HANGING: Canada's hangmen lived dark but colourful lives
It took a certain kind of person to take on the job of public executioner.
So, it should be no surprise, then, that the two most prolific hangmen in Canada’s history — and, by extension, that of Kamloops — are also two of the most colourful characters you’ll find in any history book.
John Radcliffe and Arthur Ellis carried out hundreds of executions in their respective times as Canadian hangmen — Radcliffe from 1892 until his death sometime after 1910, and Ellis after him between 1913 and 1935.
The thing about Radcliffe and Ellis, though, is that not much is officially known about them. Most of the available information comes from news stories at the time of the sentences they were overseeing at the gallows.
Dale Brawn, a law professor at Laurentian University in Ontario and the author of Last Moments: Sentenced to Death in Canada, has researched both men extensively for an upcoming project.
He said the lives they led were as dark at home as they were on the gallows.
“Ironically, both of them were chronic alcoholics who died in hotel rooms,” Brawn told KTW.
“I think it was a terrible job and they coped with it by drinking.”
Radcliffe was hired as Canada’s national hangman in 1892 by John Thompson, Canada’s fourth prime minister.
One of the original stipulations in his contract with the federal government included a clause that might seem odd today, but was apparently the norm for many hangmen of that time around the world — Radcliffe was entitled to the clothes off the backs of the men he executed.
“The fact was he used to make as much money selling the clothes of the person he hanged as he did for the hangings,” Brawn said.
Radcliffe — sometimes spelled “Radclive” — also liked to sell lengths of rope as souvenirs as he travelled the country performing executions.
The problem was, the rope used in the hangings themselves was never passed on to the hangmen.
Brawn said Radcliffe was once caught in a B.C. hardware store by a local sheriff. The hangman was buying extra rope.
“Then he’d sell them as ‘the piece of rope that hanged so-and-so,’” he said.
Radcliffe was British, but lived in Toronto. Brawn said he worked on the side as a waiter at a yacht club in his hometown, but was fired when a customer recognized him from his other line of work.
At the time of Radcliffe’s death, it was reported he had hanged upwards of 150 people.
But, Brawn said, that number is hard to verify.
He said up-and-coming or lower-tier hangmen would sometimes travel from town to town, working under the names of other, more well-known executioners — “Radcliffe” and “Ellis” being popular choices.
Of the 19 hangings in Kamloops, all but two list either Radcliffe or Ellis as the executioner.
But, two of the local hangings attributed to Radcliffe — the Sept. 9, 1912, double-execution of S. Takahashi and Walter Boyd James — took place a year after his reported death.
However, Brawn said the exact date of Radcliffe’s last hanging is unclear, as are the specifics of his death.
Ellis — whose real name was Arthur English — is credited with the final five executions to have taken place in Kamloops, spanning 1913 to 1915, including his first-ever Canadian hanging on Dec. 12, 1913.
Brawn described both hangmen as “braggarts,” but said Ellis was especially obnoxious.
“Ellis was a piece of work because he was so proud of what he did,” he said.
“He’d go to a bar and ask someone to buy him a drink and say, ‘I bet you don’t know who you’re buying a drink for. If you buy me a drink, I’ll tell you about my job as a hangman.’”
Brawn said Ellis used the designation “national hangman,” but he was never officially given the title.
“Radcliffe was the only national hangman,” he said.
The boozing part of an executioner’s job in the time of Radcliffe and Ellis wasn’t confined to pubs and bars. Brawn said condemned men were often lubricated with alcohol prior to being hanged.
“They did not want the panic, the screaming, the tears and all of this,” he said.
“Because it affected the guards, it affected everybody.”
The hangmen themselves were definitely not immune.
Brawn compared their work — heavy travel, lots of downtime — to much less-dark present-day professions, which are also known to sometimes take a toll on personal lives.
“I don’t think it’s much different than hockey players or baseball players or entertainers,” he said.
“The social life begins after the competition. I think that’s probably why they drank like they did.”
And, like the condemned men they met on the gallows, both hangmen wound up paying with their lives — each eventually succumbing to complications of alcohol-related illnesses.
“It’s sort of pathetic in a way,” Brawn said.
“But, they regarded themselves as important in the overall scheme of things.”
NEW ERA IN CAPITAL PUNISHMENT BEGAN IN KAMLOOPS
On Dec. 12, 1913, Paul Spintlum became the 15th man to be hanged in Kamloops.
The execution marked the start of a new era — not necessarily for Kamloops, but for Canada as a whole.
That’s because it was the first Canadian hanging officiated by Arthur Ellis, who would work until the mid-1930s and eventually gain notoriety as the country’s most famous executioner.
In the early 1920s, Ellis purchased an orchard near Kelowna and went into semi-retirement.
Ellis — who worked and trained in England and the Middle East before coming to Canada — performed the last of his reported 600 executions in Montreal in 1935, when a weight miscalculation resulted in a condemned woman’s decapitation.
In 1938, Ellis died of an alcohol-related illness.
THE EXECUTION CAPITAL
Today, Kamloops is known as the Tournament Capital of Canada.
But, a century ago, the community was known for something much more grim.
In the early 20th century, Kamloops was one of the most active execution points in Canada — even topping the national hanging counts in four separate years.
In 1906, 1907, 1912 and 1915, Kamloops sat atop the rankings of Canadian cities when it came to condemned men being executed.
In 1906, three men were hanged in Canada — one in Kamloops, one in Victoria and one in Nova Scotia.
The following year saw eight Canadian hangings, including two in Kamloops. No other city was home to more than one.
In 1912, Kamloops and Montreal each hanged two men. Three other cities hanged one each.
The last year hangings were carried out in Kamloops — 1915 — was also the busiest at the local gallows, with three executions.
That tally matched New Westminster’s mark for the same year, but no other Canadian city had more than one hanging.
On an April evening in 1899, Casimir crossed the Thompson River in a canoe and fatally shot Philip Walker — who had been cutting wood in front of his River Street home.
The killing sparked outrage on both sides of the river and made headlines across North America, described in newspapers from Victoria to Newfoundland and Los Angeles to Boston as "the most cold-blooded killing" in B.C.'s history.
Just 48 days after Casimir fired the fatal shot, he was executed by hangman Radcliffe at Kamloops Provincial Gaol.
The story of Casimir will be detailed in Part 3 of KTW's ongoing series looking into the history of capital punishment in the present-day Tournament Capital.
Part 2: The dark work and colourful lives of Canada's hangmen
Part 3: The most 'cold-blooded' murder in B.C.'s history
Part 4: Hanging was a 'ghastly' way to go
Part 5: Problems plagued the Kamloops Provincial Gaol
CONDEMNED IN KAMLOOPS: Summaries of the murderers executed here and the crimes they committed
Part 3: 1907 to 1910
Part 4: 1910 to 1914
Part 5: 1915