The city of Hamilton by most standards is a new city having its first mayor Colin G. Ferrie elected in 1847. It nestles at the western end of lake Ontario, Canada. Today it’s a large and modern metropolis the major part of which is below the Niagara escarpment, locally known as the mountain. There are many and various buildings both modern and old, industrial and domestic. However one is forever missing, the infamous Barton Street Jail, commonly known as the Barton Bastille. A chill should run up your back if you stand on the corner of Barton and Ferguson Streets looking at the spot where the ugly old jail once glared down at passers by.
You can almost hear the moaning of the long forgotten dead. It is hard to imagine that just a couple of meters from the public sidewalk eight men’s lives were terminated at the end of a rope. The ugly stonewalls have given way to a grassy lawn. The new and modern facility stands well back off the road.
In olden times public punishment was employed to deter would-be offenders. Executions by hanging often took place in public, usually on or near the site of the crime. In Canada’s early days the short drop was most popular. A barbaric method of hanging in which the body weight of the victim strangles the poor unfortunate individual to death.
The so-called humane ‘long-drop’ came to Canada from England, where they had made a science of hanging. Too great a drop would decapitate the victim and too small would cause agonizing strangulation.
In 1868 an act of Parliament brought an end to public hanging in England. Michael Barret being the last on 26 May 1868. Hamilton’s last public execution was that of John Mitchel, who as it said in the newspapers ‘Took the long-drop,’ on 7 June 1859.
It may seem rather barbaric by modern standards, but people were hanged for what at the time appeared to be a good reason. A form of nemesis, “Reap as yee sow. An eye for an eye.” Judicial murder could be excused or could it? So what of poor old John Mitchel?
Even before the Barton Bastille had been erected the city jail was a miserable structure opposite what is now the Superior Court, the old John Street Post Office building, standing on the spot where the McMaster University Central campus is today.
6th of June 1859 Monday. For many days people had stopped their horses on Main Street and gazed up at the magnificent scaffold the workmen were preparing for John Mitchel. It looked a mammoth structure on top of the jail wall. A platform of some seven by four meters with wooden pillars raised three meters at each end of the structure. An impressive cross beam bridged the pillars, from which would hang the rope.
The entire engine of death was painted black, in keeping with the mood of the occasion. It looked impressive and was the first structure of its kind in twelve years. Monday night a crowd gathered in the hope of seeing something. At nine o’clock men mounted the structure and attached that dreadful rope.
John, also known as Patrick or George Meehan of Limerick Ireland lay in his cell listening to the course jokes hurled by the crowd at the workmen. Soon the crowds dispersed and the night air was still and the morning of the seventh dawned.
7th of June 1859 Tuesday. John looked to be a powerfully built man of medium height. His hands were rough and used to hard work. His shoulders were broad and powerful, with a slight hunch. His eyes were dark and deep set giving him the appearance of a simpleton.
The bell tolled seven as almost a thousand people accumulated to watch the last moments of the unhappy Irishman. Without even the smallest sign of trepidation he strode firmly but slowly to the scaffold. John stood bravely on the appointed spot. Already the cap of death sat upon his head, yet not drawn over his face. Slowly he scanned the sea of faces as if in judgment over the crowd.
In a low but clear and steady voice he addressed the audience. “Well, me dear friends and neighbours,” he said with a slight Irish lilt. “I hope that you won’t be offended if I say a few words to you about myself. I am told that this would be the seventh day of June. ‘Twas on the seventh day of January last, ‘twas a Friday as I recall the seventh of January. I was in the tavern of Master John Duffy. I was there from ten o’clock in the morning till four in the evening, and then till half past eleven that night.
“I was in company with some persons in the bar room. I asked John Duffy for a bed, but he proclaimed that all his beds were occupied. ‘Twas then that I went to a strange house on York Street but I did not like to trouble the good people at that house.” He stopped, turned his head side to side as if scratching the back of his neck on his collar; his hands being pinioned firmly behind him. “I… I then went to Calvin’s; I don’t know his last name, but tis Calvin on MacNab Street that I’m meaning. I asked him for a bed, but he said all his beds were occupied. I didn’t know where to go.
“‘Twas my thought that I’d go to the Station House, but it would not look well of me, as I had money in my pocket with which to pay for lodging. ‘Twas then that I went back to York Street, where this woman was stopping the night. The door was left open and I went up the stairs to the room where this woman was in the bed that I myself had paid for.
“She asked me where I had been all the night and talked a great deal at me. I was not of listening and heard not what she said, but that which I did hear aggravated me. She kept her tongue a waggin’ for about ten minutes straight. She said that someone was trying to take the child away from her. She did not know who it was, but they were trying to take the child from her.
“In the morning she rose before I did. The child was in the bed with me. She went downstairs and then came back again. She talked a good deal and aggravated me. I can’t recollect the words she said. The passion rose so high in me I couldn’t keep it down.”
Mitchel began to breathe a little faster and his eyes became somewhat moist. “I looked at the child and couldn’t keep the passion down. The weapon was lying close at hand, I… I, jumped out of the bed and took it and… and, you know my tale of woe. I am the man that did it, John Mitchel.
“Now dear friends, I have been speaking a good while to let you know that I was not a man incline for such business, only for the woman I would not have done it. I forgive you all and I hope you and all men forgive me.”
Father Gordon stepped forward. “Do you acknowledge the justice of your sentence?”
“I do,” John said softly.
“Are you willing to die, and do you hope for mercy through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?”
“It is willing that I am,” the Irishman said firmly, “and I hope for mercy through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I am most honestly sorry for my sins, and pray to our blessed Jesus for pardon.”
“Do you die in the ancient faith of the one and only true Catholic Church?”
Mitchel nodded, followed by a soft, “I do.”
The Priest rambled on nervously. “Do you freely forgive all men?”
“I freely forgive all men. Into thy hands oh blessed Jesus I command my spirit, have mercy upon me oh Lord my God,” Mitchel said in a wailing voice. Trembling he kissed the crucifix held out to him by Father Gordon. The executioner wearing a hood to conceal his identity ordered Mitchel to kneel, which he did meekly and the death cap was pulled over his face.
As the priest entered into a prayer the bolt suddenly drew. With a gasp from the spectators John Mitchel alias George Meehan was launched into eternity. Only the rope remained visible to the audience as the body dropped beyond sight. It was a good hanging, if it is possible for a hanging to be good. It was painless and death came swiftly. The face of the corpse though pale, looked quite pleasant and not distorted at all.
It sounds very sad that the life had been wrenched from John for it could not help Eliza Welsh, his victim. What was the story of the dead woman? This is her tale of woe.
November 1857 Eliza Welsh a somewhat homely woman in her early thirties. All her life she had been at the beck and call of others, not quite like Cinderella. She made a poor living working in bars and doing odd jobs. Her life seemed a continuous drudge.
On one cold and wet night a man who called himself John Mitchel came into the bar where Eliza worked. By the end of the night Mitchel was drunk, he had always been a powerful whisky drinker. He took a fancy to Eliza, even though he was as ugly as the devil himself, Eliza took a fancy to him. His stories of daring do, his escape from the very clutches of the Irish police. To Eliza he seemed a gentle, powerful, and exciting man.
When at last a new morning dawned, John Mitchel did not throw the woman from his bed. The very bed that he had paid for with his own money. He longed to please her and be friendly. He bought her breakfast and served it to her in bed.
Both were in need of a new and clean start. Mitchel had a good job at the harbour unloading ships. At work he was known by his real name John Mitchel. In private he was known as George Meehan. The confusion being deliberate, should anyone look for him at work he could see them and run, but only friends would be looking for George Meehan.
December 1857. The arrangement worked well. John and Eliza lived as husband and wife. They set up home in a small shack not far from the Harbour on the northeast of town. For the first time in many years both enjoyed a good Christmas. It was a happy and joyous time.
They spent Christmas night in a cheap Inn on Mountain road, now John Street. The party finished in a drunken brawl. The police questioned Eliza and John though no charges were made. They finished the night in their draughty little shack.
May 1858. Eliza and John began the fatal decline in their relationship in early May. John lost his job through fighting and turned to strong drink for solace. Eliza worked in a public bar but her recompense was very little.
Eliza returned to her former trade to subsidize the income until John caught her rolling in the hay with a paying customer. A fight ensued, the police turned up. John gave his name as Patrick Meehan. Eliza accused her customer of rape and a warrant was sworn out to that effect.
John had a fear of publicity and in particular the police. Both he and Eliza vanished that night. They fled to Toronto there to make a new start. He managed to find work odd jobbing here and there, making enough money to feed them both and keep them clothed.
September 1858 Fate began slowly closing in on the unfortunate couple. Eliza gave birth to their first and only child, a boy. The infant was an added strain on their relationship as he cried continuously. Again John found himself out of work and winter quickly approaching. As soon as Eliza felt strong enough they planned to move on again.
6th January 1859 Thursday. This day started cold and clear, with very little snow. John and Lizzy had a little money left. The only hope of working seemed to be the Port Dover Railway. The line was being extended and many labourers were required. At about 6:00 A.M. while quite dark the trio set out in the direction of Hamilton.
By noon both Eliza and John were half frozen and near to exhaustion. John saw the answer to their problem as they approached the Grand Trunk Railway near Oakville. There an incline would slow the train to a slow walking speed. Eventually they reached the track where they sat shaded from the cruel wind until a train came along. Their prayers were answered in the form of a lumbering old freighter that came along bellowing clouds of smoke as it negotiated the hill.
The Gods and the Grand Trunk Railway had been kind; near the middle of the train were two empty boxcars. John ran alongside the train pulling the bolt open and sliding it back, the door opened easily, the car was empty.
“Quickly woman quickly,” he yelled.
Eliza reached near exhaustion. John grabbed the child and put it in the car, then climbed in after it. As Eliza put out her hand he grabbed it roughly and pulled her into the accelerating train. The two sat trying to recuperate, their lungs almost frozen from gulping that fearfully cold air.
Soon they would be in Hamilton and would have to get off the train before being detected by a rail inspector. The thought of a warm prison cell seemed more inviting than a cold, rattling train. The journey rumbled on almost endlessly. It was about three fifteen as they walked into Hamilton along the York Road.
“Wait here,” John said.
The woman stopped but he walked on and entered the Morden House. It was a dirty little inn made by connecting two adjacent houses.
Nancy Morden spied them. “What is it you’re looking for?”
“A room for my wife and child,” John said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “There is no room here.”
John turned to walk out. “What you saying woman,” came a voice. John turned to see the smiling face of John Morden the proprietor.
“Come lad,” said Mr. Mordon. “We’ll find room for you.”
Thus it was, that John Mitchel found a room for the night. Quickly he ran and fetched Eliza and the child. Mrs. Morden was unimpressed by them. John quickly explained that they would be no trouble at all and how they had walked all the way from Toronto in that cold weather. Lying was one of his higher achievements.
John settled the woman and child in a small room at the top of the first flight of stairs then dashed off to the farmer’s market for supplies. They did not wish to take charity from the good lady of the house, as already she seemed unkindly toward them.
7th January 1859 Friday. John and Lizzy awoke at around six thirty. Lizzy cooked a small meal for them on Mrs. Morden’s open fire in the barroom, and then fed both John and the child. A meagre repast but better than nothing at all.
John left the house at around nine on his quest for work. Eliza left with the baby a short time later. She visited the cemetery and then walked around town. Late in the afternoon the two met on Mountain Road (John Street). Then walked to a public bar on MacNab Street and proceeded to consume ample liquor.
The sun had already set when they returned to the Morden House. John left soon after and began his last pub-crawl. It would be better than a quart of whisky later and one in the morning when he returned to the Morden house.
8th January 1859 Saturday. The ostler let John in cautioning quietness. Pretending to be sober the drunken Irishman ascended the creaky wooden stairs. The door was already open. Slowly he pushed himself into the dark room.
“Where have you been?” Eliza growled in an angry tone of voice.
“What the hell is it to you?” he replied throwing himself onto the straw mattress. “I’m my own man, I’ll do as I will.” The drink did most of the talking for him.
The baby awoke and began to cry. “Now you’ve woken the child.” Eliza said angrily.
“Ah that bloody brat, I thought I told yah to get rid of it. Fourteen weeks of torture, that bloody thin’ has meant to me.”
Soon the intoxicated John fell into a drunken repose. Eliza and the baby had a poor night. The cold kept the child awake. The incessant crying of the youngster did little to assist others in the house to sleep.
Mrs. Morden’s brother, David McAlvery a brakeman on the railroad had arrived at about 7:00 A.M. He felt tired and looked dirty after a long haul from London. Nancy made him comfortable and then prepared his breakfast. David always stayed with his sister when in Hamilton.
About 8:00 am Eliza descended the stairs while the baby still slept in the bed with John. Margaret Feagan the house girl, David McAlvery and Mrs. Morden were at the breakfast table. Eliza warmed herself by the fire.
At length the opportunity that Lizzy Welsh had awaited so patiently, arrived. Mrs. Morden approached the fire.
“I hope we didn’t keep you awake,” Eliza said.
“No,” replied Nancy Morden rather coldly.
“We have nowhere to go, would it be all right to stay one more night?”
“No, I’m sorry, the room is promised. You can’t stay here.”
Eliza looked noticeably upset. “But we have nowhere to go.”
“That’s unfortunate, I’m sorry. Try on MacNab Street. I want you all out today.”
Eliza left and climbed the stairs.
“That was unkind,” David said to Mrs Morden.
“I don’t care I don’t like them, I don’t want them in my house.”
Eliza sat on the pine trunk at the foot of the bed thinking for awhile. Suddenly the child began to whimper. She removed it from the bed and fed it on a solution of whisky and sugar. It seemed unfair that life could be so cruel, Eliza had no living relatives, save for her own child, no money and nowhere to go.
Having been fed the child seemed happy. Again Lizzy put him in bed with John, then resumed her seat on the trunk. Quietly she wept for her plight was grave and insoluble. To save her baby from the cruel Canadian weather she would have to give it to the Sisters of St. Joseph.
At length John woke up. “What yah cryin’ about, ya’ stupid woman?”
The statement was as a red flag to a bull. She replied with a stream of obscenities aimed at the heart of the Irish renegade. The argument raged for only a few moments when he jumped out of the bed and ran at the woman slapping her. He returned to the bed, still fuming.
“You filthy Irish pig,” she yelled at him. “Why don’t you take your little bastard and keep it?”
With that John leapt up and again he rushed at the woman who by now stood by the crude washstand. He grabbed the open razor that was lying so close and handy. With massive force driven of anger he swung out striking her across the side of the neck. She fled towards the only exit to evade the deadly attack.
John, a powerful and agile man, caught her in two strides. He struck again across the back of her neck. She turned and screamed.
“Quiet woman you’re not hurt,” John shouted, but she screamed at the top of her voice again. He approached her menacingly.
Eliza yelled at the top of her lungs, “For God’s sake neighbours come in, he’s murdering me.”
“Silence,” John growled and took another strike at her. She put her hands out to protect herself from the onslaught. The razor caught her on the hand. She pulled her hands back to gaze dumbfounded at the damage. John struck again but this time the blow caught her across the throat.
Blood gushed forth in great billows drenching the shocked Irishman. Eliza stood there not even comprehending what had happened. In blind panic John dropped the weapon, trembling with fear and shock he put his hands to her throat to stop the dreadful flow of blood. He felt her growing limp. It was then he noticed all the other people in the room.
Letting go of the dying woman John scooped up the razor and said, “She had a mind to do it for a long time.” He placed the razor in the bed for hiding. Eliza slipped to the floor. She lay there a moment then tried to raise herself up. She outstretched her injured hand as if asking for help, her eyes pleading for assistance.
The onlookers watched as Eliza gurgled in an attempt to say something, then fell with a splash into the crimson lake of her own life essence. John made as if to leave the room but David McAlvery prevented him.
20th January 1859 Monday. A preliminary hearing was held but it turned out to be an open-and-shut case. John Mitchel claimed the woman did it herself. His testimony was packed with lies, at that time he thought he might get away with it – he underestimated the police and the law.
Mitchel was told to tell his side of the story and then sworn in and cautioned. He trembled slightly as all eyes were on him. “My name is John Mitchel,” he began, “but I have been called Meehan. My story is a sad one. This woman swore a rape against a man before the magistrate here last spring. Since then she has threatened to put an end to herself. I was living here in the Hamilton area last spring.
“I went to Toronto with her, for it was her idea. She was not my wife. She always kept me with her. I am a labourer. I can’t tell you who’s the father of the child for she was a loose woman. I have been living with Eliza about fourteen months. She told me that her name was Eliza Welsh.
“I found the woman in Hamilton, in a house down at the lake. She had lived with a man called Patrick Meehan. I don’t think she had any friends or kin in this country. She was a lonely woman.
“She got up upon that morning, I was in bed asleep, I don’t know whether she went downstairs. I saw her come into the room with a cup of whisky in her hand, she had a terrible liking for the hard drink, she had sugar and hot water, ‘twas for the child. She drank the whisky. I drank none.
“She said some angry words to me. She said, ‘I’ll leave you today.’ I said, ‘Very well, I’ll go back to Toronto.’ She said she would put an end to herself. She had already went to Mr. Gedd’s and to the Sisters of Charity, to try and get the child away. She said that if they would not take it, she would leave it at some gentleman’s door, for she could not bear to suffer in this way any longer.
“I was all this time in bed. I didn’t mind anything till the baby was thrown into the bed to me. I jumped up, and she was stretching for death. The first one I met at the door I asked for a doctor. She was then lying on the floor. She was bleeding. I saw the wounds on her neck. I asked her what was the matter.
“She was in the habit of drinking whisky. I am innocent of this crime. I… I said that I would stand my ground as the woman was of simple mind and had done away with herself. This is all I have to say.”
His story was at best weak, suicide is seldom if ever by cutting the throat, and although no one actually saw him attack Eliza there were people there in the room only seconds after the event. Only John had been present and only John was covered in blood. The medical evidence showed the weakness of his testimony.
William L. Billings, surgeon gave the medical evidence for the prosecution. “The body was found upon the floor in the doorway between the rooms, lying upon the left side, there was a considerable pool of blood upon the floor. We found a wound upon the left side of the neck extending from the mastoid projection to the middle jaw, being seven inches in length and two inches depth. This was undoubtedly the fatal wound. The jugular vein, the nerve and external carotid artery had been divided.
“There was a large gaping wound upon the back of the neck, occupying fully half the neck, being nine inches in length and almost two inches deep, dividing the ligaments between the second and third vertebrae opening the spinal canal, but not dividing the spinal cord.
“Also there was a third wound about one inch below the last described, and extending to the left side of the neck, being four inches in length, but only through the integument. There was a large wound on the right hand between the finger and thumb, almost severing the thumb from the hand.
There were no other recent marks of violence on any other part of the body. From the foregoing examination we are fully of the opinion that the deceased came to her death from wounds on the neck. And from the extent and situation of the described wounds she could not have inflicted them herself.”
Dr. Edwin Henwood MD. corroborated Dr. Billings’s evidence. The court was satisfied that there was nothing more to ponder on.
The verdict came down: “That the said Eliza Welsh alias Eliza Meehan came to her death from the effect of certain wounds inflicted on her neck, on the morning of the eighth of January, with a razor in the hands of one John Mitchel, and that the said John Mitchel is guilty of murder.”
At the meeting of the next assizes John would stand trial for murder. There being no doubt at all that Mitchel was guilty of one of the worst crimes in Hamilton. His trial would be short and the verdict a foregone conclusion.
6th June 1859 Monday. Tomorrow morning the black cloud of death would descend on John Mitchel and his miserable existence would terminate. He had led a hard and godless life, stealing and cheating, now it was too late to repent.
He asked to see his child. The Sisters of St. Joseph obliged and brought the baby to the jail. Mitchel took the young thing in his arms as tears welled in his eyes. The young bundle of innocence was his only link with immortality. Some small part of him would live on in that child even after seven o’clock tomorrow morning.
The child had been given to Mr. Martin, who under payment of the City of Hamilton had looked after it until sickness overcame it. Mr. Martin handed the child over to the Sisters of St. Joseph. The Sisters lovingly cared for little John until the 12 January 1860 when he died. Mitchel’s link with immortality expired. Eliza and little John and big John Mitchel all were dead and now almost forgotten.