Executed This Day in 1962: The last men hanged in Canada
Forty-five years ago today, two men linked by nothing but fate stood back to back on the gallows of Toronto's Don Jail and became the last hanged in Canada.
Robert Horshowsky: I've worked as a freelance writer for almost 20 years now, and in that time, some stories were assigned to me, while others were the product of my own imagination. This book, like many before it, got its start as an article.
In 2001, I was in the library at Maclean's magazine, where I worked as a Researcher-Reporter. They have a large section on Canadian history, and I saw a book by John Robert Colombo, who is very well known for his works on history and trivia. I believe the book was 1001 Questions About Canada. Picking up Colombo's paperback, the first page I turned to asked, "When was the last execution in Canada?" The brief paragraph mentioned Ronald Turpin, a Canadian criminal, and Arthur Lucas, a Black man from Detroit. Both men were hanged on Dec. 11, 1962. Since it was a book of trivia, there wasn't much more information than that, which got me thinking, "I wonder if I can pitch a story on the 40th anniversary for the December 2002 issue of Maclean's?" Although it is a weekly news magazine, Maclean's often ran articles on subjects of historic note, and the story I submitted on Turpin and Lucas was very well-received by the editors.
The one thing I have been accused of my entire working life is over-researching a subject, and the piece entitled "The Last Night of the Condemned" was no exception. My editor at the time said, "You're not writing a book" in regard to the amount of research I had conducted, and I took this, perhaps subconsciously, as a challenge.
I was hooked by the stories of Turpin and Lucas for a number of reasons. There had never been a book about them, a fact that still boggles my mind. The end of the death penalty in different countries is a subject that is widely covered. The last two men to hang in England, for example, were Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans. They were executed in 1964, and a book was published about them a year later. Turpin and Lucas were hanged in 1962, and my book was published in 2007, 45 years after the fact. Of course, there were newspaper and articles about them, a chapter here and there, or a mention in a law textbook, but not much else, certainly not a book. Through my research I soon discovered that others had attempted plays and documentaries about the two, with little success. This made me wonder if the subject was cursed, which is certainly how I felt sometimes.
ET: What effect did writing the book have on you?
The book took a toll on me physically and mentally. Research at times was slow and painful, and obtaining documents - especially from the Canadian government - was a tedious and frustrating process. In Canada, we have something called the Freedom of Information and Access to Privacy Act, which I used over and over again to obtain jail records, court documents and the like on Turpin and Lucas. In the United States, I used the Freedom of Information Law to access documents on Arthur Lucas; since he was an American from Detroit, I figured there would be rap sheets and the like on him, which there were. All these documents were very useful, but getting hold of them was a real challenge, since you have to prove the person you're inquiring about is dead, that no other persons will be incriminated or named in the documents, etcetera.
The hardest thing for me to deal with was the cancer that took my mother's life in March of this year. Her last wish was that I finish this book, and I struggled against two deadlines: the publisher's, and my mother's. As soon as I finished a chapter, I gave it to mom to read, followed by the next. Completing the book was a bittersweet experience: although she read the entire thing, mom didn't live long enough to see it published, passing away six weeks before it was printed. In hindsight, I'm shocked I didn't fall to pieces. The most difficult section for me to write was the funeral of Frederick Nash, the policeman shot to death by Turpin. I wrote this after interviewing his widow, and three of his four daughters - the eldest was 11, and one of them, Karen, was only two months old when he died. That was tough, the mental image of these little kids holding flowers outside the church, not quite realizing that their father was never coming home again. That was one of the reasons I wanted to write an entire chapter about those people left behind, like officer Nash's children, the Salvation Army chaplain who was with Turpin and Lucas when they died, and many others involved in the cases. Far too often, true crime books focus almost entirely on the killers, and not enough on the families of the victims.
ET: Canada was trending towards abolition, and Lucas and Turpin knew themselves that they might be the last ones hanged. Was it just happenstance, or was there some intentionality in pushing these cases in particular? What was the fallout in Canada?
RH: In the early 1960s, there was a push in many countries to eliminate capital punishment, and Canada was no exception. As early as 1914, a Canadian Member of Parliament named Robert Bickerdike introduced a private members' bill for the abolition of the death penalty. Although it was defeated, there were other members' bills over the years. In 1935, a woman named Thomasina Sarao was unintentionally decapitated during her hanging in Montreal, which led to more and more executions in Canada taking place behind closed doors. Sarao's beheading didn't directly lead to the end of capital punishment, but the idea of a woman dying in such a gruesome fashion certainly didn't help the pro-death penalty camp!
By the 1950s, more changes were made to Canada's Criminal Code, limiting the reasons a person could be executed. By 1961, changes were made which divided murder into a capital and a non-capital crime. One of the reasons you would die was for the murder of a police officer, a crime committed by Roland Turpin when he shot Fred Nash in February of 1962. There was always the possibility that even though you were found guilty of murder, the jury could recommend mercy, sparing your life. This didn't happen in either Turpin or Lucas's case.
Prior to the executions of Turpin and Lucas, there were a number of appeals for both men. The Salvation Army chaplain who was spiritual advisor to both men, Cyril Everitt, even appealed to the Prime Minister at the Time, John Diefenbaker. Law professors tried to fight the hangings, with no effect.
There was no doubt Ronald Turpin killed the police officer. I believe he suffered from some sort of mania or persecution complex. This certainly wouldn't absolve him of shooting and killing a cop, but there is no doubt - to me at least - that Turpin was mentally unstable.
As for Arthur Lucas, there was a lot of evidence against him, and all of it was circumstantial. Chaplain Everitt wasn't to save both men body and soul, and he believed with all his heart that Arthur Lucas was innocent.
There wasn't so much fallout after the hangings as there was serious doubt. Doubt about the guilt of either man, especially Lucas, who was convicted entirely on circumstantial evidence. Doubt about the competency of their legal representation, which was conducted by a brilliant but alcoholic lawyer named Ross MacKay, who acted for both Turpin and Lucas. Imagine it: MacKay was just 29 years old and inexperienced. Turpin and Lucas were his first and last capital cases, and he had no budget, compared to the estimated $40,000 spent by the government to prosecute Lucas alone. On top of that, Mackay had less than three weeks between the trial of Arthur Lucas, and the trial of Ronald Turpin. There is evidence that MacKay showed up to court hung over on some days. And the majority of the newspapers were against Turpin - who had a lengthy criminal record for break-ins and the like - and Lucas, who was slow (his IQ was just 63, borderline retarded), and happened to look like a killer.
ET: What about some of the other participants in this drama? Who's the unsung character in this story?
RH: There are a number of unsung characters in the book. The two that stand out most remain Ross MacKay and Chaplain Everitt. MacKay the lawyer had a problem with the bottle all his life, but representing the last two men to be hanged in Canada just made his predicament much worse. After the trials, a popular Halloween costume among lawyers was a noose worn `round the neck. One lawyer would ask the other, "Who are you supposed to be?" and the response was, "One of Ross MacKay's clients." It was very sad, since MacKay didn't have a hell of a lot to work with. The Canadian courts had thousands of dollars, veteran detectives, top prosecutors and forensic experts at their disposal; MacKay had a unrepentant client who murdered a policeman and left his four daughters without a father, and a menacing-looking Black American pimp who was accused of coming to Canada and murdering a witness in an FBI drug trial. Neither man drew much sympathy from the press or the public, but MacKay did his best to represent them.
The other key unsung hero is Chaplain Everitt. He was the Salvation Army Chaplain at Toronto's Don Jail, where Turpin and Lucas were hanged. He befriended both men about 10 months before they were hanged, and went to see them several times a day to talk, pray, or play chess or checkers. Everitt truly believed people could be rehabilitated, and did everything he could to save the lives of these two men. Both Turpin and Lucas had lousy childhoods full of neglect and abuse, and Everitt was probably the only decent men they ever knew in their lives.
In many ways, Everitt's bond of friendship with the two cost him more than I'm sure even he could imagine. Everitt devised a signal with the hangman, and shared it with Turpin and Lucas. The key word in the scripture he would read as they stood on the gallows was "Salvation," and they knew the second they heard it that it meant they were about to die. He not only saw them hang, but conducted their funeral service at three in the morning with the full moon over his head. He said he would be with them "to the end," and the man kept his word.
Perhaps there are those of us who could bear to see a stranger hanged, but a friend? Two friends? I'm not suggesting Everitt lost his mind over what happened - the man continued to do work for the Salvation Army for many years afterwards - but the experience of befriending Turpin and Lucas and seeing them die affected him for the rest of his life. He visited their unmarked graves all the time until he simply got too old and couldn't do it any longer.
ET: It's clear from the promotional copy that the botched hanging is a specific area you cover. What happened, and how did it stay so hush-hush in such a high-profile event?
RH: The code of secrecy among police officers is strong, but the code of silence among jail guards is virtually unbreakable. The few Don Jail guards I talked to would not go on the record under any circumstances, and one of them said he feared losing his pension if he discussed in detail what really happened to Arthur Lucas. This was 40 years after the fact. The retired police officers I spoke to were much more forthcoming, especially the homicide cops, who are a pretty fearless bunch. The extreme reluctance to talk is one of the reasons why details of the hangings didn't come to light until many years later - in fact, some people thought Turpin and Lucas were buried on the Don Jail grounds, another common misconception.
The story of what happened the night of the hangings became blurred over time, even by people who were there, like Chaplain Everitt. He gave a number of interviews to the media over the years, usually on the anniversary of the hangings. In a 1981 documentary, Everitt said Turpin fainted on the way to the gallows. "They had to carry him," said Everitt, who believed Turpin never regained consciousness. In every single interview he gave before 1981, Everitt never once mentioned Turpin fainting, nor did he reveal what happened to Lucas until a few years before he himself died in 1986.
One of the rumours is that Turpin did not just faint when he saw the noose hanging in mid-air, but that he actually dropped dead on the spot of a heart attack. If this happened today, there would have been a great kerfuffle to revive the condemned man or woman, only to have them put to death at a later time. In Canada, the common belief was callous but pragmatic: he's going to die in a few moments, so why delay the inevitable? There was no other word except Everitt's that Turpin fainted; one of the police detectives present at the hanging told me, "Turpin didn't faint. He hanged." I put a lengthy footnote in the book about this. All accounts I tracked down said Turpin was conscious when he died on the gallows. The only odd thing about his death is that there is a cemetery record that has the word "accidental" written next to his name. I've never had a satisfactory explanation about that one. It could be some past cemetery employee's idea of a joke, or a one-word protest against capital punishment.
As gruesome as Turpin's death was, Lucas' end was far more disturbing. It was a double execution, two nooses, with both Turpin and Lucas standing back-to-back on the same platform, black hoods over their heads. No one talked about what happened to Lucas for years afterward, and many believe the hangman was drunk and responsible for the mistake, which was not the case. Lucas was practically decapitated. The image of two men dropping to their deaths is horrific enough, but I can't imagine what it would be like to see blood spraying everywhere when one of them hits the bottom of the rope. Lucas' head was barely clinging to the rest of his body. Now, try to imagine blood everywhere, and having to climb on a stepladder and press a stethoscope against the chest of each man in turn, listening to their dying heartbeats for almost 20 minutes. That was the responsibility of the jail doctor. The media was told the deaths of the two was "practically instantaneous," and that's the story that stuck for decades. Everitt only revealed what happened in 1985, a year before his own death. When he did tell his story, Everitt said the hangman miscalculated Lucas's weight. This was not the case, since Lucas lost about 50 pounds in jail. It is like Lucas had syphilis, which would have weakened his muscles, connective tissue and blood vessels, resulting in his near-decapitation. The awful way that Lucas died was a secret Everitt kept from his wife and son all those years.
ET: The Conservative party has made some noises about death penalty reinstatement and backed off supporting Canadian nationals on death row in the U.S. Are there any lessons today's policymakers ought to be learning from Canada's last hanging?
RH: Great question. First, anyone who thinks the subject of reinstatement won't continue to be debated is fooling themselves. Bringing back capital punishment is often mentioned when names like Clifford Olson or Paul Bernardo come up, or when there is a random killing of a young person who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There will always be those who believe that the death penalty is a deterrent, which I don't believe, for a number of reasons. The majority of us are law-abiding citizens, and few people - with the possible exception of a hit man - don't get up the morning and think, "I'm going to kill someone today." What often happens instead is some fool gets drunk, gets into an argument with another drunk, and punches him until he falls and bleeds to death. Is the death penalty a deterrent in that case? Being drunk isn't an excuse, but was the man or woman's intent to commit murder? In some instances, the reminder of capital punishment might stop someone from pulling his trigger aimed at a police officer, if they know that that move will result in their own life being taken.
If there's anything to be learned from the lessons of the past, it is that there is often considerable doubt about a man's guilt or innocence, despite DNA evidence and expert testimony. For every monster like Paul Bernardo there is a Guy Paul Morin, a David Milgaard, and most recently, William Mullins-Johnson, who was convicted largely on the flawed testimony of a coroner. It cost Mullins-Johnson 12 years of his life, which he will never get back. The same can't be said for earlier Canadian convictions, like that of Wilbert Coffin, who was hanged in 1956. I wouldn't trust the testimony of less than three independent experts in any one field if my life were on the line (one Canadian, one U.S., one European), and I certainly wouldn't expect a Canadian court to rely on anything less.
The Last to Die: Ronald Turpin, Arthur Lucas, and the End of Capital Punishment in Canada
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