Historical roots of a treasured necropolis
A look behind the riveting lives of those who rest at one of T.O.’s oldest cemeteries
It may seem odd to call a cemetery a gem, but Toronto’s downtown necropolis — from the Greek word meaning a cemetery belonging to an old city — is just that: a site to be treasured.
Wander its pathways and meander through its grassy seven hectares of lush greenness — replete with rare shrubs, flowers and trees with names such as sweetgum and umbrella — and mingle with all manner of nature’s chittering, chattering animal creatures.
You’ll see beautiful sculptures, historic markers, and monuments large and small marking where the remains of some of Toronto’s most prominent citizens have been buried since it opened in 1850.
The city is never far away; the official entrance is at 200 Winchester St., in historical Cabbagetown east of Parliament St. An Ontario Heritage plaque tells visitors that the entry pavilion and chapel, as well as the superintendent’s office and residence, are considered among the “finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Canada.”
Designed and built in 1872 by Henry Langley, the Toronto architect would later choose to be buried in the cemetery he beautified, in1906 at the age of 70.
The non-sectarian necropolis is the city’s second-oldest operating cemetery, meaning it still has limited burial space. St. James Anglican cemetery, near Bloor and Parliament Sts., opened in 1844.
Its historical roots go far beyond its opening date, as the grounds include the remains of many people originally interred in what was known as Potter’s Field, the city’s first non-denominational burial site on the northwest corner of Bloor and Yonge Sts., which dated back to 1825 when Toronto was known as “Muddy” York. Municipal growth forced its closure, with remains moved to the necropolis as well as Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
Today, there about 62,000 interred at the necropolis, which is run by the Mount Pleasant Group. The names of some of those laid to rest are prominent, such as the late NDP leader Jack Layton, who also served as a Toronto city councillor. Some of his ashes were interred by his widow and former MP Olivia Chow at the Necropolis after he died in 2011. A bust sculpted by Chow sits atop a pink granite monument placed on the first anniversary of his death.
William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion who later became Toronto’s first mayor, is also interred at the necropolis, as is Joseph Tyrrell, a Canadian geologist who discovered dinosaur bones in Alberta, and George Brown, a Father of Confederation and founder of the Toronto Globe, now the Globe and Mail.
But the necropolis is also the resting place for many lesser known Torontonians, whose life stories are riveting.
Thornton (1812-1890) and Lucie Blackburn (unknown to 1895) Theirs are not household names in Toronto, but what extraordinary lives thsi couple lived. Thornton and Lucie had been slaves in Louisville, Ky., before fleeing to Detroit, Mich., in 1831. Heritage plaques have been erected in Louisville and Toronto which give précis of their lives.
The Blackburns were recognized by slave hunters in Detroit and both were jailed in 1833. With help, Lucie escaped first, by exchanging clothes with a visitor, and was taken across the Detroit River into Canada. Thornton was more heavily guarded and a group of 400 men stormed the jail to free him in what U.S. author- ities dubbed “The Blackburn Riots,” also calling it the first racial riot of Detroit.
The Blackburns reunited in Toronto in 1834 and Canadian authorities refused extradition requests. While working as a waiter at Osgoode Hall, Thornton got the idea of starting a horse-drawn taxi service, which was very successful. He also invested in real estate.
In the 1830s, he secretly returned to Kentucky and rescued his mother, Sibby, from slavery, bringing her to Toronto.
The Thorntons, who were friends with George Brown, were active in the community and known for their kindness to others who escaped from slavery.
Joseph Bloore (1789-1862) English immigrant Joseph Bloore, who came to Canada in 1819, became a successful innkeeper in York, building a brewery and successfully speculating in land. He put together a bundle of land and founded the Village of Yorkville. Bloor St. is named after him, the “e” having been dropped in the street name.
Ned Hanlan (1855-1908) Best known for being a world-cham- pion sculler and carrying the same surname as a point of land on Toronto Island (Hanlan’s Point is named after his hotelier father, John Hanlan), later in life, Ned became a hardworking Toronto alderman known to care about the ordinary citizen. He supported building better infrastructure and suggested bicycle paths be built on the Toronto Islands. His untimely death at age 52 on Jan. 4, 1908, made the front page of the Toronto Star. “Man whose prowess as an oarsman made Toronto known worldwide, passed away this morning — great conqueror conquered in turn by pneumonia.” The city of Toronto gave him a public funeral. Thousands filed by his open casket in a downtown church and the Star reported that his children had laid a wreath of laurel leaves on his forehead. The procession to the necropolis stretched 1.5 kilometres and thousands gathered at the grave and watched as the “popular hero” and “the fastest man who ever sat in a boat” was laid to rest.
Roy (Brownie) Brown (1893-1944) Decorated Canadian First World War flying ace, Brown is officially credited with shooting down the German ace Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. “the Red Baron.” There has been some controversy about this, as von Richtofen’s plane also came under fire from Australian forces on the ground.
Apparently, Brown himself called his air battle with the Baron “indecisive” in his subsequent report, but his commanding officer changed that to “decisive” and he was credited with the hit.
Brown, like other airmen of the day, respected the German ace and, upon viewing his body, according to various accounts, said: “If he had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow.”
Considered an outstanding flight commander, Brown was credited with shooting down at least12 enemy planes and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Bar.
Kay Christie (1911-1994) A Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. lieutenant and registered nurse during the Second World War, Christie was one of only two Canadian nurses to have been taken prisoner of war. She and Winnipeg-born nurse May Waters were captured by the Japanese when they invaded Hong Kong. Christie, who had grown up in Toronto, had been working at a British military hospital. She witnessed many acts of atrocity while a PoW. She was eventually released in late 1943 in a prisoner exchange. Known later for her work in support of veterans, she told a CBC interviewer in 1992 that for years she could not talk about her experiences in the camp.
Anderson Ruffin Abbott (1837-1913) Abbott was the son of prominent Toronto businessman Wilson Ruffin Abbott (also buried in the necropolis) and his wife, Ellen: free black Americans who immigrated from Alabama after their store was vandalized. Anderson Abbott graduated in 1857 from the Toronto School of Medicine.
An Ontario Heritage plaque in Chatham notes that in 1861 he got a licence to practise medicine from the Medical Board of Upper Canada, making him the first Canadian-born doctor of African descent. Abbott volunteered his services to Union forces during the American Civil War and became a civilian surgeon between 1863 and 1865, at hospitals in Washington, D.C. After president Abraham Lincoln was shot, he was among a select group who stood vigil for hours as Lincoln lay dying. Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, gave him a shawl worn by the president at his first inauguration.
Abbott returned to Ontario, had a successful practice in Chatham and was also involved in politics, fighting against racially segregated schools. In 1874, he became the first black coroner for Kent County. He eventually moved his practice back to Toronto. Abbott was close friends with William Peyton Hubbard, the city’s first black alderman (also buried in the necropolis).