A Hanging In Guelph


Capital punishment has never been particularly popular in Canada. Such was the case of Guelph, Ontario, bookkeeper William H. Harvey. An eloquent and educated man, his life had however been wrought with much misfortune. In March of 1889 he set out on a murderous rampage, intent on killing his family and, then finally, himself.

Originally from England, he had settled in Montreal where he struggled to find a vocation and lost money in failed business ventures. He also lost three children to diphtheria.

Finding work as an accountant in Ontario, he finally settled in Guelph employed by the World Publishing Company. Things finally went well for him as he made a good salary, friends, and joined the St. George's Anglican Church there. But, due to his earlier predicament, he was still in debt. The seemingly trustworthy employee began to embezzle funds.

Arrested, he was so liked a man that one of his many friends, Dr. Stephen Lett, who was one of the founding fathers of the present-day Homewood Health Centre, posted bail for him. Now free, Harvey quickly purchased a gun. Word that he was now packing a revolver spread through small-town Guelph. Concerned police officers, fearing that he would seek revenge upon losing his job, talked to him about it. But Harvey was so affable that they decided he was no threat. Because they were worried he promised to return the gun to where he bought it, himself.

Planning suicide, Harvey feared the poverty and embarrassment his wife and children would suffer after his death. He shot his wife and two daughters and then left for Toronto to kill his son, who had found employment there.

All of this was happening on the day of the trial and when he failed to show up for it police were sent to look for him. Searching his house they found the bodies and a manhunt was quickly underway. Before Harvey could carry out the final murder he was arrested on Yonge Street.

Now being tried for murder instead of embezzlement, he claimed that he didn't remember anything and pleaded not guilty. With the evidence overwhelming, he was eventually sentenced to be hanged.

Many felt that this sentence was awful as he had no doubt suffered temporary insanity. A petition with over 3000 names on it was sent to Ottawa asking that the death sentence be commuted, but nobody on the federal level intervened.

A hangman was needed so the police, fearing that they would have to do the job themselves, put an ad in the paper. A young farm labourer applied and they hoped that he'd be capable of preforming the task. But the night before the execution the sheriff had the young man in a jail cell like the condemned, under guard, for fear that he would run away.

Harvey would not receive a quick death. It has been called one of the most shocking hangings in Canadian history. Instead of putting the knot behind his ear, it was left below his chin. He was alive for ten minutes afterwards and witnesses were sickened by the spectacle of the kicking body and choking sounds from underneath the black hood.

More reading on forgotten Canadian homicides.

All of this inspired Guelph author Mary Swan to write her novel, 'The Boys in the Trees.'

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