Archive for April 28th, 2020

1876: Louis Thomas, gallows builder

1 comment April 28th, 2020 Headsman

This musing on the torments for condemned prisoners of seeing their own rickety gallows put up in their own prison yard comes via Ken Leyton-Brown’s The Practice of Execution in Canada … and culminates with a Winnipeg execution that took place on April 28, 1876.

In principle, hanging may be said to have begun when the procession arrived at the scaffold, at which point the hangman took control of proceedings, and to have ended with the death of the condemned. During what was supposed to be a brief time, the hangman was to perform a number of tasks. First, the condemned had to be positioned over the trap. In the years just after Confederation, this might be delayed while he made a short address to the assembled onlookers, but in later years, the address was rarely permitted. Second, the hangman would secure his ankles and sometimes his knees. Third, what was called a cap, but was actually a bag, was placed over his head, and the oose was put about his neck and tightened. And lastly, the trap would be released, allowing him to drop through the platform.

This seems a fairly simple set of operations, and it might be expected that hanging was generally quite straightforward, but in fact, problems could arise at every stage. The first of these sprang from the fact that hangings occurred at the prson where the condemned person had been held during trial. An inevitable consequence of this was that they took place in a large number of small facilities across the country, frequently in locations that had never conducted them before. This meant that the required apparatus had to be built from scratch, virtually always by people who lacked either plans or experience to guide them. Thus, predictably, it was not always a great success: a hastily erected scaffold might not work properly, and its construction could be unsettling, sometimes even cruel, to prisoners waiting to be hanged.

Even a hurriedly built gallows took some time to assemble because it had to be a substantial structure, able to meet the demands that would be placed upon it. It required a platform large enough to accommodate the various civic officials, one or more spiritual advisors, the hangman, and the condemned; it must include a trap door and a stout overhead beam; and it needed enough clearance underneath to allow for both the body to hang and the subsequent examination to ensure the death had occurred. None of this would be difficult for skilled carpenters, provided they had enough wood and nails, but the task did not necessarily appeal to them. Therefore, a gallows was often built to less than the desired standard, and on occasion this adversely affected its functioning. More serious, though, was that its construction meant for the condemned, and for everyone in the prison. It was a noisy project, and the sound of sawing and hammering, combined with the certain knowledge of what was being built and what would happen when it finished, preyed on people’s minds, especially, one supposes, on that of the condemned. Worse, they could sometimes see its manufacture, either from their cell or was they went for exercise, and could watch it take shape, knowng that they would die upon it. A Winnipeg Free Press discussion of the preparation of a scaffold for Philip Johnston and Frank Sullivan illustrates this well:

Reverberating through the precincts of the provincial jail today are the sounds of the hammer and saw and to the two men these sounds mean the beginning of the end of their existence. Formal announcement is expected today from Ottawa that no reprieve can be granted Frank Sullivan and Philip Johnson, the two men condemned to pay the extreme penalty of the law for the murder of Constable Snowden.

Yesterday’s word from Ottawa that John Stoike had been reprieved and the fact that no announcement was made in regard to a new trial for the other two men caused a start to be made on the erection of the scaffold. Unless Minister of Justice Doherty grants a stay of execution today in order to listen to a new witness the men will be executed at 7 o’clock Friday morning.

Ellis, the executioner, is expected to reach the city tomorrow. Last night the floor of the double scaffold had been constructed and the framework will be completed in time for a thorough test to be made by noon tomorrow.

A scaffold had to be a sturdy affair, and it was often left standing for long or short periods as a mute reminder to prisoners of what their future might hold if they were unlucky or did not mend their ways. Usually, though, the scaffold was taken apart after a hanging and the wood either salvaged or stored. A stored scaffold could be reassembled when next it was needed, a detail typically mentioned in newspaper accounts. The hanging of Louis Thomas in 1876 provides an example. In 1874 Joseph Michaud had been hanged at Winnipeg, and it appears that the scaffold had been dismantled and the pieces stored. Two years later, when Angus McIvor was executed, it was taken out of storage and reassembled. The scaffold was then left up, and four months later Thomas became the third person to die on it. The most macabre feature of this was that, while in jail, Thomas was required to help raise McIvor’s scaffold, all the while knowing that his life would probably end on the same apparatus.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder

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