By Terry Hughes
In the British tradition, capital crimes resulted in the guilty party being hung by the neck until dead. But such an act was not as simple as it sounds for there is a method that was to be followed. The drop from the gallows was determined by the body mass or weight of the victim. The lighter the weight, the greater the drop. In Kingston a woman had to be hung four times before her neck was broken. If the drop was too great it could result in a decapitation. The average drop was twelve feet. In the one hundred years of capital punishment, a total of thirteen people would be hung in Niagara-on-the Lake, St. Catharines and Welland. During his ten-year tenure as governor of Texas, George W. Bush saw almost as many executions.
The first public hanging in Welland occurred in 1859 on Cross Street opposite the county building. John Byers, a black man, was found guilty of murdering Thomas Phillips and seriously injuring his wife. The accused had fallen on hard times and was looking for work to support his family. Mr. Phillips said that there was no work to be found here and refused to share any food for the hungry Byers family. In an act of desperation Byers struck Phillips many times with a club and then struck his wife. A daughter who was in another room witnessed the incident and ran off as Byers searched the house looking for food and any money. He was apprehended the next day. Byers never denied his crime and pleaded guilty.
On the morning of the execution, some three to five thousand people gathered to witness the execution. Stands were built for the spectators and seating was provided on the roof of a nearby hotel offering an advantageous view of the proceedings. After saying a few prayers and asking the audience to pray for him he closed with words, “Good-bye, I’m gone,” as witnessed by a large number of women who were in the crowd.
According to a report by the St. Catharines Journal, “he died without a struggle dropping eight to ten feet almost severing his head. Officials governing the hanging congratulated each other and the crowd looked on and smiled!”
The next executions took place in 1946 when a husband and wife team was found guilty of robbing and murdering a Thorold man. The wife of George Popowich, Elizabeth, had an intimate relationship with Louis Nato before their marriage and was aware of large amounts of money he had accumulated at his place of business. After being forced to bring this money, Nato was robbed, beaten, tied up and left for dead on a country road.
Nato was found the next day and supposedly put the blame on the Popowichs to an attending physician and nurse before passing away due to his injuries.
Since 1900 hangings were to be held in less public venues so in the case of Welland the guilty couple were to be hanged in the courtyard inside the walls shown in the accompanying photo, top left. They were not allowed to communicate with each other and were hanged separately.
On January 17, 1958, Thomas Plante was the last person to be hung at the jail using the steel gallows and trap door shown in the photo, top right, for the knife and hammer murder of a Hamilton man. Parliament removed the act of hanging from murder cases a few years later.
Although the idea of capital punishment has been abolished, the case could be made that certain victims may have paid the price when a more intense effort to review the evidence may have revealed that some folks were not guilty. In the case of the Popowichs, a Toronto Star article revealed that the attending persons were not fans of new Canadians with foreign names and lied about Nato’s story. In the Byers case the refusal to help a destitute black man in a time when pioneer folk were always offering help to others may raise the issue here of racism. On the other hand the kidnapping and horrendous murders of two St. Catharines girls, Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy during our time, suggests that capital punishment, in my view, is still warranted!
During the time that prisoners were housed at the county jail no major escapes were made. When the county building caught fire next to the jail the prisoners were moved to the walled exercise yard without incident. At one time prisoners had to clean the streets as part of their responsibility of maintaining their keep.
A resident artist who often found himself inside these facilities was well known for his artistic talents. Thomas Foster often fell off the wagon during the late fall, his winter time was spent doing beautiful paintings on the walls of the county buildings. When he was not incarcerated he had sold some of his paintings for as much as $5,000. Unfortunately five of his six paintings suffered damage from the dampness under the plaster and were all but destroyed. One still survives in the museum room where the gallows are found.
Acknowledgement: The late George Banks, a former city solicitor, was involved in arranging the courthouse tours and Dave Thomas, a court official, provided information about cases cited above.
Next column: A pictorial history of scenes of local interest, now and then.
(Terry Hughes is a Wellander who is passionate about heritage, history and model railroading. His opinion column, Heritage Lives, appears on the blog once or twice monthly.)