The Would-be Hangman

The Would-be Hangman

Posted on July 27 by Lorna Poplak in Non-fiction
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Capital punishment, or the execution of someone found guilty of a crime, dates back to the arrival of European explorers on Canadian shores. Historically, punishment for serious crimes included hanging, death by firing squad, and burning at the stake. But by the time the Dominion of Canada was established in 1867, one method was available for the capital crimes of murder, rape, and treason:  hanging.

In a letter published in The Globe in 1910, a Toronto resident describing himself as “an Englishman, 34 years old, strong and possessing all kinds of nerve,” announced that he wished to secure a position as assistant executioner in Canada.

A brawny body and strong nerves were a good start, but what else would this applicant have needed to qualify as a hangman in his adoptive country?

He certainly fulfilled the first and overriding requirement: you had to be a man. Other than victims and accused, everyone involved in the criminal justice system was male, from policemen to coroners to judges to members of the federal cabinet tasked with reviewing murder cases.

As a hangman, the hopeful candidate would also have required a basic understanding of the mathematics and physics of hanging. Hangmen had to calculate the drop or length of rope required for each hanging depending on the weight of the condemned person. These calculations were crucial: too short a drop and the individual might be strangled; too long, decapitated. And mistakes did happen. Arthur Ellis, Canada’s most prolific and famous hangman (and, coincidentally, the man The Globe letter writer hoped to assist), performed a career-ending execution in 1935. The rope used to hang Tommasina Teolis was way too long, and her head was severed from her body.

And what of the less tangible attributes that might have been required for the job? Great patience, for one. As executions generally took place at a jail near where the crime had been committed, the hangman would spend long, boring days travelling by road or rail from centre to centre. He would need a good memory, too. A hangman had to carry his own tools along with him — a black hood, for example, and leather straps to bind the arms and legs of the prisoner. If he forgot one of these necessary items, the execution might be agonizingly delayed.

Some skill as a disguise artist might have helped as well. The locals were often very unhappy when someone from their community went to the gallows. On occasion, they would vent their anger on the executioner, especially if the job had been bungled. So the novice hangman might choose to blacken his face or don a mask or a false moustache — and be ready to leave town in a hurry if things turned ugly.

With all these challenges, was the job really worth it? As reported in The Globe in 1912, Arthur Ellis was paid $75 per hanging in larger cities; in smaller centres the pay was $50. He complained bitterly that he was barely scraping out a living. So the wannabe hangman might well have ended up doing what many other cash-strapped executioners did: supplementing his income by cutting up used ropes and selling the lengths as souvenirs.

Lorna Poplak

Posted by Dundurn Guest on June 28, 2016
Lorna Poplak photo

Lorna Poplak

Lorna Poplak is a writer, editor, and researcher, with a fascination for the stories behind the facts of Canadian history. She lives in Toronto.