Murder and mercy: The strange story of Joseph Rosenthal and Charles Gibson

On April 5, 1912, Rosenthal was beaten to death with a hammer. Gibson was convicted of the crime, but a large group of Canadians — some from the victim’s own family — started a movement for clemency
By Nate Hendley - Published on Jun 08, 2020
Joseph Rosenthal was buried in the cemetery of the McCaul Street Synagogue. (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 990.)

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In early October 1913, a delegation gathered in Ottawa to plead for the life of a convicted killer. The killer was Charles Gibson, convicted of brutally murdering a man in Toronto the previous year. The victim was Joseph Rosenthal, a Jewish second-hand-goods merchant who had been found dead in the muddy yard of a hydroelectric plant.

The delegation included Sir Henry Pellatt (the financier who built Casa Loma), politicians, Rabbi Jacobs of the Holy Blossom Synagogue, and other religious leaders. For two hours on October 6, lawyer Herbert Lennox “directed an impassioned appeal to the Acting Minister of Justice and several other members of the Cabinet for the life of Charles Gibson,” wrote the Toronto Daily Star.

“There will be a riot in Toronto if Gibson is hanged,” warned Lennox, who was also a member of the Ontario legislature.  

Asked why he felt so strongly about the case, Lennox said, “Because he is not guilty,” reported the Ottawa Citizen.

This view was shared by other members of the delegation and by many of the people who had signed a petition for clemency. Organized by social workers, religious figures, and Toronto law firm Lennox & Lennox, the petition asked the government to commute Gibson’s sentence to life in prison. Not everyone who added their name felt Gibson was innocent; some signatories simply opposed the death penalty on principle.

There were loud cries for mercy from Canada’s tiny, beleaguered Jewish community — including the victim’s own son. This compassion came at a time of widespread anti-Semitism in Canada; Rosenthal himself was snidely described as “a Hebrew junk dealer” by the Toronto Daily Star.

The crime for which Gibson had been convicted took place on Good Friday, April 5, 1912. That evening, Gibson met with Rosenthal and a fellow merchant named Eli Dunkelman to sell them scrap copper wire. Copper-wire thefts were rampant at the time, the metal being highly prized on the black market, so it’s likely that the transaction wasn’t aboveboard. This might explain why Gibson chose to meet at a deserted hydroelectric station at Strachan Avenue and King Street West. Now a residential neighbourhood, the area was largely industrial at the time.

It was the second meeting between the three men. At an encounter the night before, Gibson had claimed that the copper wire hadn’t been delivered yet. Now, on Good Friday, with the copper wire allegedly in his possession, Gibson said he was ready to make a sale.

Instead of negotiating, however, Gibson took Rosenthal into the muddy hydro yard and attacked him with a hammer. Dunkelman, who was waiting nearby, was then lured into the yard by Gibson and assaulted. With Rosenthal dead and Dunkelman unconscious, Gibson robbed the pair of roughly $60 in cash (the equivalent of about $1,300 today), then fled.

Dunkelman woke up hours later and staggered home to his family. He was taken to the General Hospital with a fractured skull, among other injuries.  

Hydro employees discovered Rosenthal’s body on April 6. Police observed a rope tied around Rosenthal’s neck and a block of concrete pressed against his head; a bloody hammer was found near his body.   

Rosenthal was buried in the cemetery of the McCaul Street Synagogue (now part of the Beth Tzedec Congregation) as police hunted for his killer.

It was a sordid murder in a conservative, unsophisticated city. The 1911 census counted 376,538 residents, almost all of them white, Christian, and of British background. There were fewer than 20,000 Jewish people in the city at the time, and prejudice was rampant. Jewish residents were routinely barred from certain jobs, clubs, and schools in Toronto.

“A Zionist lecturer from Europe who visited the city in 1912 was struck by the anti-Semitism evident in Toronto,” notes Stephen Speisman in The Jews of Toronto.

In May of the same year, Maclean’s magazine published a lengthy article about the “remarkable colony” of Jewish residents in downtown Toronto: “The streets swarm with old Jews and young, flashily-dressed Jews in the latest Queen Street styles, and patriarchal old Jews in gaberdine and skull cap. Strange noises and smells rise on the air … You feel that if you had a stronger stomach you would linger a while, inviting adventures. When you get home, you probably wonder what the medical health officer is about that he permits it.”

For all this, authorities worked diligently to solve Rosenthal’s murder — not that they had much experience to guide them. Toronto was a very safe place. In 1912, Toronto detectives “dealt with” a total of two murders, according to the Annual Report of the Chief Constable of the City of Toronto, a yearly compilation of crime statistics.  

Authorities deduced that the killer was likely a former hydro worker who was familiar with the plant at King and Strachan. It was a good guess, as Gibson was, in fact, a former hydro employee. From his hospital bed, Dunkleman told police that the assailant was a young man in his twenties who called himself “Smith.” Dunkelman insisted that he had had no inkling that the copper wire Gibson was offering might have been stolen.   

A few days after the murder, Gibson dropped by to see a colleague at a Jarvis Street hydro sub-station. Police were inspecting hydro stations, so Gibson’s timing was not ideal. Indeed, a detective happened by, found him hiding inside the station, and decided he fit the suspect profile. Gibson was taken in for questioning.

Gibson told police that he had, indeed, arranged to sell Rosenthal and Dunkelman some scrap copper wire. He claimed he had ventured to the meeting on Good Friday with two pals he knew only as “Wilson” and “Alec.” He said he then left the scene, turning negotiations over to his friends, and had been shocked the next morning to discover that his companions had attacked the two men in the hydro yard.  

While authorities were unable to track down Wilson and Alec, a search of Gibson’s family home and rooming house proved more fruitful. Police discovered a pair of blood-stained pants and a segment of rope similar to the cord that had been wrapped around Rosenthal’s neck. When police paraded Gibson before Dunkelman, he identified him as the attacker.

Gibson went on trial for murder that fall, with Chief Justice Sir William Mulock presiding. Dunkelman testified, as did several shopkeepers, who reported that Gibson had repeatedly dropped by their premises, asking about Rosenthal and claiming he had copper wire for sale. The young man gave his name as “Smith” during these encounters.

Aubrey Bond, who served as Gibson’s defence counsel, complained that police hadn’t tried hard enough to locate Wilson and Alec. If these two mystery friends hadn’t committed the crime, perhaps Dunkelman had, suggested Bond. In other words, Dunkelman had fractured his own skull, or been beaten by Rosenthal, all for $60.

The jury didn’t buy it and took less than two hours to convict Gibson on November 23, 1912. A few months later, following a failed appeal, Mulock sentenced Gibson to death.

Gibson continued to insist he was innocent, and many people agreed — or at least thought he shouldn’t be hanged. In total, 60,000 people signed the clemency petition.  

“Never before in the history of Ontario has such vigorous efforts been taken to save a man from the gallows,” reported the Star.

High-profile signatories included Sir Henry Pellatt, Toronto mayor Horatio Hocken, and, strikingly, Rosenthal’s son.  

In a letter to the Minister of Justice, Harry Rosenthal explained his reasoning: “As the son of the late Joseph Rosenthal, I request that you show clemency to Charles Gibson … Firmly as I am convinced that he is guilty, I, in accordance and following the teachings of the Hebrew religion to show mercy to others, sincerely request that you use your power as Minister of the Department of Justice to commute his sentence to that of life imprisonment.”

Harry Rosenthal was one of “1,700 Hebrews” who signed the petition for clemency, noted the Globe.

“We quite understand the feelings aroused, but as Jews we must not forget our hearts should always be open to mercy and that this should be extended — YES, even to a MURDERER,” stated an editorial in the Canadian Jewish Times.

In the end, the petition and deputation to Ottawa did the trick.

The federal cabinet commuted Gibson’s sentence to life in prison on October 7, 1913. Gibson, however, didn’t have long to enjoy his unexpected reprieve. Released for medical reasons from the Kingston Penitentiary, he died of tuberculosis on July 22, 1920, protesting his innocence to the end.

Capital punishment wouldn’t be officially abolished in Canada until 1976. As the Rosenthal case shows, however, much of the Canadian public had already decided it was immoral to hang anyone — even a brutal convicted killer.     

Sources: Annual Report of the Chief Constable of the City of Toronto for the Year 1912. Census of Canada, 1911. (Statistics Canada); “Murder Charges, Dispositions, Commutations and Executions, Canada, 1879-1960.” (Statistics Canada); The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937 by Stephen Speisman (McClelland and Stewart, 1979); the October 22, 1913, edition of the Canadian Jewish Times; the October 6, 1913, October 7, 1913, and October 8, 1913, editions of the Evening Citizen; the April 5, 1912, April 6, 1912, April 8, 1912, April 9, 1912, April 10, 1912, April 12, 1912, April 13, 1912, April 23, 1912, April 27, 1912, May 7, 1912, May 9, 1912, May 13, 1912, May 14, 1912, November 22, 1912, November 23, 1912, November 25, 1912, November 26, 1912, October 2, 1913, October 3, 1913, October 4, 1913, October 6, 1913, October 8, 1913, October 20, 1913, October 23, 1913, July 24, 1920, and July 27, 1920, editions of the Globe; the May 1912 edition of Maclean’s magazine; the April 8, 1912, May 9, 1912, November 19, 1912, November 22, 1912, November 25, 1912, May 5, 1913, May 12, 1913, October 6, 1913, and July 23, 1920, editions of the Toronto Daily Star.

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