This Week in Peterborough: 1910


A cell at the Peterborough County Jail, built in 1865. (Image Source)

This is a milestone post here at the blog, as we find ourselves once again looking at late June.  That means that we have now come through a full calendar year’s worth of posts, as the series began with a look at this time in 1858.  It would be pleasant to celebrate the anniversary with a post about joyful tidings in Peterborough, but sadly, those were in short supply this week in 1910.  In fact, there was something very grim indeed going on in our fair city.  Read on for that story, some interesting news about flight, and a couple of other bits and pieces as well!

A very quick note before we begin: I was unable this week to get access to the Peterborough Examiner papers for the time in question (unfortunately, as I was very interested in what they might say about the event we are going to discuss).  So this week’s post is based almost entirely on the Peterborough Review, with some input from the smaller Peterborough Times.


Peterborough Review, June 20th, 1910.

Around Peterborough, it was a sombre sort of week, as the city was to be the site of an execution.  The condemned was a 17-year-old from northeast England by the name of Robert Henderson, who had been convicted of murdering 74-year-old Margaret McPherson with an axe.  The Petersborough newspapers described Henderson as the youngest person to be executed in the Dominion of Canada, although that may not have been quite true (there is some suggestion that Archie McLean, hanged for murder in B.C. in 1881, was only 16).

As the week began, Henderson’s lawyer F.D. Kerr was frantically trying to get his client’s sentence commuted.  Kerr first argued to a Court of Appeal that the jury at Henderson’s trial had been improperly instructed, and then, when that attempt was rebuffed, he approached the Federal Government and in fact met personally with Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier.  Here, Kerr argued that Henderson’s youth, a documented history of insanity in his family, and the fact that the jury had recommended mercy should all mitigate against the execution.  While Kerr may have had some valid points, it was not enough to save the young man.


Arthur English, aka Arthur Ellis, in the 1920s. (Image Source)

Robert Henderson went to the gallows at the Peterborough County Jail on Thursday, June 23rd, 1910.  His demeanour, described by that day’s Review, was one of “self-possession and reserve of feeling,” and the execution, as far as such things go, was routine.  It was attended by the necessary officials, a few reporters, and two clergymen from St. Luke’s Anglican Church.  The hangman on this occasion was Arthur English, who had adopted the pseudonym “Arthur Ellis” in tribute to a famous British executioner.  English would become Canada’s chief executioner in 1913 (that post belonged to John Radclive in 1910), and hold the position until losing his job over a horribly botched hanging in 1935.

The attitude of Peterborians towards the hanging of Robert Henderson seems to have one of deep solemnity; he had committed, without any doubt, a horrendous crime, but his youth and questions about his mental health gave rise to a certain amount of sympathy for him.  In addition, the Review at least was staunchly abolitionist when it came to the death penalty.  On June 21st, the paper responded to a Hamilton Spectator editorial that had called for the replacement of hanging with a more efficient method of execution “not because hanging is peculiarly degrading or brutalizing, but because there are other deathdealing processes which are less likely to be bungled…” (ironically, the Spectator went on to recommend the electric chair).  The Review took serious issue with that statement, replying:

“Hanging is at once brutal and barbaric.  As a method of execution, it is doomed, for public opinion is rising steadily against it…  All forms of capital punishment, however, are ill in keeping with the age of churches, hospitals, forward movements, havens and rescue homes.”

Despite the newspaper’s assertions about the future of hanging in Canada, it remained the country’s sole method of civilian execution until 1962, when the death penalty was carried out for the last time.  Capital Punishment was officially removed from the Criminal Code in 1976.


Little Lake Cemetery. (Image Source)

After the execution, St. Luke’s Church sought and received permission to have Henderson buried, not in the jail-yard as was customary, but in Little Lake Cemetery.  The June 24th Times reported that within hours, the grave “was literally covered out of sight by boquets [sic] and other floral emblems,” which certainly suggests something about local sentiment.  The people of Peterborough also seem to have had little time for “Mr. Ellis,” the executioner.  According the June 24th Review:

“[Ellis] is not inclined to be boastful, but speaks of his gruesome work in such a technical fashion that the average listener is repulsed.  Quite a number who heard him refer to Henderson’s hanging as ‘a nice clean job’ waxed warm around the collar, and said things about him that weren’t even mildly complimentary.”

Henderson’s was only the second execution in Peterborough since Confederation, the previous such event having occurred in 1873.  There would be two more in 1920, on the same day, and the fifth and final hanging in the city was carried out in 1933.  The jail where the executions took place still stands just north of the courthouse, but has not housed prisoners since 2001 and is slated to be demolished shortly.


Peterborough Review, June 20th, 1910.

While Henderson’s execution was obviously the Big Story around Peterborough this week in 1910, we will leave aside that sad business, because there were in fact other things going on.  In terms of world news, there was a great deal of attention being paid to a number of exciting developments in the young field of aviation.  In the U.S., Charles K. Hamilton, piloting a Curtiss airplane, had just become the first person to fly from New York to Philadelphia and back, a feat described by the June 24th Review as “never… equaled in the history of human flight,” and “something that merged fiction into fact.”  Prior to that, Hamilton had put on an hour-long demonstration of flying over Governor’s Island in New York, and the June 20th Review waxed extremely enthusiastic about this event as well:

“[Hamilton gave] the most remarkable demonstration of aerial skill ever seen in the Western Hemisphere… Everything that a might fish-hawk might do, Mr. Hamilton did with the flying machine.”

Overseas, as well, people were taking to air.  June 19th saw the maiden voyage of the zeppelin Deutschland, the first German passenger airship.  It was a luxurious vehicle, described as follows by the Review on June 20th:

“The cabin… is of mahogany, built after the style of a sleeping-car.  It is carpeted and inlaid with mother of pearl.  Large windows provide an outlook on both sides… A restaurant will provide cold meats, coffee, tea and wine.”


The Deutschland — 485 feet long and 46 feet wide, capable of speeds of up to 35 miles/hour. (Image Source)

While the Deutschland’s first trip went well, her second was not as successful.  On June 28th, the airship crashed in bad weather near Bad Iburg, Germany, although nobody was seriously hurt.

There was little on the Canadian scene to divert the attention of Peterborians, although the first rumblings of the 1911 federal election campaign could be heard.  On June 20th, Conservative Party leader Robert Borden spoke to a crowd in Niagara Falls on the subject of natural resource conservation: “[t]his can be accomplished without discouraging private enterprise…” were his words, according to the next day’s Review. The 1911 election would be a momentous one for Canada, and we will deal with it in more depth next time.

And so we return once again to Peterborough, where, aside from the unhappy goings-on at the jail, the usual summer activities were taking place.  As an interesting entertainment note, the city was hoping to play host to a concert by famous Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, with the show tentatively scheduled for September 17th.  Unfortunately, it does not seem to have taken place, at least not at that time.


Peterborough Review, June 21st, 1910.

Finally, there was one other bit of sad news on the local front.  The June 21st Review announced the death in Montreal of Richard White, publisher of that city’s Gazette newspaper.  White, along with his brother Thomas, had been the founders (in 1856) and long-time publishers of the Review itself.  Thomas White, for his part, went on to be a member of Sir John A. MacDonald’s cabinet.  While still in Peterborough, however, he published a general survey of the town and surrounding area, based on the census of 1861.  That, I confess, is a bit of a plug, since we have reprinted excerpts from that document, and you can find more details about it under “Booklets” above.

Next time, we’ll take a look at Dominion Day in 1911, and other events in Peterborough around that time (included, as noted, the run-up to the big election)!


Peterborough Review, June 20th, 1910.


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