COVER

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

WHEN DEATH WAS A SPECTATOR SPORT

CINDY BARRETT March 16 1987
COVER

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

WHEN DEATH WAS A SPECTATOR SPORT

CINDY BARRETT March 16 1987

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

COVER

WHEN DEATH WAS A SPECTATOR SPORT

It was a well-attended event. A farmer, Elijah Dexter, had been condemned to death for fatally shooting his neighbor, James Vanderburg, during an argument in Toronto. On Aug. 10, 1816, Dexter was led from his jail cell to a scaffold. According to a contemporary account, “A great crowd was on hand, and they gave a great cheer when Dexter appeared, for many had waited hours for this show.” They were not disappoint-

ed: within minutes Dexter was strangling to death at the end of a rope.

Appeal: Historians do not know exactly how many people have been executed in Canada. An estimated 450 people —including 11 women—were hanged between 1867 and 1962, when the country’s last execution was carried out at Toronto’s Don Jail. Dozens more were executed before Confederation, almost all of them publicly. In fact, the nation’s early lawmakers believed that the sight of a criminal’s graceless death struggles would deter others from crime. But the crime rate continued to grow in step with the

population. And executions carried a heady appeal. In 1828 10,000 people watched a double hanging in Toronto-population at the time: 2,000.

Morbid: Crowd participation was often spirited. Spectators would arrive at the gallows hours ahead of time to secure a prime viewing spot. The noose’s victim was usually the star attraction, but it was the executioner who drew either cheers—for a clean, quick hanging—or jeers for a messy, lingering finale. And audiences could be demanding. On Sept. 6, 1861, hundreds gathered outside Montreal Prison to witness a scheduled double bill. But only hours before the hanging, the sentence of one of the condemned men was commuted. Angered, the mob rushed the scaffold, hurling stones, even as the lone prisoner swung above them.

After British rule replaced the French regime in Canada in 1759, the number of » capital offences grew § rapidly. By the early 1800s a Canadian could 1 be executed for about 5 120 crimes—including S defacing a boundary ^ marker. In fact, in y 1803 a boy of 13, B. 2 Clements, was hanged in Montreal for stealing a cow.

Public executions were abolished in 1869, but public interest remained strong until the end. When murderers Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas were hanged in Torontoon Dec. 11, 1962, motorists stopped their cars outside Don Jail as midnight—the hour appointed for the execution—approached. Although they could not see the hanging inside the jail, they were drawn to the site by the same morbid fascination that brought their ancestors to witness the final moments of Elijah Dexter 146 years before.

CINDY BARRETT in Toronto