Historical vignette: William Perkins Bull

Researched and Written by: Deidre Rowe Brown

 

 

William Perkins Bull, K.C., was one of Ontario's most colourful legal figures. He was a lawyer, financier, philanthropist, and historian and his life story is one that is filled with intrigue, scandal, mystery, and speculation.

 

William Perkins Bull was born in Downsview, Ontario to Bartholomew and Sarah Bull in 1870. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Peel County where his father established what was reputed to be one of the finest Jersey farms in North America.

 

After graduating from the nearby Brampton High School, William attended the University of Toronto's Victoria College where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1896, he was called to the Bar of Ontario after completing his legal training at Osgoode Hall. The same year, he married Maria Brennan, the daughter of a prosperous Hamilton businessman.

 

For the next decade, William Perkins Bull successfully practised law in Toronto with the firm of Bull, Hollis and Wilson. During that time he became the personal solicitor for Timothy Eaton and in 1908, he became the youngest King's Counsel in the British Empire.

 

Although he enjoyed the practise of law, William also had an entrepreneurial flair. In 1899, he travelled to Cuba in the company of railway magnate William Van Horne and purchased the first lands of what would grow to be a 20,000 acre sugar plantation.

 

Upon the death of his father in 1904, William inherited the family dairy farm. The life of a gentleman farmer, however, was not for the young Perkins Bull. He continued to expand his business interests becoming the secretary-treasurer of a venture headed by Sam Hughes, a Conservative politician and future federal cabinet minister, to develop land in Western Canada, a Director of the Canadian Oil Company and the President of the Okanagan Lumber Company.

 

His business endeavours began to pay off and he was able to move his family into Lorne Hall, an elegant home in Rosedale. As his wealth continued to increase so too did his political influence. He advised Wilfred Laurier and Aboriginal Affairs and the development of the Northwest and discussed policy with Robert Borden.

 

Perkins Bull was one of a number of speculators who purchased property through the Red Deer Investments Company in 1910. The venture was designed to market land in the new and booming province of Alberta to British investors. In 1911, he moved to the United Kingdom to pursue this enterprise. Maria and their five children joined him there in 1912.

 

It was at this point in his life that William Perkins Bull first became the subject of accusation and rumour. Sources claimed that he had left Canada abruptly due to the forgery of a note worth $12,000 and that his land investment company was nothing more than an elaborate scam. Whether these accusations were founded in truth or the result of those jealous of his success remains unclear.

 

When war broke out in August 1914, William and Maria opened their home to Canadian officers hosting dinners and social events. In 1916, they expanded their philanthropic work by opening the Perkins Bull Convalescent Hospital for wounded and recovering Canadian officers.

 

The hospital received royal patronage and was visited by King George V and Queen Mary. When it closed its doors in 1919, the Perkins Bull Convalescent Hospital had aided thousands of young soldiers, including Billy Bishop and George Vanier.

 

Despite the good work done by the hospital, accusations began to circulate that Perkins Bull had misrepresented it to Canadians as a charitable institution. The centre of unwanted attention once again, William moved his family to Chicago where he quickly became a "high society" lawyer.

 

In 1931, while representing Mabel Sidley, heiress to the Horlick Malted Milk Company fortune, in her divorce case, William became the centre of a series of bizarre incidents. First, Mabel Sidley's husband brought legal action against him for his aggressive pursuit of the divorce case. Then, his Chicago apartment was raided by American federal agents seeking evidence of drug trafficking. No such connections were uncovered, and he received an official apology for the intrusion.

 

Shortly after, while travelling overnight from Chicago to Toronto, William was seriously injured in a traffic accident in western Michigan. Despite his grave condition, he insisted that he be taken by ambulance to Toronto, where he spent three months in the hospital recovering from his injuries. Word on the street said that Perkins Bull had been fleeing to evade retribution from Mabel Sidley's husband and that members of Al Capone's mob had engineered the accident on his orders. The rumours spread and grew to such a level that a Toronto police detective felt it necessary to inform the press that William was not under police protection and that none of Capone's mobsters were in the city gunning for him.

 

Sidley's case against him was settled out of court and Al Capone, when queried by a Toronto reporter about the rumoured "hit", quipped: "I don't even know what street Canada is on."

 

After being released from the hospital, William returned to Lorne Hall to continue his convalescence. To help pass the time, Maria suggested that he write a brief family history and collect anecdotes about Peel County's early settlers. What began as a short paper evolved into a collection of thirteen publications. By 1932, he had hired a staff of thirty researchers to help him to gather and document the details of pioneer life in Peel County. In addition to his writings, William became a connoisseur and collector of Canadiana, ranging from paintings to pioneer tools and artefacts.

 

In 1934, Maria died suddenly at the age of 58. After her death, William dedicated more and more of his time to his historical work.

 

In 1938, his quiet life was shattered once more when Mabel Sidley was found dead in his home. Sources revealed that she had been living with him for over a year and that she had been mentally unstable. When it became known that she had altered her will making William the beneficiary of an estate worth an estimated $3,000,000, he became again the subject of newspaper headlines. Foul play was suspected and the will was challenged by Mabel Sidley's son who was represented by the firm of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt.

 

A coroner's report absolved William of all wrongdoing in Mabel Sidley's death and he eventually received $250,000 from her estate. The story was front line news for weeks and he was approached on more than one occasion to publish his autobiography and to have his life captured on film.

 

In 1941, with his wealth having been spent on his writings and research, William sold Lorne Hall and its contents and moved to Niagara-On-The-Lake where he lived out his final years as a virtual recluse. He died there on June 30, 1948, and was laid to rest next to his wife at Toronto's Davenport Road United Church.

 

William Perkins Bull is remembered first and foremost as a historian and collector of Canadiana. Less familiar is his place in legal history.