Raw Life

Cameos of 1890s Justice From a Magistrate’s Bench Book

Raw Life

Human lives in turmoil, revealed through the 1890s trials conducted by Muskoka Magistrate James Boyer, document the raw life beneath the “Gay Nineties” glittering veneer. While dispensing speedy justice, with trials taking place within days of the offence being committed, often even the same day, Boyer kept a careful record in his “bench book” of them all. More than a century later, James’s great-grandson, lawyer James Patrick Boyer, Q.C., discovered this book and its rare written record, and used it as the basis of Raw Life.

In publishing the human stories behind these cases, the two Boyers team up across the generations to show how, at the lower edges of Canadian society, some things have not changed much over time – from early road rage to the plight of abused women, from cases of environmental contamination to punitive treatment of the poor. Raw Life provides unvarnished portraits of those involved – the justices of the peace, constables, game wardens, and folk making “citizen’s arrests” on the side of law enforcement; arrayed before them the large cast of rioting loggers, illegal hunters, unpaid workers, nonchalant prostitutes, delinquent boys, brawling drunks, homeless men, quack doctors, and desperate thieves.

In Raw Life, Patrick Boyer does far more than reprint his great-grandfather’s case reports. Drawing on his knowledge as a lawyer and historian, he engagingly describes the vital role of local magistrates in Canada’s frontier societies, the judicial context of late 19th Century Ontario, the nature of the law, the character and powers of constables, and the range of available punishments for offenders. He also sets the context of those times for present day readers by portraying Muskoka’s rough-hewn society, the district’s rugged pioneer economy, and the all-important role which justices of the peace played to ensure speedy, ground-level justice for Canada’s early communities.

Raw Life shows the experience of our pioneer ancestors on those often challenging days when the rule of law and the rough tumble of life intersected with raw honesty in Magistrate’s Court.

The “raw life” of those times is not diluted or glossed over by extracting its essence or generalizing its features; instead, the book presents these original moments in time through the actual words of the people involved, providing readers today with both astonishment and amusement – the straight goods as they appeared on the record.

Boyer has kept the cases in their chronological order while organized them into subject chapters:

  • A Constables Unhappy Lot

  • Provocation

  • Contending with Disease

  • Property Fights and Property Rights

  • Raw Neighbourly Relations

  • Women’s Fears and Women’s Fates

  • Hard Love for the Indigent

  • Unsanitary Conditions and Public Health Fevers

  • Livestock and Deadstock

  • A Dog’s Life

  • Worse for the Liquor

  • Assault, Battery, and Plain Fighting

  • Early Road Rage

  • Ill-Gotten Game

  • Boys’ Doings

  • Pressure on the Sex Trade

  • Bartering for Work, Fighting for Wages

  • The High Price of Stolen Goods

  • Religious Fervour at Ground Level

  • Powers of the Spoken Word

  • Saving the Sabbath

  • Unlicensed and Illicit Conduct

  • Life Around the Lakes

  • Down by the Station

  • Fence Wars

  • Contested Logs

These hundreds of cases from more than a century ago open unique glimpses of human life. They teach history in a profoundly engaging way. Each on its own may be a very small snapshot, but the book itself is like a composite photo album. It imparts an overall impression of how social and economic realities refract through the justice system. In doing so, it displays the culture of a community, the legal framework of a country, and the timeless face of humanity.


Boyer’s skills as a writer and careful historian are on full display here. We learn about the people of the era as if the author had somehow observed them personally.” -- Edward L. Greenspan, Q.C.

Muskoka District before 1900 was so wild it required fourteen magistrates or JPs to keep the peace. The bench book of James Boyer, one of few legally trained magistrates in the province, provides a rare glimpse of frontier Muskoka. Introductory chapters by magistrate Boyer’s great-grandson Patrick, himself learned in the law and steeped in Muskoka history, make the lively stories in Raw Life especially informative for anyone interested in Ontario’s justice system.”D.C. Thomas, Muskoka District Judge

Patrick Boyer’s well-known respect for the intelligence of others is on display here. He lets us, in effect, see the raw documents of raw life. The cases here are often troubling, but sometimes heartwarming.” -- R. Roy McMurtry, Ontario’s former Attorney General and Chief Justice


Publisher: Dundurn, 2012
Category: Crime, 19th century history, law enforcement, criminal justice
Price: $39.99, Canada and U.S.A.
Format: Paperback, 630 pages, 6 x 9 in
Features: 67 photos, map, index


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