January 1, 2012

Bill Johnston: 15. No Prison Can Hold Him

After Bill Johnston skipped bail in mid-April 1839, he returned to the Thousand Islands. As they had in the summer of 1838, the Canadian and US military launched joint patrols to find him.

A US force, which included military observers from Upper Canada, raided Grindstone Island on July 11, 1839, to arrest Johnston. Bill escaped capture because his observant daughter Kate Johnston warned him the soldiers were coming.

Captain Williams Sandom, the British commander on the Great Lakes, believed gangs of Hunters and various brigands that inhabited the islands had rallied around Johnston. Sandom had good cause. Several times, unknown men in small boats or on secluded American islands had fired rifles at British seaman and ships. At least one cache of arms was discovered in an isolated bay on Lake Ontario.

In August, Johnston visited New York City. A sharp-eyed deputy-sheriff recognized and arrested him on August 19. Three days later, Bill and the deputy attended a bail hearing in Adams, New York, south of Watertown. The judge suggested bail of $10,000. Bill haggled him down to $5000. The judge, deputy and Bill travelled to Watertown so Bill could contact his bail bondsman.

Bill's relaxed and cooperative manner through the whole arrest caused the deputy to drop his guard. In a moment of slack security, Johnston slipped away and headed for the islands.

Early in October 1839, at John Johnston's insistence, Bill returned to the Albany jail voluntarily, with Kate at his side. With cold weather coming, a cell promised far more comfort to the aging troublemaker than a fugitive winter in the Thousand Islands.

Johnston Escapes One Last Time

Bill Johnston with Kate by his side, passed the wintry months of 1839 and 1840 in the relative comfort of an Albany jail. As usual, the warm weather and wafting scents of spring stirred his vagabond soul. Bill fashioned a cell key made of zinc smuggled in by friends.

One day in late May 1840, Kate went to visit family in Rome, New York. The next evening, Bill unlocked his cell, slipped past guards and walked 40 miles before daybreak. After resting, he continued to Rome. From there, he and Kate returned to the Thousand Islands. He never saw the inside of a prison again.

Following his final escape, Johnston strove to leave his pirate and fugitive past behind. He and Kate gathered names of prominent men on a petition for a pardon. Bill joined the Masons and used his new connections to advantage.

Johnston presented a petition for pardon to the outgoing president, Martin Van Buren, on March 2, 1841. Van Buren believed that Johnston and the Patriot War contributed to his defeat. He rejected Bill's plea and ordered his aide to have Johnston arrested. Ten days later, William Henry Harrison took office. Johnston may have asked him for a pardon--since they were both veterans of the War of 1812. Harrison granted no pardons in his brief presidency.

Someone in Washington must have thought well of him. The government appointed Johnston as keeper of the Rock Island lighthouse in the Thousand Islands, not far from the wreck of the Sir Robert Peel. He held that patronage job from April 1853 to April 1861.
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