Posts filed under 'Canada'

1835: Patrick O’Brien, Francis Spaight apprentice boy

Add comment December 19th, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1835,* a Limerick ship’s boy named Patrick O’Brien lost a casting of lots … then lost his life to feed his ravenous shipmates.

The spanking new 457-ton barque Francis Spaight was on the return leg of her second-ever run to Quebec to fetch timber back to her home port of Limerick. The ship was named for her owner, a big landowner and shipping magnate who had thriftily sent 216 passengers on the voyage’s first leg. As Spaight would explain to a state commission a decade later amid the Great Famine, replacing ballast with emigres on outbound voyages was pure profit. In a sort of microcosm of Ireland’s terrible economic machinery,** Spaight’s own commercial interests on land and sea dovetailed nicely in filling his hulls with Ireland’s surplus population. For example, when Spaight gained the 4,200-acre Tipperary estate of Derry Castle in 1844 he smoothly set about depopulating it** — as Ciaran O Murchada describes in The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-1852:

He [Spaight] did this by obligating unwanted tenants to emigrate to America on board his own ships and at his cost. It was all done extremely cheaply since the ships were cargo vessels which were empty on each outward voyage in any case. By 1847 Spaight’s businesslike approach had rid him of half the Derrycastle tenants, and by the time his consolidation was completed two years later he had removed some 2,000 persons in an operation which was admired by other landlords for its efficiency and the fact that it was done without arousing any overt protest on the part of the tenants.

As to the ship that bore the master’s name, discharged of her Irish exiles and loaded with Canadian lumber, she departed her last port of call in Newfoundland on November 24. Aboard were eighteen souls: fourteen crew and four boys among whom we find our principal Patrick O’Brien — a penniless 15-year-old bound over from the Limerick workhouse as an apprentice to Mr. Spaight approximately on the eve of the Francis Spaight‘s departure. He was destined never to lay eyes on his native soil again.

On December 3, the ship capsized.† Three men were lost at sea; the other 11 crew and all four boys clambered aboard a dinghy, adrift and unprovisioned in the frigid Atlantic. There the torments of privation worked them until they slaked their hunger on their comrades’ flesh, as the Irish and then the English press related months later to their titillated readers — such as this entry from Manchester Times, June 25, 1836.

On the 19th of December, the sixteenth day since the wreck, the captain said they were now such a length of time without sustenance, that it was beyond human nature to endure it any longer, and that the only question for them to consider was, whether one or all should die; his opinion was that one should suffer for the rest, and that lots should be drawn between the four boys, as they had no families, and could not be considered so great a loss to their friends as those who had wives and children depending on them.

None objected to this except the boys, who cried out against the injustice of such a proceeding. O’Brien, in particular, protested against it; and some mutterings were heard amongst the men that led the latter to apprehend they might proceed in a more summary way. Friendless and forlorn as he was, they were well calculated to terrify the boy into acquiescence, and he at length submitted.

Mulville now prepared some sticks of different lengths for the lots. A bandage was tied over O’Brien’s eyes, and he knelt down resting his face on Mulville’s knees. The latter had the sticks in his hand, and was to hold them up one by one demanding whose lot it was O’Brien was to call out a name, and whatever person he named for the shortest stick was to die. Muville held up the first stick, and demanded who it was for? The answer was “for little Johnny Sheehan,” and the lot was laid aside. The next stick was held up, and the demand was repeated, “on whom is this lot to fall?” O’Brien’s reply was, “on myself,” upon which Mulville said, that was the death lot — that O’Brien had called it for himself.

The poor fellow heard the announcement without uttering a word.

This same story, said to have been related by an unnamed survivor of the Spaight, appeared in a number of papers with slightly varying embroideries around this time. Some versions suggest that this blind man’s bluff lot-drawing was rigged to target O’Brien as the least popular crewman; whether or not that was the case, even the “fair” version of the game was rigged at the outset to exclude the adult crew members and leave only the apprentice boys for gobbling.

The lot having been cast, we resume the ghastly narrative with Bells Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, June 26, 1836:

The men now told him he must prepare for death, and the captain said it was better it should be done by bleeding him in the arm, to which O’Brien made no objection. The captain then directed the cook, John Gorman, to do it, telling him it was his duty; but Gorman strenuously refused. He was, however, threatened with death himself by the men if he continued obstinate, and he at last consented.

O’Brien then took off his jacket without waiting to be desired, and after telling the crew, if any of them ever reached home, to tell his poor mother what had happened to him, bared his right arm. The cook cut his veins across twice with a small knife, but could bring no flow of blood, upon which there seemed to be much hesitation among the men as to what could be done.

They were relieved by the boy himself, who immediately desired the cook to give him the knife, as he could not be looking at him putting him to pain. When he got the knife, and was about to cut the vein, the captain recommended him to try the left arm, which he accordingly did. He attempted to open the vein at the bend of the elbow with the point of a knife, as a surgeon would, but like the cook he failed in bringing blood.

A dead consternation now fell upon all; but in a minute or two the captain said, “This is all of no use, ’tis better to put him out of pain by at once bleeding him in the throat,” and some of them said it was true.

At this O’Brien, for the first time, looked terrified, and begged hard that they would not do so, but give him a little time; he said he was cold and weak; but if they would let him lay down and sleep for a little, he would get warm, and then he would bleed freely.

To this wish there was some expression of dissent from the men, and the captain shortly after said to them, “that it was useless leaving the boy this way in pain; ’twas best at once to lay hold of him, and let the cook cut his throat!”

O’Brien, now roused, and driven to extremity, seemed working himself up for resistance, and declared he would not let them; the first man, he said, who laid hands on him, ‘twould be worse for him; that he’d appear to him at another time; that he’d haunt him after death.

The poor youth was, however, among so many, soon got down, and the cook was again called upon to put him to death. The man now refused more strenuously than before, and another altercation arose: but, weak and irresolute, and seeing that his own life would absolutely be taken instead of O’Brien’s, if he persisted, he at length yielded to their menaces.

Some one at this time brought him down a large case knife that was on the poop, instead of the clasp-knife that he had first prepared, with which, pale and trembling, he stood over O’Brien, who was still endeavouring to free himself from those who held him. One of them now placed the cover of the tureen (which they before used to collect rain) under the boy’s neck, and several cried out to the cook to do his duty.

The horror stricken man, over and over again, endeavoured to summon up hardihood for the deed, but, when he caught the boy’s eye, his heart always failed him, and then he looked supplicatingly to the men again.

Their cries and threats were, however, loud for death — he made a desperate effort — there was a short struggle — and O’Brien was no more.

As soon as this horrid act was perpetrated, the blood was served to the men; but a few of them, among whom was Mahony, refused to partake of it.

They afterwards laid open the body, and separated the limbs; the latter were hung over the stern, while a portion of the former was allotted for immediate use.

Shocked, as, for the sake of human nature, it is to be hoped many were at the scene they had just witnessed, a gnawing hunger came upon them all when they saw even this disgusting meal put out for them, and almost every one, even the unwilling boys, partook more or less of it.

This was the evening of the sixteenth day. They ate again late at night, and some greedily; but the thirst, which was before at least endurable, now became craving, and as there was no more blood, they slaked it with salt water.

They then lay down to rest, but several were raving and talking wildly through the night, and in the morning the cook was observed to be quite insane — his eyes inflamed and glaring, and his speech rambling and incoherent; he threw his clothes about restlessly, and was often violent. His raving continued during the succeeding night, & in the morning, as his end seemed to be approaching, the veins of his neck were cut, and the blood drawn from him. This was the second death.

On the night of that day, Michael Behane was mad, and the boy George Burns on the following morning; they were both so violent, that they were obliged to be tied by the crew, and the latter was bled to death, like the cook, by cutting his throat. Michael Behane died unexpectedly, or he would have suffered the same fate.

Next morning the captain came off deck, and, feeling too weak and exhausted to keep a look-out any longer, desired some one to take his place above. Harrington and Mahony went up very soon after; the latter thought he could distinguish a sail, and raised a shout of joy, upon which those below immediately came up. A ship was clearly discernible, and apparently bearing her course towards them.

Signals were hoisted with as much alacrity as the weakness of the survivors would allow, and, when she approached, and was almost within hail, their apprehension of her passing by was so great, that they held up the hands and feet of O’Brien to excite commiseration.

The vessel proved to be the Agenoria [sic — Agenora is the correct name of the ship], an American. She put off a boat to their assistance without any hesitation, although the weather was so rough at the time, and the survivors were saved.

The Francis Spaight was channeled almost straight from such reports by Jack London into a shocking short story.

The notoriety of cannibalism did not translate to any sense that the famished survivors ought to be prosecuted: they were objects of pity and the survival of those who made it was rather celebrated than disdained since even weeks later as they arrived back at Limerick they presented an appearance “ghastly and spectre like with a singular woe-be-gone expression of countenance.” (Quoted in Neil Hanson’s book about a later instance of cannibalism, The Custom of the Sea)

Francis Spaight — the oligarch, not his barque — wrote an appeal that the public sustain with charity his own invalided employees … for, “mutilated by the frost and otherwise rendered helpless” they would “be unable not only to obtain bread, but to labour for it during the rest of their lives.” What, you think I’m going to hire them? (Actually the skipper who orchestrated O’Brien’s death went back to work captaining Spaight’s ships.) Spaight put in ten quid for the lot of them, something like US $1,000 in present-day money.

And the grief-stricken mother of Patrick O’Brien haunted Spaight’s country estate “where her hysterical cries were truly heart-rendering.” (Source)

* Understandably calendar-keeping was not foremost on the minds of the Francis Spaight survivors. Many sources give the 18th as the date of O’Brien’s sacrifice; I’m gingerly preferring the 19th in deference to the immediate newspaper reports such as the one quoted in this article. This also appears to square with rescue on the 23rd: by the quoted narrative, the cook is slaughtered two days after O’Brien (hence, the 21st), and Michael Behane and George Burns die on the following day (the 22nd), only for the survivors’ salvation to appear “the next morning.”

** “Irish genius discovered an altogether new way of spiriting a poor people thousands of miles away from the scene of its misery … instead of costing Ireland anything, emigration forms one of the most lucrative branches of its export trade.” -Marx

† Though useless to our survivors in their hour of need, the Francis Spaight did not sink. She was recovered, pumped out, and returned to service. Years later she went down for good at Table Bay, near the Cape of Good Hope.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Canada,Children,Chosen by Lot,History,Ireland,No Formal Charge,Uncertain Dates

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1828: Charles French, York printer

Add comment October 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1828, a young printer’s assistant morally corrupted by the theater went to the gallows at York, Upper Canada (soon to become Toronto, Ontario).

After boozing it up at a performance of Tom and Jerry, or, Life in London* at Frank’s Hotel, 21-year-old Charles French fell into a drunken row with Edward Knowlan or Nowlan and shot him dead, in a case that occasioned a local moral panic about the dangerous carousing nurtured by the nightlife in the small frontier town.

Frank’s Hotel, York’s very first theatrical venue, was “neither under order nor restraint,” French’s respectable parents pleaded in their unsuccessful clemency missive. It was “the haunt of the gay and dissolute, the idle and the profligate, the ruffian and woman of bad fame, those who show in the light of the moon were there — and from its temptations few parents or masters could restrain the youth.” (Source) Theater troupes were banned from York stages for five years after the French affair.

French’s defense had likewise attempted to raise doubts about his mental competency, and although this worked as well as it usually did in a 19th century courtroom there was no small sentiment for French’s reprieve: (K)nowlan was a notorious goon, and the circumstances of the fray seemed muddled enough to bring the shooter’s degree of calculation into question. Two alleged accomplices, acquitted in separate trials, swore that Knowlan had menaced French before French shot him.

The close clemency call carried a sharp political undertone. French was an understudy of the reform publisher William Lyon Mackenzie and his victim a Tory brawler who dealt out bruises in the service of Upper Canada’s “Family Compact” ruling clique. That his petition for mercy was rejected by Lt. Gov. Peregrine Maitland eventually became one of the (lesser) briefs against the Family Compact advanced a decade later during the Upper Canada Rebellion.

* The period’s several Tom and Jerry plays — no overt relationship is known between them and the 20th century Tom and Jerry cartoons — derived from Pierce Egan‘s smash hit Life in London, or, the day and night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom in their rambles and sprees through the metropolis. The title characters capture vignettes around the city, naturally not excluding the condemned hold at Newgate, which they tour with their friend Bob Logic on the pretext of consoling one of Logic’s old friends.

An opportunity presented itself to our TRIO to visit the Condemned Yard in Newgate. “It was a mournful sight,” Logic observed to the Corinthian; “but as it was the intention of Jerry not to neglect visiting any place that might afford him information during his stay in London, he had been induced to make the proposition to Hawthorn; yet, he was free to confess, it was more especially on his own account, as he was compelled to attend, and companions would, therefore, prove very agreeable to his feelings upon such a melancholy occasion.” “We will accompany you, Bob,” replied Tom and Jerry.

The Plate represents the Morning of Execution, and the malefactors having their irons knocked off previous to their ascending the fatal platform that launches them into eternity. The Yeoman of the Halter [i.e., the hangman — at the time of Egan’s writing this would have been John Foxton] is in waiting to put the ropes about them. The Clergyman is also seen administering consolation to these unfortunate persons in such an awful moment; and the Sheriffs are likewise in attendance to conduct the culprits to the place of execution, to perform the most painful part of their duty, in witnessing the offended laws of their country put in force. It is a truly afflicting scene; and neither the pen nor the PENCIL, however directed by talent, can do it adequate justice, or convey a description of the “harrowed feelings” of the few spectators that are admitted into the Condemned Yard upon such an occasion. The tolling of the bell, too, which breaks in upon the very soul of the already agonized malefactor, announcing to him that he has but a few minutes to live, adds a terrific solemnity to the proceedings: —

Hear it not, Duncan, for ’tis a knell
That summons thee to heav’n or to hell.

The Condemned Yard is long, but narrow, and contains a great number of cells, one above another, forming three stories in height. Each cell measures nine feet in length, and six in width. [Compare with Dickens’s description -ed.] Every indulgence is allowed to those prisoners immediately the “death-warrant” arrives at Newgate, ordering them to prepare for execution. They are then allowed to remain in the Large Room (which the Plate represents), in order that the Clergyman may attend upon them as often as they desire it, and who, generally, previous to the morning on which they are to suffer, sits up praying with them the whole of the night. It is really astonishing, upon most of these occasions, to witness the resignation and fortitude with which these unhappy men conduct themselves: many of the most hardened and desperate offenders, from the kindness, attention, and soothing conduct of the Rev. Mr. Cotton, who is indefatigable in administering consolation to their troubled minds, have become the most sincere penitents; nay more, several prisoners, who have received a free pardon after having been ordered for execution, have since publicly declared that they should never again be in such a fit state to meet eternity. The criminal on the left side of the Plate, lifting up his hands in the attitude of prayer with the Clergyman, was once a character of considerable note at the West End of the Town, and from his vivacity, then designated “Lively Jem!” He soon ran through a fine fortune; and, to keep up his extravagances, he plunged into those destructive habits which ultimately brought him into this ignominious situation. Lively Jem, like most others, saw his error too late to repair it. He had not strength of mind sufficient to bear with the reverses of fortune; to fall from splendour to poverty was too much for his feelings; and, to avoid the jests and sneers of his once dashing acquaintance, under the appellation of “poor fellow!” and being excluded from their company, he thus violently terminated his thoughtless career. Jem had been at college with the Oxonian, and as his last request, lie had sent a message to Logic to attend upon him on this mournful occasion, in order to be the bearer of some important circumstances respecting himself to a female, to whom he had been very much attached, and who had also never been absent from him except this fatal morning. Logic was too much of a man to neglect another in the hour of misfortune; and it was to fulfil the request of a dying unfortunate acquaintance, that he came, accompanied by Corinthian Tom and Jerry, to the condemned Yard of Newgate.

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

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1834: Catherine Snow, the last hanged in Newfoundland

1 comment July 21st, 2016 Headsman

The last woman executed on Newfoundland hanged on this date in 1834.

Historical novel about Catherine Snow.

Born Catherine Mandeville, Catherine was seven children into an audibly-to-the-neighbors combative marriage with John Snow when Snow disappeared in 1833, leaving behind only a splatter of blood on his Salmon Cove fishing stage.

Though the corpse was never found, the inference seemed clear enough — and the suspects were obvious: Catherine Snow, her cousin and lover Tobias Manderville, and a household servant named Arthur Spring. But whether the crown ever converted reasonable suspicion into proof sufficient to justly hang Catherine Snow was controversial then and remains so today.

Now, if all three did go in together on a murder plot, it was one which signally neglected adequate planning for the police investigation that was sure to follow.

Manderville and Spring were arrested on suspicion of murder, and they were not long in jail befoe Spring summoned the sheriff to announce that “we killed him; Manderville and myself, and Mrs. Snow” — shooting him dead and sinking him into the Atlantic with a grapnel. So, no code of silence here. Soon, Manderville and Spring were each accusing the other of being the guy who pulled the trigger when they went out to murder John Snow together. However the matter of the trigger finger might weigh in their afterlives, it was juridically irrelevant to their fate in Newfoundland.

Catherine Snow was supposed to have initiated this conspiracy and certainly her violent marriage would have given her ample motivation to do so — perhaps a far stronger motivation than the men had. The inference strengthened by Snow’s changing her story to police, and then by her fleeing her home when she heard about Spring’s jailhouse revelation.

But she could never really be shown to have been present at the murder nor proven to have clearly conspired in it, and to the discomfiture of all she insisted on maintaining her innocence all along. “There is no direct or positive evidence of her guilt,” attorney general James Simms admitted to the jury. (Source) “But I have a chain of circumstantial evidence to show her guilt.” The jury convicted her.

Manderville and Spring hanged in the provincial capital of St. John’s mere days after the trial in January of 1834.

Snow had a substantial reprieve: she was pregnant.

For six months Newfoundland was abuzz with the case while Catherine Snow came to term, bore her putative victim a posthumous son named Richard, and nursed him in his infancy. Was she really guilty? And guilty or no, could they bear to leave her months to bring new life into the world only to orphan it?

Catherine Snow did not offer the sizable crowd of onlookers any peace of mind when she mounted the scaffold on Duckworth Street on July 21, 1834. “I was a wretched woman, but I am as innocent of any participation in the crime of murder as an unborn child.”

CNN reporter Mary Snow is a descendant of Catherine Snow.

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

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1916: Trooper Alexander Butler

Add comment July 2nd, 2016 Headsman

One hundred years ago today at Bussy-les-Daours on the Somme, Canadian Trooper Alexander Butler was shot for the unprovoked murder of another soldier during World War I.

Butler was a veteran soldier with six-plus years in the 7th Hussars. For obscure reasons possibly tracing to multiple head injuries he had sustained in falls from horse during World War I, Butler on June 8 approached a fellow Hussar named Mickleburgh and suddenly poured five rifle rounds into his chest.

Butler was one of only two Canadian soldiers executed for murder during the Great War. (Twenty-two others were shot for desertion, and one for cowardice.) Those two soldiers were excluded from the 2006 posthumous pardon of Commonwealth servicemen who were “shot at dawn” during the war.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1867: Modiste Villebrun, but not Sophie Boisclair

Add comment May 3rd, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1867, Modiste Villebrun was hanged in Sorel, Quebec, in what would be the last execution before Canada became its own country. His partner in crime, Sophie Boisclair, might very well have been executed alongside him had she not been pregnant.

Villebrun, a lumberjack from St. Zephirin, was having an affair with Boisclair and they wanted to get married. They had two slight problems to deal with, in the form of their respective spouses. In those times, divorce was unthinkable. Murder, apparently, was not.

Jeffrey E. Pfeifer details their crimes in his book Death By Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions:

The first victim was Villebrun’s wife, and their plan seemed to work well. No one suspected foul play when the previously healthy woman died, or at least no one could prove anything. Braced by their success, the lovers soon turned their attention to Boisclair’s husband, Francois-Xavier Jutras. Boisclair suggested to her husband that they should allow Villebrun to move in with them since the death of his wife had left him all alone. Jutras agreed to his wife’s request and almost immediately Boisclair began to lace his food with her “special” ingredient. It was not long before the strychnine took effect and Jutras was dead.

Unfortunately for the two lovers, a suspicious doctor demanded an autopsy, which revealed the dead man’s body was saturated with poison. Villebrun and Boisclair soon found themselves arrested.

They were tried separately and both were convicted in short order and sentenced to death. When asked, at sentencing, whether she had anything to say, Boisclair announced she was expecting a baby. She got a temporary reprieve until delivery, and got the opportunity to watch Villebrun’s execution from the window in her cell.

Ten thousand people attended his hanging.

Seven months later, Boisclair gave birth to his child, and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

“Boisclair ended up serving 20 years in the penitentiary,” records Pfeifer, “before being released, a broken woman.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Quebec

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1946: One sex killer and four POW camp murderers

Add comment December 18th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1946 saw the largest mass execution in Alberta: five men all hanged for murder.

One of these, Donald Sherman Staley, was a hated sex-murderer who had raped and killed boys in Calgary and Alberta that summer. But he is the undercard in this event.*

The remaining four were all German prisoners of war from the lately concluded world war. They did not, as their onetime commanders in Europe, face judgment for war crimes: no, Bruno Perzonowsky, Walter Wolf, Heinrich Busch and Willi Mueller had while marking time in the Medicine Hat POW camp contrived to execute a fellow-prisoner as a subversive.

Naturally this camp “execution” was rank murder from a legal perspective. But the day-to-day reality of the Medicine Hat camp was that the few Canadian officials banked on the 12,000 or so German detainees to run the place themselves.**

Medicine Hat’s German leadership consisted of Nazi ideologues, but the politics and life experiences of its inmates, regular grunts snatched from various battlefields, deviated widely from the Reich’s ideal. In 1943, convinced that the less fascist elements in camp were cogitating a plot to displace the Nazi silverbacks in camp, that clique convened a drumhead trial and hanged August Plaszek, a Catholic and former French Foreign Legionnaire.

After the war ended, this murder too resulted in a hanging — but as of the second killing that is the focus of this post, the Canadian investigation was being stonewalled and the true believer types still bossed Medicine Hat with near-impunity.

The second murder was triggered by a threat not to Nazi authority in Medicine Hat — but in Berlin.

After the shock of the Valkyrie plot that came within a whisker of assassinating Hitler, the Fuhrer publicly demanded a purge of traitors, anywhere and everywhere.

The POW Karl Lehmann was just such a one, to Hitlerian eyes. Another Catholic — a dubious class for sure — Lehmann was a husky former languages professor who had been dragooned into the military and subsequently captured in Tunisia.† He had been in Medicine Hat for two years when Col. Stauffenberg’s bomb went off in Wolfsschanze, growing ever bolder vilifying the Third Reich and anticipating its approaching defeat.

In September 1944, our quartet of future gallows-fodder lured Lehmann to a room where he sometimes gave lectures, and there began browbeating him about communists in camp. As Lehmann vainly denied any such connection, his assailants got a noose around him and hoisted him to his death.

Having now had two political assassinations on their watch, Canada finally got serious and threatened the entire population of prisoners with the prospect of being punished as murderers were they merely to fail to report a murder plot to which they had become privy. They also started reshuffling the prisoner population in an effort to break up the Nazi prison gang. Both measures worked — aided, of course, by the advance of Allied armies in the European theater — and nobody had the ill fortune to follow Karl Lehmann’s fate.

Lethbridge Gaol had to be outfitted with a whole new condemned bloc just to hold the prisoners bound for their end this date. (Its existing capacity was only two.)

* Staley’s desperate argument for clemency was that he was a “sexual insane” who could not govern his compulsions: “I must have been born this way and should not be held responsible for what I done, but should receive treatment of some kind instead of being condemned to die for something I can’t help.” “Merciful” proposals ran towards employing him as a guinea pig for mental health hospitals’ experiments with, e.g., lobotomy.

** Canada’s deference to German detainees also made it party to a scandalous execution of Wehrmacht deserters conducted by a surrendered German army in Canadian custody in 1945. (Canada helpfully supplied their prisoners the necessary guns.)

† Under Field Marshal Rommel‘s command, no less: though he was perhaps Hitler’s ablest general, the Desert Fox all but openly disdained national socialism. He was himself implicated in the July 20 plot, and made to commit suicide.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Soldiers

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1807: Jenkin Ratford, Chesapeake-Leopard affair casualty

Add comment August 31st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1807, the British navy hanged Jenkin Ratford from the yardarm of the HMS Halifax off the coast of Maryland — an incident destined to become a rallying cry for the United States in the ill-fated War of 1812.

The U.S. at this moment was an upstart young country and naturally enough chafed at the lordly interpositions of her recent mother country. Great Britain had the navy, however, so the Americans could chafe all they liked. In the words of the tune that had emerged in the 18th century with Britain’s globe-straddling sea power

Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves
Britons never will be slaves.

The Britons who got to do the grunt work of wave-ruling might disagree.

Seaman in the Royal Navy, and that huge navy needed many seamen, was a harrowingly brutal position often filled by press gangs empowered to grab anyone not able to produce immediate evidence of exemption and have them by next morning swabbing the nearest frigate on a ration of wormy hardtack. Desertion was correspondingly popular and more radical resorts not unheard-of; the mutiny on the Bounty had occurred in 1789; two other mutinies much more alarmingly proximate to Old Blighty took place in 1797.

Britain’s willingness to extend impressment to stopping American ships and seizing crew members who couldn’t produce American identity papers made a great affront to the young Republic — an insulting reminder of its third-rate* place among the nations. Years before while American colonists were kicking redcoat ass in the Revolution, they had dreamt among other things of correcting America’s aggravating dependence on the British fleet. “No country on the globe is so happily situated, or so internally capable of raising a fleet as America. Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense. “Ship building is America’s greatest pride, and in which she will, in time, excel the whole world.”

Congress got a start on that project with a 1794 naval act creating the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy. The USS Constitution is the most famous of these; one of her five sisters, the Chesapeake, will figure in the action of this date’s post.

In 1806, two French ships, the Cybelle and the Patriot, struggled into Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay for repairs after being crippled by a storm at sea — stalked by British ships that blockaded the mouth of the Chesapeake to trap them there.

The proximity of American soil proved an irresistible inducement for at least four sailors on the British ships to desert. Three of them — William Ware, Daniel Martin and John Strachan — were American victims of British impressment. The fourth, our man Jenkins Ratford, was a Limey. They then enlisted in the American Navy.

Great Britain’s demands for their return met with steady refusal on the American side. Knowing that the deserters had been posted to the Chesapeake, which was then outfitting for deployment to the Mediterranean, British ships in the vicinity of the North American coast were ordered to stop the Chesapeake on sight to recover the absconders.

This the HMS Leopard did do on June 22, 1807, and with a singular lack of subtlety: the Leopard battered the Chesapeake with broadsides. Shocked and unprepared, the Americans couldn’t even fire back before striking colors and yielding to a humiliating British search that hauled off Ware, Martin, Strachan and Ratford.


The HMS Leopard (easily recognizable since it’s the only ship firing!) vs. the USS Chesapeake.

While these unfortunates were sailed off to Halifax, Nova Scotia** for their trial, outrage spread on American shores — immediately advised of the incident since the Chesapeake† had had to limp directly back to Norfolk, Va., for repairs. Outrage at the British, but also outrage at the captain who failed to so much as resist the attack (he was court-martialed, and suspended from command for five years), and outrage for the national honor. Some, more vengeful than sensible, wanted immmediate hostilities with Great Britain. “Never since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity,” U.S President Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, the French emigre Dupont de Nemours.‡

Ratford, the only actual British citizen among the shanghaied sailormen, was the only one executed. The Americans “merely” got prison sentences.

At the political level, President Jefferson had a thorny problem. The British could in no way be induced to meet the American demand to end impressment, for simultaneous with the scandal Napoleon was finalizing victories that would knock Britain’s continental allies out of an altogether more urgent war. No derogation of security interests could be entertained, and so for America, no diplomatic satisfaction could be forthcoming.

Instead of war, Jefferson responded by convincing Congress to enact an embargo on trade with Europe. It proved to be a counterproductive policy that damaged the U.S. far more than the European export markets it had intended to punish.

The U.S. and U.K. would come to blows soon enough, and if the War of 1812 was hardly fought because of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, that incident was certainly among the contributing grievances.

Injuries more directly attributable were not hard to come by, however. When James Barron, the suspended former commander of the Chesapeake, sought reinstatement to the navy, early American naval hero Stephen Decatur opposed him with vehemence sufficient to induce Barron to challenge Decatur to a duel. Decatur was slain in the fight, shockingly pinching out one of America’s leading military figures at the age of 41.


(cc) image by David King.

The Chesapeake herself fared little better. The ship was captured by the British in the ill-fated War of 1812, and recommissioned into the hated Royal Navy. Sold off for scrap in 1819, its timbers were repurposed for a long-lived (and now historic) Hampshire watermill — the Chesapeake Mill.

* See what I did there.

** Halifax the city is where they were tried; the HMS Halifax, which was Ratford’s ship prior to desertion, is where Ratford was executed. It’s Halifaxes all the way down.

Thanks to this incident, the very name “USS Chesapeake” became so blackened in American naval history that it has barely been touched for any vessel since.

‡ Father of the DuPont who founded the DuPont chemical company and made that family perpetual American plutocrats down to the present day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,At Sea,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA

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1797: David McLane, an American traitor in Quebec

Add comment July 21st, 2015 Headsman

On only one occasion has the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering been executed on the soil of the (eventual) United States.

But on this date in 1797, that terrible death was visited on American citizen David McLane in Quebec for attempting to topple British authority in that Canadian province.

David McLane, a Rhode Island merchant, was arrested in the suburbs of Quebec City in May of 1797 and accused of conniving with French diplomats to recover their former colony by dint of an invasion of raftborne pikemen across the St. Lawrence to support a planned French landing. This tome claims it to be Quebec’s first treason trial under British rule; the Attorney General prosecuting it thought it the first in the North American colonies since Nicholas Bayard‘s in 1701. (Cobbett’s State Trials has the entire trial transcript.)

The Quebecois spectators crowded the courts in dread of hearing the ancient English punishment pronounced. They were not disappointed.

Writing many decades later about an execution he had witnessed as a 10-year-old boy, Philippe Aubert de Gaspe recollected its grisly particulars — and the surprising (to the audience) fact that McLane was hanged to death before the emasculating-and-disembowelling portions of the sentence were visited on him.*

The government having little confidence in the loyalty which the French Canadians had proved during the war of 1775, wished to strike terror into the people, by the preparations for the execution. From the early morning was heard the noise of the pieces of aitillery that were being dragged to the place of execution outside St. John’s gate; and strong detachments of armed soldiers paraded the streets. It was a parody on the execution of the unfortunate Louis 16th and all to no purpose.

I saw McLane conducted to the place of execution, he was seated with his back to the horse on a wood-sleigh whose runners grated on the bare ground and stones. An axe and a block were on the front part of the conveyance. He looked at the spectators in a calm, confident manner, but without the least effrontery. He Was a tall and remarkably handsome man. I heard some women of the lower class exclaim, whilst deploring his sad fate:

Ah if it were only as in old times, that handsome man would not have to die! There would be plenty of girls who would be ready to marry him in order to save his life!

And even several days after the execution, I heard the same thing repeated.

This belief then universal among the lower class must, I suppose, have arisen from the fact that many French prisoners, condemned to the stake by the savages, had owed their lives to the Indian women who had then married them.

The sentence of McLane, however, was not executed in all its barbarity. I saw all with my own eyes, a big student named Boudrault, lifted me up from time to time in his arms, so that I might lose nothing of the horrible butchery. And Dr. Duvert was near us, he drew out his watch as soon as Ward, the hangman, threw down the ladder upon which McLane was stretched on his back, with the cord round his neck made fast to the beam of the gallows; thrown sideways by this abrupt movement the body struck the northern post of the gallows, and then remained stationary, with the exception of some slight oscillations.

“He is quite dead,” said. Dr. Duvert, when the hangman cut down the body at the end of about twenty-five minutes; “he is quite dead, and will not feel the indignities yet to be inflicted on him.” Every one was under the impression that the sentence would be executed in all its rigor, and that the disembowelled victim, still alive, would see his own entrails burnt but no; the poor unhappy man was really dead when Ward cut him open, took out his bowels and his heart which he burnt in a chafing dish, and cut off his head which he showed all bloody to the people.

The spectators who were nearest to the scaffold say that the hangman refused to proceed further with the execution after the hanging, alleging “that he was a hangman, but not a butcher,” and it was only after a good supply of guineas, that the sheriff succeeded in making him execute all the sentence, and that after each act of the fearful drama, his demands became more and more exorbitant. Certain it is that after that time Mr. Ward became quite a grand personage; never walking in the streets except with silk stockings, a three-cornered hat and a sword at his side. Two watches, one in his breeches pocket, and the other hanging from his neck by a silver chain, completed his toilet.

I cannot refrain, in parting from this doer of worthy deeds, from relating a fact which I have never been able to account for. When I arrived in Quebec in order to go to school, at about nine years of age, people seemed to regret a certain good hangman named Bob; he was a negro, whom every one praised. This Ethiopian ought to have inspired the same horror which is always felt towards men of his calling; but, on the contrary he visited at all the houses like the other citizens, enjoyed a name for unimpeachable honesty, ran errands, in fact was a universal favorite. As well as I can remember, there was something very touching in Bob’s history; he was a victim of circumstances, which compelled him to become a hangman in self-defence. He used to shed tears when he had to perform his terrible task. I do not know why my memory, generally so tenacious concerning all I saw and heard in my early childhood, fails me in the matter of explaining the reason of the universal sympathy extended to Bob.**

Now I return to McLane. Such a spectacle as I have described could not fail to make a great impression on a child of my age; hence it arises that I have thought a great deal about the fate of a man, whom many people looked upon as a victim to the politics of the day. I have tried to satisfy myself as to his greater or less guilt. I could say a great deal on this subject; but I will be silent. Suffice it to say, that if in these days a boasting Yankee were to proclaim to all comers, that with five hundred able men, armed with sticks hardened in the fire, it would be easy to take the town of Quebec, the young men would crowd round him to humor him and encourage him to talk, and then giving him lots of champagne to drink, would laugh heartily at him, without the government dreaming of having him hung, drawn and quartered.

It has been said that McLane was an emissary of the French government; I do not myself believe so; the French republic, at war with all the European powers, had too much work on its hands to concern itself about a little colony, containing some millions of acres of snow; to use an expression not very flattering to us.

The policy of our then rulers was crafty and hence cruel. Every where they thought they discovered emissaries of the French government. There were two Canadians banished from the country, their crime being that they had been to Martinique in, I believe, an American vessel, to transact some commercial business: they granted them the favour of allowing them to take with them their wives and children.

* Actual complete hung, drawn, quartered sentences were already passe in Great Britain.

** Colonial Quebec had several black executioners; the best-known was Martinican slave Mathieu Léveillé from 1733 to 1743. (There an interesting .pdf about Leveille and his world here.)

The identity of the affable “Bob” our narrator half-remembers is a bit of a mystery; he has been identified with George Burns, a black man who held the job in the early 1800s, but the timetable isn’t quite right relative to de Gaspe’s admittedly distant memories. (The diarist thinks Bob was the former executioner by the time concerned with our post.) Frank Mackey in Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal, 1760-1840 suggests we take the name at face value and identify this executioner as either or both of “Bob a Nigro man” jailed as a felon in 1781 (we don’t know that Bob a Nigro man became a hangman), or “Robert Lane the Hangman” who was charged with a crime in 1789 (we don’t know that Robert Lane the Hangman was African). Mackey suspects that these are one and the same man.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Businessmen,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Quebec,Spies,Treason

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1909: Garry Richard Barrett

Add comment July 14th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1909, two-­time murderer Garry Barrett was executed at the Alberta Penitentiary, a federal prison in Canada. To quote the Edmonton Journal, he’d made the least of his second chance.

Barrett, an American born in Michigan, had been a farmer who lived with his wife and stepchildren in Saskatchewan. He had a fairly normal existence but was prone to bouts of severe depression. It was during one of these times, on October 16, 1907, that he flew into a rage, pointed a gun at his wife, and pulled the trigger.

The gun failed to go off.

Barrett’s stepson, Burnett, threw himself in front of his mother. Barrett pulled the trigger again. This time the gun did go off. Burnett was shot and ultimately died of his injuries.

There was little he could say for himself at his murder trial, given the evidence against him, and he was accordingly convicted and sentenced to death. However, the jury recommended mercy, and the authorities commuted his sentence to life in prison and sent him to the Alberta Penitentiary in Edmonton.

On April 15, 1909, less than a year later, Barrett was working in the prison carpentry shop when he suddenly picked up a hatchet and planted it in the skull of Deputy Warden Richard Stedman.

There seemed to be no motive for his actions, as Stedman was well­-liked and popular among the prison inmates. However, that day Barrett had asked to see a doctor and Stedman hadn’t gotten one for him.

One month and two days later, Barrett found himself again before a judge facing a murder charge. This time there would be no recommendation of mercy.

Rather than summon a professional hangman to execute the condemned man, the prison used one of its own guards. Barrett’s last words were, “Gentlemen, I am going to be hanged, but I killed the deputy warden in self­-defense. Had I not done so my flesh would now be the food for vultures.” He then began denouncing members of the Masonic Order, until his speech was cut short and the chaplain commenced with the Lord’s Prayer.

Barrett’s execution was badly botched, as the Edmonton Journal records:

It was a long, slow death. The noose wasn’t properly tied, and the knot slipped out of position when the trap was sprung. The hangman twice began to cut down the body, but both times the doctor stepped in because Barrett wasn’t yet dead. He was finally declared dead of strangulation 15 minutes later.

The guard/executioner then cut the rope into pieces and distributed it to his fellow guards as souvenirs.

Barrett’s body was claimed by his son, who buried it in Butte, Montana.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices

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1899: Cordelia Poirier and Samuel Parslow

2 comments March 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1899, Cordelia Poirier was hanged in Ste. Scholastique, Quebec with her lover Samuel Parslow.*

Cordelia Viau by her maiden name, the femme fatale in this transaction found that in her marriage to one Isidore Poirier she was much the sturdier spirit.

“She was a masterful woman,” this old public-domain text on insurance crimes muses, “and Poirier seems to have been a man of very common mould. He was not great or strong enough to make his wife admire or respect him, yet was too obstinate to yield to her domination.”

Cordelia soon turned this gap in magnetism to good effect on Mr. Parslow, a local carpenter, to the considerable scandal of their village, Saint-Canut.

An intolerable domestic situation drove Isidore Poirier to the bottle, and Cordelia Poirier to the insurance underwriters — from whom she obtained two separate $1,000 policies on the life of her spouse. Much to the discredit of her agents (and, one must suspect, to the commission wage model), the wife’s blunt inquiries as to whether a death by assassination woud void the policies were met with simple affirmations rather than a summons to the constable.

Sure enough, Isidore Poirier suffered just such a death on November 21, 1897: after vespers (Cordelia was an organist at the church), she and Parslow barged in on the intoxicated Isidore at his home and Parslow slashed him to death with a butcher knife. The body was discovered the next day, and it wasn’t hard to put means to motive and clap the adulterers in gaol.

Having perhaps not thought this venture through, Samuel Parslow and Cordelia Poirier promptly began informing on one another in hopes of avoiding the rope. Their confessions would only cinch one another’s fates. By the time of trial, Parslow had to feebly accuse Mrs. Poirier of hypnotizing him.**

Her cynical domestic crime and vampish reputation earned her an extreme level of disapprobation: her behavior obviously inverted and betrayed the model of domestic virtue whose penumbra of sentimentality has often been counted on to save female murderers from the gallows. Cordelia Poirier was actively hated.

“The crowd inside the jail jeered [Cordelia Poirier],” it was reported — “but even then her nerve did not desert her, and at the suggestion of the executioner she turned and faced the Jeerers, and stood erect and prayed to the last.”

* Thanks to the wonders of database searches, research for this post also revealed a completely different legal drama off the same era related to a competely different Parslow. This story is from the Feb. 4, 1898 Minneapolis Journal.

** All reports do paint Cordelia Poirier as the stronger will in her adulterous relationship, as well as her marital one, and the instigator of the murder.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Pelf,Quebec,Scandal,Sex,Women

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