Drop Dead: A Hor­ri­ble His­tory of Hanging in Canada by Lorna Po­plak Dun­durn Press, 208 pages, $24.99

Canada's History - - BOOKS - — Tanja Hüt­ter

At the risk of be­ing la­belled mor­bid, I have to con­fess that I found this book fas­ci­nat­ing.

In Drop Dead by Lorna Po­plak, the au­thor has pro­vided a se­ri­ous ex­plo­ration of Canada’s his­tory of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment from Con­fed­er­a­tion to abo­li­tion, hon­ing in on the pre­ferred method: pub­lic hanging. Po­plak uses the re­sults of her re­search well and tells

cap­ti­vat­ing sto­ries about the peo­ple who were in­volved — from the ac­cusers, to the ac­cused, to those who car­ried out the sen­tences.

While some of us are old enough to re­mem­ber the pe­riod prior to the abol­ish­ment of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, we tend to think of it as a sen­tence for mur­der and trea­son. How­ever, in Drop Dead we’re told that in the nine­teenth cen­tury more than one hun­dred of­fences were pun­ish­able by death, in­clud­ing leav­ing graf­fiti on church walls and steal­ing a cow.

Given the num­bers of char­ac­ters and sto­ries that are in­cluded in this book, it would be dif­fi­cult to sin­gle out just one. Yet the chap­ter on Arthur El­lis, Canada’s most fa­mous hang­man, stands out for a few rea­sons.

El­lis was the hang­man of choice across Canada for twenty-five years, han­dling some of the most pub­li­cized sen­tences of his day. When his work took him to smaller com­mu­ni­ties that did not have a gal­lows, he made his own and painted it red.

Due to poor record-keep­ing, and the ten­dency by other hang­men to use El­lis’s name as an alias, it is im­pos­si­ble to say with ac­cu­racy how many peo­ple he ex­e­cuted over his ca­reer. El­lis claimed that it was more than six hun­dred peo­ple, across Canada, Eng­land, and the Mid­dle East.

His suc­cess came to an ig­no­min­ious end in 1935 when he mis­cal­cu­lated the drop of a fe­male pris­oner that re­sulted in her de­cap­i­ta­tion. Dis­taste for ex­e­cut­ing women was al­ready preva­lent among the Cana­dian pop­u­la­tion — only one per cent of those ex­e­cuted were fe­male — but this tragedy put an end to sell­ing tick­ets to the pub­lic.

Drop Dead shines a light on a dark his­tory. Yet, thanks to Po­plak’s abil­ity as a sto­ry­teller, as well as the in­clu­sion of im­ages and a well-cu­rated bib­li­og­ra­phy, her book is, dare I say, an en­joy­able read.

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