Tragedy at the Observer

This text comes from a booklet written by Laurel Beechey as a fundraiser for the Tillsonburg Pioneer Graveyard. The entire booklet can be purchased at Annandale National Historic Site. 

Dewitt Clinton Armstrong was born in Hagersville, Oneida Township, Haldimand County in November, 1860. He was the third child  of Robert and Emily and shortly after he was born the family moved to Middletown Township close to Tillsonburg. The Armstrong family attended the Wesleyan Methodist church, the same church E. D. Tillson and family attended. Dewitt went to the school on Broadway in the same block where the Tillsonburg News currently is, south of Oxford on the west side of the street. 

The goal of a child back then was to grow up as quickly as possible to enjoy the opportunities and shoulder the responsibilities of an adult.  At 13 or 14 years of age, childhood was left behind and Dewitt became a young man. We do know that by the age of 14, Dewitt was done with school and apprenticing at W. S. Law’s newspaper, The Tilsonburg Observer.

Why was he not working with his father? We know from the Collector’s Roll for 1875, that  Robert Armstrong was a pumpmaker, who owned a quarter of an acre on Lot 34 on Broadway’s west side, near Venison Street. The total value of this land was $700 and the total value of the personal property other than income was $900.  By these figures, we can tell, Dewitt’s father, Robert was doing quite well. Of course, Robert’s oldest son, Franklin Ethbert, was a year older than Dewitt so we will assume that Franklin was the one involved with the family business.

William Strachan Law was enticed to Tillsonburg by E.D. Tillson. The Observer office was originally located in the house on the northeast corner of Oxford and Harvey Streets. Not only was it a printing and newspaper office, it was also a book and stationery store, musical instrument agency, a tombstone and marble monument agency,  a lending library of 200 volumes of standard novels, and also fitted spectacles. When E. D. built the state-of-the-art Tillson Block in the early1870s one section was for W.S. Law (where the Copper Mug is today).  Law, later moved to the store built for him at, 147 Broadway.


What was Dewitt doing and learning while working for W.S. Law? Allow, “Life in the Old Print Shop,” by Bill Kovarik tell you all about it:


We know Dewitt apprenticed for two years. He worked hard for long hours. Now it is time to learn of the state-of-the-art printing press that kept Tillsonburg’s news alive.

W.S. Law introduced the first steam printing plant in the district and his Wharfedale press, imported from England, was the wonder of the countryside.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the exact year he got the Wharfedale Press, but it factored heavily into young Dewitt’s life.


Oct 19th 1877 Tilsonburg Observer W. S. Law tells of the accident: 

"Sad Accident:- On Monday last, while our steam press was being removed from the first,[to] a second floor, a derrick which was being employed in the hoisting fell and struck the writer of this, throwing him over to the roof of the adjoining building, at the same time, Dewitt Armstrong, who was employed in this office, fell or was knocked down by the falling derrick, his head striking up on a projection lug of the “fliers” of the press, which lay on the rool [roof]; this lug fractured his skull so badly above the left ear that his recovery is despaired of. How the poor boy got the blow that is likely to cause his death, not one of those present at the time can tell with certainty, as the position he occupied placed him in no danger. We can only surmise that when he saw the derrick falling and noticed the danger the writer of this was placed in, that he attempted to ward it off without thinking of that to himself. Drs. Joy and Moore are in attendance upon him but have no hopes of his ultimate recover.-Written by WS Law."


Unfortunately for everyone, especially Dewitt, he did not die immediately. It was a full week before he succumbed to his injuries.  This most likely was attributed to his youth and the strides that medicine had taken by this time period.

W.S. Law, wrote again, this time of Dewitt’s death and his character. The images are below this text. 

Dewitt died a hero, saving the life of his boss, who was one of the bigger mover and shakers in Tillsonburg.  I cannot imagine that Mr. Law would not have been torn by grief and anguish that a young man just starting his life, sacrificed it for him.  Would Dewitt have reacted the same if his employer had been a mean or unjust man?  His action says much to the character of W. S.  Law.

And, W. S. Law said much to the character of Dewitt, who acted more as a man than a child in his employment, his strong aspects of character most likely imprinted on him by his parents.

How did this accidental death affect business of the Observer? Back then there were still accidents, so Mr. Law was not sued and the Tillsonburg Observer continued to operate. 

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