The end of the line
Peaceful Connaught Square in Charlottetown was site of P.E.I.'s last public hanging which is still in famous for its faulty execution 130 years later.
Today, Connaught Square in Charlottetown is a lovely green zone with stately old trees and plenty of space for all ages to wander and children to play.
But as history would have it, 130 years ago it was also the site of Prince Edward Island’s most infamous and last public hanging, the circumstances of which so shocked the expansive crowd that had gathered to watch that it marked the end of this execution era.
“ The letters and editorials in the newspapers that followed the execution encouraged the people to resolve that a public execution never take place in the colony again,” says Boyde Beck, curator of history with the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation, who tells the story of the ill-fated convict George Dowie, sometimes spelled Dowey in various accounts, and many others as part of his historic walking tours that are especially popular at this Halloween time of year.
In the late 1700s, P.E.I.’s criminal code had numerous offences that were punishable by death, such as murder, treason, rape, theft and others. One early death sentence, which was handed out in 1778, was commuted because of gender.
“ The person convicted was a woman and there was no one in the colony willing to act as an executioner,” Beck says of Elizabeth Mukely, who as a servant stole £ 7.7 from her employer.
“(She) was convicted essentially of petty theft and that was a hanging offense. (She) was actually exiled; sent to Nova Scotia to never come back.”
The same banishment fate was meted out to Freelove Allen whose death sentence for theft was commuted in 1796.
“ We have a history of capital punishment that goes back to 1792 when the first hanging was conducted . . . and the first man hanged on P.E.I. was ( Joseph Farrow) who was hanged for rape,” Beck says.
P.E.I. had control of its own justice system until 1873 when capital cases came under the federal government's jurisdiction.
“ There were less than a dozen (hangings) in all of the Island’s history, but at the time we controlled the justice system (provincially) there were only eight executions,” Beck says.
Although capital crimes were committed and death sentences handed out, the one saving grace for many destined for the gallows was the fact that the lieutenantgovernor of the colony at the time could commute a sentence to a lesser punishment.
“(Death) wasn’t automatic. You could be convicted of a capital crime, but then in the case of (those like) Elizabeth Mukely and Freelove Allan if you had people on your side or people who didn’t agree with (the sentence) they could circulate a petition for clemency. They ’d present that to the lieutenant-governor who had the power to commute that death sentence . . . .”
Governor Edmund Fanning, for instance, commuted all but one of the death sentences that came across his desk. A decade later one of his predecessors, Charles Douglass Smith, allowed two men to hang for theft, two for murder, one for rape and another for arson.
Unfortunately for the doomed Dowie, his public hanging in 1869 broke a long
dry spell for this capital punishment practice on P.E.I., being that the one that preceded him occurred almost a half century before.
Dowie was a sailor in port who got into an argument over a woman in what Beck surmises was an unlicenced drinking establishment.
“In a blind rage he pulled out his knife and stabbed the guy he was arguing with and everyone saw him do it. I don’t think the (trial) lasted more than a half a day,” Beck says.
“It was a murder case, open and shut. And the penalty for that was death.”
The community circulated a petition for clemency, but at the time there wasn't an official lieutenant-governor to appeal to.
In 1869, the colony was being run by Robert Hodg- son, who was the senior colonial administrator and the acting lieutenant-governor at that time.
“Hodgson didn’t think it
was within his rights as an acting governor to have the power to do something as serious as commute a death sentence,” Beck says.
“It’s not that he didn’t try to get direction. He spent quite a lot on cable fees ( for) telegrams going back and forth (to London, England) trying to get instruction . . . .
“I don't think he was given any clear instructions, so he erred on the side of caution. A court had passed a sentence and the criminal code said a murderer must hang.”
And so the gallows went up in Connaught Square, then known as Pownal Square and the site of the local jailhouse.
Since the last hanging on P.E.I., there had been a public debate in other places over whether criminals should be executed in public. Some said it was barbaric. Others argued it was educational and a deterrent to crime.
On P.E.I. there had been no recent executions to bring out this debate, so when Dowie was led to the gallows on April 6, 1869, it was a public event. More than 1,500 people turned out to witness the hanging and a militia company was called out to make sure things remained orderly.
“According to the accounts, if you were looking to prove that public hangings could be (deterrent to crime), Dowie played his part impeccably. He had the whole winter to think about what he’d done, and during a 45-minute oration from the top of he scaffold he confessed to a life of crime and asked the public’s forgiveness,” Beck says.
“Apparently he was there so long they brought a chair up for him to sit in.”
Things went terribly wrong after that.
“According to the newspaper accounts, he stepped forward and he stood on the trap door and he first forgave the executioner for what he was about to do, (his head was covered) and the rope placed around his neck. And the sheriff gave the signal to open the trap door. When he got to the end of his rope he ended up as a heap on the ground (because the rope broke),” Beck says.
Dowie was taken into the jailhouse to recover from this 15-foot fall before he was returned to the gallows that had been fitted with a new rope.
“ There was no pomp or ceremony this time. They had to help him up the scaffold and steady him on top of the trap door . . . . as soon as they had everything rigged they stepped back and pulled the trap door and this time the cleat that attached the rope to the scaffold sheared off,” Beck says.
“He ended up on the ground again but at least this time the rope was intact.”
Then, according to the accounts of the day, the executioner and his helpers reached down to the rope, hauled him up and held him there until the officiating doctor declared he was dead.
Dowie was buried in what is now the historic Old Protestant Burying Grounds on University Avenue in Charlottetown.
Not long after Dowie's public execution, which was the last on P.E.I. and one of the last in all of Canada, the practice of public hanging was banned.
This did not put an end to capital punishment on P.E.I., but the last three executions on were viewed by official witnesses only.
In 1888, William Millman was hanged for the murder of Mary Pickering Tuplin.
And on Aug. 20, 1941 Earl Lund and Frederick Phillips were hanged for the murder of Peter Trainor. These were the last people to be executed on P.E.I.
The bird’s eye map of Charlottetown shows Connaught Square, then Pownal Square, in 1878. Robert Hodgson was only the acting lieutenant-governor at the time so he didn’t feel he had the authority to commute George Dowie’s death sentence to a lesser punishment. Boyde Beck, above, curator of history with the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation, stands on the grounds of Connaught Square in Charlottetown, which was the site of the last public hanging on P.E.I. in 1869. The local jail, Harvie’s Brig, shown here in 1900, housed George Dowie in his last days before he was hanged in the gallows constructed outside in April 1869.