Tuesday 13 March 2012

March 14, 1876

Full Spectator coverage of the execution of Michael McConnell, March 14, 1876 – No further comment necessary…

This morning the last dark scene in one of the darkest tragedies that ever occurred in Hamilton was enacted, Michael McConnell suffering the extreme penalty of the law for the murder of Mr. Nelson Mills.
                             The Murder
          The circumstances of the frightful murder are no doubt fresh in the minds of all our readers, but as the details may not be known to some, it will not be out of place to refer briefly to them here. Michael McConnell was a tenant of the late Nelson Mills, occupying a house and ten acres of land on Concession street in this city. McConnell had fallen into arrears for rent, some $14, and refused to pay it unless some improvements were made on the property. The rent, not being forthcoming, the late Mr. Mills on the morning of the 5th of January last, placed a distress warrant in the house. McConnell at the time was in his stall in the market engaged in his business as a butcher. The news was conveyed to him by his wife, who told him that a distress warrant had been served in their house. McConnell pulled off his apron, pulled on his coat, and sharpening a large butcher’s knife, slipped it up his sleeve and walked out of the Market, muttering that he would see who was “boss” or language to that effect. He went straight to Mr. Mills’ house, on the southwest corner of Queen and George streets, and rang the bell. A colored servant girl, who opened the door, was asked if Mr. Mills was in. The girl replied that she did not know, but would ascertain. She then retired to an inner room to ask her mistress where Mr. Mills was. Unfortunately, at this moment, Mr. Mills was coming along Queen street from the south toward his own door. Seeing him, McConnell advanced towards him, ejaculating, “Here he is.” They met a few yards to the south of the iron railing in front of Mr. Mills’ residence on Queen street (west side of the street). According to the evidence of the only witness who saw their meeting, McConnell at once drew his knife and stabbed Mr. Mills on the head. The latter fled across the street in an oblique direction until he reached the southeast corner of Queen and George streets where he fell. Here McConnell, who had closely pursued him, inflicted several wounds upon him while he was prostrate. Mr. Mills rose again and again broke away from his murderer, running westward up George street, pursued by the determined assailant again, when nearly opposite his own side gate on George street, he fell again, and again was furiously assailed. Here he received several stabs, and it is thought that the fatal wound in the stomach was inflicted. With the infliction of these wounds, the fury of McConnell seemed satisfied, and he stopped in his bloody work. Mrs. Mills by this time had reached the street, and she and the colored girl helped the wounded man into the house. McConnell walked coolly from the spot, wiping his knife on his sleeve, and on the corner of the street met Mr. Gage, the father-in-law of the wounded man, to whom he said, “ He did it to me, and now I’ve done it to him.” The news of the murder spread like wildfire through the city, and within a few moments the authorities were on his trace. McConnell walked straight to his house on Concession street, and while in the act of washing the blood off his hands, he was arrested by detective McPherson. Police Magistrate Cahill was sent for to take the wounded man’s testimony. It was very short, and merely stated that he had received his wounds at the hands of Michael McConnell. This occurred on Wednesday morning, the 5th of January, and on the next Sunday morning at eight o’clock, Mr. Mills breathed his last. A jury was summoned and a coroner’s inquest held under Dr. White at Palm’s tavern on the corner of Bay and King streets. Evidence of witnesses was taken there and the body viewed by the jury. The body was found to be terribly cut, the head being literally hacked and checkered with the knife. One mortal wound extended through the lung and in another wound the knife had twice penetrated the stomach. Dr. Campbell, of Toronto, a distinguished physician, made the post mortem examination. He gave it as his opinion that death was caused by the wound in the stomach giving scientific reasons which would be superfluous to reproduce here. McConnell was present during the inquest and no remorse whatever, cross questioning the witnesses with extreme readiness and never once denying his guilt. His conduct awakened a feeling of disgust in the breast of everyone present and the jury brought in a verdict in accordance with the facts to the effect that the deceased Mr. Mills came to his death from wounds inflicted by the prisoner Michael McConnell. The terrible deed sent a thrill of horror through the entire community, and men were shocked and would hardly think that a fellow human being would be guilty of such a crime.
          Michael McConnell was tried for the murder at the spring Assizes, before Judge Moss. The interest excited by the trial was very great, and large numbers were unable to gain admittance to the Court Room on each day of the trial. The evidence adduced was conclusive. The prisoner was defended, with great ability, by Mr. John Crerar of this city. The principle plea set forth was the one of insanity, but it did not find acceptance by either court or jury. On the evening of the 2nd of February, the jury pronounced a verdict of “Guilty” in a hushed courtroom, after an absence of thirty-five minutes. A few minutes afterwards Judge Moss sentenced the unfortunate man to be taken to the place whence he came, and there to be detained until the 14th of March, then to be taken to the place of execution and hung by the next until he was dead. The conduct of McConnell since has been remarkable in the extreme. On the night he was sentenced, he endeavoured to strangle himself but failed. He became morose and sullen, and on the following Tuesday attempted to starve himself, never tasting food until the next Friday evening, when nature took her way, and the doomed man ate. He has never shown any remorse, but has behaved in a most insolent and determined manner. His wife and family have visited him frequently, to whom he has imparted very sensible instructions and advice, but never once saying that they bring a tear to his eye. Yesterday, he was visited by the Rev. Mr. Little, of this city, to whom he said that he considered the murder of the late Nelson Mills was the greatest moral act ever committed in Hamilton.

The morning broke fresh and clear over the city of Hamilton; not a cloud was in the sky and the sun shone quite obscured on the last that Michael McConnell would see on earth. At an early hour, large numbers of people gathered about the gate of the jail but as the air was sharp and the authorities insisted that no one could get in save those bearing a pass, and as there was no hope of seeing the execution from the outside, they quietly dispersed. As the time for the execution drew near, those bearing passes commenced to arrive in considerable numbers and the rooms in the front part of the jail were soon filled with an anxious crowd. At half-past seven, the executioner, accompanied by the Governor of the jail, passed through the main room and entered a side closet where he was securely masked. McConnell went to bed last night at ten o’clock and slept quite soundly for six hours. Three turnkeys remained with him during the night, as it was feared he would make another attempt at suicide. The doomed man arose about four o’clock, and remarked to his keepers that he had slept soundly, and that he was quite prepared to meet his fate. He washed himself carefully and then sat down upon the bed and became moody and silent. He ate but very little breakfast and appeared to have no appetite. The Rev. Mr. Little arrived at the jail at seven o’clock and was shortly afterwards conducted to the cell. The Rev. Mr. Smith, of St. Paul’s Church, and the Rev. Mr. Fletcher of the MacNab Street Presbyterian Church, arrived shortly afterwards, and were also conducted to the cell of the unfortunate man. They remained with him for some time, and engaged in devotional exercises. At quarter to eight, the representatives of the press were allowed into the corridor. McConnell was alone in the cell in company with a turnkey. The door of the cell lay quite open, and the doomed man could have a view of a piece of landscape lit up by the glorious sunshine. McConnell was engaged in dressing himself when he discovered his visitors. He recognised them at once, and smiling pleasantly he wished them a good morning and shook hands with two of them. In reply to an enquiry he said that he had slept quite soundly during the night for six hours and added that he had eaten but very little during the last three days as he was endeavouring to weaken himself. After a short silence, he said suddenly that, no man in Canada deserved a better fate than he did. At this moment, the executioner approached, heavily masked in black, with a rope hanging over his arm. McConnell did not see him until he was quite close to him, and then shrank back into the cell, crying “ My God! My God!”  He immediately recovered his self-possession, however, and as the executioner was pinioning his arms, he looked over his shoulder with a smile and said to him, “Well, poor fellow, I forgive you from the bottom of my heart, “ and then suddenly added, “ no man on earth ever deserved a better fate than I do.” He offered no resistance, and appeared perfectly at ease. He seemed in perfect health, his face being slightly flushed, and his eyes bright and intelligent. He showed no agitation while being bound, but said, smilingly, to those about him, “ I have one consolation, and that is, that I am so well able to bear up in this my last hour.”
The executioner appeared to understand his duty thoroughly, and went about his work with great deliberation and coolness.
Bailiff Smith was present, and on seeing him, McConnell said, “Oh! If you had used greater moderation this would not have happened.”
Mr. Smith turned to him and said; “I did not intend for you to do any harm, McConnell, and I forgive you.”
McConnell clutched his hand warmly and smiled. As the time approached for him to be led forth, the clergymen present came forward, and shook hands with him. He clutched the Rev. Mr. Smith’s hand and held it tight for some time, and then whispered, “Tell my wife that I thought of her. God Knows I love her and the children. She had more opportunity of knowing and judging me than others and she blames me less.”
Mr. Smith shook him by the hand once more and said:
“Goodbye, McConnell, and let the last words on your lips be, ‘God be merciful on me a sinner.’ ”.
McConnell then in a broken voice said that he was not responsible for what he had done, and that it was his passion that did it. He was then requested to rise, upon which those present came forward and shook hands with him. The executioner then tightened the rope upon which the wretched man exclaimed, “Poor McConnell – poor McConnell.” Those present bade a last farewell to the unfortunate and the procession moved out, a turnkey walking beside McConnell and the executioner following close behind. The latter individual never spoke a word. As he passed down the narrow stairs the doomed man murmured once, in a low voice, “Poor McConnell – poor McConnell,” He seemed to dread his executioner and avoided his sight, but when they reached the lower flat he looked over his shoulder and murmured, “I forgive you, poor fellow.”

          The Procession to the Scaffold

At a couple of minutes past eight o’clock, a policeman came into the yard where the spectators were assembled and announced that McConnell was coming, whereupon two lines were formed from the door of egress to the foot of the scaffold. A moment after the solemn procession issued from the door, headed by Sheriff McKellar and the Rev. J. C. Smith, following whom were the Rev. Mr. Little and Gov. Henery, of the jail. Then came McConnell, led between two policemen, his arms bound behind him. Next came the hangman, a well-built fellow about 5 feet, 10 inches in height, clothed in the garb of a prisoner, and with his head completely covered by a mask of black crepe, which was surmounted by an ordinary cloth cap. The rear was brought up by a number of prison officials, reporters, etc.
McConnell’s Appearance

The condemned man was bareheaded, and he walked through the yard with a firm and steady step. It was only as McConnell made his appearance that the people assembled began to show that they realised the dread nature of the proceedings they had come to witness. Then every head was uncovered, and a silence deep as death prevailed as Michael McConnell marched on to his death. McConnell was attired in a black coat and black pantaloons with a colored vest and a white collar on. His appearance was greatly changed from what it was at the time of the murder. His beard and moustache had been allowed to grow and he looked somewhat fleshier than formerly. Not a sign of nervousness or fear was to be seen in his countenance as he calmly looked upon the bystanders, and he walked up on the scaffold with as much apparent coolness as if engaged in some ordinary affair of every day life.

                   The Scaffold
Was erected against the north wall of the yard on the east side of the jail. It was simply a square platform, supported at the back by iron pins, driven into the wall and in front by two posts. There was a stair erected to the platform, this latter being as usual painted black. As soon as the condemned and those who accompanied him had taken their places on the scaffold, Sheriff McKellar stepped forward and performed what was evidently to him a very painful duty, that of reading the warrant of execution. This done, he informed McConnell that if he had anything to say he might do so. While the Sheriff was engaged in reading the warrant, McConnell had stood looking down with no sign of perturbation, no evidence that he had any distinct idea of the terrible position in which he found himself placed

                   The Dying Speech.

When given permission to speak, McConnell stepped to the front of the scaffold and addressed the assembled audience as follows:
GENTLEMEN: It was not my intention to say a word on this occasion, but seeing so many present I feel that I am justified in saying something. I am placed today in a very solemn position and I am now going to my death, but I solemnly assert that I am not guilty of the murder of Nelson Mills. I never planned the death of Mr. Mills and my killing him was not premeditated. I was the victim of circumstances, and I lost my temper and the deed was done, but I hold that I am innocent of his murder. Mr. Mills was too hard on me. I had been his tenant for about four years, and when I was only two months behind with my rent he set the bailiffs on me to drag me to pieces. Had he acted with less harshness, the fatal occurrence would never have happened. I hope it will be a warning to all the people of Hamilton in the future to act differently from the way Nelson Mills did and to exercise a little moderation in all their transactions. I have no hard feelings against anyone. I leave the world without a grudge against any living being.

A terrible spectacle it was indeed a man about to be launched into eternity, and uttering no word of contrition or sorrow for the terrible crime of which he had been guilty, no word of hope as to his future state, and the feelings of the onlookers found vent in exclamations of wonder and horror. After he had finished speaking, McConnell stepped back and knelt down on the trap door.

          The Last Act
The hangman then proceeded to do his work. He first tied the legs of the doomed man tightly together and then adjusted the black cap over his head. As the last ray of light was thus shut out from his gaze forever, McConnell seemed to realise for the first time that he was going to die. Then in a choking, sobbing voice, which drew tears from many around, he exclaimed, “Oh, Lord, be with me; oh, Jesus, stay with me; Thou knowest I am innocent;” and then as if bemoaning his untimely end, he said “ Poor McConnell, Poor McConnel, you deserved a better fate.” After this, as the rope was being placed around his neck, he said to the hangman, in his natural tones, “Pull it tight,” and as if his request had not been properly complied with, in a second after, he repeated, “Pull it a little tighter.” All the arrangements having been completed and the hangman having taken his station at the back of the platform, the Rev. Mr. Smith engaged in a prayer. During this, McConnell remained perfectly still, and when the words “deliver us from evil” had been uttered the trap was sprung like a flash, the body dropped through the opening, and in a few seconds it was all over. There was scarcely a struggle after the body fell, the neck having been broken. One or two gasping respirations there were, and then the body hung limp at the end of the rope. The knot had been placed under the chin, but in the descent it had turned round until it reached the back of the neck,, and as the body hung, the head was bent forward on the breast. After the body had been hanging about three minutes, Dr. Roseburgh felt the pulse and announced that death had already taken place. After the lapse of a few minutes more, the remains were taken down and carried into one of the lower rooms of the jail, where they were laid on a rough table, to await the Coroner’s Inquest.

                               Appearance of the Body
          The black cap having been taken off, the ghastly features of the dead man were exposed to view. The face was not swollen, the eyes were not protruded from the sockets, and, apart from a purplish hue about the nose and cheeks, it looked like that of a person who had met his death in a much easier manner. After the body had been viewed by the majority of those who were present at the execution, it was covered with a sheet, and then, it being plain that the sad tragedy was over, the crowd dispersed.

                             The Inquest
After the execution, Dr. White empanelled a jury which was summoned to appear at the jail for the holding of an inquest at 3:30 o’clock p.m., after which the body is to be interred in the jail yard, a course which is rendered necessary now by an Act of Parliament, which has abolished the old system of allowing the relatives of the deceased to take the body away for burial.

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