MAC’S MUSINGS: The story of the last man hanged in Cornwall

Claude McIntosh

The last man hanged in Cornwall didn’t spend much time in the old Cornwall Jail from the time Ontario Provincial Police detectives from District 11 arrested him in his London, Ont. home, while having Thanksgiving dinner with his wife and children, until he fell through the trap door of the court yard gallows.

Peter Balcombe, a 24-year-old Canadian Army lieutenant, was hanged on May 25, 1954, less than a year after his arrest for the murder of Marie Anne Carrier, a Canadian Women’s Army Corps Reserve Sergeant.

The wheels of justice moved quicker in those days.

Stacked against today’s lumbering, drawn-out justice system, where a routine trial can take a year, if not longer, and murder trials take years to get under way, Balcombe’s arrest, trial, conviction, appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, and execution moved at the speed of light.

Balcombe’s defence lawyer, from Ottawa, appealed on the grounds that there was no proof that the victim had been murdered in Ontario, thus the charge of murder should have been laid by Quebec police and the trial held in Quebec. The defence also claimed that wall-to-wall news coverage in the United Counties made it impossible for Balcombe to receive a fair jury trial. The appeal was rejected.

Balcombe was arrested just three days after Carrier’s nude body was found in a ditch near Iroquois.

He was having an affair with Carrier while serving at a Quebec military base where she was stationed. The trial was told that upon learning Balcombe was married, the attractive reservist broke off the relationship. She was stabbed several times during an argument with Balcombe over the break-up.

After Balcombe was found guilty of murder on Feb. 27, 1954, his defence filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of Canada. On May 19, the appeal was denied. Six days later, Balcombe was hanged.

The night before he was hanged, the Canadian Army court martialled him, opening the door for Balcombe to be hanged as a civilian.

The identity of the professional hangman was never made public, but it is believed he was Camille Blanchard of Montreal who served as Quebec’s official hangman. The hangman arrived in Cornwall hours before the hanging and booked a room at the Lloyd-George Hotel, across the street from the courtyard. Several members of the official witness party joined Blanchard for a drink in his room after the hanging. He collected his $50 fee before leaving town in the morning.

Several minutes after the trap door was sprung, a local family doctor declared Balcombe dead and the noose was untied from his neck. His family never claimed the body. His remains were placed in an unmarked grave in the courtyard. Later, when part of the courtyard was converted into a parking lot, the body, along with several others, was removed to a local cemetery.

How different it would have been today. It would take at least two years to get to trial. A plea deal might see the charge reduced to manslaughter. With time served, he could be out of jail, after day parole, with less than 10 years served.

TRIVIA ANSWER On Dec. 22, 1977, Mayor Gerald Parisien announced that an $18.5 million redevelopment project covering a two-block area of downtown Cornwall would begin in the spring. The shopping complex was called Cornwall Square. Several buildings, including St. Paul’s United Church, were demolished to make way for the development.

TRIVIA A wind storm on Nov. 25, 1950 wrecked this Athletic Grounds structure. It was never replaced.

IN THE REAR-VIEW MIRROR Some of today’s kids might find this hard to believe, but before the internet, MP3s, iPods, texting, cell phones, Playstation, 58-inch flat screen television sets and surround sound, life was anything but boring for a kid. … It was a time when kids spent most of their free time outdoors. It was a time when kids used their imagination and burned up energy. They played in the streets and hung out in neighbourhood parks. There was always something to do at the park. They rode bikes without brakes. Nobody wore a helmet, not even for a pick-up tackle football game in the park when two appointed captains picked the teams. … They climbed trees and jumped off shed and garage roofs. A bottle of iodine was kept in the family medicine cabinet and used on cuts and scrapes. … The worst thing a kid could hear was “I’m going to tell your mother.” … They had newspaper routes with 60 or more customers and delivered the papers after school, or had a part-time Saturday job as a delivery boy at the family-owned neighbourhood grocery store where your parents ran a bill. … They collected and traded comic books and read Mad Magazine. They played outside games called hide and go seek, kick the can, hop scotch, jumping rope, dodge ball, king of the castle and red rover. … Saturday mornings were spent at the Palace Theatre watching the Bowery Boys, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and the Three Stooges. … Movie heroes were called Davey Crockett, Daniel Boone, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry. … Old Yeller, about a boy and his dog, made us cry.

HERE AND THERE Advice for Donald Trump from a Washington Post columnist – “When you are in hole, stop digging.” … Couple of more weeks and it will be worm picking season. … Barrie Colts head coach Dale Hawerchuk has signed a new three-year deal. … A city doctor, upset with the increased driving time the change has created, wants to kick start a petition to overturn the two-lane system on Second Street east that was created to provide bicycle lanes. … In Chatham, Ont. the issue of police officers being paid while suspended has become front-page news. A Chatham-Kent sergeant made the 2015 Sunshine List ($109,352) while off the job. In May 2014 he was charged with 50 counts of fraud and suspended (with pay). That year he earned $109,878 for five months on the job. The elephant in the room is not so much suspension with pay but the length of time it takes for the courts to resolve a case.

THIS AND THAT The Diocese of Ogdensburg, which includes Massena, is feeling the priest shortage crunch. Recent re-alignment puts four Massena area churches under one pastor. The diocese has seen the number of priests drop to 52 from 92 in 1998. … Media buzz is that Postmedia will make another round of cuts at its stable of newspapers in the second quarter to shed millions in operation costs. The newspaper giant is burdened with unsustainable debt. There’s even talk of a sell-off of some newspapers.

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