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Unfortunates: The Wonch family, part two (4 photos)

Part two of the tale of a Collingwood family who often found themselves in the news of the late 1800s, including a double murder

Out in the woods near Craigleith, Jenny Leopard’s world was crumbling. Things had been going from bad to worse for some time in this sad little place and now reports were coming to her that her estranged husband had married someone else. Not surprisingly, Jenny Leopard, more commonly referred to as Jenny Wonch, was struggling to cope with caring for her extended family.

Eventually, some time in the spring of 1891, Jenny was apprehended and removed to the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for women while her daughters went to a house of refuge. Her young son was sent to Toronto by local church group who had promised him a visit with his mother but, once the lad realized he was headed to the Boys’ Home, he ran from his chaperones and it took a posse of police the better part of the day to recapture him.

During Jenny’s absence, the family shanty burned down. The kindness of neighbours was evident as another dwelling was built for the family by John Rice, who also took in Jack Wonch, in 1892. Mary Ann went to live with her son, James, in Collingwood.

By the beginning of 1893, Jenny was back at home in the rural homestead with her mother and her brother, Jack. With her, was her two-year-old daughter, Maisy Wonch. Whether Maisy was a child of James Leopard or not is unclear, but it was known at the time that Jenny hoped to win the favour of “Jim” who could perhaps have been her estranged husband.

The dwelling that now housed three generations of the Wonch family, including the aged matriarch, her handicapped son, her daughter plus at least one grandchild, was completely unsuitable for a group. In fact, it wasn’t fit for any habitation, at least according to later newspaper reports.

“Yesterday, your reporter visited the hut, which is situated in a swamp and is a miserable hovel about seven feet square, six feet high at the front and four feet high in the rear. In the shanty, was a rusty stove box, two chairs, the frame of an old lounge and a few pots and pans. The door was broken off and lying on the ground.”

On the day of Feb. 23, 1893, something terrible happened. After that time, only two of the four occupants of the house remained alive. The survivors would point fingers at each other but it was Jenny who was called “murderess” in newspaper stories that appeared as far away as Calgary and Iowa.

On the night of the tragedy, Jenny walked to the Rice homestead to borrow a hand sleigh. Her brother, Jack, who had been attempting to support the family by cutting wood, had recently fallen and broken some ribs. Jenny had been working in his stead and needed to move some wood, or so she told John Rice.

The lateness of the hour, coupled with Jenny’s nervous demeanour, didn’t sit well with Mr. Rice and he took a walk to the Wonch cabin the next evening. He found the building in a terrible state with no occupants around. John Rice followed the tracks of the hand sleigh into the forest and made a sobering discovery – Mary Ann Wonch was dead and partially buried in the snow.

The next day, Rice returned accompanied by Coroner Stephens and Collingwood Chief Constable Lewis. The remains of Maisy Wonch were then found beneath the cabin floor boards.

Jack Wonch was discovered a distance away and arrested for vagrancy until it could be determined what had occurred.

When Jenny was found a few days later, she was working at hotel in Meaford. She explained that her brother had done this terrible thing and all that she could do now for her deceased relatives was to provide a decent funeral. She had taken the train to Meaford to raise funds to buy a coffin, she told police, as she had no money.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.

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Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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