‘Morbid curiosity’: When executions were public spectacles in Ontario

Until 1870, hangings were must-see events — drawing thousands to gallows across the province
By Nate Hendley - Published on Aug 27, 2020
On December 11, 1962, the Don Jail, in Toronto, played host to the last executions in Canada. (Wikimedia/Jason Zhang)

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Public hangings were once popular public spectacles in Ontario and across Canada. Before they were banned in 1870, executions in public places could draw thousands of spectators, including families and young children. Boisterous behaviour and a less-than-solemn attitude marked these macabre gatherings.

“When the day of a public execution arrived, the business men closed their factories and their stores and the people put on their holiday dresses,” noted an 1894 article in the Evening Star about hangings in early Toronto. “Farmers and their wives and children flocked to the scene and trappers and Indians deserted the shades of the forest to take part in the festive occasion.”

Criminal justice was harsh in the years preceding Confederation. And things didn’t change much after Canada became a semi-independent nation. From 1867 through to the early 1960s, “a total of 710 people met their ends on the gallows [in Canada], 697 of them men, and 13 of them women,” writes Robert Hoshowsky in The Last to Die. “Following the British system, which employed the noose, all were hanged.” 

Until embarrassed authorities changed the law, Ken Leyton-Brown notes in The Practice of Execution in Canada, “people convicted in Canada of capital offences were sentenced to death by hanging and unless they were the object of royal mercy, they died publicly. These comparatively infrequent events could draw large crowds and it is clear that hangings were designed with this public view always in mind.”

And the public turned out in droves in communities large and small across the province.

The public execution of James Browne in downtown Toronto, for example, attracted thousands of onlookers. Convicted of murdering John Sheridan Hogan, MPP, Browne was hanged on the morning of March 10, 1862.

“An hour before the execution, more than a thousand people had congregated in the vicinity of the scaffold,” reported the Globe. “Some appeared anxious to get as near as possible to this central point, in order to hear the unhappy man’s ‘last dying speech’ and mayhap ‘confession’ before he was launched into eternity. Others sought places from which the best view of the proceedings on the scaffold could be obtained.” Soon, “upwards of 5,000 people had assembled. They were chiefly of the rougher sex, but there was a sprinkling of women, old and young” not to mention “a good many truant school-boys, carrying their satchels of books.”

The Globe also commented on the “morbid curiosity which desires to see the last struggles of a human fellow-creature when suspended from the gallows,” adding that “human nature is such that a public execution always draws a large crowd.”

For the Browne hanging, it continued, “the crowd on the whole was a quiet and orderly one. Except the flinging of some snowballs by mischievous youths and a laugh when a hit was made, there was nothing in the general deportment of the assembled at all indecorous.”

Spectators weren’t always so well-behaved, however.

In fact, “out-of-control mobs at public executions were a fearsome reality” at the time, Lorna Poplak notes in Drop Dead: A Horrible History of Hanging in Canada.

Indeed, even a ferocious snowstorm couldn’t keep the crowds at home when Patrick Whelan, the assassin convicted of killing Father of Confederation Thomas D’Arcy McGee, was hanged in Ottawa. The execution, held February 11, 1869, was not a dignified affair.

“At nine o’clock, a few strangers were seen straggling in, but at ten the stream became dense and by half-past ten about 6,000 or 8,000 people crowded the streets in front of the gaol,” wrote the Globe. “We are sorry to say that many hundreds of respectable women mingled with the crowd.” The crowd “did not behave themselves with that quietness which the solemnity of the circumstances demanded and, at times, were excessively turbulent.”

Spectators howled and heckled during Whelan’s last moments and displayed, according to the Globe, “not the slightest sympathy” for the prisoner.

Outside major population centers, public executions were also a big draw — for example, about 1,000 people watched convicted murderer John Hoag hang in Walkerton on December 15, 1868.

“The masked executioner did his work; and the body dropped within the gaol wall, depriving the gaping and motley crowd, some of them women with children in arms, of the awful spectacle of the body quivering on the rope for a few minutes,” reported the Globe.

In June of that same year, Nicholas Melady Senior and his second wife, Ellen, who was pregnant, were “brutally murdered and their bodies mangled at their farmhouse” near Seaforth, the Globe reported.

Melady Sr. did not get along with the children from his first marriage. In fact, his son, also named Nicholas Melady, was among the suspects arrested for the crimes. Melady Jr. didn’t help his case any when he fell in love with an undercover femme fatale who’d posed as a prisoner in the same jail. The operative, Janet Cooke, was the wife of a Goderich police officer. While she had never performed such a task before, Cooke was happy to oblige when authorities asked her to become a paid informant. Going incognito as prisoner “Jenny Smith,” she quickly drew Melady’s affections.  The young man spoke and wrote to her frequently, revealing secrets that she then repeated in court. On top of this, one of Melady’s alleged accomplices testified against him.

The only person convicted in the gruesome case, Melady was sentenced to death. He was hanged outside the Huron County Gaol, in Goderich, on December 7, 1869. His execution was carried out earlier than scheduled to avoid a mob scene — a smart move, as thousands of people poured into town that day, eager to watch the hanging.

Behind the scenes, politicians were working on legislation that would make Melady’s execution the last of its kind. Throughout 1869, they’d been mulling over various legal reforms, including a bill called An Act to Prevent the Execution in Public of the Sentence of Death.

“The execution, in public view, of the Sentence of Death is productive of great evils,” stated the preamble to the bill, which was introduced by Alexander Morris, the Conservative­ MP for Lanark South.

Note the language used: the “great evil” under discussion was the public nature of executions. The goal wasn’t to abolish capital punishment — merely to make it less visible.

To this end, the bill stipulated that “all executions of the Sentence of Death shall hereafter take place within the walls, or within the enclosed yard of the gaol of the District, or County or Union of Counties, as the case may be, and not in public view.”

According to an April 29 Globe summary of the House of Commons debate, Morris “thought privacy in executions was better for the right state of mind of the criminal himself in his last moments, and better also as regarded the public by avoiding the injurious consequences which resulted from the immense crowds gathered together to witness such exhibitions.”

After some legislative tinkering, Parliament eventually passed a law banning public executions. An order-in-council from early 1870 reiterated the position: all future hangings would be held inside prison buildings or compounds. Nicholas Melady became the last prisoner to be publicly executed in Canada. Following his death, spectators would require special permission to view a hanging.

These reforms, Poplak writes, “reflected the extreme discomfort felt by polite nineteenth century Victorian society in the face of the violence, obscenity, callousness and contempt shown by mobs at a hanging.”

While executions were no longer held in public, they could still draw throngs of people.  

For example, a “morbidly curious crowd of 300” lined up outside Toronto’s Don Jail on November 21, 1956, when prisoner Robert Fitton was hanged, reported the Toronto Daily Star.

Fitton had been convicted for the “sex slaying of Linda Lampkin, 13,” wrote the Star. The age of the victim and nature of the crime might explain why Fitton’s hanging drew scores of spectators on a rainy, windy night. Those assembled were not there to mourn his passing. “Leather-jacketed teenagers laugh and jeer outside Don Jail during Fitton execution,” stated a cutline to a photograph accompanying the Star article.

Fourteen years before the House of Commons officially abolished the death penalty, in 1976, the Don Jail played host to the last execution in Canada. On December 11, 1962, Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas were hanged together. Their executions were held indoors, away from the prying eyes of the public. A crowd of people did gather outside the prison — but most were there to protest capital punishment.

Sources: Double Trap: The Last Public Hanging in Canada by John Melady (The Dundurn Group, 2005); Drop Dead: A Horrible History of Hanging in Canada by Lorna Poplak (Dundurn, 2017); the December 15, 1894, edition of the Evening Star; the April 29, 1869, February 12, 1869, March 10, 1862, March 11, 1862, March 27, 1869, December 12, 1868, and December 16, 1868, editions of the Globe; The Last to Die by Robert Hoshowsky (Dundurn Press, 2007); The Practice of Execution in Canada by Ken Leyton-Brown (UBC Press, 2010); the May 25, 1954, and November 21, 1956, editions of the Toronto Daily Star.

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