The Guelph lawyer made a name for himself handling big cases

EFB Johnston made headlines as the defense counsel in several murder trials

When people talk about famous criminal lawyers who serve as defense counsel in mass murder trials, the names that often come up are the names of famous courtroom figures such as Clarence Darrow in the United States and Canada. Edward Greenspan and Clayton Ruby.

But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was another man who was the lawyer you wanted in your corner if you were really into trouble with the law. EFB Johnston of Guelph is considered one of the best criminal lawyers in Canada.

Ebenezer Forsyth Blackie Johnston was born in Haddington, Scotland, in 1850. He was only a child when his family moved to Western Canada (Ontario) and settled on a farm in East Garafraxa Township. Young Ebenezer attended Guelph Collegiate, and after graduation taught elementary school.

In 1872 Johnston became a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada and a law student in Guelph. This means that he was enrolled in an accredited law degree program and was able to perform certain legal services.

He was sworn in as a lawyer in 1876, and called to the bar of Ontario in 1880.

While practicing law in Guelph, Johnston also became involved in politics. He was a prominent local member of the Liberal Party, and attracted the attention of Oliver Mowat, the premier of Ontario and the province’s attorney general.

In 1885, Mowat Johnston became deputy attorney general and secretary of the Board of Directors. However, he had to resign from those positions in 1889 due to the growth of his criminal law practice, although he held the post of inspector of registry offices from 1891 to 1894.

In 1890 Johnston was appointed Queen’s Counsel (QC), which meant that he was recognized as a lawyer of exceptional merit. He was known as a brilliant courtroom defense attorney and a master of investigation. According to Toronto journalist Hector W. Charlesworth, Johnston handled the facts of the matter “with the calmness of a mathematician.”

When faced with a prosecutor whose reputation is greater than his own, Johnston will turn that situation around for himself. While addressing the jury, he will win them over by presenting himself as a loser in an unequal struggle with a powerful opponent.

One of Johnston’s most famous subjects is Clara Ford. On an October evening in 1894, 18-year-old Frank Westwood was shot dead on his doorstep in an exclusive suburb of Toronto. There were no witnesses to the murder, but one informant told the police that the person killed was Clara Ford, 33 years old, a woman of mixed black and white parents.

Ford worked as a tailor and lived in a small apartment in a poor part of town with his young daughter. Her husband abandoned them. He was known to carry a gun for protection.

He is said to have been friends with Westwood, and according to reports they taunted him and his friends with racist slurs.

Police arrested Ford and charged him with murder. Not long after, he got his “confession” in which he said he shot Westwood because she had sex with him. Since it was a murder case, a guilty plea was not accepted. There must be a trial.

Newspapers speculated that a first-year law student would have no problem sentencing Clara Ford. However, the prosecution was handled by Britton B. Osler, a powerful attorney who successfully prosecuted Louis Riel for treason.

Clara Ford could not afford to hire a lawyer, so Johnston decided to take her own case. He suspects that detectives under pressure to solve the murder of the son of a prominent Toronto family pressured him into making a false confession. Also, the informant blamed him
a criminal with a long criminal record cannot be trusted on his word.

In a dramatic trial, Johnston made mockery of the confession and the weakness of the State’s evidence. He put Ford on the witness stand – a rare occurrence in a murder trial – and allowed him to tell his own story. He testified that Westwood never laid a hand on him; that the story of revenge killing for sexual assault was made up by the police.

Johnston defeated Ford in a shootout. Westwood’s murder remains unsolved.

While Johnston was fighting for Clara Ford’s life, another murder case occurred.

Twin brothers Harry and Dallas Hyams are the black sheep of a kind New Orleans family. They moved to Toronto because, it was rumored, their more respectable families wanted to keep them away. They operated a warehouse, and Harry married a local woman named Martha Wells. He hired Martha’s younger sister Willie as a warehouse worker.

In 1894, insurance company investigators became suspicious when Harry tried to take out some life insurance on his wife. The year before, an insurance company paid out $30,000 after Willie died in what was officially recognized as an accident on the job.

Unbeknownst to the grieving Martha, the Will twins convinced her to buy life insurance. Now they want to insure Martha for $250,000.

Toronto police decided to look into the death of Willie Wells. In February of 1895, they charged the Hyams twins with murder.

The Hyams family did not receive public sympathy for the twins when they sent a top New York lawyer to Toronto because they did not think a Canadian lawyer would be qualified enough to defend Harry and Dallas . However, the American lawyer is not a member of the Ontario bar and was therefore able to act as a consultant in a legal group led by a lawyer from Guelph.

Johnston’s remarkable cross-examination of the Crown’s medical examiners showed that they could not agree on how Willis was killed. Johnston gave his own testimony which said that Willis had a habit of not handling machinery properly. The Hyams twins were released and immediately left for the United States.

Johnston was successful in many other notable ways. He turned down several offers to run for a seat in the legislature. He died in Toronto in 1919.

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