The Hyams Twins Case

A mystery then, and a mystery now! Did the Hyams brothers kill Willie Wells? The doctors disagreed; the jury said “No”, but—well, see what you think of the evidence

W. STEWART WALLACE June 15 1931

The Hyams Twins Case

A mystery then, and a mystery now! Did the Hyams brothers kill Willie Wells? The doctors disagreed; the jury said “No”, but—well, see what you think of the evidence

W. STEWART WALLACE June 15 1931

The Hyams Twins Case

W. STEWART WALLACE

A mystery then, and a mystery now! Did the Hyams brothers kill Willie Wells? The doctors disagreed; the jury said “No”, but—well, see what you think of the evidence

THE criminologist of fiction is able to rely with confidence on the aid of medical science. Sherlock Holmes was repeatedly indebted to the professional knowledge of his

friend and historian, Dr. Watson; and the modem counterparts of Sherlock Holmes owe to their knowledge of science, medical and otherwise, the solution of many of the problems presented to them.

In real life, however, medical science does not speak with so certain a voice. Such is the disagreement among doctors that, if the prosecution in a murder trial calls upon expert medical evidence to support its case, the defense is usually able to call into the witness-box other medical evidence, equally expert, in its rebuttal.

A striking illustration of this truth was seen in the trial of the Hyams brothers, accused of the murder of a sixteenyear-old youth named Willie Wells—William Chinook Wells, to give him his full name—in Toronto in 1893. The prosecution in this case contended that Willie Wells could not have been killed, as was at first supposed, by the falling on his head of a two-hundred-pound elevator weight, since the injuries to his skull were inconsistent with such a hypothesis; and an imposing array of physicians and surgeons, some of them with more than a local reputation, were called into the

box to support this view. But the defense was able to produce an almost equal number of distinguished medical men, who testified under oath that there was nothing in the appearance of Willie Wells’ skull incompatible with the theory that death had been caused by the elevator weight and therefore was accidental.

This conflict of medical opinion so mystified the juries which tried the Hyams brothers—for they were compelled to undergo the ordeal of two trials—that the medical evidence was probably disregarded entirely, and the verdict given on other grounds.

Harry Place Hyams and Dallas Theodore Hyams were twin brothers, so much alike that some people had difficulty in distinguishing them. They were natives of New Orleans, and had come to Toronto—then less than half its present size—about 1890, with their aged mother. In Toronto they had set up in business as commission merchants on King Street, the principal thoroughfare; and later they had rented a warehouse on Colborne Street in the heart of the business district.

Just why they came to Toronto was never satisfactorily explained; for in the United States they had wealthy relatives, whereas in Toronto they were virtually unknown. The suggestion was that they had left their country for their country’s good. Nor does it appear that the commission business which they established in Toronto was ever placed on a paying basis. The stenographer employed by them testified at a later date that, during the whole of the period she was with them, they did little or no trading; that all that ever came into their warehouse were a few sticks of furniture, a few bags of sugar, and one or two other small consignments.

When they came to Toronto they must have had at their disposal a certain amount of ready money; but it was not long before they were in deep water financially, and it later appeared that they had been compelled to resort to the expedient of borrowing money at exorbitant rates. From one moneylender they obtained $1,200 on a chattel mortgage

at the rate of two per cent a month ; and from a second they got loans amounting to $370 at from three to five per cent a month.

The Purchased Jobs

TT WAS when the Hyams twins were in these financial -*• straits that they met Willie Wells, in the winter of 1891-92, at the town of Oshawa, some thirty miles east of Toronto. Wells came from the village of Pickering, west of Oshawa, where he had an uncle who was a farmer. He was an orphan, but had three sisters, one of whom was married to a man named Aylesworth.

Both Wells and Aylesworth liad a little money in the bank, and the Hyams twins offered both of them employment in their warehouse in Toronto on condition that each of them would lend the twins the sum of $1,000. This money was not actually an investment in the business conducted by the Hyams brothers, but was merely an unsecured loan; and the only consideration offered in return was the promise of employment. Indeed, in view of the fact that there was little to be done in the warehouse, it might be said that the wages offered to Wells and Aylesworth were nothing more than a high rate of interest on the money borrowed.

Wells and Aylesworth moved into Toronto with their womenfolk, and entered into their employment, such as it was, in the Hyams warehouse on Colborne Street. Here they remained for a good part of a year. Their relations with their employers appear to have been cordial, even intimate. Harry Hyams became most attentive to one of Willie Wells’ sisters, and indeed became engaged to her. In Willie Wells himseif the brothers apparently took a most friendly interest.

They were enthusiasts about life insurance—to such an extent that Dallas Hyams, the only one of the twins whose life was insurable, had taken out policies totalling nearly $250,000—and they persuaded Willie Wells to take out a policy of $30,000, made payable to the sister who was engaged to Harry Hyams. They suggested to Aylesworth

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The Hyams Twins Case

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that he should likewise take out a life insurance policy, payable to his wife; but Aylesworth did not act on their suggestion. Being a man of more mature age than Willie Wells, he seems to have fallen less under the domination of the twins; and apparently he was not entirely happy in his association with them. He succeeded in getting them to return to him the money he had lent them, and consequently ceased to be regularly employed by them.

Even Willie Wells does not appear to have been wholly satisfied with his employment at the Hyams warehouse, for in January, 1893, he entered into negotiations with his uncle, Uriah Jones, of Pickering, for the purchase of a farm near that village. His loan of §1,000 to the Hyams brothers was returnable on January 14, 1893; and on that day he arranged to meet his uncle at Whitby, near Pickering, in order to complete the purchase of the farm. Uriah Jones went to W'hitby, but Willie Wells did not meet him, and two days later he met his death in the warehouse of the Hyams brothers.

Accident or murder

* I 'HE circumstances surrounding the death of Willie Wells on the morning of January 16, 1893, are still wrapped in obscurity. The very hour at which his death occurred is open to question. The stenographer employed by the Hyams brothers had been given some letters to deliver, and did not reach the warehouse until a quarter to twelve. Aylesworth was likewise given an errand which kept him away from the warehouse until the tragedy had occurred.

The only persons who appear to have been on the premises the morning when Willie Wells was killed were Harry and Dallas Hyams. Their story was that they had gone down to the cellar between nine and ten o’clock in the morning, and had found the body of Willie Wells lying near the elevator shaft with the two-hundred-pound elevator weight on his head. Harry Hyams immediately went for a nearby physician. Dr.

E. E. King, and brought him to the warehouse.

Before the doctor arrived, however, an expressman named Fox called at the warehouse, and was admitted by Dallas Hyams, who told him that a terrible accident had occurred. Fox went down to the cellar to see what had happened; and he appears to have developed some suspicions with regard to the story told him, but these he kept to himself. As he came up from the cellar, the doctor arrived.

Dr. King was the family physician of the Hyams brothers, and Harry Hyams owed him §250 for an operation performed the year before. He satisfied himself that life was extinct, but the surroundings were so nauseous that he did not pursue his examination further. Dallas Hyams, indeed, was so upset by the “accident” that he fainted, and had to be sent home in a hack.

The doctor did, however, call in the coroner, Dr. W. H. B. Aikins, as he was obliged to do in a case of violent death. Dr. Aikins, who arrived about noon, made a cursory examination of the body, listened to the story told by Harry Hyams, and went upstairs to look at the mechanism of the elevator. In the end he decided that the death of Willie Wells was the result of an accident, and that an inquest would be unnecessary. A brief paragraph appeared in the newspapers describing the accident. The body of Willie Wells was taken home to be buried in the family burial plot in Pickering —it was noted that Dallas Hyams was not present at the funeral—and the incident was apparently ended.

Less than four months later, on May 9, 1893, Harry Hyams was quietly married to Martha Wells, the sister of the dead youth; and the Hyams brothers seem to have extricated themselves at the same time from their financial difficulties. It appeared later that Harry Hyams had, even before the marriage, succeeded in obtaining from his future wife about §9,000 of the insurance money paid to her as a result of her brother's death. To Aylesworth, who had tried to

dissuade his sister-in-law from marrying Harry Hyams, and who had evidently developed doubts about Willie Wells’ death, Harry Hyams paid over $5.000—no doubt with the object of keeping peace in the family.

The Man Who Started Something

/\T FIRST, in the Harry Hyams family, all went merrily as wedding bells. But in 1894, Harry Hyams and his brother, unable to restrain their enthusiasm for life insurance, endeavored to place on the life of Mrs. Harry Hyams insurance amounting to the colossal figure of $250,000; an amount which even an uninstructed girl like Mrs. Hyams knew they were in no position to maintain. Her husband also tried to persuade her to sleep in a newfangled folding bed which snapped up against the wall. She naturally became frightened, especially when she remembered the circumstances attending her brother’s death the previous year; and she went to a lawyer to obtain a separation allowance.

This lawyer, when he was holding over Harry Hyams the threat of publicity with a view to forcing him to pay a separation allowance to his wife, dropped a hint as to what was afoot to a reporter of the World newspaper, Hector Charlesworth, who is now the editor of Saturday Night and also the author of a charming volume, Candid Chronicles, in which he has told, from his point of view, the story of the Hyams case.

Mr. Charlesworth was not able to extract from his legal friend more than a hint, but he began to work on the case independently. He found that the relatives of Willie Wells, though they lacked proof of their suspicions, suspected that the youth had not died an accidental death. He interviewed the expressman, Fox, who had been the first person, outside the Hyams brothers, to view the body of Willie Wells; he obtained information from the insurance people, who, although dubious about Willie Wells’ death, had hesitated to take action in view of the coroner’s decision that ' an inquest was unnecessary ; and when he had assembled his evidence, he published it in the World as a journalistic “scoop” early in January, 1895.

Official action immediately followed. On January 12, 1895—almost two years after the death of Willie Wells—Inspector Cuddy of the Toronto Police Department arrested Harry and Dallas Hyams on a warrant charging them with the murder of William Chinook Wells, and they were committed to the Toronto jail.

It was not until February 27, after being remanded repeatedly, that they were brought before Colonel George T. Denison, the honored and distinguished police magistrate of Toronto, for their preliminary trial. The case had been postjxmed apparently in order to allow the relatives of the Hyams twins in New Orleans to make arrangements for their defense. A rich uncle in New Orleans, though not an unreserved admirer of his nephews, was not anxious to have two hangings in the family; and he engaged the services of Francis Wellman, the most outstanding criminal lawyer at the New York bar, to look after their interests.

Wellman could not come to Toronto to defend his clients until the end of February, and the hearing in the police court was adjourned apparently to meet his convenience. The postponement might, however, have been avoided ; for neither at the police court hearing nor at the two subsequent trials in the Assize Court was the American lawyer permitted to plead. All he was allowed to do was to sit at the counsels’ table, and to advise the Canadian lawyers who had the case in hand.

An Impressive Case

THE case for the prosecution was in the hands of the Crown Attorney, Walter Curry; and the chief lawyer for the defense was E. F. B. Johnston, a Scotsman who was destined to become perhaps the foremost criminal lawyer in Canada. At the preliminary investigation, however, Johnston made no attempt to put in his evidence, and the Crown Attorney had a clear field.

He built up an impressive case. He called first on the Aylesworths, husband and wife, to tell the story of Willie Wells’ relations with the accused; he put into the witness box the stenographer, Mabel Lattimer, the expressman, Fox, Dr. E. E. King, and the undertaker, to describe the events of the morning of January 16, 1893; and he produced two moneylenders, Samuel Grandidge and Richard Lane, to testify to the financial straits of the accused. One of these, Richard Lane, had actually gone to the warehouse to collect a debt on the morning when Willie Wells was killed. Significant evidence was given by Mrs. Pengelly, the cook-general at the Hyams house, who swore that between ten and eleven o’clock on the morning of January 16, 1893, Dallas Hyams had returned home with bloodstains on his trousers.

But the most damaging evidence was that adduced by the medical witnesses. Dr. John Caven, a well-known consultant, testified that, after the arrest of the Hyams twins, the body of Willie Wells had been exhumed, and a post-mortem examination had been conducted by Dr. Arthur Jukes Johnston, Dr. Teskey, and himself, Willie Wells’ skull had been cleaned, and the broken parts had been fastened together by cop¡>er wire. The restored skull was actually exhibited in the court room; and Dr. Caven used it to demonstrate the character of the injuries from which Willie Wells had died.

“The injuries,” he said, “are apparently of two kinds. The first are at the base of the skull, inside. The backbone seems to have been driven violently into the base of the brain. This could be done by a blow from above or below. From the condition of the skull, this blow appears to have been dealt with some substance offering no maximum point of force, such as a sandbag, the force from which is diffused. Or it might have been caused by the deceased having lit on his feet after falling a considerable height. The second set of injuries seems to have been effected also by a diffused force sufficient to crush in the skull, but in my opinion it was not done by the falling weight. That would have crushed through the skull, even if it had struck in a glancing manner.”

In these views Dr. Arthur Jukes Johnston, afterward chief coroner of Toronto, concurred. He added that, in his opinion, the bones of the neck and shoulders would have been injured had the skull been crushed by the elevator weight.

An attempt was made by the Crown Attorney to show that the elevator was not dangerous, but with rather disastrous effects.

“Has any other life ever been lost near this elevator?” asked the Crown Attorney of a witness, James Rankin, who had formerly been employed in the warehouse rented by the Hyams.

“Yes,” was the startling reply.

“How was that?” asked the Crown Attorney sceptically.

“Well,” said James Rankin, “we were troubled with rats in the building, so we got a cat. One day the elevator weight fell on the cat, and it was crushed fiat as a pancake.”

Quick as a flash E. F. B. Johnston, the counsel for Dallas Hyams, was on his feet.

“Was the cat insured?” he asked the witness.

“She was not,” was the reply.

“Then there was no motive for doing away with her?” rejoined the learned counsel.

When the hearing of the evidence was completed, E. F. B. Johnston moved for the discharge of Dallas Hyams, on the ground that no case had been made against him; but Colonel Denison ruled that, though the case against Dallas Hyams was not so strong as that against Harry Hyams, there were good grounds for believing that the death of Willie Wells was not accidental, and he therefore committed both brothers for trial at the next assizes.

Conflicting Medical Testimony

rT'HE Hyams case came up for trial on

May 9, 1895, before Mr. Justice Street, a judge of impartial and judicial mind. The

prosecution was conducted by B. B. Osier, then at the height of his fame as a criminal lawyer. Harry Hyams was defended by William Lount, a lawyer whose reputation had been built up on old-fashioned Gladstonian eloquence; and Dallas Hyams was defended by E. F. B. Johnston. In the background was the American criminal lawyer, Francis L. Wellman; and it was noted that, as the trial proceeded, the American lawyer came to rely more and more on the comparatively junior E. F. B. Johnston, and less and less on the senior counsel, William Lount.

The case for the prosecution was substantially that which had been presented in the magistrate’s court, with the exception that Mrs. Harry Hyams, the sister of Willie Wells, was called into the box as a witness for the Crown. Seldom has there been in court such a dramatic situation as occurred when this unhappy woman was forced to testify against her living husband on behalf of her dead brother. She broke down in the witness-box, and her hearing had to be postponed. She was not permitted by the judge, however, to testify with regard to the attempt of her husband to place a vast insurance policy on her life, since this was deemed irrelevant and inadmissible evidence; and her appearance in the witnessbox did not materially affect the issue.

An attempt on the part of the Crown to introduce evidence regarding the earlier history of the prisoners was also ruled out by the judge, and a number of experts called by the Crown to prove that the elevator weight could not have been removed from its hook except by the agency of human hands were very severely handled by the counsel for the defense.

Even the eighteen medical men on whom the Crown called to prove that the injuries to the skull of Willie Wells were inconsistent with the theory of accidental death were cross-examined by E. F. B. Johnston— who now for the first time revealed himself as a master of the art of cross-examinationin such a way that most of them were glad to escape from the witness-box. When the prosecution rested its case it had hardly succeeded in adding anything to the evidence adduced in the preliminary investigation, if indeed the force of the evidence then adduced had not been in some respects diminished.

Then the defense opened its case. Since the prosecution had brought its evidence to a close with the testimony of the medical men, the defense, first of all, by a wise counter move, called on its medical witnesses. Eight doctors in succession entered the witness-box to testify that, in their opinion, the injuries to the skull of Willie Wells could have been caused by the fall of the elevator weight, on the supposition that perchance the deceased was lying beneath it, trying to remedy some defect in the operation of the elevator.

Mr. Irving H. Cameron, afterward the head of the department of surgery in the University of Toronto, testified that he saw “no evidence of two lines of force.” “The fractions,” said another doctor, “were all done by one crushing blow.” “All the wounds on the skull,” said a third, “were caused by one great, crushing blow on the right side of the head;” and other doctors corroborated this view.

The best efforts of B. B. Osier failed to shake the evidence of these witnesses; and when they had completed their testimony, the case for the Crown began to take on a less conclusive aspect.

But it was not the medical evidence alone that the defense was able to shake. They produced evidence to show that the elevator was notoriously unsafe, and that the prisoners had done their best to repair it and render it safer. They sought to show that the financial condition of the prisoners had been far from precarious, and that they were engaged in a legitimate business. They made it clear that the insurance placed on Willie Wells’ life had been taken out by the dead boy of his own free will, without any-

thing more than a suggestion on the part of the prisoners.

Finally, they endeavored to prove an alibi for the prisoners. They produced witnesses to show that about the time when Willie Wells was supposed to have been killed, Harry Hyams was being shaved in a barber shop, and Dallas Hyams was walking along a Toronto street with an acquaintance. These witnesses were cross-examined by the prosecution, and it appeared that the memory of one of them was so fallacious that, though he remembered the events of the day on which Willie Wells had been killed, he could not remember the year. But the suggestion of an alibi had, no doubt, weight with the jury.

The jury was addressed by Johnston and Lount in powerful speeches; and then B. B. Osler, in a speech which was a masterpiece of cool, passionless logic, presented the case for the Crown. Johnston had bitterly attacked Mrs. Harry Hyams for appearing against her husband, but Osier countered with the question:

“I ask you what terrible thing has happened which compels her to go into the witness-box, and realize that her brother was the dead victim of these men and that she was the living?”

“Your words,” he said to the jury, “are words of life or death. No sympathy, no emotion, must be allowed to enter into your reason. Judge as you would be judged. Give the benefit of all reasonable doubt to the prisoners. Having done that, if you consider them guilty, do your duty like men.”

When the judge had summed up the evidence and charged the jury, the jury filed out. It was then just after half-past one on the afternoon of the twenty-fourth of May, the birthday of Queen Victoria. Not until nine o’clock in the evening did the jury return. Then the foreman announced that they were unable to agree. They stood ten for acquittal and two for conviction. The judge thereupon discharged the jury and remanded the prisoners for a new trial at the autumn assizes.

It is seldom that prisoners who have undergone one trial and have had a jury disagree as to their guilt, are convicted on a second trial; and the second trial in the case of the Hyams twins resulted in their complete acquittal. For this there were several reasons.

In the first place, the judge at the second trial, which took place in November, 1895, was Mr. Justice Ferguson, a good-natured and kind-hearted jurist with perhaps an exaggerated idea of fair play toward prisoners on trial for their lives. Mr. Justice Ferguson not only excluded evidence which Mr. Justice Street had regarded as admissible, but he excluded much new evidence as well, such as the time sheets of the Toronto Str ». Railway Company which would have thrown light on the time of Willie Wells’ death and might have upset the alibi set up by the prisoners. In his charge to the jury, the judge concluded with the observation, “It is better that very many persons who are guilty escape than that one innocent person should suffer.” A jury could hardly have had a stronger hint.

In the second place. Hector Charlesworth, in the account of the Hyams Case in his Candid Chronicles, says that during the second trial there was brought to Toronto, presumably by the American lawyer, Francis Wellman, a certain Colonel Foster, who was reputed to be one of the most notorious jury “fixers” of the Tammany organization; and that, as soon as the jury panel was announced, a group of strangers visited the homes of the jurymen under the guise of book agents, photo enlargers, and sewingmachine salesmen, and discussed the Hyams case, presenting arguments for the defense.

“Personally,” says Mr. Charlesworth, “I think the insinuating Foster had as much to do with the acquittal of the Hyams brothers as anybody.”

Perhaps we may let the matter rest at that.