1937: Teido Kunizaki 1635: Ivan Sulyma

1962: Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin

December 11th, 2007 Headsman

ET: What about some of the other participants in this drama? Who’s the unsung character in this story?

RH: There are a number of unsung characters in the book. The two that stand out most remain Ross MacKay and Chaplain Everitt. MacKay the lawyer had a problem with the bottle all his life, but representing the last two men to be hanged in Canada just made his predicament much worse. After the trials, a popular Halloween costume among lawyers was a noose worn ‘round the neck. One lawyer would ask the other, “Who are you supposed to be?” and the response was, “One of Ross MacKay’s clients.” It was very sad, since MacKay didn’t have a hell of a lot to work with. The Canadian courts had thousands of dollars, veteran detectives, top prosecutors and forensic experts at their disposal; MacKay had a unrepentant client who murdered a policeman and left his four daughters without a father, and a menacing-looking Black American pimp who was accused of coming to Canada and murdering a witness in an FBI drug trial. Neither man drew much sympathy from the press or the public, but MacKay did his best to represent them.

Chaplain Cyril Everitt

The other key unsung hero is Chaplain Everitt. He was the Salvation Army Chaplain at Toronto’s Don Jail, where Turpin and Lucas were hanged. He befriended both men about 10 months before they were hanged, and went to see them several times a day to talk, pray, or play chess or checkers. Everitt truly believed people could be rehabilitated, and did everything he could to save the lives of these two men. Both Turpin and Lucas had lousy childhoods full of neglect and abuse, and Everitt was probably the only decent men they ever knew in their lives.

In many ways, Everitt’s bond of friendship with the two cost him more than I’m sure even he could imagine. Everitt devised a signal with the hangman, and shared it with Turpin and Lucas. The key word in the scripture he would read as they stood on the gallows was “Salvation,” and they knew the second they heard it that it meant they were about to die. He not only saw them hang, but conducted their funeral service at three in the morning with the full moon over his head. He said he would be with them “to the end,” and the man kept his word.

Perhaps there are those of us who could bear to see a stranger hanged, but a friend? Two friends? I’m not suggesting Everitt lost his mind over what happened – the man continued to do work for the Salvation Army for many years afterwards – but the experience of befriending Turpin and Lucas and seeing them die affected him for the rest of his life. He visited their unmarked graves all the time until he simply got too old and couldn’t do it any longer.

ET: It’s clear from the promotional copy that the botched hanging is a specific area you cover. What happened, and how did it stay so hush-hush in such a high-profile event?

RH: The code of secrecy among police officers is strong, but the code of silence among jail guards is virtually unbreakable. The few Don Jail guards I talked to would not go on the record under any circumstances, and one of them said he feared losing his pension if he discussed in detail what really happened to Arthur Lucas. This was 40 years after the fact. The retired police officers I spoke to were much more forthcoming, especially the homicide cops, who are a pretty fearless bunch. The extreme reluctance to talk is one of the reasons why details of the hangings didn’t come to light until many years later – in fact, some people thought Turpin and Lucas were buried on the Don Jail grounds, another common misconception.

The Don Jail’s former gallows area

The story of what happened the night of the hangings became blurred over time, even by people who were there, like Chaplain Everitt. He gave a number of interviews to the media over the years, usually on the anniversary of the hangings. In a 1981 documentary, Everitt said Turpin fainted on the way to the gallows. “They had to carry him,” said Everitt, who believed Turpin never regained consciousness. In every single interview he gave before 1981, Everitt never once mentioned Turpin fainting, nor did he reveal what happened to Lucas until a few years before he himself died in 1986.

One of the rumours is that Turpin did not just faint when he saw the noose hanging in mid-air, but that he actually dropped dead on the spot of a heart attack. If this happened today, there would have been a great kerfuffle to revive the condemned man or woman, only to have them put to death at a later time. In Canada, the common belief was callous but pragmatic: he’s going to die in a few moments, so why delay the inevitable? There was no other word except Everitt’s that Turpin fainted; one of the police detectives present at the hanging told me, “Turpin didn’t faint. He hanged.” I put a lengthy footnote in the book about this. All accounts I tracked down said Turpin was conscious when he died on the gallows. The only odd thing about his death is that there is a cemetery record that has the word “accidental” written next to his name. I’ve never had a satisfactory explanation about that one. It could be some past cemetery employee’s idea of a joke, or a one-word protest against capital punishment.

As gruesome as Turpin’s death was, Lucas’ end was far more disturbing. It was a double execution, two nooses, with both Turpin and Lucas standing back-to-back on the same platform, black hoods over their heads. No one talked about what happened to Lucas for years afterward, and many believe the hangman was drunk and responsible for the mistake, which was not the case. Lucas was practically decapitated. The image of two men dropping to their deaths is horrific enough, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to see blood spraying everywhere when one of them hits the bottom of the rope. Lucas’ head was barely clinging to the rest of his body. Now, try to imagine blood everywhere, and having to climb on a stepladder and press a stethoscope against the chest of each man in turn, listening to their dying heartbeats for almost 20 minutes. That was the responsibility of the jail doctor. The media was told the deaths of the two was “practically instantaneous,” and that’s the story that stuck for decades. Everitt only revealed what happened in 1985, a year before his own death. When he did tell his story, Everitt said the hangman miscalculated Lucas’s weight. This was not the case, since Lucas lost about 50 pounds in jail. It is likely Lucas had syphilis, which would have weakened his muscles, connective tissue and blood vessels, resulting in his near-decapitation. The awful way that Lucas died was a secret Everitt kept from his wife and son all those years.

ET: The Conservative party has made some noises about death penalty reinstatement and backed off supporting Canadian nationals on death row in the U.S. Are there any lessons today’s policymakers ought to be learning from Canada’s last hanging?

RH: Great question. First, anyone who thinks the subject of reinstatement won’t continue to be debated is fooling themselves. Bringing back capital punishment is often mentioned when names like Clifford Olson or Paul Bernardo come up, or when there is a random killing of a young person who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There will always be those who believe that the death penalty is a deterrent, which I don’t believe, for a number of reasons. The majority of us are law-abiding citizens, and few people – with the possible exception of a hit man – don’t get up the morning and think, “I’m going to kill someone today.” What often happens instead is some fool gets drunk, gets into an argument with another drunk, and punches him until he falls and bleeds to death. Is the death penalty a deterrent in that case? Being drunk isn’t an excuse, but was the man or woman’s intent to commit murder? In some instances, the reminder of capital punishment might stop someone from pulling his trigger aimed at a police officer, if they know that that move will result in their own life being taken.

If there’s anything to be learned from the lessons of the past, it is that there is often considerable doubt about a man’s guilt or innocence, despite DNA evidence and expert testimony. For every monster like Paul Bernardo there is a Guy Paul Morin, a David Milgaard, and most recently, William Mullins-Johnson, who was convicted largely on the flawed testimony of a coroner. It cost Mullins-Johnson 12 years of his life, which he will never get back. The same can’t be said for earlier Canadian convictions, like that of Wilbert Coffin, who was hanged in 1956. I wouldn’t trust the testimony of less than three independent experts in any one field if my life were on the line (one Canadian, one U.S., one European), and I certainly wouldn’t expect a Canadian court to rely on anything less.


The Last to Die: Ronald Turpin, Arthur Lucas, and the End of Capital Punishment in Canada

By Robert Hoshowsky

Published by Dundurn, whose blog also hosts a radio interview with the author. Update: And also a ping to this post.

On this day..

Pages: 1 2

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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17 thoughts on “1962: Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin”

  1. WAYNE CAMPBELL says:

    i ASKED THE OFFICER WITH ME WHY ARE THEY SO HAPPY

    HE WHISPERED TO ME BECAUSE THEY ARE GOING TO

    MEET JESUS TONIGHT.!

    1. Petru says:

      And how old are you now?

  2. WAYNE CAMPBELL says:

    I WAS WITH THEM FOR THERE LAST DINNER

    AT THAT TIME I WAS WITH THE SALVATION ARMY

    THEY WERE VERY HAPPY AT THE DINNER THE FOOD WAS GREAT THEY HAD TWO CANDLES BURNING

  3. bengalpuss says:

    Places associated with executions are notorious for being plagued by spirits, some of whom don’t realise that they are dead, or died because of trauma, or so i’ve read.

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