Thursday 15 March 2012

March 16, 1876 - Part One

           The Hamilton Weekly Times coverage of the McConnell execution, , appeared after the daily Spectator. 
          On March 16, 1876, the Thursday after the execution Weekly Times readers, particularly in the rural districts, got their idea of what happened as described vividly by the Times reporter. Here is the complete coverage :
      "It cannot be other than a matter of congratulation to our inhabitants that for seventeen years past, or nearly so, they have not been called upon to read of our witness such solemn proceedings as occurred in the court yard of the County Goal at an early hour on Monday morning.
          The last time the citizens of Hamilton were shocked with the spectacle of a public execution (and  public , of course, executions were in those days) was in the year 1859. On Tuesday, the 6th of June, in that year, John Meehan, alias Mitchell, expiated upon a scaffold, erected in Prince’s Square, the penalty of his guilt for the murder of his paramour – a murder which, for inhuman britality, has few equals in the annals of crime in this or any other country.
          Meehan, it seems, had been residing in this city for some two years prior to the murder, and came from Toronto, putting up at a tavern then kept by one Mrs. Morden, on York street. It is said that he came out from Ireland about the year 1850, living his wife and family there. Taking up with the woman who afterwards passed for his wife, he moved from place to place, until, at Mrs. Morden’s, he and she disagreed, respecting the child which was the offspring of shame, and he, while in the act of shaving, on some slight provaction on the part of the woman, drew a razor and cut her throat almost from ear to ear, also inflicting a very serious wound on the back of the neck.
          After his conviction, Meehan regarded the matter in the coolest manner possible, and, as the reporter of the day puts it, “ his stolid indifference was the subject of general remark.” The name of his paramour was Elizabeth Welsh, and it is believed that the little girl with respect to whom the unfortunate affair occurred is married respectably and now living a few miles from this city.
          The execution of Meehan attracted an immense crowd to the Prince’s Square, and if the hour had not been set at seven o’clock no less than several thousand would have witnessed it; as it was, fully three thousand congregated about the jail and Court house.
                                      THE MURDER OF NELSON MILLS
          On the morning of Wednesday, the 5th of January of the present year, a murder which has no parallel in the history of our country occurred in open day upon one of our public streets, and the remembrance of the circumstance is so well known that it is not necessary to repeat them at length.
          Michael McConnell, a butcher in the James street market, was the tenant, on Concession street, of Mr. Nelson Mills; the former refused to pay his rent on the plea that his landlord was lax in placing a fence between his property and that of his neighbour. Some time elapsed, and Mr. Mills, after repeatedly asking for the rent, placed the matter in the hands of the bailiff. When that officer was put in possession, Mrs. McConnell walked down to the James Street Market and informed her husband of the circumstance.
                                      THE MURDER
          McConnell, on hearing of Mr. Mills’ action, proceeded to sharpen his knife, at once hurried from the stall in a highly excited state, and, in the presence of several in the market, remarked, “ I will soon fix him.” He was followed by Mrs. McConnell, who, apprehensive that he would inflict injury upon some one, accompanied him to the house occupied by Mr. Mills. On his arrival there, he ascertained that Mr. Mills was not at home, but soon afterwards that gentleman made his appearance, and, McConnell, producing a butcher’s knife (which he had concealed up to this time in his coat sleeve) drew it upon Mr. Mills in the most brutal manner, and stabbed him several times in the body. It is unnecessary to give further particulars of that horrible deed which is so fresh in the mind of the public, and we only hope that we will never be called up as public journalists to chronicle the like again.
                                      THE TRIAL
          The prisoner was before the last assizes, Judge Moss presiding, and received a fair and impartial trial. Mr. John Crerar ably defended him. Throughout this he maintained the most stolid indifference, and, at the time of arrest, his appearance at the death bed of his victim, his meeting with the coroner’s jury, and the final scene which we witnessed this morning, he conducted himself with the same calmness of demeanour.
                                      THE PRISONER
          McConnell is a small man, about five feet four inches in height. He is a native of Glasgow, Scotland, and for the last four or five years, has occupied a stall at the James street market, but has always been noted for his eccentric disposition. It has been understood that he and the members of his household could seldom agree. Forty years had scarcely passed over his brow, and his expression is certainly one of the most peculiar we have ever seen.
                                      THE DEMEANOUR OF THE PRISONER
          McConnell slept soundly during the night and ate a moderate breakfast. The Revs. Messrs. Smith, Fletcher and Little, visited him in his cell, and just prior to the fatal moment, the Sheriff, representatives of the press, and others, were admitted. The condemned man shook hands cordially with our reporter, and, hoped that a certain remark made by him (McC) yesterday, would not be harshly received. Then , in a disconnected manner, he said, “ I am about to be the victim of something I never planned. Is it not a good thing to be blessed with presence of mind just now ? They may overcome me with muscular power, but not in mental strength. I am the victim of circumstances; I am not a man who worked for this.”
                                      PINIONING OF THE PRISONER
          The Rev. J. C. Smith then urged the unfortunate  man to pray, saying, “Let this prayer be in your heart, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’ ” The prisoner then said, “He will be merciful.” (Here the executioner, masked, walked along the corridor, and, entering the cell, pinioned McConnell, who, with wonderful coolness, placed his arms in the proper position and underwent the trying ordeal of being fastened with the utmost nonchalance ) Seeing Mr. William Smith, bailiff, approaching, he remarked : “Mr. Smith, a little moderation on your part would have saved two lives – would have saved both of us,” He shook hands with Smith, who remarked that he had done nothing but his duty, but was extremely sorry for the result.
          The Sheriff then requested McConnell to leave his cell. He immediately complied, and marched with a firm step, through the corridor, accompanied by the Revs. J.C. Smith, J. H. Fletcher and J. Little.
                                      McCONNELL’S SPEECH
          The murderer, then, in a cool and collected manner, advanced to the front of the platform and , on being asked by the Sheriff if he had anything to say, delivered the following speech :
          “It was not my intention to say a word, but since I see so many here, I think I am justified on this solemn occasion in expressing a few of my sentiments. I am place here in a very solemn position, which I say from my heart out I never deserved. I never wrought for it one way or another, and if I am the murderer of Nelson Mills, I never planned or contrived it. I was drawn into a snare from beginning to end. If a little moderation had been shown on Mills’ part, it would have saved both of us. I had been his tenant for four-and-a-half years. Fourteen dollars was the full amount, and he knew I was worth more than that. If he had given me even a week, it would have saved all the trouble. That is the sum and substance of the matter. I lost my temper. I hope from my soul out, it will be a warning to all the men of Hamilton to exercise a little moderation in all their transactions. I have no hard feelings in going to my doom. I am quite cheerful. I hope I leave no enemies behind me."
                                      LAST SCENE OF THE FEARFUL DRAMA
          The prisoner then shook hands with all the ministers present, and affectionately kissed the Rev. Mr. Smith. He shook hands also with the Sheriff, the Deputy Sheriff, the Govenor and turnkeys of the jail, the representatives of the press, and the hangman, remarking to the latter, “I do not know you, but I forgive you.” He then knelt on the platform and the hangman adjusted the black cap. Directly the prisoner knelt, he commenced praying, saying “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. Be with me. I hope that when I depart from this you will take me to be happy forever more. Stay with me, Lord Jesus, and keep me. Thou knowest I am not guilty of this awful crime. Oh, poor McConnell, poor McConnell!” The rope was then adjusted, the unfortunate man requesting that the hangman draw it a little tighter. The Rev. J.C. Smith then offered a prayer, after which he repeated the Lord’s prayer. McConnell and all responding Just as the words, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” were said, the bolt was drawn, and without a struggle, Michael McConnell was launched into eternity, having paid the full penalty of the awful crime which he had committed. Death must have been instantaneous, as after the fall, the unfortunate man scarcely moved. The drop was fully eleven feet.
          After hanging for about fourteen minutes, McConnell was pronounced by the jail surgeon, Dr. Rosebrugh, to be dead and the body was cut down and conveyed into the jail.
`On the black cap being removed, there was no sign of struggle on his face, and it was evident that death must have been instantaneous. The eyes were only partly closed, the mouth firm set, and the lips tinged with a slight froth. The hands were slightly clenched but not in apparent pain. Drs. Rosebrugh, Mullin and O’Neil examined the body and all were of the opinion that the neck was instantly broken.
                                      (From the Globe)
                                      WAS McCONNELL INSANE ?
Is a question that has very frequently been asked in Hamilton since his name came into prominence through the unfortunate tragedy which ended on Monday. The question is answered by many with a very decided, “No,” while others, including several doctors, answer with an equally strong affirmative. A capital punishment is not at any time a pleasant subject for contemplation, but its disagreeable associations are rendered doubly disagreeable by any doubt as to the sanity of the victim. Whether such doubts are really entertained by all who express them in regard to McConnell, it is, of course, difficult to say, but certain it is that several of those who knew him best assert most positively that the man was mentally sound. Leaving the opinion of experts out of the case altogether, the belief expressed by one of the clergymen who have been attending McConnell since his imprisonment to the Globe reporter will, perhaps, coincide pretty closely with the judgement of most who have paid attention to McConnell’s appearance, manner and conversation. The Rev. gentleman, in reply to the question whether he believed from his intercourse with McConnell that he was a sane man, morally responsible for his actions, replied : “I believe the man was morally, though not intellectually, insane. He always affirmed to me positively that he had not intended to murder Mr. Mills; that it was the violence of his temper which was to blame, and that, therefore, he was not be held responsible for the consequences.” The Rev. gentleman stated further that during the past few weeks the prisoner had, in a general way, acknowledged that he was a sinner, but did not seem to connect this with his great crime. When his wife visited him at first, he had manifested no feeling towards her except a temporary ebullition of anger because she wept so much. On subsequent visits, however, he was gentler, and before died, entreated the minister to see that she and the family were provided for, and that the latter were brought up to attend church and Sabbath School.
                                      THE INQUEST
          At three o’clock Tuesday afternoon, a jury of inquest was summoned before Coroner White, and assembled at the Jail.
          After the evidence of Sheriff McKellar, with regard to the murderer, and that of the Governor of the Jail, and two outsiders who know the deceased and witnessed his execution, the inquest was adjourned until eight o’clock in order that the medical testimony might be received.
          At eight o’clock the inquest was resumed.
          JOHN WELLINGTON Rosebrugh, M.D., testified : Am Surgeon to the County Jail ; knew the prisoner Michael McConnell; saw him shortly after he was committed to jail for murder ; he was then in a good state of health ; he has been under my constant observation from that time until today ; it was my duty to be present and witness the execution ; at the request of the Sheriff, I advised the hangman as to the carrying out of the details of the execution, and, in accordance with the recommendation of Dr. Houghton, of Ireland, the hangman was instructed to “suspend” the prisoner so that his death would take place with the least possible suffering ; his weight being only 138 pounds, the drop was made ten feet, and the knot of the rope was placed under the chin, so that the shock came directly on the vertebrae, the result being instantaneous death, and without any suffering ; there were only two or three slight inspirations without muscular movement. At three o’clock this afternoon – assisted by Drs. Mullin and Malloch – I made a post mortem examination of the body ; rigor mortis was only partial ; the body was in a well-nourished condition ; it apparently weighed about 135 or 140 pounds, as stated by himself on his admission to the jail. The body lying on the table measured five feet three inches. There was great lividity and congestion of the head and neck and an abrasion on the left side about four inches in length, and a shorter one above and parallel to it, about a half inch in length, both evidently caused by the rope ; there was also an abrasion of the scalp about the centre of the top of the head, which was made yesterday by himself, by running and projecting his head against the wall of the cell ; this was about two inches in length and half an inch in width, and only superficial. There was a catatrix or scar on the forehead commencing in the centre of the supercilliary ridge extending upwards and outwards to the left side over the frontal eminence, two inches and a half in length, half an inch below and parallel with this was an elevated curved ridge of bone two inches in length. Upon making an incision through the scalp, it was found full of dark fluid blood. Upon removing the calvarium (skull cap) the dura mater  was found adhering in many places, particularly on the left side. The brain was taken out and weighed fifty-three ounces. There was no depression of the internal table of the frontal bone, opposite the elevated ridge, previously described. The bone at that point was thinner than natural, and appeared to be somewhat wasted as if absorption had taken place to some extent. Upon examining the neck, there was an extravasation of blood under the integument, and rupture of the sternomasfoid muscle on the left side. The second vertebrae was fractured through the right superior articulating process, near its posterior border, and the left lamina was fractured posterior to the left superior articulating process : both fractures extendedinto the vertebral formana ; there was some displacement between the second and third vertebrae ; the heart was examined, and the right side was found full of dark fluid blood, the left side empty and contracted ; the brain was subsequently examined and nothing abnormal found excepting some congestion. The immediate cause of death was the fracture of the spinal column of the neck at the second vertebrae. During the ten weeks that the deceased was under my observation, the question of his sanity or insanity has been a perplexing one to me ; during most of the time my conviction was that the man was insane ; again, from time to time, I have been in doubt : there was no acting on his part, no pretence, no volunteering of complaints, and only be dexterous cross-questioning could I get him to tell how he felt. In that way, I ascertained that he suffered from a continuos bad, indescribable unnatural feeling in his head , amounting at times to intense agony. Taking this and his whole bearing from beginning to end, since his imprisonment, into consideration, I am unable to dismiss from my mind that the man was insane.
          A.E. MALLOCH, M.D., corroborated the evidence of the last witness with regard to the end of the post mortem examination.
          The Coroner’s jury returned the following verdict : - “That the deceased Michael McConnell, being a prisoner in the Hamilton jail, came to his death on the 14th day of March, in 1876, at the prison in the jail yard, by being hung by the neck, in accordance with the due sentence of the court, passed upon him on February the 1st ult.
          The remains of McConnell were interred in the Jail Yard in a coffin containing quick lime.

“The Last of McConnell”
          The stern edict, that demands life for life, was carried into effect today, and McConnell is now, with his awful crimes as well as his excuses for its commission, before the Tribunal that cannot err. In so far as it is Christian to forgive and die at peace with all men, he met his fate as a Christian, for he forgave all. In so far as it is manly and heroic to meet death with a brave front and undaunted spirit, he met death like a man. In so far as it is heathenish to feel no regret for having committed a brutal murder, he died like a heathen, for he had no word of penitence for his crime or sorrow for the victim of his unbridled passion. Indeed, to the last, he held his case to be a warning to creditors to be moderate with their debtors, rather than a warning to debtors not to murder the creditors who press their claims by legal methods. His disregard of the value of human life was shown by his almost complete indifference as to either Mr. Mills’ death or his own death, while he held it to be a very serious matter indeed that his goods should have been seized for overdue rent. McConnell would have made a splendid savage, for he united in himself the qualities of which they are most proud : Implacable as regards the man by whom he thought he had been injured and whom, in revenge for the supposed injury, he had slain; tolerant and forgiving to those, in subjection to law, the instruments of his own death; and nerved to meet that death without any sign of flinching or fear.
          We think every case of capital punishment must have two opposing effects on the public mind. One is the creation of a feeling of sympathy for the murderer which tends to override the sympathy for the murdered. Up to the day on which McConnell was found guilty and sentenced to death, men thought most of the crime, of the man whom he had murdered, and of the pain and sorrow he had caused by his savage act. The one so cruelly slain then occupied the first thought and received all the symapthy of the public, while for the murderer there was nothing but the desire that he should meet with the fate he merited. But once the sentence was pronounced, the crime and the man already in his grave were in part forgotten, and the man doomed to die so soon, and by so horrible a death, came to the front. Very few, indeed, doubted that he deserved to die on the scaffold, but, though he had been the most hardened and cruel of human brutes, it was not in human nature to refuse him some degree of sympathy. There is in the certainty that at a given day and hour, a man in perfect health shall be robbed of his life, an element of horrible fascination that make the man a the centre of popular attraction and thought, and the strong natural love of live we all have forces an intense sympathy with what he feelings are supposed to be under such circumstances. Perhaps, in scarcely a house in the city or neighbourhood but has been heard often during the last few weeks, the expression, “what must McConnell be thinking now,” and even those most convinced that he ought to die, have been unable to refrain from some expression of commiseration for his supposed mental agony at the prospect before him. We say “supposed” for in his case it now looks as if all that sympathy had been wasted and that more pain had been felt by others for him than he in his stoicism felt for himself. But that sympathy is created in every such case whether deserved or not, and it may be plausibly be urged as a reason why capital punishment should be done away with. The punishment that for even a time causes the atrocity of the original crime to be forgotten, and transfers popular sympathy, even in part, from the murdered to the murderer is not, in that respect at least, doing its proper work. No punishment is doing its proper work when it creates a sympathy for a hardened criminal and causes his crime to be forgotten in his real or imaginary sufferings. Imprisonment for life would not create any such sympathy, though as a punishment, it would entail a longer and greater suffering than any sudden death on the scaffold. If the day does come when the former shall be substituted for the latter, it will be - judging from the case under notice – a greater relief to the public than to the stolid murderer.
          But another effect produced argues in favour of capital punishment – that is, it brings out in full force the feeling that holds life a sacred thing. When a coming execution shows that men cannot think without a shudder of even a murderer being robbed of his life, it develops a feeling that ought to be a safeguard against te shedding of blood. The law of God, the law of man, the instinct of self-preservation, all demanded the life of McConnell; yet even that worthless and forfeited life was sacrificed to the just demand of law with more pain than satisfaction. One would think that when such can develop under circumstances, on behalf of a guilty life, it ought to be strong enough to protect innocent life from destruction. To a considerable extent it probably does, though there remains the thought that, after all, the sanctity of human life may be taught by subjecting even a murderer to the death of a dog.
          Leaving the arguments for and against to one side, it may be safely said that not one of all who witnessed the execution today but entertains the feeling (whether a reasonable one or not) that the scaffold is an institution that well may go the way of the rack and thumb screw. This feeling can be held while still believing that as it does exist, and the law still is as it is, no man ever more fully deserved his fate than the man who met it today with such courage and savage stoicism.

1 comment:

  1. Al,
    I was going to make a joke about your ancestors until I read the entire blog. It is a great indictment of capital punishment. This is the second time I have read your blog off Facebook and have tried to subscribe again. I hope it works. Looking forward to seeing you soon.