Canada’s First Execution

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Canada is a country not known for capital punishment. In fact, since July 14, 1976, Canada has outlawed the use of the death penalty. It should be noted that Canada had a de facto abolishment in 1963 but it was not until 13 years later it was written into law.
There are some in the country who feel we should bring it back, while there are others who are happy we did away with what they see as a barbaric practice.
During the time that Canada did have capital punishment, it was not afraid to use the practice. Over the course of 109 years, from 1867 to 1976, Canada sentenced 1,481 people to death, and executed 710 of them.
That amounts to 6.5 people being executed every single year in the country during the country’s first century of existence.
The last person to be executed in Canada was actually a double execution, of Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin, who were executed on Dec. 11, 1962.
That isn’t what we are talking about here though, we are talking about the first execution in Canadian history and for that we have to go way back to the beginning.
We are going to look at both before and after Confederation to see when the first person was executed.
The first person, as far as is known, was Peter Cartcel, who was a sailor in Halifax harbour. He allegedly stabbed Abraham Goodsides to death, and wounded two other men. Taken to Captains Court, he was found guilty and hanged two days later from the yardarm of the same ship he served on. As far as can be seen, this is one of the earliest examples of capital punishment on Canadian soil.

During the six years before Canada became a country, there seemed to be a spurt of executions. From 1860 to 1866, 40 people were hanged, including one woman.
The last person to be hanged in Canada before confederation was Henry Dowcey in Halifax. He was hanged for trying to incite a mutiny on the ship he was serving on.
The first person to be hanged in Canadian history after Confederation would be Modiste Vilelbrun, a 45-year-old man from Sorel, Quebec. He had murdered his wife and two others.

Beginning in the late 1860s, the only crimes punishable by death would be murder, rape and treason. Only two men, Thomas Scott and Louis Riel, would be put to death for treason in Canadian history.
Prior to 1859, many things could be punished with the death penalty. In all, there were 230 different offences, including being disguised in a forest and stealing turnips.
From 1892 to 1961, only murder was punishable by death.
Public executions stopped soon after Canada became a country. Nicholas Melady was the last person to be executed in front of the public. He was hung in 1869 for the murder of his father and his step-father. The public could attend some hangings, by invitation only, until 1935. The law officially changed then after Thomasina Sarao was executed on March 28th of that year. After the hangman received an incorrect weight for her, she was decapitated when hung.


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  • The death penalty was still an option under Canada's National Defence Act until 1998. Bill C-25 changed that.

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