Interesting Personalities

William Johnston RitchieThe Ritchies: A judicial family

It’s safe to say that judging and the law run in the Ritchie family. Since the 1820s the Ritchie clan of Annapolis Royal has produced more than 20 lawyers and seven judges, including four members of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court and a chief justice of Canada.

Annapolis Royal lawyer and politician Thomas Ritchie launched this “family business” in 1824, when he was named to the inferior court of common pleas. One of his sons, John William Ritchie, gravitated into politics and became one of Nova Scotia’s Fathers of Confederation. Appointed to the Supreme Court in 1870, he earned a reputation as one of its “ablest judges” before he retired in 1882. Another son, J. Norman Ritchie, also served on the John William RitchieSupreme Court. Remarkably a third son, William Johnston Ritchie, pursued a legal and political career in New Brunswick before becoming that province’s chief justice in 1865. Elevated to the Supreme Court of Canada upon its creation in 1875, he was Canada’s chief justice from 1879 until his death in Ottawa in 1892.

The next two generations of Ritchies each produced a judge. One of Thomas Ritchie’s grandsons, James Johnston Ritchie, served on the Nova Scotia Supreme Court from 1912-1925. A great-grandson, Windows in memory of the Ritchies.Roland A. Ritchie, served on the Supreme Court of Canada from 1959-1984. A great-great grandson, David Ritchie Chipman, served on Nova Scotia’s Court of Appeal from 1987 to 2005, representing the fifth generation of Ritchie judges. And his son, James L. Chipman, became the sixth generation when he was appointed to Nova Scotia's Supreme Court in 2013. It is, in the words of legal historian Philip Girard, “Nova Scotia’s best-known legal dynasty.”

For more information on the Ritchie family, see Charles St. C. Stayner, “John William Ritchie: One of the Fathers of Confederation,” Nova Scotia Historical Society Collections, vol. 36 (1968), pp. 180-277.

Richard John Uniacke Jr.: The judge who stood trial for murder

Richard John Uniacke, Jr.It was called an “affair of honour,” but in the eyes of the law it could have been an act of cold-blooded murder. On the morning of July 21, 1819, a field near Halifax echoed with gunshots as lawyer Richard John Uniacke Jr. and a merchant, William Bowie, fought one of Nova Scotia’s last duels. Uniacke proved the better marksman, shooting his opponent in the side. Bowie died later that day and Uniacke, son of the province’s attorney general, was charged with murder.

Acadian ReporterThe killing sent shock waves through the city. Ships in port flew their flags at half-mast and The Acadian Recorder newspaper reported that “a general gloom seemed to pervade all ranks of society.” A few days earlier, while acting for a client in a civil case, Uniacke had made disparaging remarks about Bowie, possibly branding him a smuggler. Bowie called Uniacke a liar and demanded a retraction; Uniacke refused and, to preserve his good name, demanded the duel.

Richard John Uniacke Sr.The trial was more of a show than a cliff-hanger. Uniacke’s powerful father, Richard John Uniacke Sr., accompanied his son into the courtroom and kept a close eye on the proceedings. No one – not the judges who presided, the gentlemen picked for the jury, or the prosecuting officers – was eager to see Uniacke convicted, and possibly hanged, for resorting to violence in order to protect his honour. It was clear Bowie had consented to put his life on the line and Uniacke insisted he showed up at the duelling grounds “void of any vindictive feelings, with no desire to shed human blood.” The jury deliberated just half an hour before finding him not guilty.

The incident did little to hinder Uniacke’s career. He was elected as an MLA for Cape Breton the following year and was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1830, making him the court’s first Nova Scotia-born judge. Uniacke apparently never recovered from killing Bowie and one observer claimed the strain contributed his premature death in 1834, at age 44.

For more information about Richard John Uniacke Jr.’s trial, see Dean Jobb, “For the Sake of Honour,” in Shades of Justice: Seven Nova Scotia Murder Cases (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1988), pp. 1-12.

The Clockmaker by Thomas Chandler HaliburtonAuthor on the Bench: Thomas Chandler Haliburton, creator of Sam Slick

Seeing is believing. Live and let live. Sharp as a needle. Author and Supreme Court judge Thomas Chandler Haliburton created – or at least popularized – these and a host of other everyday sayings through his most renowned character, the fictional Yankee clockmaker Sam Slick.

Thomas Chandler HaliburtonHaliburton, the son and grandson of judges, was born in Windsor, N.S., on December 17, 1796. Educated in his hometown at King’s College, he was admitted to the bar in 1820 and established a profitable law practice in Annapolis Royal. Elected as Annapolis Royal’s MLA in 1826, he resigned in 1829 to become a judge of the inferior court of common pleas – a post left vacant by his father’s death. When that court was abolished in 1841, Haliburton was elevated to the Supreme Court, where he was praised as “conscientious, upright, intelligent, adhering to the spirit rather than to the letter of the law.”

Sam Slick himself might well have described his creator as a man who had “too many irons in the fire.” While pursuing his judicial career, Haliburton was busy carving out a reputation as one of the leading writers and satirists of the nineteenth century. Three volumes of The Clockmaker series, featuring Slick’s biting commentary on contemporary society and politics, were published between 1836 and 1840, and The Old Judge; Or, Life in a Colony, a nostalgic look at Nova Scotia, appeared in 1849. These and Haliburton’s other books were published in dozens of editions in Canada, Britain and the United States, cementing his reputation as the “father of American humour.” In the mid-1800s, one literary scholar has noted, Haliburton and his books “had a vogue on both sides of the Atlantic which rivalled that enjoyed by Charles Dickens.”

Ill health forced Haliburton to retire in 1856, and he waged a bitter legal battle with the Nova Scotia government before securing a pension. He moved to England, married a wealthy widow and served in the British House of Commons from 1859-1865. He died in Middlesex, England, on August 27, 1865. Haliburton House, his mansion in Windsor, is now a museum.

For more information on Thomas Chandler Haliburton, see the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online:

James Robinson JohnstonThe Tragedy of James Robinson Johnston

James Robinson Johnston was Nova Scotia’s first black lawyer and may well have become the province’s first black judge. Born in Halifax in 1876, he was the first black graduate of Dalhousie Law School – only the third Canadian-born black to earn a law degree – and was admitted to the bar at the dawn of a new century, in 1900. He carved out a successful practice in criminal and military law and dabbled in politics – active in the Conservative party, he was seen as a future candidate for Halifax city council.

But Johnston’s promising career was cut short in 1915, when he was just 39. He was shot to death by his wife’s brother, Harry Allen, during an altercation at his Halifax home. Allen was convicted of murder and served 14 years in prison despite his lawyer’s dubious effort to portray Johnston as an abusive husband. Some 10,000 people attended Johnston’s funeral and Prime Minister Robert Borden sent a telegram expressing sadness at the death of a man described as “an ornament” to the legal profession. It would be the 1980s – more than 65 years after his death – before the first black person was appointed to a Nova Scotia court. In 1996 Dalhousie Law School established a chair in black Canadian studies that bears Johnston’s name.

For more information on James Robinson Johnston, see Barry Cahill, “The ‘Colored Barrister’: The Short Life and Tragic Death of James Robinson Johnston, 1876-1915,” Dalhousie Law Journal, vol. 15, no. 2 (Fall 1992), pp. 336-379.

Blowers and Uniacke: A bitter rivalry

Dueling PistolsImagine Nova Scotia’s top judge and the province’s leading law enforcement official fighting a duel. Such a spectacle nearly occurred in Halifax in 1798, when Chief Justice Sampson Salter Blowers challenged the attorney general, Richard John Uniacke, to fight a duel.

Uniacke was the patriarch of one of Nova Scotia’s most wealthy and influential families, a legal and political powerhouse who dominated the local government. Blowers was a leader among the Americans who had backed the wrong side in the Revolutionary War and fled to Nova Scotia. Their testy relationship epitomized the clash between locals and Loyalist newcomers for power and government jobs. Uniacke had designs on the chief justice’s post that went to Blowers in 1797, and succeeded Blowers as attorney general.

The two men had nearly squared off in 1791, after Blowers hired a servant that Uniacke had fired. Uniacke insulted and berated Blowers and the latter issued a challenge, but the authorities intervened and prevented a duel. Cooler heads again prevailed in 1798 after Uniacke got the better of one of Blowers’ associates, Loyalist lawyer Jonathan Sterns, in a street fight. Blowers, by now the chief justice, again issued a challenge to fight a duel. Uniacke accepted, but once again Halifax’s magistrates stepped in and ordered both men to keep the peace. Uniacke was never prosecuted for beating Sterns, even though the assault may have contributed to Sterns’ death not long afterwards.

For more information on the rivalry between Uniacke and Blowers, see Brian Cuthbertson, The Old Attorney General: A Biography of Richard John Uniacke (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1980), pp. 27-36.