Forty-five years ago today, two men linked by nothing but fate stood back to back on the gallows of Toronto’s Don Jail and became the last hanged in Canada.
The doomed men were far from Canada’s greatest criminals. The 29-year-old Turpin was a small-time thief who shot a policeman while fleeing a restaurant robbery; the 54-year-old Lucas was convicted of killing an FBI informant despite lingering questions over his guilt and his mental impairment. Both were petty criminals with little previous violence to their history, seemingly almost too small for the historical role that even on the night of their hanging they seemed probable to play.
Executed Today: Why you, why now, why this book? What brought you to it?
Robert Horshowsky: I’ve worked as a freelance writer for almost 20 years now, and in that time, some stories were assigned to me, while others were the product of my own imagination. This book, like many before it, got its start as an article.
In 2001, I was in the library at Maclean’s magazine, where I worked as a Researcher-Reporter. They have a large section on Canadian history, and I saw a book by John Robert Colombo, who is very well known for his works on history and trivia. I believe the book was 1001 Questions About Canada. Picking up Colombo’s paperback, the first page I turned to asked, “When was the last execution in Canada?” The brief paragraph mentioned Ronald Turpin, a Canadian criminal, and Arthur Lucas, a Black man from Detroit. Both men were hanged on Dec. 11, 1962. Since it was a book of trivia, there wasn’t much more information than that, which got me thinking, “I wonder if I can pitch a story on the 40th anniversary for the December 2002 issue of Maclean’s?” Although it is a weekly news magazine, Maclean’s often ran articles on subjects of historic note, and the story I submitted on Turpin and Lucas was very well-received by the editors.
The one thing I have been accused of my entire working life is over-researching a subject, and the piece entitled “The Last Night of the Condemned” was no exception. My editor at the time said, “You’re not writing a book” in regard to the amount of research I had conducted, and I took this, perhaps subconsciously, as a challenge.
I was hooked by the stories of Turpin and Lucas for a number of reasons. There had never been a book about them, a fact that still boggles my mind. The end of the death penalty in different countries is a subject that is widely covered. The last two men to hang in England, for example, were Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans. They were executed in 1964, and a book was published about them a year later. Turpin and Lucas were hanged in 1962, and my book was published in 2007, 45 years after the fact. Of course, there were newspaper and articles about them, a chapter here and there, or a mention in a law textbook, but not much else, certainly not a book. Through my research I soon discovered that others had attempted plays and documentaries about the two, with little success. This made me wonder if the subject was cursed, which is certainly how I felt sometimes.
ET: What effect did writing the book have on you?
The book took a toll on me physically and mentally. Research at times was slow and painful, and obtaining documents – especially from the Canadian government – was a tedious and frustrating process. In Canada, we have something called the Freedom of Information and Access to Privacy Act, which I used over and over again to obtain jail records, court documents and the like on Turpin and Lucas. In the United States, I used the Freedom of Information Law to access documents on Arthur Lucas; since he was an American from Detroit, I figured there would be rap sheets and the like on him, which there were. All these documents were very useful, but getting hold of them was a real challenge, since you have to prove the person you’re inquiring about is dead, that no other persons will be incriminated or named in the documents, etc.
The hardest thing for me to deal with was the cancer that took my mother’s life in March of this year. Her last wish was that I finish this book, and I struggled against two deadlines: the publisher’s, and my mother’s. As soon as I finished a chapter, I gave it to mom to read, followed by the next. Completing the book was a bittersweet experience: although she read the entire thing, mom didn’t live long enough to see it published, passing away six weeks before it was printed. In hindsight, I’m shocked I didn’t fall to pieces. The most difficult section for me to write was the funeral of Frederick Nash, the policeman shot to death by Turpin. I wrote this after interviewing his widow, and three of his four daughters – the eldest was 11, and one of them, Karen, was only two months old when he died. That was tough, the mental image of these little kids holding flowers outside the church, not quite realizing that their father was never coming home again. That was one of the reasons I wanted to write an entire chapter about those people left behind, like officer Nash’s children, the Salvation Army chaplain who was with Turpin and Lucas when they died, and many others involved in the cases. Far too often, true crime books focus almost entirely on the killers, and not enough on the families of the victims.
ET: Canada was trending towards abolition, and Lucas and Turpin knew themselves that they might be the last ones hanged. Was it just happenstance, or was there some intentionality in pushing these cases in particular? What was the fallout in Canada?
RH: In the early 1960s, there was a push in many countries to eliminate capital punishment, and Canada was no exception. As early as 1914, a Canadian Member of Parliament named Robert Bickerdike introduced a private members’ bill for the abolition of the death penalty. Although it was defeated, there were other members’ bills over the years. In 1935, a woman named Thomasina Sarao was unintentionally decapitated during her hanging in Montreal, which led to more and more executions in Canada taking place behind closed doors. Sarao’s beheading didn’t directly lead to the end of capital punishment, but the idea of a woman dying in such a gruesome fashion certainly didn’t help the pro-death penalty camp!
By the 1950s, more changes were made to Canada’s Criminal Code, limiting the reasons a person could be executed. By 1961, changes were made which divided murder into a capital and a non-capital crime. One of the reasons you would die was for the murder of a police officer, a crime committed by Roland Turpin when he shot Fred Nash in February of 1962. There was always the possibility that even though you were found guilty of murder, the jury could recommend mercy, sparing your life. This didn’t happen in either Turpin or Lucas’s case.
Prior to the executions of Turpin and Lucas, there were a number of appeals for both men. The Salvation Army chaplain who was spiritual advisor to both men, Cyril Everitt, even appealed to the Prime Minister at the Time, John Diefenbaker. Law professors tried to fight the hangings, with no effect.
There was no doubt Ronald Turpin killed the police officer. I believe he suffered from some sort of mania or persecution complex. This certainly wouldn’t absolve him of shooting and killing a cop, but there is no doubt – to me at least – that Turpin was mentally unstable.
As for Arthur Lucas, there was a lot of evidence against him, and all of it was circumstantial. Chaplain Everitt wasn’t to save both men body and soul, and he believed with all his heart that Arthur Lucas was innocent.
There wasn’t so much fallout after the hangings as there was serious doubt. Doubt about the guilt of either man, especially Lucas, who was convicted entirely on circumstantial evidence. Doubt about the competency of their legal representation, which was conducted by a brilliant but alcoholic lawyer named Ross MacKay, who acted for both Turpin and Lucas. Imagine it: MacKay was just 29 years old and inexperienced. Turpin and Lucas were his first and last capital cases, and he had no budget, compared to the estimated $40,000 spent by the government to prosecute Lucas alone. On top of that, Mackay had less than three weeks between the trial of Arthur Lucas, and the trial of Ronald Turpin. There is evidence that MacKay showed up to court hung over on some days. And the majority of the newspapers were against Turpin – who had a lengthy criminal record for break-ins and the like – and Lucas, who was slow (his IQ was just 63, borderline retarded), and happened to look like a killer. Read More