Just after midnight this day in 1956, Wilbert Coffin hanged for murdering three American tourists — a case that has since entered Canadian annals as a paradigmatic wrongful execution.
Under the pressure of losing tourist dollars to breathless coverage in the U.S., and with the aid of a desultory defense attorney, the Coffin case was rushed along to completion. Though sympathy in Gaspe seems to have been considerable, its elevation to cause celebre was likewise bound up in Quebec politics, pushed by foes of powerful, unscrupulous premier Maurice Duplessis.
Gadfly journalist Jacques Hebert (not the guillotined French Revolution demagogue of the same name, of course) published three books on the case (the 1963 volume immoderately titled J’accuse les assassins de Coffin landed him in jail)
While the death penalty vanished from Canada, the Coffin case has never fully faded as a public controversy. And it’s had something of a revival around the hanging’s recent 50th anniversary, with the government flirting with a posthumous pardon.
There’s even a prime alternate suspect, now dead, whose family has allegedly implicated him.
The Gaspe guitarist who appears in the above piece, Dale Boyle, makes his Wilbert Coffin song (and details about the case) available on his web site.
Lew Stoddard’s blog covers the Coffin case in exacting detail from the standpoint of a strong advocate of the hanged man’s innocence. The Coffin family itself also maintains wilbertcoffin.com, naturally dedicated to clearing Wilbert’s name.
Still, even should officialdom ultimately side with the apparent judgment in the court of public opinion, a wrongful execution is a wound that can never be salved.
I’ve often wondered what went through my brother’s mind when they came and took him out of his cell to take that last walk to be hanged. You can’t imagine what it’s been like to live with this all these years. It’s like a black, black hole that never ends.