1790 - 1834

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1790 - 1834
(with a note on slavery)


Justice was harsh in the early days of pioneer Toronto at the end if the 1700's.  The death penalty was the punishment for no less than 120 different crimes.  Only in 1865 was hanging finally restricted as punishment for the crimes of murder, rape and treason. 

Hanging was performed publicly, and the "drop", a technique where the condemned fell a distance through a trapdoor to have his neck broken,  resulting in almost instantaneous death, was not used at the time.  Instead the condemned died a slow and horrible death by strangulation as he or she were roughly hauled up at the end of a rope tied around their neck or just dangled a foot or so high. 

Even when the drop was used, hanging was still a public and frequently bloody affair.  Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, participants in the Mackenzie Rebellion of 1837, were hung in a horrific  manner before a huge crowd of spectators on the corner of King and Toronto Streets, just across from where the King Edward Hotel stands today.  W.L. Mackenzie described the executions in "Caroline Almanac" for 1840:

They (Lount and Matthews) behaved with great resolution at the gallows; they would not have spoken to the people, had they desire it. The spectacle of Lount after the execution was the most shocking sight that can be imagined. He was covered over with his blood; the head being nearly severed from his body, owing to the depth of the fall.

(Thanks to Dr.  S.I. Gorelsky, Department of Chemistry,  Stanford University for the above quote.)

Public hanging in Canada wasn't abolished until 1869, and in Toronto it was moved indoors from the Don Jail yard into its confines in 1905.


Rebels 1837

King & Toronto Streets
Toronto 1838


Hanging was an expensive undertaking.  In 1828 Toronto's Sheriff Jarvis charged the Province the following for a double hanging:

  • Materials, framing, erecting and taking down

  • the gallows:                  44     0    0

  • Iron work:                          8  13s   6d

  • Painting:                             7  17s  4d

  • Two coffins:                        2    0     0  

  •                                         44   10  10 

  • Sundry expense to executioner and Sheriff's assistant;

  • also for rope cord, dress, and to certain persons aiding

  • the sheriff in erecting the platform and removing the body

  • of the criminal:               15  0     0
    For second criminal:        15  0     0  

  •                                            30   0     0

  • TOTAL:                          92  10   10

Compare costs of the last outdoor hanging in Toronto, in the Don Jail yard in 1905:

  • Erecting Gallows:   $ 58.50

  • Undertaker:                10.00

  • Sheriff's Fee:             20.00

  •                                    $ 88.50

  • Does not include pay to executioner, Death Watch, and some constables.

    ( Source:  James Edmund Jones, Pioneer Crimes and Punishments in Toronto and Home District, Toronto: 1924. )

Execution of Stanislaus Lacroix,  21 Mar. 1902 at Hull, Quebec, said to be the last publicly viewed execution in Canada.
Onlookers can be seen on surrounding rooftops and telegraph poles.


("corporal"--corpus-"body" punishment in the form of pain caused to the body of the condemned by  whipping, mutilation, amputation, branding, etc.)



Branding on the tongue and hand was a common penalty for petty crimes.  In Toronto until 1798, prisoners were publicly branded in open court at the bottom of Berkeley Street near the present location of Front Street.  Except for the crime of manslaughter,  branding was abolished in 1802.








A punishment that remained on the books in Canada until very recently, whipping was most often routinely prescribed for petty larceny (theft under $10), and accompanied by a term in jail.  

The punishment was carried out in public until 1830, usually in the Market Square -- approximately where St. Lawrence Market stands today on Front Street in Toronto. 

Thirty-nine lashes was the most common amount of blows given with the cat-o'-nine-tails, reflecting a Biblical precedent, 2 Corinthians 11:24, where St. Paul declares,  "five times received I forty lashes minus one."


Stocks and Pillory

In the Magistrate's Records of Toronto there was a order in 1811 for the construction of a moveable stocks for two people:  "ordered that a carpenter be employed to make moveable stocks that will confine two persons at once, and when completed that they be erected where a majority of the Magistrates may think most proper."   This was a wooden contraption that consisted of heavy timbers with holes, in which the legs of a prisoner were confined.  A variation on this was the pillory, where the prisoner's head and arms were locked into the device.  The prisoner was then left out at the mercy of the public, which would amuse itself by throwing objects at the prisoners.  The objects would range from eggs to rocks, depending upon how the public felt about the particular prisoner.  With just the legs confined in stocks, the prisoner could at least protect his head and face, but in the pillory there was no such opportunity.  In England, the prisoner's ears were frequently nailed to the pillory but there is no record of this having been done in Ontario.   

In Toronto the stocks were wheeled out for use in the Market Square.  There is only one case surviving on record of their use:  in 1834 Mayor and Magistrate William Lyon Mackenzie ordered a prisoner convicted for larceny to a two month term at hard labour in the jail and "to stand one hour tomorrow, and one hour tomorrow week, in the common stocks, and to be banished."  The use of this device was finally abolished in Canada in 1842.


In 1802 an Act was introduced providing for the banishment of convicts from the Province of Upper Canada for a maximum period up to life.  The convict usually had eight days to remove themselves from the Province and failure to comply was punishable by death.  In 1841 the punishment for unauthorized return from banishment was amended to imprisonment for four years and transportation upon release.

Outdoor hanging in Ontario c. 1895-1900 (possibly in London.)


On occasion, citizens took action on their own, as in the case of one of the earlier murders on record in the Toronto district.  In 1819, just outside of Toronto, a farmhand by the name of De Benyon, brutally murdered his stepson.  The two lived in a log cabin by the side of the road.  On a bitterly cold night in February, De Benyon threw his thirteen-year-old stepson out of the house.  The boy tried to sneak back into the cabin, but his step-father caught.  He tied the boy up, and slowly pushed him into the burning fireplace, first burning his legs, and then eventually the rest of the lad. When the neighbors heard of the murder, they formed into an ugly mob and De Benyon ran towards Toronto.  The mob overtook him near the Don River and he was lynched there from a tree near the river.


Our Toronto forefathers were most often guilty of one particular crime:  assault.  Toronto Magistrate James Jones, writing in 1924 a history of justice in Toronto, observed that the court records in 1828, indicate in a short time period four cases of petty larceny, nineteen of larceny, eight of riot, one of break-and-enter, four of nuisance, and 129 of assault!  Some of Toronto's most prominent citizens, whose names now mark the streets of the city, were brought up on assault charges in our courts:  James Mercer, Jonathan Cawthra, William Augustus Baldwin, were some who were convicted of assault.


Our Toronto ancestors also kept slaves.  Slavery persisted in Toronto much later than we think.  Toronto Magistrates Thomas Ridout, Hon. Duncan Cameron and John Small's minutes for March 1811, describe the escape of two black slaves, a young boy and girl who eloped, belonging to William Jarvis, of the prominent Toronto family:

William Jarvis of the town of York, Esq., informed the Court that a negro boy and girl, his slaves, had the evening before been committed to prison for having stolen gold and silver out of his desk in his dwelling-house, and escaped from their said master, and prayed that the Court would order that the said prisoners, with one Coachley, a free negro, also committed to prison on the suspicion of having advised and aided the said boy and girl in eloping with their Master's property, they were accordingly ordered to be brought before the Court for examination."

The court held that the "said negro boy named Henry commonly called Prince, be remitted to prison and there safely kept till delivered according to law and that the girl do return to her said Master."

While slavery was banned in Ontario 1793,  this was to "gradually be done without violating private property."  Thus slaves purchased prior to the ban, were not freed, and furthermore, children born to female slaves subsequently, were to remain slaves until the age of twenty-five.  Under these laws, a female slave, one year of age in 1793 when the act was enacted, and who for the sake of argument, could give birth until the age of thirty-five,  could have technically sustained slavery in Toronto until about 1850.  In the Magistrate records there are references to blacks as "free nigger" and "a free man of color."  Surnames for Blacks were not in favor:  a 1819 record shows a charge of assault against "Catherine, calling herself Catherine Meyers."  She is later referred to as, "Catherine, a woman of colour."   

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Peter Vronsky 2002-2004