1929: José de León Toral, assassin of Álvaro Obregón 1944: Twenty-two or more Poles

1956: Wilbert Coffin

February 10th, 2009 Headsman

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.

The aptly-named Coffin affair saw the prospector sent up on an entirely circumstantial case.

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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4 thoughts on “1956: Wilbert Coffin”

  1. ken claar says:

    Hi my name me is ken claar my grandfather use to tell me about that case.It was his uncles son fredrick who was shot.He always new coffin was not the one who did that crime.he would get upset when would talk about it,he felt bad for coffin and his family.

  2. james coffin says:

    James Coffin Hi everyone it’s getting closer to the time when all the media come forward again dad will be dead 55 years next feb 10/11 seems they only take an interest every five years so i’m triing to get everyone fired up so there will be to many asking why the goverment hasn’t cleared his name please everyone come join lets mahe it happen this time

  3. Rick Willett - Bill's nephew says:

    It would be interesting to find information as to if Mayer had been instructed not to provide any defence because of his destroying of evidence (blackmail?).

  4. Lorna Welburn says:

    Judge not that ye be not judged. Truer words were never carved on a headstone.

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