G’day there!

I wasn’t kidding last week when I said that another work update loomed on the horizon; however, before I begin, I would just like to point out that this is the last such post you’ll have to suffer for the next little bit. You have my permission to break out your alcoholic beverage of choice once you’ve read through to the end…regardless of the time of day. I won’t judge you – in fact, I’ll probably go for a rum and eggnog myself. ‘Tis the season, as they say.

Anyway, here’s how it went down.

It had to happen at some point – at least, that’s what I kept telling myself. Eventually, someone was going to come knocking, in need of my services, and not because a third party had greased the wheels in my favour. Ironically, that knock came by way of this site which, at that point, was deep in the throes of neglect.

Remember earlier this year, when we turned the corner into January and there wasn’t a single flake of snow on the ground? And how we were all laughing and saying how it was going to be a quick winter? And then how we must all have been laughing a bit too hard and Old Man Winter started throwing sucker punch after sucker punch on what seemed to be a daily basis for two whole months? And how we all began to lose our minds?

Ha ha, yeah. Good times.

Anyway, one day in March, when we were well and truly bogged down in a snowy quagmire of biblical proportion, into my inbox pops a message from a woman in the US. She was seeking assistance in fleshing out the life of her 3x great-grandmother, Sarah Ballard who, along with her parents William and Sarah, and sisters, lived on the Island for an undetermined period of time between the 1820s and 1840s. She already knew a bit, and I agreed to put in some time at the Public Archives and Records Office in Charlottetown to confirm said knowledge, and see what else I might be able to find.

Straight up historical/genealogical research.

My client actually gave me quite a bit to work with, so I was able to get started on solid footing and avoid that awkward initial phase – you know, the one where you feel like Bambi on ice as you attempt to gain a bit of traction. I was already having enough trouble just navigating the city’s icy “slip ‘n slide”-walks.

Here’s the Coles Notes version of the hard knock life of the Ballards.

The client’s 4x great-grandparents, William Ballard and Sarah Klattenburg, came to the Island by way of Nova Scotia sometime after their marriage in April 1818. He was born c. 1790-1800, and worked as a shoemaker (or cobbler); she c.1800. Their union produced at least four children, daughters, with the last born in 1838: Susanna, Mary Ann, Sarah, and Bridget.

William was one of a number of people employed in the shoemaking business in Charlottetown, which at that point likely did not have the population to support the market. Perhaps that’s why he began to dabble in counterfeiting. Or perhaps he was already old hand at it. In any event, he was playing a dangerous game – and he got caught.

In July 1840, William was arrested on suspicion of counterfeiting. Newspapers of the day reported that evidence of the crime had been found at his residence; however, despite what should have been damning evidence, he got off scot free. There are no records that tell us why this was. It sounds like it was but a minor operation, so perhaps that went in his favor; it’s also possible that he might have turned Queen’s evidence (that is, he had partners-in-crime whom he gave up to save himself).

But this wasn’t William’s first run-in with the law. In April 1839, he found himself arrested and sent to prison on the charge of “obstructing a constable” (I still have no idea what exactly that means); however, as luck would have it, when the case went to trial he managed to avoid conviction. Perhaps he was more a farrier than a cobbler.

William had a good deal of luck when it came to committing crime, as you can see. His daughter Sarah, on the other hand? Not nearly so much.

Sarah (the client’s 3x great-grandmother) was only 10-13 years of age when, in September 1839, she tried her hand at petty theft. The prize? 30lbs. of sugar. The ‘victim’? One of Charlottetown’s most prominent citizens, the Hon. James Peake. And the punishment? Harsh.

Sarah’s case went to trial in January 1840, and it couldn’t have gone any less in her favour. The stolen sugar, which she had likely intended to give to her family – possibly to then be sold under the table – amounted to 15 shillings. To a man of Peake’s stature it really wasn’t that significant; but he wasn’t about to let her off the hook.

There was to be no defence for Sarah – she simply plead guilty to larceny and that was that. As a sentence, she was awarded a two-month stint in Charlottetown’s jail, at that time a squalid, frightening abode. By today’s standards, it would be positively draconian to send a child to an actual prison. Not so in 1840 – in fact, Sarah was actually lucky in a sense. It hadn’t been that long since people were hanged for theft, and as late at 1836 it was an offence punishable by death; in addition, there is nothing to suggest that she was subjected to solitary confinement or hard labour as was wont to happen. Of course, for someone her age, the whole experience must have been absolutely traumatizing.

"Harvey's Brig", where Sarah Ballard, aged 10-13, served a two-month prison sentence in 1840.
“Harvey’s Brig”on Connaught or Pownal Square, where Sarah Ballard, aged 10-13, served a two-month prison sentence in 1840.

It wasn’t long after that the Ballards up and left Charlottetown. By the mid 1840s, Mary Ann and Sarah were in Massachusetts, where they both married and went on to lead productive lives, while William, Sarah (the mother), Bridget, and Susanna found their way back to Nova Scotia. William and Sarah appear to have lived out the rest of their days there. We know that he passed away at some point prior to 1869, for that is when she died a widow, aged 69, at the Poor’s Asylum in Halifax.

Admittedly, a bit of a depressing tale for an otherwise sunny and mild late November day; however, such are the perils of delving into one’s family history – you never know what you’ll discover, and have to take the good with the bad. Skeletons in the closet, as they say.

OK, everyone drink!


PEI History Guy

P.S. – It just occurred to me that the title of this post, “A Hard Knock Life”, befits that of the lifestyle of a freelance historian.