End of the rope: The story of Canada’s last executions
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Bramwell Everitt knew something went wrong when his father came home from the Don Jail with his blue Salvation Army chaplain’s uniform splattered with blood.
“Something went terribly, terribly wrong,” said Cyril Everitt, that December night in 1962. “I don’t want to get into it now but something went terribly wrong.”
It’s been 50 years since two men hung from the gallows in Toronto’s Don Jail – the last to receive capital punishment in Canada. Cyril was their chaplain, a man committed to saving the souls of two convicted killers whose lives were scheduled to end.
Ronald Turpin, 29, was a petty thief who shot a police officer and Arthur Lucas, 54, was a career criminal and pimp from Detroit who killed two people slated to be witnesses in a major drug trial. They were both tried and convicted within a year of their crimes.
Half a century later, questions still linger about what exactly happened on those two fateful nights. Doubts exist about the fairness of their trials, enough that the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted has opened a file on Lucas’s death.
One thing remains certain: Lucas and Turpin were killed Dec. 11 at 12:02 a.m., as the hangman slid a greased plank out from under the trapdoors in the Don Jail.
The event drew mass protests on the night of the hangings. The murder cases sped through courts at a pace that would be considered remarkable today – Lucas committed his crime in November of 1961 and Turpin in February 1962.
They would be dead by December.
The defender charged with their cases, Ross Mackay, 29 at the time, was recognized as bright, but inexperienced.
His daughter, Alison, practices criminal law in Brampton and remembers her father as a passionate lawyer for those accused of murder.
“He just defended a lot of murders – I think far too many. He’d do one after the other,” said Alison. “He’d often go to the Kingston penitentiary; he thought it was important to go even after (trial) to see those people.”
Ross Mackay died in 1983, still firmly believing that neither Lucas nor Turpin deserved to hang. Turpin never denied shooting Nash, but Lucas maintained his innocence until his drop in the gallows.
Questions linger. Turpin certainly shot Nash, but his trial was held in Toronto amidst the public furor that comes after a cop is shot. Much of the evidence in the Lucas case was circumstantial. Both trials wrapped up and sentenced the men to death in fewer than 12 months.
“They really weren’t given a fair trial in either case,” said Alison. The trials were too quick, she said. Pleas from her father for a change of location for Turpin’s trial fell on deaf ears.
Lucas’ trial was Mackay’s first murder case. He defended both men back-to-back.
They hung like that – together, hands and feet bound, in the cramped gallows at the Don Jail; their crimes both deemed capital, their character unfit for this world.
On Nov. 16, 1961, Lucas made the trip from Detroit to Toronto. He registered for a room at the Waverley Hotel, a budget hotel beside the Silver Dollar Room on Spadina Ave. A man named Willie White registered with him.
On the night of his arrival, Lucas phoned Therland Crater, an associate from Detroit who was staying nearby at 116 Kendal Ave., in the Annex. Crater was a small-time drug dealer and pimp who helped police arrest Gus Saunders, a big trafficker at the time, and was slated to testify at his trial.
Crater went to Toronto to stay safe.
Lucas went to Crater’s place at 3 a.m., according to court records. He made a call from Crater’s phone to his apartment back in Detroit. After the visit, Lucas returned to the hotel. He checked out shortly after arriving back around 6 a.m. Willie White also checked out.
The landlord at the Kendal Ave. house phoned police after one of the other residents in the house saw a pair of legs through the front window.
Crater lay on his back in the downstairs hallway, his neck an open football-shaped wound. He was shot four times — overkill, the medical examiner found. He actually died from the neck wound.
Upstairs his wife, Carolyn Ann Newman, lay on the bed with her throat also cut. She was nearly decapitated, said police reports at the time.
A ring belonging to Lucas lay in a pool of her blood.
The double-murder was splashed across the front pages of Torstar News Service in the days that followed.
Court records show police found a discarded revolver on the Burlington Skyway. Experts matched it to the bullets in Crater’s body.
By the time Lucas returned to his home in Detroit, police were already waiting. They found bloody articles of clothing in the car.
Toronto-based Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted is looking into Lucas’ case after a request from his family.
“People are claiming he’s innocent and, if he is, he deserves to have his name cleared. We’ve been looking at it for a couple of years,” said Win Wahrer, director of client services.
Wahrer speaks weekly with Larry Conway, son of Arthur Lucas. He phones from Detroit, still haunted by his father’s death.
“I talked to him one time over the phone,” Conway remembered in an interview with Torstar News Service.
“He said he would be home. I didn’t think he was in trouble – he didn’t think he was in trouble.”
Conway’s voice trailed off.
“Every time I talk about this I break down and cry.”
Wahrer declined to give any details on their assessment of the case, stating it was still under investigation.
Lucas maintained his innocence until the end of his life, even when his death was certain and Salvation Army chaplain Cyril Everitt offered him the chance of a clean conscience through confession.
Alison’s father, their defender, believed Lucas was innocent until the end. Whether by blind conviction to his task as a defence attorney or faith in facts, Ross’s belief has been passed on to his daughter.
“He didn’t have the sophistication to plan and kill like that. It looked like a complete setup – like a ring that he supposedly wore is placed within inches of lady’s body. Somehow the gun he used to shoot the man, he’s supposed to throw over the bridge yet it’s found just on the ground,” said Alison.
The case of Turpin is clearer – there is no doubt he shot Nash. For Alison, the doubt comes from what exactly transpired the night of the shooting and in the trial that followed.
Ronald Turpin was a 29-year-old with a penchant for petty theft. On Feb. 12, 1962, Turpin broke into the Red Rooster Inn on Danforth Ave. With $631 of loot, he fled west. Const. Fredrick Nash, 31, was on shift that night.
He pulled Turpin’s truck over near Dawes Rd. for a routine check. What happened next was anything but.
Two men were shot that night. Nash was hit at close range through the abdomen. The wound was fatal – he died on scene. Turpin was shot in the arm and in the face, carving a scar into his left cheek that would give his mugshots a sinister appearance.
Turpin never denied shooting Nash — he was caught red-handed — but the circumstances of the shooting are still the subject of debate, as is the trial. Ross applied to have it transferred to another city where the jury may be less biased, but was denied.
“The media had covered that and already were saying the officer died a hero, father of four daughters and this is horrific,” said Alison. “Basically the whole city seemed to want this man convicted before the trial started.”
Bramwell Everitt remembers his father’s last-minute attempts to save the lives of the men. He was watching the 50th Grey Cup on TV at home. The phone rang. Then 21-year-old Bram answered.
“Hello. Diefenbaker. Is your father there?” said the voice on the other end.
“I nearly dropped the phone,” Bramwell said in an interview with Torstar News Service.
The 13th prime minister of Canada was phoning to speak with Cyril, offering a slim chance for clemency for Lucas. Turpin, he said, was done. Shooting a cop carried an automatic death sentence at the time.
Lucas was unwavering in his profession of innocence, but at peace with the penalty.
“He always maintained to my father that he didn’t do it, but he also said he’d done many other terrible things in his so-called career that it was just catching up with him,” said Bram.
“I’m telling you I didn’t do it, but I’m ready to go – I did some other things in my life,” Lucas would say to Cyril.
Bram remembers when his father left to be by their side. He was their constant companion throughout the incarceration and determined to be there at the end. Putting on his dark blue Salvation Army chaplain’s uniform, Cyril bid his wife and son goodbye and headed to the Don Jail.
December 10, 1962 was a cold and windy day. The hanging was scheduled for 12 a.m., Dec. 11. Cyril would have walked up the regal steps of the Don Jail, a bust of Father Time staring from the archway as a reminder that time was up for two men.
Neither had any last words on the gallows, but Everitt later told Torstar News Service that in those dwindling hours of his life, Turpin said, “If our dying means capital punishment in this country will be abolished for good, we will not have died in vain.”
While Cyril was at the jail, Lillian White, Turpin’s common-law wife, called Bram at home as she had done regularly while Turpin was incarcerated.
“She was a really lovely lady – dad had met with her a couple of times. She phoned the night of the hanging after my father had gone and asked if my father would call her when he got home,” said Bram.
The men passed their final hours much like they had the previous year – speaking with their chaplain. They ate steak together and, when the hour arrived, walked down the Don Jail’s stone hallway towards the gallows.
Hoods were placed over the heads of the men. Their last vision, a flat grey gallows wall with wooden beams overhead. A room not more than six feet deep. The face of their chaplain. Guards. The executioner.
The Starreported that Cyril read Psalm 23 – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me,” it reads in part.
The pair had a signal with Cyril. He would say a phrase, signaling to the hangman that it was time to loose the trapdoor and they would fall to their deaths.
The last words they were supposed to hear were, “My eyes have seen thy salvation.”
“They never heard the end of the word, salvation,” said Cyril in an interview with the Salvation Army.
Turpin died quickly, cleanly. Lucas wasn’t so lucky. Their chaplain later described a bloody scene:
“…Lucas’ head was torn right off. It was hanging just by the sinews of the neck. There was blood all over the floor,” said Everitt in an interview with the Salvation Army’s internal newsletter.
The end of executions
The deaths of Lucas and Turpin brought the total number of people executed in Canada to 710. All of them were hanged.
The death penalty lingered in Canadian law for more than a decade. The government of Lester B. Pearson passed legislation in 1967 to temporarily suspend executions for murder except in the cases of police and prison guards.
The death penalty was abolished July 26, 1976, with the passage of a bill barring its use introduced by the government of Pierre Trudeau.
Today the gallows at the Don Jail have been taken down. A ghostly outline of the timbres remains on the wall, preserved as a reminder of what was once commonplace. The building itself is being renovated to become offices for Bridgepoint Health.
The cells where Turpin and Lucas spent their last few hours have been taken out, replaced with a kitchenette and washroom for the nearby meeting area.
After the hanging and customary verification of death, the bodies were taken down and carted to a mass grave at Prospect Cemetery, near St. Clair Ave. W. and Caledonia Rd.
Cyril was there to say the last words.
He later told recounted that people, likely police and prison officials, were standing around smoking. He had them all put out their cigarettes and spoke the final committal for the damned men:
“When I came to the part about ‘as it has pleased Almighty God.’ I left that out because I didn’t think it had pleased God.”