The Execution of Alexander Burns — Capital Punishment in Canada


Over  40 people, including 1 woman, were hanged in Canada from 1860 to 1866. After Confederation 1,533 death sentences were passed between 1867 and 1976, resulting in the executions of 691 men and 11 women, between 1867 and 1962.  From 1869, only murder, rape and treason were punishable by death. Only two men were executed for treason.
They were Thomas Scott, an Irish Protestant, who was hanged on the 4th of March 1870 in Red River in present day Manitoba.The other man was Louis Riel who led an uprising in what is now the province of Saskatchewan. Riel was convicted of high treason and hanged in November 1885.

Between 1892 and 1961, the mandatory penalty for any conviction for murder in Canada was death by hanging. Canada’s last fully public execution took place in 1869 when Nicholas Melady was hanged for the murder of his father and step-father.
The law changed – by  decree on January the 1st, 1870 and future executions were in private.

The public continued to be allowed to attend hangings up to 1935, by invitation. However, after the decapitation of Thomasina Sarao at the Bordeaux Jail in Montreal on the 28th of March 1935 it was stopped. Sarao had murdered her husband to collect the insurance but she did not deserve ‘the ending’ she got. Due to the hangman being given the incorrect weight for her, she went to meet her maker in two pieces. It marked the end of Arthur Ellis’s 22-year career as Canada’s “Official” Hangman and Ellis died three years later alone in his Montreal hotel room.

In 1961, an act of Parliament divided murder into capital and non-capital categories, as in Britain. The last executions took place at Toronto’s Don Jail, on December the 11th, 1962, when Ronald Turpin was hanged alongside Arthur Lucas for two unrelated murders.  The last person sentenced to death was Mario Gauthier on the 14th of May 1976 for the murder of a prison-officer in Quebec.  

On July 14, 1976, the House of Commons passed Bill C-84 on a free vote, abolishing capital punishment from the Canadian Criminal Code and replacing it with a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole for 25 years for all first-degree murders. The death penalty was removed from the Criminal Code in 1976 and Canada totally abolished capital punishment in 1998.


Postcard from BANQ-Cote :CP 030068 CON-N° de notice :0004436423

The Official Notice

On Friday, Sept. 6. 1858 Alexander Burns of Bolton Township, Quebec, who was convicted of murdering his child, was hung in front of the Montreal  jail at 10 o’clock. An immense crowd witnessed his execution.

Author and Executioner Notes:

Burns, Alexander

Why am I even sharing public hangings with you? It seems old Thomas Easby from Lanark County wasn’t the only horrible person around. When you read history, sometimes you do not expect to see horrific events happen, let alone where you used to live. History isn’t all flowers and sunshine.

Reading a book about the Eastern Townships it was mentioned briefly that Alexander Burns from Bolton Townships in Quebec had caused an incident that was soon not to be forgotten. Being the inquisitive person I am, I dug further and realized that this local man was right up there with quite a few I have written about.

Alexander had several children and had gotten one of them pregnant. When the child was born the devout Methodist took the newborn into the woods and killed it. Someone reported it, and he was found guilty of murder.

Alexander Burns from Bolton Townships in Quebec and Dr. Jesse Patterson were supposed to be hung at the same time for unrelated offences in Montreal that day in 1858. It was to be a public double-hanging but one of them received a last-minute reprieve and this resulted in the spectators rioting.

A large crowd had shown up at the gallows which was erected at a street corner outside the jail. Unknown to the crowd Patterson’s sentence was commuted that morning. When the jail gate opened and only Burns was brought out the mood of the crowd turned ugly.

The hangman quickly dispatched Patterson but the crowd started shaking the gallows and throwing debris at the staff. Police from a nearby station arrived to help. The mob left the scene and caused great damage to the area shops.

erez (8).jpg

Photo from BANQ-Cote :CP 030055 CON-N° de notice :0004435942


Quebec historian Penny Redmile was looking for anyone with connections to Mr. and Mrs. Burns of Bolton Township, or any of their 10 children. She had found a tutorship which had listed all their names and ages as well as the group of men that were called together to choose a tutor and a sub-tutor of the children.

Why is this important? This particular tutorship was the first one ever found for a condemned man’s family. Redmile  was interested in knowing if the children continued living in the Eastern Townships with the tutor, or in Vermont with the sub-tutor. After the horrific family events, did the children keep the last name of Burns? As Penny said, it was rather a tough tale to tell to the ancestor looking for information.

I couldn’t find any other hangings in Lanark County but I did find these for the Eastern Townships area.

19 Dec 1890 Lamontagne, Rémi Sherbrooke Quebec murdered Michel, Napoléon (brother-in-law)
 07 December 1923 Brodeur, Raoul 27 Sweetsburg, Quebec murdered Boyer, Henri
15 May 1931 Vincent, Albert 28 Sherbrooke Quebec murdered Trudeau, Edmond
06 May 1932 St-Pierre, Albert 39 Sherbrooke Quebec murdered Malloy, René
PERSONS SENTENCED TO DEATH IN CANADA, 1867-1976: An Inventory of Case Files in the Fonds of the Department of Justice

If you really really want to read more..


Related Reading

Fame and Murder Came to Balderson in 1828

The Thomas Easby Murders in 1829 — Foulest Ever in Lanark County

Murder in Carleton Place –Peter Cairns

The Buck Lake Murderer

The Media Then and Now–Johnny Gillies Had a Gun

Shocking Murder in Almonte–Michigan Charlie

Murder on Maple Island

Bitten by the Kissing Bug — A Shocking Conclusion to the Life of Carleton Place’s Daniel E. Sheppard

The Tale of a Pirate named Bill Johnston with Pirate Dog Supermodels

Assassinated Gossip about Lincoln, Payne and the Thousand Islands

The Man Who Would Be The Revenant

Murders and Mysteries of the Mississippi Hotel

Did Samuel Pittard of Ashton Murder His Wife?

Come and visit the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page– what’s there? Cool old photos–and lots of things interesting to read.

Information where you can buy all Linda Seccaspina’s books-You can also read Linda in Hometown News and now in The Townships Sun

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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