Thursday, June 21, 2007

Canada's Last Public Hanging?

Where was Canada's last public hanging? This is a question I've been trying to answer for our upcoming exhibit; but the answer has proven less straight forward than I anticipated. Yesterday, I was excited to find an An Order-in-Council, signed by John A MacDonald legislating the end of public hangings in Canada. Though hangings continued behind prison walls until 1962, was Canada's last public hanging at our Huron County Gaol?

The hanging of Patrick Whelan at the Carleton County Jail on February 11 1869 for the assassination of MP and Father of Confederation D'Arcy McGee [left] is mistakenly claimed to be the last public hanging in Canada. Ten months later, on December 7, 1869, Nicholas Melady was hanged in Goderich at the Huron District Gaol for the murder of his father and step-mother. A recently published book detailing the crime and hanging, by Melady's descendant John Melady, is titled Double Trapped: Canada's Last Public Hanging.

However - in 1869, Canada only included the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Hangings continued in public in areas that had not yet entered Confederation, such as the prairie provinces and BC.


While hangings were performed behind prison walls, the public was often still able to watch.
  • The Sheriff could and often did invite interested spectators and newspaper reporters.
  • Spectators were known to climb any nearby structure that would allow them to see into the yard. At the Montreal execution of Timothy Candy in 1910, dozens of people viewed the hanging from the roofs of adjoining houses. In this photo of the 1904 execution of Stanislau Lacroix in Hull, you can see the crowds on the nearby rooftops and telephone poles.

  • Crowds of excited spectators were hard to stop. In March 1899, 2,000 uninvited guests stormed a Montreal gaol to witness a hanging, joining the 200 witnesses already inside the prison yard.

  • The law was not always followed.
  • The hanging scaffold was sometimes built taller than the prison walls to allow for public viewing.

An elderly museum patron noted several years earlier that he recalls watching gallows being built in public in Hamilton while riding the streetcar. Was this a case where the gallows were built higher than the prison walls to allow curious spectators a view? or was the law simply ignored? I'm not sure I can claim for certain that the hanging of Melady in Dec. 1869 was the last public hanging even in the provinces within Confederation at the time.

16 comments:

Brenda said...

I too have been searching for the same answer. My father asked the same question on June 24 at the goal in Goderich. The helpful staff (Ashley)took his name and phone number and said she would get back to him. I said I would do some surfing in the meantime and that's how I found you! Are you any closer to an answer?

Carling Marshall said...

An editorial in the Seaforth Expositor after the 1869 Melady hanging notes: "The last public execution that will take place in Canada has been witnessed." I think that may be as close to the answer as we get.

Anonymous said...

I was told it was in Fort Frances, Ontario.

Anonymous said...

Samual Lount was the last public hanging in Canada. He was mistakenly thought to be bad but was later found by the government to be a Great Canadian. Check out the movie Samual Lount for more details.

Carling Luymes said...

Thanks for checking out my blog. Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews were hanged in front of a Toronto crowd on April 12 1838 but hangings continued to take place publicly in Canada for over 30 more years, until the practice was abolished by legislation on January 1 1870.

Lount and Matthews were not the last: at the Huron County gaol alone, hangings took place publicly in 1861 and 1869; in nearby Walkerton, a public hanging took place in 1868.

Anonymous said...

I was told that the last public hanging in Canada was in my home town of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, more recently that you might expect. People still living remember the event...

Anonymous said...

I was told that the last public hanging in Canada was in my home town of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, more recently that you might expect. People still living remember the event...

Anonymous said...

I was also told the last public hanging was in Fort Frances ON. My teacher told us that today.

stephane said...

hi, i work in the museum of the old prison of trois-rivieres, built in 1815-1819, officially opened in 1822, and closed in 1986. there were 4 public hangings in the yard of the prison, between 1854 and 1934. i have a picture of the gallows that was used for the hanging of mr. Alexandre Lavallée, 73 yrs, the 12th of august 1927,and on the picture you notice that the hanging platform is at the same height as the wall of the prison yard, from the archives we have, it was the scafold from montreal, assembled 4 days before the execution. the last one to be hanged in public in the district of trois-rivieres, was Ildege Blais, 25yrs, in 1934, for the murder of his father...if you want more info E-MAIL me at stephane_dez@hotmail.com

i hope this will help in your search

Anonymous said...

This website will provide you with some answers:
http://www.canadiancorrections.com/capitalpunishment.html

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Anonymous said...

This question appears to be more vexed than it first seems. I think we can safely say that Patrick Whelan was the last OFFICIAL public hanging in Canada. If you go the Old Ottawa Jail (now a youth hostel) they tell his story. You could even argue that his hanging wasn't public because there was a snowstorm on and nobody actually saw him fall.

The other stories related, including a possible public hanging is Saskatchewan I think of suspected aboriginal or Metis rebels, all seem to relate to unofficial public hangings. Although people could still observe, this wasn't officially sanctioned. I can't speak to Mr. Melady's hanging since I haven't heard about it. Wikipedia says he was executed on the outside wall which, if true, would indeed make him the last public hanging. However, in more remote areas or in places where the law was flouted, there may have been public executions.

snapping turtle said...

In the late 1960's I was told by an elderly Guelph resident,author O.T.G. Williamson,that he had once read an article in the Police Gazette about the last public hanging in Canada which had occurred in front of the Guelph Court House.

Richard Chaloner, Guelph Ontario

Anonymous said...

I've got a bit of info for you all to take in...I'm a living decendant of the man who performed Canada's last public execution (by law) in Goderich Ontario, The Black Donnellys ran my family out of town (forget which one), I'm related to HGB Miner (search his name, quite impressive man), and my family (on the Ellis side) once owned Ellis Island (hence it's name) before it was sold to the state of New Youk (have papers passed from generation to generation to prove it), oh, and also on my mothers side, I'm related to the Hamiltons. I've got an impressive bloodline coming from 3 different families! Although not confirmed, I may be decended from Scottish royalty (pre 1500's), so, just for clarity : Miners side of family = royal relations and war hero (possibly the Great Canadian Train Robber, but not confirmed) Ellis sid eof the family = founders of Ellis island, last public hanging in Canada, and a relation through the hamiltons through my grandmother on the Ellis side of the family (kind of complicated)

Anonymous said...

This is false. The last public hanging was of Nicholas Melady Jr. for the killing of his father and step-mother. I am involved with a play on this topic.