It was difficult to write about the murders of my ancestors on Manitoulin Island in the late 19th century without acknowledging the role that alcohol likely played in the tragedy.
During the 1870s, Ontario underwent a period of rapid socio-economic transformation brought on by industrialization and urbanization that seemed to know no bounds. Against this backdrop, the over-consumption of alcohol started to emerge as a significant concern within society, one that had far-reaching impacts on families and communities.
Alcohol consumption during this era often led to disrupted family dynamics such as those depicted in the Bryan household in The Haweaters. Excessive drinking could -- and often did -- exacerbate domestic conflicts, place strains on relationships, and contribute to conflict both between spouses and between parents and their children. Alcohol-related domestic violence escalated during this period, causing a further fracturing of families. There is evidence that alcoholism and domestic violence played a destructive role in the Bryan household in the days and weeks leading up to the confrontation that led to the murders of William Bryan and his son Charlie.
The economic toll of alcohol on families could be devastating. Many men fell victim to drunkenness, which often led to reduced productivity and financial instability, as was the case on Manitoulin Island in the late 19th century where impoverished families frequently struggled to meet basic needs and alcohol consumption drained what little financial resources they were able to scrape together.
To make matters worse, there was a lack of regulatory oversight on the production and distribution of alcohol in the 1870s, leading to adulterated and unsafe alcohol making in onto the market. As a consequence, liver disease, mental health disorders, and premature deaths were prevalent, increasing physical and emotional burdens. During his murder trial, George Amer attempted to suggest that had he not shot and beaten Bill Bryan to death, the old man, who was rumoured to be a heavy drinker, would likely have died anyway due to failing health, an assertion the doctor who performed the autopsy was quick to dispute.
Efforts to address the detrimental effects of alcohol on families both on Manitoulin Island and throughout Ontario would ultimately lead to the temperance movement with its focus on broader social awareness and legislative interventions in an attempt to regulate alcohol sales and consumption for the good of society and the safety of families.