The final hours of the last two men executed in Canada - Macleans.ca

The final hours of the last two men executed in Canada

From the archives: At 12:02 AM on Dec. 11, 1962, Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas were hanged in Canada’s last execution. In 1965 Alexander Ross pieced together what happened in the killing room.

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    WHEN YOU WALK into death row at Toronto's Don Jail, it's a little like entering a maximum-security lavatory. There’s a wooden screen set up outside the entrance, so that other prisoners can’t see into the cramped corridor where they keep the men who are waiting to die. To get into this corridor — which is known around the jail as “Hospital Nine’’ — you must step around the screen and wait for the guard inside to unlock the iron-barred gate. Then you wait while he locks it, and then unlocks another set of bars, to let you into the corridor proper.

    The walls are a pale, institutional yellow, a silver-painted radiator is hissing in the corner, and at one end there’s a shower—no curtain, of course—where the condemned men are allowed to bathe twice a week during their wait for the hangman. Three bare electric lights are always burning, and the corridor is so narrow that when a visitor joins the two prison guards, who are always stationed inside, they have to step around each other like passengers on a bus. On one side of the corridor are two barred windows, placed high up so that all you can see is the sky. On the other side are the windowless cells, four of them, where the men sit and read, sit and play chess, sit and talk to the chaplain, stand up to pace for a while, sit down again to play some more chess . . . and wait for the end, sometimes for more than a year.

    It was shortly after suppertime on the evening of December 10, 1962, when a brusque Toronto lawyer named Walter Williston was admitted around the wooden screen, through the two sets of barred gates and into Hospital Nine for a final conference with his client, a fifty-four-year-old Negro from Detroit named Arthur Lucas. The word had come through from Ottawa that morning: the Diefenbaker cabinet, after careful consideration, had declined to commute Lucas’s death sentence; he and the man in the next cell, a twenty-cight-yearold man named Ronald Turpin, who had been convicted of killing a policeman, would hang together as scheduled, at one minute after midnight the following morning.

    Ronald Turpin, 28, found guilty of killing a policeman

    Arthur Lucas, 54, convicted of the underworld slaying of a suspected informer.

    Williston sat down on one of the guard’s wooden chairs and talked quietly through the bars to both men. He’d brought no news — the men had known since early afternoon that their last hope was gone — but he had a few final words nevertheless. He wanted the men to know that, in two appeal hearings and in his brief to Justice Minister Donald Fleming, he’d done his best. He also wanted them to know that perhaps — just perhaps — their deaths might not be wholly meaningless. Williston, who’d been to Ottawa the previous week, had reason to believe that capital punishment was on the way out in Canada.

    “If it’s any consolation to you,” he told Turpin and Lucas, “you may be the last men to hang in Canada.”

    Turpin, who had a wry sense of humor, snorted something like, “Some consolation!”

    Despite the irony, Williston’s prediction has been borne out. Lucas and Turpin were the seven hundredth and seven hundred and first criminals to he hanged in Canada since Confederation. At least twenty-five death sentences have been pronounced since then. But because of the cabinet’s increasing reluctance to hang criminals, none has been carried out.

    And now, with a free vote on the abolition of capital punishment scheduled in parliament for this fall (barring an election), it is possible that the Turpin-Lucas execution will become a legal landmark. If the death penalty is abolished, they may gain the posthumous consolation of being the last men ever to be hanged in Canada.

    Whatever decision parliament makes, it will not be an easy one. As the government’s choice of a free vote demonstrates, capital punishment is not one of those issues that can be brokered and dickered and horse-traded toward a consensus. This issue is a political rarity: a genuine question of individual conscience. For the first time in years, the Canadian public will witness the unaccustomed spectacle of our legislators actually making up their own minds.

    I he last time they addressed themselves to the problem was in 1961, when parliament amended the Criminal Code to distinguish between capital and noncapital murder. Earlier, the death penalty had been mandatory for all types of murder. Under the 1961 amendments, it is mandatory only when the murder was planned or deliberate; when it was committed in the course of certain violent crimes; when it was committed against prison staff or policemen; for treason; and for murder while attempting to commit piracy.

    I his time around, the MPs are as honestly divided on the issue as is the general public, and few parliamentary observers are willing to predict which way the vote will go — only that it will be close.

    The abolitionist forces are well organized. Eleven MPs or senators arc officers or directors of the recently formed Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. MPs favoring retention are divided between those who would retain the status quo, and those who would further limit the death penalty, but retain it for a few appalling crimes. Among this latter group, significantly, is Lucien Cardin, the new justice minister.

    As it always has, the Great Debate this year revolves around the question of whether the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. And as always, there is practically no objective evidence provine anything either way. All that statistics seem to demonstrate is that, in jurisdictions where the death penalty has been abolished, the crime rate either A) goes up, B) goes down, or C) stays about the same.

    Law-enforcement authorities, however, are hoping that parliament will vote against abolition. In a brief sent to every MP last February, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police expressed dismay at the government’s blanket commutation policy, and said the death penalty was the greatest safeguard the police possess in dealing with dangerous criminals.

    Although MPs found such arguments persuasive in 1956, when a Senate-Commons committee recommended retention, there seems to be less enchantment this year with the view that the best way to protect society against murderers is to hang them. Says John Matheson, the Liberal MP for Leeds, “Killing is a dangerously cheap way out of a difficulty and is unworthy of this generation genuinely searching for human dignity.“

    This feeling — a simple and growing reluctance to go around killing people—has been enhanced by several factors, including the uneasy suspicion that, in the past, we might have hanged a few of the wrong people. Although a painstaking Quebec royal commission confirmed last year that Wilbert Coffin did indeed kill three American hunters, a crime for which he was hanged in 1956, many people still persist in suspecting his innocence. Frank McGee, a former Conservative MP and an ardent abolitionist, has serious doubts about the guilt of Patrick Whelan, hanged in 1868 for the shooting of McGee s Father of Confederation great-uncle D'Arcy McGee. John Diefenbaker still isn't convinced that his client Alex Wysochan, hanged in 1930 for murdering his wife, really committed the crime. And in the mind of more than one legal authority who has studied the case, there is doubt that Arthur Lucas committed the double murder for which he was hanged in Don Jail. "I do not say that Lucas was innocent," says Walter Williston, his appeal lawyer, “but I believe there are serious doubts as to his guilt.”

    The private-member's bill to abolish capital punishment, introduced last June by A. Robert Temple (Liberal, Hastings South), is designed to make such doubts obsolete. Wherever the Criminal Code now specifies death penalty. Temple's bill substitutes life imprisonment as a “minimum punishment.” Even if reservations are added to lemple’s bill, the chances of your being hanged for a murder you commit tomorrow have never been slimmer. And at this writing. Williston’s prediction that Turpin and Lucas could be the last men to hang in Canada has never seemed more plausible.


    BUT HOW DID THEY HANG? Did they go blubbering to the gallows, or did they die like men? Was it a neat hanging, or did “John Ellis” botch the job (as the hangman assuredly did in a 1946 execution in BC—he miscalculated the drop and tore oil his client's head)? How did their execution affect the ollicials who. in the line of duty, had to witness it? These are not exactly irrelevant questions. For when all the pros and cons of deterrence, compassion and public policy have been debated, the basic question still faces us: does society’s protection demand that we perpetuate this awesome ritual? Knowing what a hanging is really like helps answer the question.

    The Turpin-Lucas hanging was not a pretty ceremony. But it should be borne in mind that, if anyone deserved to hang, it was the men who committed these crimes. Turpin, a slick little ferret of a man, twenty-eight years old, a foster-home inmate from the age of seven, and in-and-outer at various reform institutions since he was eleven, killed a Toronto policeman named Fred Nash. The constable had stopped Turpin’s panel truck on an east-end Toronto street early one morning in February 1962. Turpin, it quite accidentally turned out. had just finished a robbery. He had a gun with him and. when Nash stopped him, he used it. By the time witnesses arrived. Nash I lay dying on the pavement with three shots in his chest and another I two in his thigh. Turpin was wounded four times in the face, in each arm, and in one hand. The policeman's last words, as he lay in a pool of his own blood, were, “He shot me first."

    Lucas was another toser — a southern Negro who fled to a northern ghetto and made a Irving hustling dope, pimping and performing odd jobs for Detroit gangsters. His final assignment, according to evidence at the trial, was to drive to Toronto and murder a Negro named Therland Crater, with whom the Detroit underworld was displeased because of his habit of informing to the FBI. Although the evidence that convicted him was wholly circumstantial, a Toronto jury, two successive appeal courts and the Diefenbaker cabinet were persuaded that Lucas had driven to Toronto in November 1961, checked into a hotel, driven to Crater's roominghouse early in the morning, shot him four times and neatly slit his throat, also slit the throat of Crater's common-law wife Carol Newman, and then had driven back to Detroit.

    Both men were defended by Ross Mackay, a young Legal Aid lawyer who, according to one presiding magistrate, conducted a “brilliant” defense. Their appeals were handled by two leading Toronto criminal lawyers, Walter Williston and Patrick Hartt. According to John Diefenbaker, no commutation hearings in his experience ever received such painstaking attention from the cabinet.

    But it was no use. When Hartt made his appeal to Justice Minister Fleming for Turpin's life, there was little he could really say — except that nobody, not even Turpin, should hang.

    “When you shoot a policeman,” Hartt observed recently, “you're in dire difficulty. So when I went to see Mr. Fleming, 1 was almost arguing, really, for the abolition of capital punishment.”


    IN A VERY REAL SENSE, a hanging is an anticlimax. “Condemned men die at least four times before they hang,” says York County Sheriff Phil Ambrose, who has witnessed four executions. “They die when they’re apprehended, when the jury returns a guilty verdict, as they lose each appeal, and they die when their commutation is refused. By that time, they haven’t much dying left to do."

    Turpin and Lucas each spent more than six months in Hospital Nine, dying their allotted number of deaths. Throughout this period their friend, religious counselor, errand - runner, chess opponent and constant visitor was Brigadier Cyril Everitt, a Salvation Army chaplain who grew up in the shadow of Don Jail and has hated hangings ever since he was a boy. He has a realistic knowledge of how nasty some criminals can be, and he displays a gentleness that can only spring from a compassionate heart. He was possibly the first decent man Turpin or Lucas had ever known.

    At any rate, Everitt succeeded in preparing them for what was coming. He'd drop in once or twice every day for a chat or a game of chess; when he went on vacation, he sent them daily postcards. Eventually, perhaps as much through a simple response to friendship as through a moral transformation, both men accepted the Lord.

    Everitt would sit on his side of the bars and read the Bible to them: sometimes they would recite hymns (they seldom sang) and talk about the meaning of the words. Occasionally, but not often, the three of them would kneel on the concrete floor and pray. But mostly they just talked — about the food, about sports, about the world outside, about what it means to die.

    “I didn't ram religion down their throats,” Everitt says. “You’ve got to go in and show them that you’re prepared, as Jesus was, to be a servant.” Toward the end, they were acting like Godly and repentant men. About a week before the execution, they suggested that he stay away from the hanging: they knew it would be hard on him. Everitt refused. “No,” he said, “I’ve told you that the last voice you hear will be mine, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

    At Saturday-afternoon chapel services, the other Don Jail prisoners would sing at the top of their voices. That way, the three condemned men — a third inmate of Hospital Nine, Gary McCorkell, was later reprieved — could hear the hymns through the walls. “You’re not singing for yourselves, boys,” Everitt would tell his convict congregation. “You’re singing for three men who can’t be here.” And the voices would boom through the jail, often bearing Lucas’s favorite hymn, Love Lifted Me:

    I was sinking deep in sin 

    Far from the peaceful shore.

    Very deeply stained with sin, 

    Sinking to rise no more.

    Till the Master of the Sea Heard my despairing cry 

    And from the waters lifted me. 

    Now safe am I.


    THERE IS A CERTAIN AIR of gaslit melodrama about all this, but that is only because all Canadian hangings are inescapably Victorian. The gallows, the hangman, the death-cell conversion, the very buildings (Don Jail was built in 1859) — all blend to create a ritual that sounds as though it were scripted by the author of East Lynne. The last day of Turpin and Lucas was no exception.

    They awoke around six on that Monday morning, long before breakfast. and began their wait for the final word from Ottawa. Everitt and the jail's governor, David Dougall, had known unofficially since Friday that the cabinet had refused to commute. The news came through on the radio at eleven, but they decided to wait until after lunch to break it to the men. They walked into Hospital Nine together about 12:30 and Everitt said, "Well, boys, we've heard from Ottawa." Turpin didn't let him finish: "We can tell there's no hope." he said.

    From then on, time moved faster. Already, knots of people were beginning to gather along Gerrard Street outside the jail. Other prisoners had already been removed from the corridor that leads to the gallows. That strange silence — “a silence you can feel." one official describes it — had already settled over the prison.

    There were plenty of last - minute things to do. Midway through the afternoon, Turpin asked Everitt about the meaning of the “forgive us our trespasses" line in the Lord's Prayer. "Does that mean, brigadier," he asked, "that if there's somebody I haven't forgiven, the Lord won't forgive me?”

    “That’s exactly what it means. Ron," said Everitt. So Turpin gave the brigadier the names of several people he wanted to forgive, and asked the brigadier to write them after his death. Everitt did better: he got on the long distance telephone to Vancouver, and spoke to one of Turpin's old girl friends. Later that day, he was able to tell the condemned man. "She says everything's all right, and that she’s thinking of you all the way." Turpin also wrote a final letter to his number one girl, Lillian White, who was to sit out that night's hanging at a watchnight service in a Unitarian church in Don Mills.

    Before supper, Lucas told Everitt, "Brigadier. I've been thinking how lucky we are. I could be out on a highway tonight and get hit by a car. This way I've had plenty of time to meet my Maker. And now I’m prepared.” Lucas's sister Lizzie, a domestic worker from Detroit, came to visit her brother. Lucas refused to see her, but wrote her a letter, part of which is reproduced below.

    Everitt also dealt with the assortment of odd-lot pastors who always turn up at hangings to administer last-minute religion. One of them even talked his way inside the jail. Everitt told him. "We're giving you five minutes to get out of here." "I'm not leaving," the pastor said adamantly, “until I know those boys are right in their souls."

    “Where've you been for the last ten months?” asked Everitt, and the clergyman left.

    Then it was suppertime — potatoes, vegetables and steak tender enough to be eaten with a spoon (knives and lorks aren't allowed in Hospital Nine, and all the plates must be cardboard). After supper, they talked and prayed some more. Around I I p.m., Everitt said, "Well, boys, there’s an hour to go. What do you want me to do? Read scripture? Get the songbook?”

    “Just be yourself, brigadier.” said Turpin, “just be yourself.”

    That was how the hanging party found them when they walked into Hospital Nine at one minute before midnight. The three friends were talking calmly and quietly. “It was so peaceful in there,” the sheriff told Everitt afterward, “that I’d thought we’d got the wrong night.”

    The rest was anticlimax. The hangman, a bustling, businesslike man who learned his trade by practising on stuffed dummies, handcuffed the men’s hands behind their back. Then they walked the forty paces to the gallows room. The door, a flat metal plate that has no handle and must be opened with a wrench, was already open. Flanked by four guards, the sheriff, the jail governor and Everitt, the prisoners marched through and stood on the trap door. The hangman tied straps around their legs, positioned the men back to back, slipped black cloth hoods over their faces, adjusted the nooses and stepped back.

    By now, the sense of ritual was heavy on everyone in the room. Sheriff Ambrose recalls feeling how unreal the whole thing was. Everyone, he thinks, felt at this moment like actors in a play.

    The hangman asked if Turpin or Lucas had any last words. "Nothing," they answered.

    By this time Everitt was saying the Twenty-Third Psalm. At the last moment he switched to a verse that he’d previously told the prisoners would be their signal that it was all over: "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” And that was all. The hangman yanked on a lever and the trapdoor fell open with a crash that echoed through the jail (it’s since been padded in the interests of prison morale). On their way down, the men made no sound.

    It was 12:02 in the morning.


    VERY LITTLE IS KNOWN of the physiology of hanging. It is said to he a quick and painless method of execution; but because autopsies are not customarily performed on hanged men in this country, no one can say for sure. At any rate, when the hanging party climbed down the spiral staircase to the room below, the two men they'd executed were, in the legal and the modern clinical sense, still alive. Their cervical vertebrae had been neatly fractured at the base of the neck. Each man had a small bruise at one side of the nape where the knot had bit into the flesh as the rope jerked up short. Their heads were lolling close to their shoulders.

    But their hearts were still beating. At this moment, given luck and the resources of a modern hospital, both men could probably have been revived. But they continued to hang, their toes about three feet off the floor, swaying in gentle arcs. For the next sixteen minutes. Dr. W. H. Hills stood on a stepladder, listening at their chests with a stethoscope until their hearts finally stopped. He certified death at 12.18 a.m.

    For three nights afterward, he saw their faces in the dark. He has attended every Don Jail hanging since 1941. “At first," he says, “I used to try to stop the tears. Now I just let them flow and that way I get relief.”

    Finally, there was more ritual, much of it specified in the Criminal Code. The hangman climbed the stepladder and cut the bodies down with a knife. A hospital orderly gently laid them out on stretchers and wheeled them into an adjoining room. There Jack Jerrett, the undertaker, wrapped the bodies, still clothed, in white sheets and placed them in two pine caskets he'd delivered to the jail that afternoon in a camouflaged panel truck. The loaded caskets were wheeled to a distant part of the jail where two coroner’s juries were waiting, "to enquire for our said lady, the Queen, how and by what means the said Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas came to their deaths."

    Each inquest took half an hour. An official of the sheriff's testified that the men in the caskets were the men he'd seen convicted in open court some six months before. Sheriff Ambrose testified that the sentence had been correctly carried out in accordance with law. Dr. Hills testified that he'd certified their death a few minutes before. The jurors then signed a form for each man: “We do upon oath say that the prisoner came to his death at the common gaol of the County of York on the llth day of December, 1962, from being hanged by the neck until he was dead in accordance with the sentence under which he lay in the said gaol.”

    One juror didn't participate; he’d turned up very drunk.

    With the inquests over, the hanging party waited inside the jail until it was prudent to leave. Several hundred people, divided fairly evenly between anti-hanging pickets and the morbidly curious, were standing in freezing weather outside the jail. There was shouting, weeping and a few angry scuffles. The police made four arrests, two of them for drunkenness. It was long after 2 a.m. before the crowd dispersed.

    Then the funeral procession moved silently out a side entrance of the old Victorian jail. Turpin and Lucas were borne in the white panel truck that the undertaker had borrowed for the occasion. They drove to a cemetery in west Toronto, where the two open graves were waiting. It was after 3 a.m. There were no lights and there was no moon, only the ghostly whiteness of the snow. “It was spooky as hell,” recalls Sheriff Ambrose.

    A Salvation Army captain tried to read scripture from the light of a flashlight, but gave up and recited from memory. The pine boxes were lowered on straps into the graves.

    Everitt, with his men to the last, delivered the committal service, a short service that he’d improvised on the spot. “All of you know,” he said, “how these men came to their deaths a few hours ago. Their bodies have been separated from their souls and we therefore commit their bodies to the grave.” There is a standard committal service which begins, “As it has pleased Almighty God . . . ,” but Everitt chose not to use those words. “I didn't say it,” he recalls, “because I didn’t believe it was God’s will that those men should die.”


    AT THIS WRITING, there are fourteen men still under sentence of death in Canadian prisons, three of them in the same cellblock where Turpin and Lucas spent the last months of their lives. Although several of them are scheduled to be hanged this month, their sentences will almost certainly be deferred, at least until after parliament’s vote this fall. But the guards at Don Jail are worrying nevertheless. Weeks ago they were anxiously scanning their shift schedules, hoping they’ll be at home when the next man hangs. 


    Arthur Lucas's farewell letter to his sister

    My dearest sister Lizzie Fisher this letter is to let you no that I am well and feels good an I hope when these few lines reaches your hands they will fine you well and I want you to know this is my idial not to have you come up because I think this is the best for me an you I know how you feel about me an I know how I feel about you but you can reast assured that I have made my peice with God. I want you to know this about your Brother, so I am safe whatever happens sis . . .

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