Ontario Lawyer-Writers

As part of a continuing series on lawyers in fields other than law, this time capsule focuses on lawyers also active as writers of fiction, drama and poetry.

TimeCapsuleSpring2011_hagartyThough most well-known as a lawyer, politician and judge, Sir John Hawkins Hagarty (1818-1900) had an early side career in poetry, active in Toronto’s literary scene during the 1830s and 1840s.

Born in Ireland, Hagarty immigrated to Upper Canada in 1834 and was called to the bar in 1840. He was a Toronto alderman, a public school trustee, a judge and later Chief Justice of Ontario (1884-1897). Though there is no collected record of his work, Hagarty mainly published poetry in the Maple-Leaf, or Canadian Annual: a Literary Souvenir and in newspapers.

Hagarty’s poetry emphasized his interest in the politics of the time, particularly pertaining to the Upper Canada Rebellion and post-rebellion period, and emphasized his strong Anglican, Tory point of view. Representative poems include “Arise, arise” (1837) and “The funeral of Napoleon” (1840).

TimeCapsuleSpring2011_parlorbedroombathBefore establishing himself as a successful criminal defence lawyer, Hamilton-born lawyer Charles William Bell (1876-1938) had considerable success as a playwright.

He attended the University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall Law School before being called to the bar in 1899. While working in Toronto and Hamilton as a lawyer, Bell wrote a number of comedic plays, including Her First Divorce, which played on Broadway in May 1913, and co-wrote Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, which opened on Broadway in 1917 and ran for 232 performances. It was later made into a 1931 movie by MGM starring Buster Keaton. Other plays written by Bell include A Dangerous Maid, Elsie, Thy Neighbour’s Wife and When Rogues Fall Out.

In addition to his writing for the theatre, Bell wrote a book based on his work as defence lawyer for David Meisner, who was tried and convicted (unjustly, according to Bell) of the kidnapping of John Labatt. The book, titled Who Said Murder?, was published in 1935. Meisner was subsequently acquitted of the crime.

TimeCapsuleSpring2011_yellowbriarPerhaps the most well-known Ontario lawyer/writer was John Wendell Mitchell (1880-1951). After attending Victoria College, Mitchell enrolled in Osgoode Hall Law School in 1902 and was called to the bar in 1907. A quiet bachelor who lived with his mother, he practised commercial law in Toronto. After his mother’s death in 1928, Mitchell began to write fiction.

His first book, The Kingdom of America, was published in 1930. However, his literary success began in 1933 with the publication of The Yellow Briar, which was published under Mitchell’s nom de plume, Patrick Slater. The Yellow Briar was a faux-memoir of Patrick Slater, a fictional Irish immigrant farmer in Ontario in the 19th century. Based in part on the experiences of Mitchell’s ancestors, the novel was a popular success; it was reprinted four times in 1934, eventually selling 10,000 copies, which was a remarkable feat during the Depression.

However, his literary success did not help his legal career. In 1935, Mitchell confessed to the police that he had defrauded a number of his clients and insisted on being investigated and prosecuted. He was subsequently found guilty, jailed for six months and disbarred by the Law Society in November 1935.

Though Mitchell continued to write novels, publishing The Water-Drinker (1937) and Robert Harding (1938), he did not again achieve the success of The Yellow Briar, and, despite the support of literary and legal acquaintances, he died in poverty and relative obscurity.

TimeCapsuleSpring2011_bourinotAnother lawyer/writer (who contributed to the building of a memorial grave stone for John Mitchell) was Arthur Stanley Bourinot (1893-1969). Born in Ottawa, Bourinot graduated from the University of Toronto in 1915 and enrolled at Osgoode Hall Law School the same year. He then served in the Canadian Army during World War I and was held as a prisoner of war in 1918 and 1919. After his return to Canada, he resumed his studies at Osgoode Hall Law School and was called to the bar in 1920.

While practising law in Ottawa and after his retirement in 1959, Bourinot had a second career as a writer and editor of poetry. A close friend of writer Duncan Campbell Scott, he published at least nine books of poetry between 1915 and 1966, the most well-known being Under the Sun (1939), which won that year’s Governor General’s award for English-language poetry and addressed the impact of the Depression and the advent of World War II.

Bourinot also served as editor of the Canadian Poetry Magazine and as associate editor of the Canadian Author and Bookman, and he wrote numerous articles about Canadian poetry.

Notable war poems by Bourinot include “Canada at Dieppe” (1942) and “True harvest” (1945).

Photograph credits
John Hawkins Hagarty photograph:
Cochrane, William. The Canadian album: men of Canada (vol. I). Brantford: Bradley, Garretson & Co, 1891.

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath cover: 
Copyright © 2004 Alpha Video.

The Yellow Briar cover:
Copyright © 2009 Dundurn Press Limited.

Arthur Bourinot photograph:
Caswell, Edward S. Canadian singers and their songs: a collection of portraits and autograph poems. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1919.