Skip to content

REMEMBER THIS: The hangman comes to town (4 photos)

The precise details of the hangman’s work are macabre on the surface, but surprisingly scientific underneath

Arthur Ellis paid two official visits — once in 1929 and again in 1932 — to the town of Barrie in the course of his career.

A character almost as colourful as those he sent to the next life, Ellis was Canada’s designated hangman from 1912 until 1935.

Ellis wasn’t his real name. Due to the less-than-savoury aspects of their chosen profession, working executioners often adopted a pseudonym. His birth name was Arthur Bartholomew English.

Mr. Ellis was born in England and learned his trade in that country before coming to Canada in the early 1900s. He assisted his predecessor, John Radclive, until taking over the position about a year after Radclive drank himself to an early grave, chasing away the nightmares that haunted him late in his career.

On Jan. 3, 1929, the executioner’s presence in town was noted in the Barrie Examiner.

“Ellis, the official hangman, has been in town a couple of days, superintending the erection of the scaffold and making other preparations. The scaffold, which has been completed this afternoon, was placed in a high shed within the jail walls in such a position that none of it was visible to outside eyes.”

The assignment given to Ellis on that first visit was to carry out the sentence imposed on convicted murderer, George O’Neil.

Found guilty of killing his employer, 73-year-old Tottenham farmer Azor Robertson, and his adult daughter, Ruby Martin, on Feb. 4, 1928, Justice McEvoy had imposed the death sentence at the Barrie Courthouse eight months later.

No true motive for the crime could be ascertained, other than the possibility that O’Neil was disgruntled after being given a month’s notice that his employment as Robertson’s hired farm hand would come to an end on March 1.

O’Neil was a quiet man, didn’t participate much in his own trial and was a model prisoner during his time in the Barrie Jail. Other than a near-successful suicide attempt that landed him in Royal Victoria Hospital for a month, his time in custody was unremarkable.

Ellis saw to it that George O’Neil left this world in humane fashion. The precise details of the hangman’s work are macabre on the surface, but surprisingly scientific underneath. It all revolves around body weight, the length of the rope and careful calculations.

The second visit from Ellis was related to the case of Thomas Wesley Campbell, of Alliston, who had been found responsible for the death of his own father, William Campbell.

On Aug. 31, 1928, Thomas Campbell got into a physical altercation with his 88-year-old father, which resulted in the older man’s death.

The body of the deceased was found by a visiting relative nearly a week later.

The accused was discovered locked inside a bedroom in the same house suffering from self-inflicted razor cuts.

As in the O’Neil case, Thomas Campbell was housed in the Barrie Jail, tried in the Barrie Courthouse and found guilty by a jury of local citizens.

Once again, Ellis arrived in town to provide his services and Campbell was hanged within the jail walls on Jan. 16, 1932.

After the execution, as was customary, jail surgeon Dr. W.C. Little examined the body and pronounced that death was instantaneous.

Ellis was a careful man but, toward the end of his career, much like his predecessor, he began to battle his demons.

For many years, Ellis had been living a double life. His wife, Mrs. English, had been living under the assumption that her husband was some sort of travelling government official. When she learned the exact nature of his work, she immediately left him and his mental health declined.

As Radclive had done, Ellis picked up a bottle. Each assignment became more stressful than the last and was followed by large amounts of whisky.

Ellis's last job was a career-ending disaster. After perhaps 500 perfect executions, if they can be referred to as such, the aging hangman faltered. And badly.

Two men and a woman, all convicted of killing the woman’s husband for insurance money, were sentenced to be hanged in Montreal’s Bordeaux Jail in 1935.

The men were hanged first and at the same time.

However, Thomasina Sarao’s execution did not go as planned.

Ellis had attempted to weigh the condemned woman for his calculations, but she refused to allow him into her cell and instead passed him a note containing the information.

The information was wrong and, therefore, so was the amount of rope used.

Suffice it to say that the procedure was considered bungled and Ellis was no longer allowed to carry on as official hangman. He was over 70 years of age by that time.

Three years later, he was found in a terrible state in a Montreal rooming house and was brought to hospital where he died soon after.

Reader Feedback

Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
Read more