Criminal Law

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Putting Trials on Trial

Putting Trials on Trial

Sexual Assault and the Failure of the Legal Profession
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Drop Dead

Drop Dead

A Horrible History of Hanging in Canada
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Celebrating Confederation: Three Hangings in the First Year
Modiste Villebrun and Sophie Boisclair were desperately in love. The burly lumberjack and his paramour yearned to spend the rest of their lives together. There was just one problem. They were both married — to other people. What were they to do? They lived in the small, conservative French Catholic community of St-Zéphirin, Quebec. In 1867, divorce would have been inconceivable. The church saw to that. They just had to come up with another strategy.
They chose murder.
The first results seemed quite promising. Granted, there were some whispers in the community when Villebrun’s wife, who had reportedly been in excellent health just a few days earlier, died suddenly. The gossip came to nothing, and the lovers were emboldened to press on. Things changed radically, however, when Boisclair’s husband, François-Xavier Jutras, died soon after. To the plotters’ great misfortune, Jutras had fallen acutely ill on a few occasions prior to his death. Suffering from convulsions and abdominal and neck pains, he consulted a doctor. The physician became very, very suspicious when his patient died. An autopsy showed that Jutras’s demise had been caused by strychnine poisoning.
The lovers were accused of murdering Jutras. They were tried separately, each of them by judge and twelve-man jury, in the nearby town of Sorel. By this time, people were paying a lot more attention to Villebrun and Boisclair’s goings-on. As the Crown attorney said in his opening address at Villebrun’s trial: “There is no doubt that the two accused committed the crime of adultery. It does not necessarily follow that a person who forgets God’s commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ will forget the one that says ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but when you are on the downward slope of vice, you do not know where you will end up.”
The trial took ten days, but the jury needed only five minutes to find Villebrun guilty of murder. And the only possible sentence was death by hanging.
Then it was Boisclair’s turn. She, too, was found guilty, but before the judge could pronounce her penalty, she dropped a bombshell.
“Sir,” she told the clerk of the court, “I do not want the sentence of death to be delivered at the present time, because I am pregnant.” Sure enough, as was customary, a specially convened jury of married women and a court-appointed doctor examined her and confirmed her pregnancy.
As Jeffrey Pfeifer and Kenneth Leyton-Brown point out in Death by Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions, the two murderers should have been executed together, which might have led to a reprieve for both of them until after the child was born. In the end, Villebrun’s execution went ahead as planned, and on May 3, 1867, he was led to the scaffold alone. Ten thousand people turned up at his public execution. In a weird twist, Boisclair also witnessed the event, albeit reluctantly. The window of her cell overlooked the square where the gallows had been set up.
The British parliament passed the British North America Act creating the Dominion of Canada in March 1867. Even though this execution took place two months before actual Confederation, it is, somewhat confusingly, officially listed as the first hanging in the new nation.
Boisclair escaped the noose. When her baby was born several months later, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the recommendation of the minister of justice. She was locked away for twenty years in the Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario.
Sophie Boisclair was described by a surgeon as “of unsound mind” when she was finally released into the care of her son in 1887. Time has fogged so many details of these early cases, but how tempting it is to speculate that this was the same child whose birth had rescued her from the gallows in 1867.

Ethan “Saxey” Allen was an ex-convict originally from Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit Post described him as “a hard character … always found with bad associates” and “rather notorious as a rough and a gambler.” He became the leader of a four-man gang that robbed banks and plundered businesses along the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario, always one step ahead of the frustrated police.
The Allen Gang’s luck ran out in the early hours of September 22, 1867; so did that of Cornelius Driscoll. Driscoll, employed for twenty-four years at the Morton Brewery and Distillery in Kingston, Ontario, had started working as their night watchman just two weeks previously.
The gang broke into Morton’s with sledgehammers and crowbars in search of $2,500, which they knew was locked away in the safe. When Driscoll came to investigate the noise, Allen killed him with a sledgehammer. Early the following morning, a local resident found the dead man lying in the distillery yard, and the hunt was on. The gang members fled with their loot, but they were tracked down and arrested in a hotel in Watertown, New York.
The criminals were brought back to Kingston and tried at the Frontenac County Court House. Allen was convicted of murder, although the jury added a recommendation for mercy. The judge did not share the jurors’ merciful sentiments, informing Allen that he held out no hope for pardon. Two of Allen’s accomplices got nine- and ten-year sentences in the Kingston Penitentiary for manslaughter.
The Detroit Post said at the time that the murder “was one of the most cold blooded and brutal affairs of the kind on record,” but it does look as though Allen had a change of heart before he went to the gallows at the Frontenac County Gaol behind the courthouse on December 11. Asked by the sheriff if he had anything to say, he replied: “No, nothing at all. Only I hope that my fate will be a warning to others.” He refused to have the customary black hood (called a “cap”) pulled over his head and, as the hangman pulled the bolt, he said “Lord, have mercy on me,” before dropping to his death.
Legend tells of a ghost that stalked the Morton Brewery and Distillery for many years thereafter. The spirit of Cornelius Driscoll, the watchman who was bludgeoned to death on that September night in 1867, continued to patrol the hallways, checking all the locks.

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