On July 22, 1903, the townsfolk of Picton, Ontario, were enchanted. The circus was in town! The Great Pan American two-ring circus, museum and menagerie had transformed the main thoroughfare into a grand street parade. But after the music stopped and the lights dimmed and the tents were being packed up, the provincial detective keeping an eye out for the odd pickpocket or other suspicious characters found himself facing a much more serious problem: murder.
We should not be asking what an offender deserves. The correct question is what we as Canadians deserve. Do we want to be the most unforgiving? Are we prepared to kill people in the name of the law?
Wandering through its 55 kilometres of pathways, you’ll come across memorials to hundreds of famous Canadians, among them Thomas D’Arcy McGee, the only Canadian federal politician ever to have been assassinated, and Patrick James Whelan, the man convicted for his 1868 murder in downtown Ottawa. McGee was buried in his family mausoleum at Notre-Dame-Des-Neiges in Montreal. Whelan was hanged then buried in an unmarked grave at the Carleton County Gaol in Ottawa. His ghost is still said to stalk the hallways of the old jail. So how come there is a grave marker for him a short walk away from where McGee lies interred?
The federal Liberals swept the Conservative government out of office in 1963. The Liberals were resolutely opposed to capital punishment, and made their position clear in December 1967, when parliament voted to suspend the death penalty for civilian crimes for a period of 5 years. In 1973, this moratorium was extended by another 5 years. Two years before this period was to expire, a formal vote was taken in the House of Commons that answered this burning question: Should Canada retain or abolish the death penalty?
June 19, 1873. Executed this day for the murder of her husband was Elizabeth Workman of Mooretown, Ontario.
The judge at her trial described her as an adulterous and sadistic woman who tied her husband up and battered him for hours with a mop handle, finally killing him. And neither the jury’s recommendation for clemency nor a huge outpouring of public support made any difference. Clutching a small bunch of flowers, she fell through a trap in a purpose-built scaffold at the Sarnia Gaol in Ontario, directly into her grave.
But was justice done?
It is a nightmarish scenario: a 12-year-old schoolgirl disappears. Her body is found 2 days later. She has been raped and murdered. The young man accused of her rape and murder is just 14 years old. He is found guilty and sentenced to death.
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