The burden of proof

Sylvain Raymond

When the Canadian History Hall opens on July 1, it will tell Canada’s many stories using genuine artifacts — authenticity is one of the founding principles of the Hall. But this raises an important question: How can we be certain that an artifact is authentic?

More than 3 years ago, the Halter family of Winnipeg approached Museum historian and curator Timothy Foran with a robe. The family believed that it was worn by magistrate Hugh Richardson when he presided over the three most famous court cases in Canadian history: the trial of Louis Riel for high treason in late July 1885 and the trials of Pītikwahanapiwīyin (Chief Poundmaker) and Mistahimaskwa (Chief Big Bear) for felony treason later that summer, in Regina.

There was no doubt that Richardson’s robe would be an important addition to the Hall. Its inclusion would represent a formative though unhappy chapter of our colonial history: the 1885 North-West Rebellion and its aftermath. But would Foran and other Museum experts be able to prove that this robe belonged to Richardson?

The Halter family strongly believed that the robe in their possession had been worn during the Riel trial. This belief had inspired them to safeguard it as an heirloom ever since G. Sydney Halter, a prominent Winnipeg lawyer and civil rights advocate, had been entrusted with it in the 1940s. Foran respects the Halter family, calling them great friends of the Museum, and he wanted to believe that the robe was “the real McCoy.” However, his job was to discover the truth. So, putting on the mantle of devil’s advocate, he set out to disprove the family’s claim.

After over 3 years of investigation, all the pieces of evidence make a sound case for the robe having been wore by magistrate Hugh Richardson who presided over the three most famous court cases in Canadian history. Canadian Museum of History, 2013.54.1

After over 3 years of investigation, all the pieces of evidence make a sound case for the robe having been wore by magistrate Hugh Richardson who presided over the three most famous court cases in Canadian history. Canadian Museum of History, 2013.54.1

The Museum investigates

The most obvious way to do so would be to find the Richardson robe in someone else’s possession. Foran consulted archives, newspapers and other historians, but was unable to find evidence contrary to the Halter family’s oral history.

Next, he collaborated with colleague Caterina Florio, the Museum’s expert in textile conservation. They sent the robe to the Canadian Conservation Institute for analysis, which revealed that the cloth had been mordanted with chromium and dyed with logwood, a technique popular in the 1870s, when Richardson became a magistrate. This dyeing technique produced a colour known as “chrome black,” which has the unfortunate characteristic of fading to a drab greenish-grey. This is the exact colour of the robe.

The next fact to investigate was that the robe in question is not a judge’s gown, but a humble barrister’s robe. Wouldn’t Richardson have worn a judge’s robe to preside over these important trials? No, said the legal historians Foran consulted. For a number of reasons particular to the justice system at that time, Richardson would indeed have worn a barrister’s robe during the state trials of 1885. And, according to an expert on court dress, the robe shows signs of wear, tear and repair that could reflect Richardson’s extensive circuit-court travels throughout Western Canada.

A conclusion is reached

Every avenue Foran explored led to the same conclusion. There is no evidence to disprove the Halter family’s oral history. In fact, seen together, all the pieces of evidence make a sound case for the robe having been Richardson’s.

Following minor conservation treatment, the robe will be displayed on a custom-made mannequin designed to prevent any stress on the materials from tension or gravity. After over 3 years of investigation, the verdict is in, and the robe will take its place in the new Canadian History Hall.

3 responses to “The burden of proof”

  1. Celia Lewis says:

    Very cool! And a very important artifact indeed!

  2. […] The Canadian Museum of History blog talks about provenance and historical evidence, particular in relation to a a robe belonging to magistrate Hugh Richardson, while he preceded over the trials of Louis Riel,  (Poundmaker ou Faiseur d’enclos) and Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear ou Gros Ours). […]

  3. Canadian Museum of History says:

    Hello, thank you for your question. We are happy to share the following details regarding the Haltler family oral history surrounding the robe.

    Gerald Sydney Halter (1904-1990) was a Winnipeg lawyer and public figure whose career spanned nearly six decades. Halter played an active role in the structuring and administration of local faith-based organizations, including Winnipeg B’nai B’rith and various Roman Catholic associations. He was best known, however, for his lifelong involvement in sports: he played hockey and football as a student at the University of Manitoba in the 1920s, assisted in reorganizing the Winnipeg Rugby Football Club in 1934, organized and adjudicated sporting events in Winnipeg’s Catholic schools from 1937 to 1966, served as chairman of the Manitoba Horse Racing Commission in the 1960s, and – most famously – served as first commissioner of the Canadian Football League from 1958 to 1966. Halter’s sporting efforts earned him membership in the Canadian Amateur Sports Hall of Fame, Canada’s Sports, the Manitoba Sports Halls of Fame, the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame. He received the Order of Canada in 1977.

    According to his niece, the late Diana Halter (1951-2015) of Winnipeg, and his nephew, Jason Halter of Toronto, Halter’s contribution to sports in local Catholic schools prompted the Catholic League of Winnipeg (CLW) to honour him with Hugh Richardson’s judicial robe in the 1940s. The CLW had apparently been the custodian of the robe since the late 1880s; CLW officials gifted it to Halter and declared that “he would know best what to do with it” (quoted in “Source Narrative” by Diana Halter). Unfortunately, there is no textual record of this exchange: archival research conducted by Diana Halter, Tim Foran, and Winnipeg-based historians and archivists between July 2013 and August 2015 has yielded no contemporary mention of it. The exchange nevertheless holds an exalted place in Halter family memory. “The story of the ‘Judge’s robe’ was legendary in the Halter family,” recalled Ms. Halter in 2013, “and ‘Uncle Sydney’ described its significance and history to his nieces and nephews throughout the years” (ibid.). He also appears to have spoken of it outside of the family: a Winnipeg dry cleaner’s receipt – attached to the robe in the early 1960s, but now lost – featured a handwritten note, cautioning handlers that “this garment is very old… Was worn by the Judge who sentenced Louie [sic] Riel” (ibid.).

    In the early 1960s, the robe came into the care of Halter’s younger brother, Aubrey J. Halter (1918-2008), who was a prominent Winnipeg lawyer, philanthropist, and art collector (ibid.). After Aubrey Halter’s death, his daughter Diana Halter inherited the robe and consulted several Winnipeg-based historians, archivists, and collectors to discuss and verify its provenance. On May 3, 2013, Ms. Halter contacted Tim Foran of the Canadian Museum of Civilization to discuss a possible acquisition. Dr. Foran and Ms. Halter then set out to compile a body of textual evidence linking the robe to the state trials of 1885 with assistance from historians, legal scholars, archivists, and others. Tragically, Ms. Halter died on February 1, 2015. Her brother, Jason Halter, oversaw the donation of the robe to the Canadian Museum of History.