in the Mill
an excerpt from a “Dutch
Heritage” by Joan Magee
both these mills were set on fire by some evil disposed person,
there appears to be not a shadow of doubt.”
of the most lamentable, and disastrous fires which ever transpired
in this section of the country, occurred at Belle River on
the line of the Great Western Railway, on Sunday morning last,
whereby three estimable human beings were lost, and large
and valuable properties destroyed.”
of the most tragic events in local history occurred in Belle
River, a town located 20 miles east of Windsor, on August
18,1868. Two steam sawmills in the village, caught fire; foul
play was suspected. The blazes proved to be the work of an
arsonist. The mystery deepened when the bodies of three individuals
were found – previously murdered. Here is the story
about this nearly forgotten fateful event of 135 years ago.
1850 and 1867, British immigrants moved into the Village of
Rochester to join French Canadians who had lived in the area
for years and who formed the nucleus of the county’s
Englishman named Charles Chisom accumulated many village lots
and farm properties, particularly on the north side of the
Great Western Railway, which passed through the village. He
also owned property on both sides of Tecumseh Road, and a
large part of the eastern end of the village.
had become powerful and influential, and held a number of
positions in local government. He even succeeded in having
the village, known as the Police Village of Rochester resurveyed
and its name changed to “the Village of Chisholme”
in 1857, although the name later became Belle River.
1857 and1867 Chisom obtained a gristmill and a sawmill to
add to his holdings. The new mills were very important to
the economy of the growing village. A traveller of the 1850s
thriving village of Belle River, only a few years past a
dense forest, but now showing every sign of life and activity.
The large saw and grist mills in operation deprive it of
its otherwise rustic appearance and the shrill whistle of
the locomotive as it drives up to the station, makes one
forget that he is far away in the woods.”
events leading to the murders coincided with the arrival of
an American businessman from Chicago, Abraham Van Orden, who
came to Belle River with his wife and teenaged grandson in
January 1868. Van Orden was a member of the Van Orden family
of Greene County, New York.
moved to Chicago, and later to Detroit. By the time Van Orden
arrived in Belle River he was about 50 years old. He had a
successful business career in Chicago and brought a considerable
amount of money with him, intending to settle in a small Canadian
Orden was soon negotiating to buy Chisom’s mill. Apparently
a satisfactory bargain was struck, for Van Orden and his family
moved to Belle River shortly thereafter.
only source of information about the case is provided by newspaper
accounts of the period, published in the Chatham “Weekly
Planet.” In its headlines of September 3rd, 1868, the
Catastrophe at Belle River!”
Steam Mills Burned and Three Human Lives Lost!”
Man, His Wife and Grandson Burned!”
Incendiarism and Supposed Triple” Murder
of the most lamentable, and disastrous fires which ever
transpired in this section of the country, occurred at Belle
River on the line of the Great Western Railway, on Sunday
morning last, whereby three estimable human beings were
lost and large and valuable properties destroyed.
This mill, it at once became apparent, must have been set
on fire by an incendiary, from the fact that it was seen
to burn on the south east corner in a distant portion of
the mill where the boiler and engine were located. And,
moreover, a passerby discovered in the vicinity not far
from where the fire was seen, a jug which, it was quite
evident, had but a short while ago contained a quantity
of kerosene oil. This was about a quarter to 1 o’clock
a.m. The Belle River Mill was a mass of burning ruins. It
then flashed through the minds of some persons to enquire
where Mr. Van Orden, who worked the mill, and family, who,
it was known, occupied a portion of the Belle River Mill,
search of the ruins of the mill led to the discovery of the
bodies of Abraham Van Orden, his wife Elizabeth, and his 15
year old grandson James.
That both these mills were set on fire by some evil disposed
person, there appears to be not a shadow of doubt, and,
more horrible than all, it seems to be most indelibly and
to us reasonably, too – impressed on the minds of
the inhabitants of Belle River, that a triple murder was
previously foully perpetrated! The basis of this theory
is as follows: Mr. Van Orden had been at Windsor on the
previous Saturday, where he was engaged in an arbitration
concerning the possession of the Belle River mills. In the
afternoon of that day, he returned home by the train, and
it is known that he brought with him a considerable sum
of money – how much is not said – but it is
a fact, we believe, that evening he showed some $500 in
silver to one man, and, before leaving Windsor, had lent
a quantity of money to another person. Then, just before
the fire broke out, three or four distinct pistol shots
were heard in the vicinity of the mill by several persons,
and a few minutes later a person was seen behind the mill.
This was about midnight a little after the mill was on fire.
after the ruins were searched for $500, which it was known
Mr. Van Orden had come home with; but none of this money
was found – only a few dollars, some ten or fifteen
what did Mr. Van Orden do with the $500? What were the three
or four pistol shots for? And more strange than all, how
was it that not one of the Van Ordens, if not killed, did
not leave the building, or show themselves at the windows
– which were open, before or when the fire reached
them, which it must have taken some minutes to do, from
the time it was first seen by the villagers?
painful conclusion forces itself upon our mind, as well
as it has forced itself upon the minds of the inhabitants
of Belle River, that a hellish triple murder was first committed,
followed by a robbery, and the whole of a series of damnable
crimes, wound up by a double incendiarism, whereby the three
dead bodies of the unfortunate Van Ordens were consumed
along with two valuable steam mills!
Should these surmises turn out to be correct, hanging, drawing,
and quartering would be too mild a treatment for the hellish
perpetrator of such a fearful catalogue of guilt.
This sketch of the
mill where the Van Orden family lost their lives on August
30th, 1868, was prepared as evidence for the autumn Essex
Assizes, which began in the Sandwich Court House on Tuesday
November 10th, 1868.
took three days to collect all the evidence. Chisom was recalled
on the third day for further questioning, and it appeared that
the sale of the mill to Van Orden had been most irregular:
Other than this sketch, now in Windsor’s Community Museum,
there are no longer any official records of the fire and the
ensuing investigations and murder trial.
The Van Allen Mill, seen in the upper left of the sketch,
also burned on the same day. It was owned by Daniel Ross Van
Allen of Chatham.
Witness owned the Belle River mill; sold it to Van Orden
on the 20th January, and bought it back again in the last
of March, closing the bargain on the 3rd day of April. Van
Orden commenced a suit in Chancery and the whole matter
referred to arbitration, which had not yet been settled
upon the award, but both met on Saturday and felt satisfied
on how it would go, and witness borrowed some money from
the deceased, for his witness, wife, and agreed to treat
the deceased as a man.
witness, Ansel B. Graham of Windsor): Said he knew the late
Mr. Van Orden well, saw him last on Saturday at Windsor,
engaged in arbitration case with Chisom, witness, Mr. Shipley
and Mr. Cotter being the arbitrators. Captain Robarsh [sic]
was also in Windsor at the same time, a witness on the arbitration
case. Robarsh and Van Orden did not meet in witness’
presence, neither did Robarsh exhibit in giving his testimony,
any friendly feeling towards Van Orden. Robarsh said he
went in with Van Orden determined to beat Chisom thought
Van Orden a decent man, but found out he was a d--n old
scoundrel, would not do as he agreed to do with him, and
then he, Robarsh turned to Chisom to help him, Chisom, to
beat Van Orden. The arbitration is not yet settled. Both
Van Orden and Chisom claimed to own the mill, and the whole
Question of ownership and indebtedness connected with the
mill was before the arbitrators. Van Orden claimed the mill
in lieu of the non-fulfillment of agreement made on the
part of Chisom, who claimed the mill back and $2000 damages.”
appeared that Chisom had taken out $2000 worth of insurance
on the mill. Another witness, John S. Armour, had heard Roberge
he would clear Van Orden out of that place; also heard him
say that he would grease the railway track the length of
his farm and set fire to the railway bridge if the company
did not pay him ... Witness had heard Robarsh say, between
three and four weeks ago, to Chisom, “the best thing
you can do with the mill is insure it and set fire to it.”
People in general have not much confidence in Robarsh; when
in liquor he is regarded as a very dangerous man.”
the final day, a statement by Roberge was read. It began:
am brought here innocently; am as innocent as the angels
above me. The generality of the public are down upon me
without just cause and provocation, but I hope to prove
myself innocent. Last spring I was arrested for setting
fire to the railroad bridge, which was untrue. Last summer,
as you all know a horse and cow died on my premises, and
I was accused of killing them, which proves there is a conspiracy
against me. I am as innocent as the angels above, of the
charge against me.”
the end of the third day the verdict was given:
one Moses Robarsh, on the night of the 29th day of August,
between the hours of eleven of the clock p.m., and one of
the clock a.m., on the thirtieth of August, of the year
aforesaid, in the County of Essex, did feloniously, willfully
and of malice aforethought, kill and murder one Abraham
Van Orden, slept, by setting fire to the said mill, against
the peace of our Lady the Queen, her crown and dignity.
And the jurors aforesaid, upon their oath aforesaid, further
say, that Charles S. Chisom, before the said felony was
committed, to wit, on the year aforesaid, feloniously and
maliciously did incite, move, procure, aid, counsel, hire
and command the said Moses Robarsh to do and commit against
the peace of our Lady the Queen, her crown and dignity.
In Witness, & etc.”
and Chisom were arrested, and feelings in the village ran
high, for the Van Ordens appeared to have had good friends
and neighbours who threatened to lynch “the guilty
parties.” On the third day of the preliminary investigation,
when the verdict was reached, many villagers signed a petition
which was handed to John O’Connor, Member of Parliament.
This stated their disgust and strong disapproval that he
would agree to be the defense lawyer for the two prisoners.
However, the Planet told its readers that such a display
of feeling was untoward, for under a British justice everyone
had the right to a fair trial.
the Essex Assizes of autumn 1868, which began on Tuesday,
November 10th , Robarsh and Chisom were found not guilty.
In November, 1869 the Essex County Council offered a reward
of $400, and the township councils of Maidstone and Rochester
each $100, for the discovery of the murderer or murderers
of the Van Orden family and the incendiarists who set fire
to the Belle River mills
continued to be active in real estate dealings in Belle
River and Rochester, and was a wealthy and powerful local
figure until nearly the end of the century.
murderers of the Van Orden family were never officially
brought to justice.
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