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Remember This?: The sad and strange tale of James Carruthers

Let us recount the tale of the first man hanged in the Barrie Jail
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The carpenters of Barrie were rarely idle in the 1870s. New businesses and homes were springing up everywhere, and buildings in the County’s seemingly most combustible town were constantly in need of post fire rebuilds.

In 1873, Alexander Graham was given a task never before handed to any other Barrie wood worker. Build some gallows!

Even though the County Jail had stood on the Mulcaster St. hill for nearly three decades, no prisoner had ever been executed on the property. That all changed after a quarrelsome Essa Township man took too much to drink one day and ended the life of his wife. 

James Carruthers and his wife, Rebecca Abernathy, lived a fairly unpleasant domestic life near the village of Ivy, southwest of Barrie. Even though Rebecca was as good a rural housewife as any other in those years, and an attentive mother to a number of children, James was never happy with her.

Whether he suffered from mental delusions and took a drink in an attempt to calm his mind, or years of liquor consumption led him have disturbing thoughts, James began to believe that Rebecca was a bad woman, and he liked to tell her so. 

James Carruthers was mainly consumed by jealousy. He was sure that Rebecca had been unfaithful to him. He openly disliked their eldest son, William, and claimed that the boy was the son of some other man. He once chastised his wife for picking wild berries with a male cousin, saying she should be ashamed of herself, and suggested that housekeeping work she did for a local doctor was solely done for the purpose of the doctor’s “ambitions” towards her. 

Rebecca accepted her lot in life. A nineteenth century wife had little choice. She had children to look after, no money of her own and an unbreakable vow that she had made. She argued back some, mostly tried to ignore James, and once spent a week away with relatives in Medonte Township after a particularly bad argument. 

Why December 3, 1872 was more unpleasant than any of the hundreds of days before in the Carruthers home, no one is certain. James arose late from his bed and spoke very little, the children later testified. They went off to school and could not say what transpired through the day.

Young Isaac, aged 14 years, came home about 5 p.m. and his mother asked him to go and find his father and bring him home for supper. He would not be hard to find. James, when not working, would be found either chatting with local blacksmith, David Carruthers (no relative), or partaking at nearby Ritchie’s farm that doubled as a tavern.

Isaac found him at the blacksmith shop, although it appeared that he had been to Ritchie’s beforehand. James refused to come home and sent the boy off with the horses and sleigh, saying he would follow soon after.

True to his word, James arrived home not long after Isaac returned. Rebecca was preparing bread to be baked and she had several of her children huddled around enjoying the warmth of the stove. James asked Isaac where his mother was. Puzzled Isaac pointed to her. James again asked where his wife might be and Rebecca calmly answered “Here.” James then commented that she was readying bread that she would never bake.

“You will fall this night.” said James. Rebecca was used to abuse and continued with her work. 

“How will I fall?” she replied without looking up. James said nothing, only looked at her steadily. Rebecca gave him a plate of dinner and James sat down at the kitchen table but never ate any of it. After a while, he got up, gave Rebecca a shove and walked outside, repeating that she would fall yet, and saying that he was off to Ritchie’s again.

James was not gone for long. Fortified with more drink, he returned to the house and asked for a lamp. Rebecca handed it to him. By the light of the lamp, James removed his coat and produced a horse whip. Very quickly, he hit Rebecca several times with the stock of it. She attempted to fight back but a last blow sent her to the floor unconscious.

The children scurried outside into the snowy night in fear. Another son, Robert Carruthers, ran for Mrs. McDonald across the road, who came quickly accompanied by her boarder, Frank Wood. The two of them believed that Rebecca was dead and James remarked that if “she is not dead, I surely will kill her.”

The neighbours soon realised that Rebecca yet had a flicker of life and sent one of the Carruthers boys for the doctor. They helped James into his bed and Frank Wood escorted Mrs. McDonald home again. When Frank returned to the Carruthers home, two doctors had arrived and were attending to Rebecca who seemed to be much more badly injured than she had been before he departed 20 minutes earlier.

She was bleeding from a large wound on her forehead that was not observed by her neighbours earlier. It would seem that James had struck a final blow when no one was looking.

As he himself had admitted to injuring his wife, although he insisted he had only pushed her against the stove, James Carruthers was arrested and charged with her murder. He was lodged in the Barrie Jail and tried before a jury on April 5, 1873. The jury brought a verdict of guilty but recommended mercy. The judge disagreed on the second part and pronounced a sentence of death.

From that day until June 11, James Carruthers awaited his date with the hangman in the jailhouse. He had frequent visits from Rev. Crompton of the local Methodist Church, and twice daily visits from Rev. Morgan of Trinity Anglican, as he prepared to meet his maker.

This story should end at the moment that the trap door of the well-made gallows sprung open, but it does not. James Carruthers is notable as being the first man hanged at the County Jail, but also because he was also a man who killed again after he was deceased. Yes, after.

Legend has it that the doctor tasked with completing an autopsy on the deceased prisoner took an awfully long time travelling from elsewhere to Barrie to do the job that summer. His tardiness, along with an unfortunate cut to his hand, led to blood poisoning that eventually killed him. 

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.



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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.
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