By Emily Beliveau, Digital Project Assistant
7 December 1869.
Earlier this month, we marked the anniversary of the last public hanging at the Huron Gaol. One hundred and forty-five years ago, Nicholas Melady was executed for the murder of his father and stepmother. The hanging took place outside the walls of the Huron Gaol in front of a few hundred spectators. We believe this was the last public hanging in Canada. It’s often difficult to make these kinds of historical determinations with total certainty, but we make this claim because we don’t know of any other hangings that occurred between then and 1 January 1870, when the law changed to prohibit public executions.
Public vs. private hangings
Until the law changed in 1870, executions in Canada were public events that were held outside of jail walls and attracted spectators. (For most of Canada’s history, the only legal method of execution was hanging, and the only crimes punishable by death were rape, murder, and treason.) When public hangings were abolished, private hangings continued. Private hangings occurred within the wall of the prison, which curtailed the crowd of potential spectators, but didn’t necessarily eliminate viewing possibilities. Enterprising citizens could perhaps catch a view from a nearby rooftop or other structure.
In 1976, capitol punishment was abolished in Canada by Bill C-84. The last executions to be carried out were in 1962 at the Don Jail in Toronto (a double hanging).
Confirming the claim
At the beginning of this post, I said we believe the execution of Nicholas Melady at the Huron Gaol was the last public hanging in Canada. Why can’t we say for sure? As I mentioned, it can be very difficult to verify claims about lasts, firsts, and other seemingly definitive events in the historical record, for a number of reasons.
We have a strong case to make, but with caveats. Canada in 1869, for instance, only included the present-day provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Public hangings may have occurred in areas that are now part of Canada, but were out of the jurisdiction of the 1870 law at the time. These are the kinds of things that complicate the certainty of such claims.
In 2007, Carling Marshall-Luymes, an intern at the Huron Historic Gaol, wrote a series of blog posts about researching the last public hanging. Her work contributed to the exhibit that is on display in one of the first-floor cell blocks of the Gaol.
Read her posts here:
Blogging Behind the Bars
Canada’s last public hanging
Legislating an end to public hanging…a clarification
Why did Canada abolish public hanging?
Capitol punishment: Opinion in Huron County in 1869
Semi-public? Hoag Hanging, Walkerton, 1868