Ask Alicia – Notorious Criminal or Local Folklore?

Dear Alicia,

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of what seemed to be “tall tales” about a local criminal named Townsend. Do you know the true story?



Dear Tanya,

I had not heard of the “Townsend” tales until you asked me this question, and I am glad you did. His story is certainly interesting and rather disconcerting.

Born in Black Rock near Buffalo, NY in 1828, William Townsend was the son of Robert Townsend. Robert Townsend was a highly skilled carpenter and joiner and moved his family to Port Dalhousie so that he could obtain work building docks on the First Welland Canal as well as in Port Dalhousie in the 1830’s.  William was raised in Port Dalhousie until he moved with his family to a farm in Canfield near Cayuga in 1840.

Robert Townsend died in 1844 and it is said that after his death, William became rather reckless. By the time William was 20 years old he had returned to the St. Catharines area and worked as a towman on the Welland Canal.  He is said to have been very well known by all who worked on the Welland Canal.  Eventually he moved to Hamilton where he worked as a horse cab driver.  While in Hamilton his recklessness turned into more serious, criminal behaviour.  He formed a gang of men who were dubbed “The Townsend Gang”.  Throughout the 1850’s the gang wreaked havoc in the Hamilton and Niagara area carrying out multiple burglaries and highway robberies.

On October 18th, 1854 the gang’s activities took a more violent turn when they concocted a plan to rob a Cayuga merchant by the name of John Hamilton Nelles.  When Nelles refused to allow the gang entry into his home, Townsend forced his way in and swiftly shot and killed the unsuspecting Nelles.  The men made away with the grand sum of twenty-five dollars.  The gang fled however three of them were caught, tried and found guilty of murder. One of the men, while on trial, claimed that Townsend had confessed to him that he had killed six men before he shot Nelles.  This was never proven. Two of the convicted men were hanged in May 1855 in front of a large crowd, and the third had his sentence reduced to life in prison.  Townsend, however managed to escape and a man hunt ensued.  Initially Townsend was pursued to Buffalo by Chief Constable Campbell and a crew of men who volunteered for the hunt. He was almost caught on a couple of occasions but continuously managed to outsmart police.

Soon after, it was found that Townsend travelled back to Canada making a stop in St. Catharines where he traded a watch stolen from Nelles for a fur coat and gauntlets with one Mr. McSloy. Townsend continued on to Pelham in a buggy. It was reported that in Pelham, seven or eight men surrounded him in a forest but he still managed to escape because he had two pistols with which he threatened his attackers. His luck would not last forever it would seem.  In October 1854, Charles Richards, a Police Officer in Port Robinson, often called “Constable Richie”, was called to the Jordan Hotel.  Townsend had robbed a man by the name of Mr. Gainer who followed his attacker to “The Widow Jordan’s” where the elusive William Townsend had stopped for dinner. Gainer sent for Richards who upon arriving, waited for Townsend to finish his meal before moving in to apprehend him.  When he did, according to witnesses, Richards approached Townsend, put his hand on his shoulder and proclaimed that he was under arrest.  Townsend ordered Richards three times to remove his hand from his shoulder. After the third refusal on Richards’ part, Townsend shot Richards in the head with a pistol. Constable Charles Richard’s perished from his wound.

Townsend Poster-Port Reporter Nov 2007
Photo Attribution: Port Reporter 2007

Townsend got away yet again but was found and detained in Cleveland in 1855. He was returned to Canada and a trial was held in Hamilton. One would think that the trial would be open and shut, however it was a disaster. Townsend’s defence claimed that that it was a case of mistaken identity and that the man on trial was not William Townsend but Robert J. McHenry who was born in Glasgow, Scotland. There were witnesses for both sides, some saying it was in fact Townsend and others saying that it wasn’t.  The testimonies of dozens of witnesses discussed hair colour, eye colour, voice and even the placement of scars on his face. He was forced to have his beard shaved off but still his identity was questioned. Townsend’s family testified that the man on trial was not their son or brother. But dozens of others testified that they were certain it was him. Townsend was said to be a master of disguise as well as a master manipulator and that perhaps these devious skills led to him to influence the 12 male jurors.  Inevitably, Townsend…or shall we say McHenry, was acquitted of all charges.

It is unknown what happened to Townsend after he managed to avoid conviction. Some say he returned to live in Port Dalhousie, others think he moved away and was never seen in the area again, but nothing has been confirmed.

Constable Charles Richards was buried in the Port Robinson Church Graveyard but over the years his headstone had become so worn that the text was hardly visible. Charles Richards would not be forgotten even 160 years later.  In 2014 the Niagara Regional Police held a ceremony including an honour guard for Constable Richards.  Richards’ name was put on an NRP plaque and a new headstone replaced the old worn one.  In a speech it was elucidated that Richards was just the third police officer to lose his life in the line of duty in Canadian history.  Richards’ name has also been added to the Ontario Police memorial.


The St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre, located next to Lock 3 of the historic Welland Canal, is a leading local history museum and community gathering place, engaging visitors and building relationships with partners, while demonstrating curatorial leadership and innovative programming and exhibits. The St. Catharines Museum is dedicated to engaging visitors in the celebration of our local stories and the cultural identity and history of the City. We are a community resource that interprets, exhibits, researches, acquires, and preserves material culture and stories of St. Catharines.


  1. What an interesting story about a terrible man, amazing how he managed to escape and unbelievable that he got away with murder because they couldn’t prove his identity. This would make such a good movie!!

  2. Do you know who the family of John Nelles was? My great great grandmother was married to a John Nelles in the 1800’s, but don’t know what happened to him. His wife was Eliza (Gilmore?) Nelles. They had a daughter named Delila who lived in the Hamilton Ontario region. Thank you.

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