Upper Canada was the Family Compact.
Thus, they were weak at that point, and teetering. An accusation of “sodomy” against one of their most powerful members might have been the deathblow – homosexuality was the very symbol of corruption for English society, associated with the last days of Rome, with Babylon, with Egypt, and with the Catholic Church.
The anti-Compact papers chose to give up a golden opportunity to inflict the ultimate humiliation on their enemies. Why? They may have considered it unfair to drag a politician’s private life into the public spotlight, but this seems anachronistic and nothing in the papers suggests that they shied away from this under ordinary circumstances.
They may also have been afraid of a libel suit. But while that’s probably a contributing factor, I suspect that at least part of the reason was that the silence surrounding homosexuality in early Canada transcended partisan politics. Newspapers did not discuss it, however great the opportunity to score political points.
Markland survived his erasure by 24 years. He traded his friends, his allies, his career, and his place in the history books for his life and freedom from prison. He lived out the rest of his days in Kingston in a financially comfortable exile.
Markland was far luckier than most. The nameless or little-known majority of those charged with “sodomy” did not have either wealth or powerful friends to protect them. It is to these men that we now turn.
As with my article on Alexander Wood, I did not have much in the way of primary sources to work with. As always, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online on the government of Canada website was enormously helpful. It was useful not only for Markland’s life – it has a page and a half devoted to him – but also for understanding the major players in Canadian society of the time. Another excellent source is Robert Burns’ article “Queer Doings,” which appeared in the April 1, 2003 edition of the Canadian historical magazine, The Beaver. Like Alexander Wood, Markland’s signature appears on many government documents, but – unlike Wood – I was able to frequently find useful stuff about Markland in the newspapers, most often screeds written by his political enemies. The anti-Family Compact paper Correspondent and Advocate, especially, raises the anti-Markland editorial up to the status of an art form.