Monday, April 24, 2017

T - Toronto's Ill-Fated First Hanging

After the bleak and controversial topics of last week (treasonous nationalism, indigenous rights, and TWO separate cases of genocide), let's keep this week lighter. Monday's topic is... public execution.

Actually, it's still not as bad as last week's posts.

Back in 1798 Toronto was a small frontier town only five years old. It wasn't even called Toronto yet, it was still called York back then. They had a brand-new jail and hanging yard on King Street, a couple of blocks east from Yonge Street, and the local authorities were itching to use it.

This is not the York jailhouse from the story. This is the old Don Jail, which has it's own history of controversy and horror.

In October of that year, a couple of Irish immigrants named John Sullivan and Michael Flannery went on a drinking binge in Toronto's only tavern. Sullivan was illiterate, but Flannery was known as "Latin Mike" for his penchant of reciting Bible verses, and by all accounts was a pretty smart guy. This becomes important later.

When the money ran out, Flannery had the sparkling idea to forge a bank note for three shillings and nine pence (worth a little less than dollar, or twenty bucks in today's money). The bank accepted it and the boys continued their bender. They were soon found out, however, and when word came of their impending arrest Flannery immediately skipped town. Sullivan was not so lucky. He was arrested, tried and convicted of forgery, and sentenced to death.

For forging the equivalent of a twenty-dollar bill.

Is this colourful old lady worth your life?

The judge's ruling was scathing:
Sullivan, may all who behold you, and who shall hear of your crime, and of your unhappy fate, take warning from your example… [I] recommend to you to employ the few days that shall be allowed, of a life spent in wickedness, in humble and fervent prayer to almighty God…
Again, the dude was sentenced to death because his friend forged a twenty dollar bill. Sullivan was illiterate and couldn't write his own name. Obviously the town really, really wanted to try out their new hanging yard.

Again this is not from the York hanging (not many cameras back then). This is from Hull, Quebec, in 1902, not far from where I now work.

The problem was the hanging yard was so new, no one actually knew how to hang a person, and nobody was willing to try. They ultimately had to give $100 and a pardon to another criminal in the same jail, a man by the name of McKnight, to give it a whirl.

(I have been unable to determine what McKnight was arrested for, or how it compares to forging a f*cking $20 bill. Would it be worse if he did something really minor like jaywalking, or had murdered an entire churchful of nuns?)

Yeah, I dunno either, Pierre.

A crowd gathered in their Sunday best to watch the hanging (this was about 210 years before Netflix), and McKnight proved he also had no clue how to hang somebody. The first time the noose slipped off Sullivan's head. The second time the knot came undone. At this point even Sullivan himself was getting annoyed and impatient. It was reported that his last words were something along the lines of: 

"McKnight, I hope to God you got the rope right this time."

Turns out he did, and the third time was the charm.


My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.

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