1895: Joseph Cadotte

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

Gentlemen, it was said that I killed Richards over a girl. That is not so. It was pure passion. I had thought the man wanted to take everything away from me and now I am to pay for his life. Good-bye.

—Joseph Cadotte, convicted of murder, hanging, Montana.
Executed December 27, 1895

According to rumor, Cadotte shot his hunting partner, Oliver Richards, in the middle of an argument about hunting proceeds and a pretty girl who preferred Richards to Cadotte. Cadotte later claimed that Richards drew a knife on him during the fight. During his trial, the prosecuting attorney pointed to a birthmark around Cadotte’s neck that looked like a rope burn and said, “Nature evidently intended the man to die. He was born to be hung.”

On this day..

1787: Three robbers, “very penitent”

On the morning of the 27th December the following malefactors were executed in the Old Bailey, viz., Richard Carrol, a blind man, for breaking open the house of John Short, in the parish of St. Botolph, Aldgate and, and stealing a quantity of wearing apparel, &c.; George Roberts, for assaulting Benjamin Morgan on the highway near Finchley, and robbing him of one guinea and some silver; and Thomas Kennedy, for stealing a quantity of silver buckles, plate, jewels, and other goods, to the amount of 100 l. in the dwelling-house of Richard King, where he was shop man. They all behaved very penitent. There have been 105 persons executed from the 12th December, 1786, to the 11th December, 1787, only 24 of which number have been reported to be buried as such within the Bills of Mortality.

Clipping found in the prison journal of 19th century Newgate Ordinary Horace Cotton — beside the handwritten notation, “105 executed in one year”.

The Old Bailey was in use at this time as a venue for conducting executions as well as pronouncing them, following the end of the Tyburn tree in 1783. A temporary gallows in the central courtyard of the Old Bailey served the purpose, with the hanging conducted using the classic “turn the man off the cart and let him strangle” technique.

London Morning Herald, Jan. 1, 1788. The blind(?) man was also reputed to be oddly adept at playing cards.

On this day..

1901: Massacre of Barrio la Nog

Corporal Richard O’Brien gave the following account of the summary execution (or simple mass murder) of Filipino villagers during the furious American backlash after Filipino insurgents’ Balangiga Massacre of American infantrymen.

It was on the 27th day of December, the anniversary of my birth, and I shall never forget the scenes I witnessed on that day. As we approached the town the word passed along the line that there would be no prisoners taken. It meant that we were to shoot every living thing in sight — man, woman, and child. The first shot was fired by the then first sergeant of our company. His target was a mere boy, who was coming down the mountain path into the town astride of a caribou. The boy was not struck by the bullet, but that was not the sergeant’s fault. The little Filipino boy slid from the back of his caribou and fled in terror up the mountain side. Half a dozen shots were fired after him. The shooting now had attracted the villagers, who came out of their homes in alarm, wondering what it all meant. They offered no offense, did not display a weapon, made no hostile movement whatsoever, but they were ruthlessly shot down in cold blood — men, women, and children. The poor natives huddled together or fled in terror. Many were pursued and killed on the spot.

Two old men, bearing between them a white flag and clasping hands like two brothers, approached the lines. Their hair was white. They fairly tottered, they were so feeble under the weight of years. To my horror and that of the other men in the command, the order was given to fire, and the two old men were shot down in their tracks. We entered the village. A man who had been on a sick-bed appeared at the doorway of his home. He received a bullet in the abdomen and fell dead in the doorway. Dum-dum bullets were used in that massacre, but we were not told the name of the bullets. We didn’t have to be told. We knew that they were.

In another part of the village a mother with a babe at her breast and two young children at her side pleaded for mercy. She feared to leave her home, which had just been fired — accidentally, I believe. She faced the flames with her children, and not a hand was raised to save her or the little ones. They perished miserably. It was sure death if she left the house — it was sure death if she remained. She feared the American soldiers, however, worse than the devouring flames.

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1864: Richard Hale, but not Cecilia Baker

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

On December 27, 1864, Richard Hale was hanged at the Stafford Gaol for the murder of his eight-year-old daughter, Eliza Silletto.

Little Eliza’s body had been found in a cornfield in Coseley in the West Midlands region of England on August 2 that year. Her body was so badly decomposed that at first it was impossible to determine the gender, but it was assumed to be a girl because it was wearing girls’ clothing. Although authorities couldn’t determine the precise cause of death due to the decomposition, they believed the child’s throat had been cut. The body was eventually identified as Eliza. Her father had reported her missing on July 20.

Richard Hale was known in the area as a bit of a hard case: he had recently done time for manslaughter. The victim in that case was his wife, Eliza’s mother, who had starved to death.

After his release, he shacked up with Cecilia Baker and, although not legally married, they lived as man and wife. He had been heard to say he wished his daughter was “out of the way.”

Both Hale and his girlfriend were both arrested and charged with murder, but Baker had to be released for lack of evidence.

However, a witness came forward and said he thought he might have seen the murder. According to John Jones, he was walking near the cornfield when he saw a man and a woman pushing a little girl back and forth between them, harder and harder until the woman actually threw the girl at the man and then turned and started walking away. The little girl started crying loudly, then the sobs stopped abruptly.

Jones hadn’t reported the incident at the time because he didn’t find it suspicious. After all, who commits a murder in broad daylight right in front of a witness?

Jones identified Eliza’s father and his paramour as the man and the woman he had seen that day. His statement gave the authorities the evidence they needed to re-arrest Cecilia Baker for her role in the crime.

Given Jones’s identification and Hale’s criminal history, it wasn’t hard to convince a jury of the couple’s guilt. Hale was sentenced to death, but Cecilia’s death sentence was respited because she was pregnant. Her sentence was eventually commuted and she served a life term at the Knaphill Female Convict Prison in Surrey — the same place where the notorious poisoner Florrie Maybrick did time decades later.

For his part, Hale suffered a public double execution alongside an unrelated murderer, Charles Brough. The visibly nervous Hale pled his innocence all the way to the gallows.

On this day..

1539: St. John Stone

Though it is not certain, it is thought that December 27, 1539 might have been the execution date of Catholic martyr St. John Stone in England.

An Augustinian whose friary was closed in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Stone at his expulsion “rudely and traitorously” refused to endorse Henry VIII’s authority over the church. He maintained his obstinacy even under the personal interrogation of Thomas Cromwell.

Somehow a year passed before Stone was brought to trial at Canterbury as a traitor. The execution of the inevitable sentence might then have been held up to coincide with the arrival to Canterbury of Anne of Cleves, the German Protestant princess who was (ever so briefly) Henry VIII’s fourth wife. Welcome to England, honey! It’s a great scene to imagine, but obviously the story — and hence this date — smacks of propaganda.

Whatever the true date of execution was, what we do have for certain is the butcher’s bill — itemizing the operation of tearing apart a religious dissident into rigorous accounting straight from your corporate expense report.

Paid for half a ton of timber to make a pair of gallows to hang Friar Stone, 2s. 6d.; to a labourer that digged the holes, 3d.; to four men that helped set up the gallows for drink to them, for carriage of the timber from Stablegate to Dongeon, 1s.; for a hurdle, 6d.; for a load of wood and for a horse to draw him to the Dongeon, 2s. 3d.; paid two men that set the kettle and parboiled him, 1s.; to two men that carried his quarters to the gates and set them up, 1s.; for halters to hang him and Sandwich cord and for straw, 1s.; to a woman that scoured the kettle, 2d.; to him that did the execution, 3s. 8d.

The Vatican rates John Stone as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, and canonized him in 1970.

On this day..

1821: Ketaukah and Kewahiskin, the first hangings in the Michigan Territory

From the Salem (Mass.) Gazette, Jan. 18, 1822.

Executions — Two Indians,* Ketaukah and Kewahiskin [elsewhere given as Kewaubis -ed.] were hanged at Detroit on the 27th ult. the former for the murder of Dr. W.S. Madison, the latter for the murder of Charles Ulrick.

The criminals (says the account) often acknowledged the justice of their sentence,** and in their way they had prepared themselves to meet its execution.

For several weeks past they appeared very anxious to obtain presents of tobacco, pipes, &c. none of which they used, but carefully laid them aside as an offering to the Great Spirit on the day of their death.

They had contrived a sort of drum, by drawing a piece of leather over the vessel that contained their drink, and often engaged in their solemn death dance. On the night previous to their execution, they continued their death dance to a very late hour, and commenced it again early in the morning.

They had been presented, among other things, with some red paint — with this they painted on the wall of their cell numerous figures of men, quadrupeds, reptiles, &c. — on their blankets were also painted many figures — among the rest, an Indian, hanging by the neck, was observed.

From the jail they were taken to the Protestant Church, where an appropriate discourse was delivered to the assemblage by Mr. J.S. Hudson (one of the gentlemen belonging to the Mission family).

They appeared throughout the whole of the solemn preparatory steps to be perfectly collected — they walked firmly to the gallows, and previously to ascending to the drop, shook hands with the Rev. Mr. Juvier, Mr. Hudson, the Sheriff and Marshal, and several other gentlemen who stood near them.

They ascended the steps of the drop in a manner peculiarly firm — after which, they asked, through the interpreter, the pardon of the surrounding spectators, for the crime they had committed.

They then shook hands and gazed for a few minutes on the assemblage and on the heavens, when their caps were drawn over their faces, and they were launched into eternity.

* Ketaukah was of the Ojibwe (Chippewa) people, while Kewahiskin was a Menominee. (Source) The two men were not associates of each other prior to their shared condemnation, and their crimes were completely unrelated.

** Be that as it may, Ketaukah tested the jurisdiction of the Territorial Court (Michigan had not yet been admitted to statehood). He argued (like Tommy Jemmy in New York) that Anglo juries had no jurisdiction over his crime, which had been committed against a white doctor on Winnebago land. He also demanded the inclusion of Indians on the jury; complications of a potential language barrier within the jury pool, and the matter of whether an interpreter’s presence at jury deliberations would vitiate the verdict, defeated that motion. (For the jurisdictional question, see American Indians and State Law: Sovereignty, Race, and Citizenship, 1790-1880. For the jury composition, see the footnote on page 123 of this masters thesis.)

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1504: Ivan Volk Kuritsyn, Ivan Maksimov and Dmitry Konoplev, Judaizers

On this date in 1504, three Russians were executed for Judaizing.

These were the casualties that marked the end of the Zhidovstvuyushchiye, a little-known late 15th century circle of “Judaizers” or “Jewish-thinking people.” We know them mostly through their enemies so the precise nature of their beliefs is hard to pin down, but they don’t look like actual converts. “There was nothing Jewish about them,” Philip Longworth contends. “‘Judaizer’ was simply a term of ideological abuse, like ‘Trotskyist’ in the 1930s.”

According to this thesis by Cambridge Slavonic lecturer Jana Howlett, the term itself dates to a Byzantine (meaning not labyrinthine, but historically related to Byzantium) typology of heresies and didn’t necessarily have any direct reference to practicing Judaism even within its own context. It just meant that they’d strayed from orthodoxy into heresy.

Be that as it may, they’re recorded to history as “the Judaizers”. Exactly what these so-called Judaizers thought and where to situate them among the various factions and interests within Russian society at the time has long been a matter of dispute among scholars of the period. (Again, see the Howlett paper for a survey of the historiography — at least, as it stood in the 1970s.)

There’s a putative Hebrew association in the form of a scholar named “Skhariya the Jew” whom Mikhail Olelkovich brought to Novgorod. “Skhariya” — or Zacharia ben Aharon ha-Cohen — translated a variety of Hebrew astronomy and philosophy texts into Russian, and seems to have contributed to a burgeoning intellectual current. We might perhaps consider this ferment in the vein of western Europe’s humanism or its abortive pre-Protestant “heretical” religious innovations, or that of the contemporaneous Orthodox conflict between “Non-Possessors” and “Possessors” — respectively, those rejecting or criticizing institutional monasticism and its enormously wealthy estates, and those defending same. Some of the Judaizers’ attributed beliefs, such as anti-trinitarianism and privileging direct study and individual interpretation of the Biblical text, hint at the coming wave of Protestantism; others, such as renouncing the divinity of Christ and immortality of the human soul, are more radical still.

These people have not left us their own voices, and even their persecutors have barely done better, so who really believed what remains at bottom conjectural.

The recently independent Novgorod had in the 1470s been taken over by the state-building Ivan III. Its new prelate Archbishop Gennady,* noted for forcing Moscow-friendly reforms onto the Novgorod clergy, thrust Judaizers into the ecclesiastical cross-hairs by declaring the discovery of the heresy and demanding church councils “not to debate them, but to burn them.” Such councils were held, with executions of Novgorod heretics following, in 1488 and 1490. Considering the city’s political situation one has to entertain the possibility that doctrinal outrages were exaggerated or concocted as pretext for punishing people whose real sin was resisting Gennady.

Even if the heretics themselves are obscure to us, one can imagine the interests here: churchmen keeping the doctrinal line, statesmen keeping their new conquest in line.

More strangely, the Judaizers charge re-emerged years later not in Novgorod but in Moscow. The facts, as usual here, are open to interpretation: were these two different circles, or were they connected? Was there anything plausibly heretical, or was it just recycling the “Trotskyism” charge?

No less a person than Metropolitan Zosimus, who coined the famous conception of Moscow as the “Third Rome” (inheriting from the second Rome, Constantinople, lately fallen into Turkish hands) was hounded out of his position as a heretic in 1494. Zosimus died before any trial, so he doesn’t get a blog entry. Not all were so fortunate.

Yet another council reconvened in 1503-04. It was headed by a very aged Ivan III with his son and heir Vasily and Zosimus’s successor Metropolitan Simon.

The Russian polity had changed in the meanwhile. Moscow fought a war against Lithuania in 1492-94, seized lands as a result, and negotiated an “eternal peace” that lasted all of six years … when Moscow went back to war and gobbled up more Lithuanian land. Lithuania had a predominantly Orthodox population living under a Catholic monarchy, and it was under the banner of defending the faithful that Ivan’s armies advanced.

Fyodor Kuritsyn had long been one of Ivan’s trusted diplomats; indeed, he had negotiated the end of hostilities with Lithuania in 1494. He was also supposed to have nursed a longstanding interest in dangerous heterodox philosophies and had been mentioned as a possible heretic in the 1490 proceedings. Ivan protected him at that time.

Fyodor disappears from the written record in about 1503; his fate is unknown. But Fyodor and his brother Ivan Volk Kuritsyn both appear to have been associated with Ivan’s daughter-in-law Elena of Moldavia. Elena was the mother of the previous official heir Dmitry — who had been surprisingly disinherited and clapped in prison in 1502 to make way for Vasily, Ivan’s son by his second wife. Elena’s fall might have exposed the Kuritsyns to political blowback, and whether it was actually “heresy”-related or not, the old heretical whiff from the previous generation’s investigations would have been there for the taking.

Hung up in cages and burnt along with Ivan Volk Kuritsyn were (at least) two other men: Ivan Maksimov, who like the Kuritsyns was associated with Elena of Moldavia; and, Dmitry Konoplev, who like the Kuritsyns was involved in the diplomatic service. There’s just enough to hear the grinding of unseen whetstones in the bowels of the Kremlin, but not quite enough to know whose knives are being sharpened. Still others were burned on the same occasion in Novgorod.

“The real reasons for the execution of Ivan Volk Kuritsyn, Ivan Maksimov and Dmitry Konoplev in 1504 cannot be ascertained,” Howlett concludes. “It can be said, however, that there is little reason to accept the view that they were executed for heresy, Judaizing or otherwise.”

Ivan III died the next year at the age of 65.

* Gennady is today an Orthodox saint notable for composing the first complete Biblical codex in Old Church Slavonic — the Gennady Bible.

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2001: Kojiro Asakura, frustrated realtor

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

On this day in 2001, 66-year-old Kojiro Asakura was executed by hanging at the Tokyo Detention House for the murders of almost an entire family eighteen years before.

In June 1983, he had killed Akira Shirai, age 45, and Shirai’s wife, one-year-old son and two daughters aged six and nine by beating them to death with a hammer and an ax. He then dismembered three of the bodies.

The only survivor was the family’s oldest daughter, age ten, who was away at summer camp at the time of the murders.

The motive for Asakura’s crimes lay in frustrations related to his job. A property assessor, he had bid successfully on the Shirai family’s house and land in Tokyo when they came up for public auction. He planned to resell the property at a profit, but the deal stalled when the Shirais refused to move out. Four months after the auction, they were still residing in the house illegally.

Enraged, Asakura beat the wife and children to death, then waited for the husband to come home and killed him too.

At his trial, the defense argued insanity or at least diminished capacity, pointing out that normal, sane people do not go on gruesome murder sprees. The court didn’t buy it.

Asakura was hanged on the same day as another Japanese multiple murderer, Toshihiko Hasegawa, who breathed his last at the Nagoya Detention House. These were the first executions in Japan in eleven months, and thirteen months more would pass before anyone else stepped up to the scaffold.

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1666: Nine Covenanters in Ayr and Edinburgh

That prospectively apocalyptic year of 1666 saw the onset of the Scottish Covenanters‘ mass martyr-making under the English gallows.

Three dozen or so were put to death in the aftermath of the Battle of Rullion Green. Among them, nine men — seven in Ayr, two in Edinburgh — paid with their necks on this date.

The Covenanter tragedy stretches back to the first English Civil War, when English parliamentarians enlisted the aid of Scottish Presbyterians by agreeing to a covenant guaranteeing presbyterian church governance in Scotland and England. Essentially, that meant representative ecclesiastical authority, rather than top-down power from the king, via bishops.

The Presbyterians took this covenant very seriously indeed.

This expedient political arrangement flew apart post-hostilities, especially when the Presbyterians’ parliamentary faction got on the wrong side of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.* “Pride’s Purge”, the de facto army coup d’etat which made possible the execution of Charles I, essentially consisted of kicking out of Parliament the Presbyterian types who were ready to strike a deal with the king at the army’s expense and then governing with the remainder.

This made Presbyterians, for whom reformed church governance was the issue, amenable to inroads from the royalist camp. As soon as Charles I lost his head, the un-purged Presbyterian Scottish Parliament recognized Charles II … on condition that he get on board.

Charles was not exactly an enthusiastic partner.

A political cartoon shows Scottish Presbyterians literally holding King Charles II’s nose to the grindstone.

Nevertheless, Charles II did sign on the dotted line as the price for a Scottish throne and a play at restoration … but the army stomped that, too. An exasperated Cromwell asked of these quarrelsome Scots with their presbyter hangup,

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken!”

Mistaken or not, the beaten Presbyterians were optimistic — it’s a ridiculous optimism, in retrospect — that the post-Cromwell Restoration of the exiled monarch would finally Presbyterianize the island. But in 1660, it was Charles wielding the grindstone.

Much to his former allies’ chagrin, Charles rolled back the previous years’ church reforms, booted dissenting clerics, and cemented episcopacy.

The Presbyterian frustration here is understandable; they twice came out on the winning side in the civil war carrying signed pledges from the victors, and were twice balked of their prize. And the balked prize was only God’s work on earth.

In November 1666, a thousand aggrieved Covenanters marched towards Edinburgh in the pitiful and improvised Pentland Rising, which was violently stopped at Rullion Green.

Mass executions of prisoners followed throughout December and into January. (Others not executed were transported to the colonies.)

On this particular date, John Ross and John Shields died in Edinburgh.

The remaining seven executed this date in Ayr are notable in part because they ought to have been eight.

Memorial stone for the Covenanters executed in Ayr on December 27, 1666. Image (c) Stephen Wagstaff and used with permission.

Ayr’s public executioner fled rather than put godly Scotsmen to death. A Highlander named William Sutherland, who served the same office, was retrieved from nearby Irvine, but he too refused even when threatened with torture.**

The beneficiary of these principled refusals, in body if not in soul, was Cornelius Anderson, one of the eight doomed to die in Ayr who was finally prevailed upon to take the job of hanging his fellows in exchange for his life. Faltering spirit fortified with too much brandy, Anderson clumsily dispatched this group; later, since the obdurate Irvine hangman had been sacked, he had to do the same to two more Covenanters there.

Guilt-ridden and reviled, Anderson actually might have been the most miserable man on the scaffold. He came to a miserable end.

His conscience troubling him, he went to Ireland, where he was no better; nobody would either give him work or lodging. He built a little house in some common place near Dublin, where he and it and all were burnt to ashes. (Source)

* Specifically, they wanted to disband said army, and do so without coughing up its back pay.

** Sutherland’s torture included the summoning of a firing squad ostensibly to execute him if he failed to perform the executions. He called that bluff and was not executed, thereby depriving this site of a rare and precious “Executioner executed for failing to execute” entry.

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1899: Hilda Blake, poorhouse orphan

On this date in 1899, domestic servant Hilda Blake was hanged in Brandon, Manitoba for murdering the mistress of the house.

Book CoverThe only woman ever executed in Manitoba is the subject of Walk Towards the Gallows: The Tragedy of Hilda Blake, Hanged 1899 (U.S. Amazon link | Canadian), which charts her course from an English poorhouse to death on the Canadian frontier.

(A Norwich newspaper recently profiled its long-lost pauper daughter here and here.)

On the occasion of the 110th anniversary of Hilda’s hanging, Executed Today was able to sit down with Tom Mitchell, co-author (with his Brandon University colleague Reinhold Kramer) of Walk Towards the Gallows.

Here’s an excerpt from that book. And here are some reviews:

ET: How did you run across Hilda Blake?

TM: It’s a very simple story, really. The province of Manitoba tore an old jail down, and handed the property to the department of health for a senior citizens’ center. So, construction began, and an old jail guard named Bill Ryan showed up on the site and confronted the building superintendent and said, this is holy ground, and it is immoral for you to be constructing anything on this site without removing the human remains.

Hilda and two other victims of capital punishment were on the site, and the guard knew what was there. This made front-page news.

I was doing labor history at the time, so the possibility of finding out a lot of detail about domestic servants was compelling. And it turned out she was sort of a magnet for legal proceedings. When I went to find her court pocket, I found there were actually five court pockets.

As an orphan, she ran away from [her previous placement with] the Stewarts and took up residence with a family headed by a widow homesteader Mary Rex, A legal struggle ensued over who should have Hilda, and in the course of that, Hilda had to make a statement about who she was and where she wanted to be. When we read the letter, it’s clearly not Hilda’s voice, it’s somebody else writing for her. You’re almost always dealing with Hilda second-hand.

There is no other domestic servant probably in the British Empire for whom as much documentation exists, and it’s basically because of Hilda’s notoriety in the murder and these court cases previous. And of course you can track her right back to the British census and the records of the poorhouse and her old neighbourhood and community of Chedgrave, Norfolk England.

The only straightforward account Hilda gives is “My Downfall,” [see below -ed.] and if you read that, you get a pretty good sense of her sensibility. And if you read the press accounts of what she read in jail, you say, right, we’re dealing with a 21-year-old woman for whom literature -– Victorian novels — often times provided her with life strategies and notions of how a woman should conduct herself. Of course Victorian sensation novels were also filled with women who used guns for various ends.

Why was this isolated domestic crime such a big deal?

Western Canada in the 19th century was a frontier, and often times the leading edge of civilization in this frontier were white women and the sort of ideals and morality associated with white women — domestic environment, civility, gender relationships, social class and status involving men and women in terms of how they ought to account for themselves and so on.

So when you have an attack on this sort of basic notion of the social order that people are trying to build, the response is more visceral and more trenchant than it might have been in a more settled community. Here, it was almost akin to the Riel Rebellion: the lower orders are rising against us; every middle-class wife probably looked at her husband and said, “I hope you’re not misbehaving with the help, because we could have a problem.”

So what can we in the 21st century say about how British orphans shipped to Canada for domestic servitude experienced the world? And, of course, about how Hilda specifically experienced it?

Hilda was quite literary in her own way, and she obviously read and developed strategies for life from literature. She seemed to take her role models from literature, and we argue that in part that she can be understood through the books that she read, like Jane Eyre.

My colleague, Reinhold Kramer, whose contribution to Walk Towards the Gallows cannot be overstated, is an English professor. He developed this feature of the biography as well as other fundamental themes of the book.

My continuing frustration with the book is that nobody will see it as labor history. Everybody wants to see it as whodunit or something — but that’s okay; it’s been used for a lot of different courses, some on women, some on crime, some on women and the world of work.

How widespread and significant is this phenomenon of the domestic servant?

From 1870 to about 1930, there were something in the order of about 70 or so thousand children shipped from poorhouses (which were created by the 1830s poor law).

The whole idea of adoption is a 20th century thing. If you were a poor kid, an orphan, in the 19th century, you didn’t get adopted, you were put in a poorhouse and shipped off to Australia, Canada. On the western frontier of Canada, the labor of these children was a valuable commodity.

The British government recently apologized to the descendants of these children for the fact that they were sent out, often with sort of gratuitous statements from the organizations that sent them that they would follow them up. For many of them, it was tragic, and for Hilda and Mary Lane it was more than tragic.

As an economic sector, how important was this domestic service trade to Canada at the turn of the century?

Typically these were young women, and not all of them would be living within the residence of their employer, but most of them would be. The vast majority were young British women — Irish, English, what-not — and it was for women in the paid labor force, this was the main occupation. Young women coming off the farm or young immigrant women, this was one step above prostitution.

So, you could be a sex worker, or you could be a domestic worker. You didn’t get into this if there were options, and many young women would choose options that paid less, just to have social freedom.

So what would be a typical life path for a girl like Hilda?

The premise with Hilda was that she would work as a domestic servant and eventually marry, but the difficulty was that you always carried this badge of your social station.

You had basically no place to meet men in private, and the amount of time off you had was perhaps an afternoon per week. The possibility of you having some kind of independent social life was very very unlikely, so you were a captive of your place in the world of work.

For Hilda, she must have realized that her only escape was in moving up within this small world that she resided in. She kissed Mary Lane before she shot her, and I think was saying, this is nothing personal but it’s my only chance of moving up in the world.

You do a lot with how Hilda Blake played as a political issue, and the symbolism invoked by the press in handling her execution. Frankly, a lot of it seems very contemporary: “villains were bad because they were bad,” crime is “a platform upon which to preach the value of bourgeois order”. How did this crime work as a cultural narrative?

The big issue for Canada in the late 1890s was the quality of immigrant coming to Canada, because it was clear that if the West was going to develop, the country needed hundreds of thousands of people.

Clifford Sifton, who happened to be the MP for Brandon was the Minister for Immigration, and he was bringing Count Leo Tolstoy’s Doukhobors from Russia, Ukrainians from Austro-Hungary, and so on, and he considered these good-quality immigrants because they were agrarian, they could survive. He was being attacked bitterly by people whose ideas of adequate immigrants were shaped by Social Darwinism.

The other problem was that working class immigrants, paupers especially, from Britain were viewed as being marginally adequate because of their questionable morality. The notion of gender at the time was that women were, just by their nature, moral creatures, and if they weren’t, then she was more atavistic than even criminal men — they were moral imbeciles, they were dangerous.

When Hilda Blake murdered Mary Lane, it just happened that a federal election was in the offing, and the main issue that the Conservative party was going to use to try to defeat the Liberals and Clifford Sifton in his own district was immigration, so if the federal government didn’t execute Hilda Blake, they would be handing them an issue to run on.

The Melita Enterprise condemned Hilda early on with the line “we don’t want the Hilda Blakes of the world, they carry blood with the taint of Cain,” which is a great line I wanted to use for the title of our book.

So the federal government faced this dilemma, and our argument was that virtually all women who faced the death penalty had had their sentences commuted, but in the case of Blake, her social background made it impossible.

The one powerful person she had in her corner was the Governor General Lord Minto. The thing that made him susceptible in some senses to understanding the case was his own sense of guilt for the affair he was carrying on with a young woman in Ottawa. That wasn’t a secret; she was nicknamed “Minto’s Folly.”

How about the victim, Mary Lane?

Here was a woman who was murdered by someone she had taken in, been friends with, gunned down in the parlor of her own home. She was a very-well respected person in the community, she was an Anglican, and reportedly sympathetic to women in Hilda’s situation in life.

It’s amazing that Robert Lane manages to avoid coming in even for any kind of censure or public embarrassment.

There was nothing, not in terms of any juridical sense; apparently he wasn’t even interviewed.

The theory of the crime in domestic murders was always the love triangle: if the man of the house got gunned down, the hired man had better look out; in this case, when the woman got gunned down, it was a bit confusing about who would have done this. Ultimately Hilda confessed and protected Lane, but what protected him even more was his middle-class status within that community and the notion that men of that ilk were moral creatures who couldn’t possibly have connived to have had their wives gunned down. If he’d been a working class guy whose morals would have been more suspect, he probably would have been hanged with Hilda.

I think the authorities also couldn’t have been unaware of the implications: if they hanged Lane, his four kids would be orphans.

How widespread were these sexual relationships — or sexual exploitation — between masters of the house and domestics?

Domestic servants should have received danger pay, because they were victimized so often. Most of the women set up in these Magdalene Houses, these houses for single women who were pregnant, were domestic servants.

We talk about the amendments to the criminal code in the late 19th century, and there were some protections put in for women, but Charles Tupper, a Conservative, opposed these because he said they would arm domestic servants with terrific power to blackmail their employers. So the largest class of women in the paid economy were left outside the protection of the code, and any domestic servant who claimed that their employer impregnated them would face a court that would use every possible mechanism to get at their immorality.

It was almost akin to a feudal relationship within the home.

Why did Hilda plead guilty and ask for the maximum punishment?

This was, I think, Hilda’s sense of how a proper woman would behave. You have to think of Hilda growing up as an orphan, with no strong role models. So a lot of I think how she thought of herself and how she should behave came out of what she read.

Reviewers of the book weren’t always satisfied with that.

Sure. You write that “writing a history that did not ignore Blake’s subjectivity required a historical ‘reading’ of a wide range of sources,” and you build some ambitious speculative history on that basis. What kind of reception did that get?

Some reviewers saw that treatment as sort of postmodern, that we were satisfying ourselves with kind of a literary account of Hilda without too seriously thinking about the things we couldn’t talk about because we didn’t have the evidence.

We didn’t go that way without first being made aware by Hilda of her own great interest in novels and coon songs — the sort of Victorian era rap music; it’s a lower-class music, a sort of Victorian blues … you can see how Hilda would have identified.

We felt it was quite reasonable to argue as we did that often times her life strategies were rooted in Victorian novels.

Is there any sort of lasting public memory of these events, or were you resuscitating a completely cold case?

The Lane family still resents any discussion of this case. They still reside in Brandon, and it’s still a very live matter for them.

One descendant from outside Brandon called me after the book published and told me it wasn’t at all the version he had heard growing up. The story he’d been told is that Mary died when she was standing out in her front yard and she was hit by a bolt of lightning.

By the same token, after Hilda accused a tramp of the shooting, all the itinerant foreign born men in town making their way from one job to another were rounded up. There’s another family we found that who had a story in the family that grandpa had almost been hanged when “the maid fell in love with the master and murdered the mistress.”

It’s really fascinating how these echoes of the past persist through family oral tradition. These are the skeletons in the closet, and they show up in different guises.

In Brandon once a year, a local dramatic society go to the cemetery in Brandon and represent various well-known figures in the graveyard, and the public is invited to go and ask them questions about their lives. After the one year where Robert Lane was represented by one of the actors, his descendents objected and said that it was a serious incursion into their family privacy.

How about Hilda? Has she been portrayed?

Hilda hasn’t been represented because she’s not in the cemetery; she’s still under the senior citizens’ building. The superintendent told me he got a backhoe and an undertaker one Saturday and went exploring for human remains, and they couldn’t find any. So the building project went ahead and Hilda is now under the northeast corner of the Rideau Park Personal Care Home. Not exactly what the poorhouse guardians had promised Hilda’s older sister when they sought her permission to send Hilda and her brother Tommy to Canada in 1889.

Tom Mitchell and Reinhold Kramer are also co-authors of the forthcoming When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews & the Citizens Broke the Winnipeg General Strike.

“My Downfall”
by Hilda Blake

(From Walk Towards the Gallows, as published on the Western Sun, Dec. 14 1899)

One I was innocent, lighthearted and gay,
And sang while I worked through all the long day;
A stranger to sorrow, not a care had I,
A laugh on my lip, but never a sigh.

But one day the devil, in the form of a man,
Came smiling towards me; said he “You can
Know more, if you’ll take them,
Of joy and pleasure,” I heard him say,
“Than e’er you have dreamed of; I’ll show you the way.”

I followed the tempter, along the smooth track,
I’d gone a long distance, ‘fore e’er I looked back,
Or thought of returning —
When I turned, the way back seemed so lonely and dreary,
E’er I’d gone many steps I grew footsore and weary,
That down by the roadside, to rest and to weep,
My strength was exhausted, I soon fell asleep.

I awakened refreshed, my exhaustion all gone,
Saw the phantom of Pleasure, still beckoning me on;
Then I made up my mind
To leave Prudence behind,
And pursue my perilous way.

As I journeyed along my heart lost its song,
For the path grew stony and dark;
Each step that I took tore the flesh off my feet,
And the track was a blood-stained mark.

I looked at the tempter, in his eye was a gleam;
I saw he was standing beside a dark stream;
He cried, “Come along, take a few steps more
And your struggle is ended, your journey is o’er.”

As I stood on the brink of that river,
My heart grew faint and sick;
What I saw only made me shiver —
I thought Fortune had played me a trick.

“As I look across I see only the dead,
Neither joy, nor pleasure,” to Satan, I said:
“But pleasures there are, though hidden from view,
They only wait to be claimed by you.”

I thought as he spoke, he moved his hand
And I saw I was standing on sinking sand.
As I leaped across, a frantic yell
Reached my ear
When too late, I saw I had leaped into hell;
I tried to go back, but an awful wall
Loomed up, and separated me from all
My youth and innocence.

Forsaken by friendship, kith, and kin
I lie in my lonely cell;
It seems but a dream that I’ve crossed that dark stream
And descended from heaven to hell.

You hypocrites, pleading religion,
You inquisitive seekers of fame,
Ready now with your good advice
When I’ve drunk of the sorrow and shame;
You gave me no timely warning,
You held out no helping hand, —
Why didn’t you see me sinking
As I stepped on this treacherous sand?

Oh Friend of all Friends who rules earth and sea,
Look down with a pitying eye upon me;
Thou’ll forgive my transgressions, says the book that is best —
Come ye that are weary, and I’ll give you the rest.

On this day..