Tag Archives: Robert Downey

The Buck Lake Murderer


Perth Courier, September 23, 1881

“Robert Downey, the man who captured Elijah Yankoughnet, the Beck Lake murderer, was killed on Tuesday by falling into a culvert”.

Months ago I found this newspaper headline and couldn’t find out anything else until today. After doing another attempt , I found out it was The Buck not Beck Lake Murderer and found the account of the incident in the Frontenac County GenWeb  Newspaper Clippings.

In those days no one cared about the family that was left, and one only has to read the 1882 article in the Toronto Daily Mail to see how the prisoner’s family was shunned. One month later Robert Downey, the man who captured Yankoughnet, the Beck Lake murderer, was killed on by falling into a culvert.




1882- clipping from the Toronto Globe and Mail

The Buck Lake Murder Trial– from Frontenac County GenWeb  Newspaper Clippings

The spring arrises at Kingston,in the year 1882, opened on Wednesday, April 19th. The business before the court on the first two days did not occasion any great public interest. On Friday the 21st, the court house was filled with eager audience to hear the trial of Elijah VanKoughnett charged with the murder of John Richardson of Loborough on the 13th of August, 1881. Since his capture on the island in Buck Lake, VanKoughnett had been in custody in the county jail. Seated in the prisoner’s box he looked much better for his protracted incarceration. Last year he looked careworn and haggard, but on this morning of his trial he appeared healthy and fat. He kept sobbing off and one and eagerly scanning the room evidently in search of his wife, who was not present when the court opened. When the Crier began to call the names of the Jurors, the prisoner broke down altogether and cried bitterly. Mr. T. H. McQuire was counsel for VanKoughnett, and Mr. Henderson, Q. C. was present for the Crown. The Jury was chosen and the Clerk of the Court than read indictment charghing the prisoner with the murder of John Richardson.

Mr. Henderson, crown counsel addressed the jury and stated the present case was most important in its results to the county. He explained the details of the murder and spoke of John Richardson as a quiet and inoffensive man. He also explained to them the responsibility of their position and what constituted the crime of murder. VanKoughnett was charged not only with murder but also with arson in connection therewith. He explained the nature of circumstantial evidence and stated that it was,in many cases, stronger than any other. A man may lie, but the circumstances and facts cannot lie. It was upon circumstantial evidence that the case largely rested. He further explained that confession made, after having been duly cautioned, was also the strongest kind of evidence.


Buck Lake 1920s-Postcard for sale on the Declampe Auction site.

The first witness called: William Green who lived a half mile from Richardson testified that Richardson owned a double barreled shotgun which he had borrowed some years ago. On Saturday, August 13th, 1881, he had heard the report of a gun between seven and eight o’clock in the evening. He thought Richardson was out hunting,but when he looked out across the lake he did not see him. On the following Monday morning, Green saw Richardson‘s barn burning and he went over to Richardson’s house, but he was not in there. Then he looked in the barn and he was not there either. He saw the stable was burned down, and noticed small horse tracks going into the stable and large horse tracks coming out. Green formed up a search party of men in the neighborhood and Richardson’s body was found about 30 rods from his house lying on the corner of a rock. There was wounds in his neck and breasts. A short distance from the body was a place where the grass had been trampled down as if some one had hid there for sometime.

Dr. Saunders who conducted the Coroner’s Inquest was then called to the stand. He declared he had conducted the post-mortem examination upon Richardson with the assistance of Dr. McCammon. He found the right side of the chest was wounded immediately below the collar bone. On the left side there were other wounds, one immediately below the nipple, which he believed cased death, by piercing the left lung and the aorta of the heart. He thought Richardson had been dead 2 or 3 days when the examination was made.


W. R. Freeman, a carpenter, who lived about a mile from Richardson testified that Elijah VanKoughnett borrowed a buggy from him on Sunday the 14th of August. On the 11th of August, the Thursday before the murder he had bought an old wagon and a boat from VanKoughnett for $10.25. VanKoughnett also had an old horse which he wanted to sell, but Freeman said he would not give him twenty-five cents for it, as it was old and crippled. Learning of the tragedy he followed the buggy marks to Richardson’s house. The tracks of the horse was a peculiar one, the animal throwing its feet out. Another set of tracks were found but a new horse was hitched to the buggy. The horse’s feet were larger. Freeman traced his buggy tracks to the house of John Sears, not because there were not any marks.

Mr. A. Sears testified that VanKoughnett had previously told him, about a week before the murder, that he intended going away but before he did, he would do something that people would remember him by. Sears identified the gun in the court room as belonging to Richardson as he had saw him with it many times.

Malcom Green, gave evidence that he saw Elijah VanKoughnett in Mr. Tatt’s store and heard him ask for buckshot, powder and caps.

Mr. W. W. Brown, sworn, deposed : Stated that he lived in Elgin and saw Elijah VanKoughnett on Monday, August 15th in the morning. He had never seen him before, and VanKoughnett said his name was James Stephens, that he was a shoemaker and lived at Mud Lake above Fermoy. He wanted to trade a horse for a mare. They both went to look at Brown’s mare, and to trade VanKoughnett wanted $15.00 to boot. Brown asked him if he knew anyone in the neighborhood and was referred to John Whalan and John Jacobs of Wesport. Brown wanted to know with whom he was dealing and suggested that he and VanKoughnett go to Westport but VanKoughnett did not think he would. After breakfast VanKoughnett changed his mind and they started for Wesport. But on the road VanKoughnett said he knew where he could buy a mare that he would rather have. Brown offered him $30.00 for the horse, but VanKoughnett said he had given $40.00 for it at John Richardson’s sale two years before. Brown offered $35.00 which was accepted, and gave him $29.00 being all he had with him at that time. VanKoughnett was to call back in a few days for the balance of the money, but he never did.

Alexander Floody, sworn: Stated he had a Warrant for his arrest of VanKoughnett and went to Elgin where he heard he was, but while there VanKoughnett was arrested by the late Mr. Downey.

James Shields a blacksmith, testified he regonized the horse sold to Mr. W. W. Brown, as belonging to John Richardson as he had shod it many times, and was familiar with the animals appearance.

Mr. A. Stoness testified he saw Elijah VanKoughnett on Friday August 19th at his house at Stoness Corner. VanKoughnett, Stoness and Mr. Downey left for Kingston and on the way VanKoughnett referred to Richardson’s gun. He said it was under Richardson’s haystack near the road and the left hand barrel was loaded. The prisoner was brought in to the stationhouse in Kingston. When the late Mr. Downey went into the island on Buck Lake in search of VanKoughnett he was not long in finding him. When Downey came upon VanKoughnett, the latter drew a knife from his pocket and threatened to commit suicide. Downey told him it would be better for himself and his family if he gave himself up, and he did so.

Court adjourned for the day.

On Saturday, April 22nd, court opened at 9:30 a. m. The first witness called was F. C. Matthew Campell. He testified he was a member of the Kingston Police Force and after VanKoughnett was brought to the station house , he and P. C. Samuel MacCormack took VanKoughnett to the county goal,(jail). There was a conversation took place on the way, Cambell cautioned VanKoughnett not to say anything that might be used against him. This fact was corroborated by P. C. MacCormack when he was called to the stand.

Mary Dennee, sworn: Stated in evidence that Elijah VanKoughnett visited her home, after an absence of some two years. She asked him how things were. He replied things were dull and he thought her husband might hire him. VanKoughnett also said he had come to stop a few days with her, if she would keep him. Then he burst out crying and told he he had been fooling with a gun on Friday and he had shot big John Richardson, didn’t know the gun was loaded. At this time Mrs. Dennee had not heard of the murder. VanKoughnett then went out and she went after her husband in the afternoon. VanKoughnett came back and spent the night. He left the next day, said he was going back to Buck Lake. Lawrence Dennee, also gave evidence and stated that Elijah VanKoughnett was a cousin to him.

This concluded the case for the crown. The accused was not placed on the stand to give evidence. Instead, his counsel, Mr. T. H. McQuire addressed the jury at great length. Among other things he drew to their attention that when a motive cannot be found why a man does certain things; it is questionable whether he done it at all. He reviewed other features he regards the evidence presented, and concluded by saying that it was up to the jury to judge the case with the utmost care.

The crown attorney , Mr. Henderson, addressed the jury. At the conclusion of his address, the judge addressed the jury and stated they were simply asked to find a verdict in accordance with the evidence, but if they were afterwards convinced that the evidence was erroneous they were not responsible. The first point to consider was Richardson killed. There was no doubt that he had been killed. The question then arose who killed him. If the prisoner did, did he intend to commit murder. Following this His Lordship reviewed the evidence in detail with regard to VanKoughnett’s admission to Mrs. Dennee it would follow that he had killed Richardson by misadventure. On the way to Kingston he made such a statement telling where the gun could be found and on a search being done by Downey, it was found where VanKoughnett had stated. This was an important point. It was evident that Richardson would say , “Don’t be fooling with the gun or it may go off “. It is likely that the owner of the stolen gun would talk in that manner when he saw it in the hands of another man. Again, he ststed he did not know the gun was loaded, but afterwards he told witness that the left barrel of it was still loaded. To reconcile these two matters is for the jury to decide. Further if the jury were satisfied that VanKoughnett had offered Richardson’s horse for sale and that his own was burnt in the barn, how could they reconcile these two points with the prisoner’s story about accidently shooting him. ”The jury must not pay any attention to the reports of newspapers. They could bring in a verdict of manslaughter, but I see nothing in the present case to reduce the verdict from murder”. Mr. McQuire suggested to His Lordship that the prisoner having fired off only one of the barrels might come to the conclusion that the other was loaded also. His Lordship made the statement to the jury. The judge then read the evidence to the jury after which they retired to consider their verdict.

When the jury retired they took with them the gun, buckshot, and wadding. After they had examined the evidence was discussed for about 10 minutes, at the end of which time eleven were in favor of bringing in a verdict of guilty. The 12th juror gave his reason for not agreeing that it had not been stated in evidence what time the prisoner had arrived in Elgin and the distance between Richardson’s farm and that place. He wanted to know these facts in order to see if it were possible for VanKoughnett to have arrived in Elgin at the same time as stated by Brown. His Lordship informed the jury that it was 23 miles from Elgin to Richardson’s place, which showed it was possible for the prisoner to have arrived at Elgin early in the morning.

The jury again retired and were out about ten minutes, when they filed into Court again, solemn faced. The prisoner watched the jury eagerly and leaned forward a bit in his seat. The foreman rose and in answer to the Clerk said,” Wilful murder with a recommendation to mercy.” After the verdict had been rendered VanKoughnett looked stupid, as if he had not heard what was said. When His Lordship heard the verdict he said ,”I do not have anything to do with the recommendation of mercy – any mercy would have to be extended by a higher power”. When VanKoughnett heard the verdict he said it was too bad that he should suffer for things that he was put up to do by others. He would rather be sent to the penitentiary for life than be hanged, as he would then be able to see his family.

Court adjorned,the prisoner was returned to the jail, and the court room cleared.

The next day, Tuesday, the 25 of April, 1882 VanKoughnett was returned to the courtroom for his sentence. When he entered the court room he burst into tears and cried aloud. On being seated in the box he leaned forward and sobbed like a child. The prisoner was ordered to stand up, and he did so, trembling from head to foot.

His Lordship: ”Elijah VanKoughnett have you anything to say why the sentence of the court should not be pronounced upon you?”

VanKoughnett: ”Well gentlemen (sobs for a few seconds) I have been a foolish man. I have been led through the country like you lead a horse. (Loud sobs and when he tried to speak again he broke down completely and cried aloud.) that was the cause of my downfall to-day. I hope you will have mercy on me a poor worthless creature like me (he tried to proceed further but his tongue would not respond and put his handkerchief to his mouth, he stood trembling and looking expectantly at the jury. He held his breath and a deathly silence ensued for a few seconds.) The stillness was broken by His Lordship, who appeared to be much affected. Looking at the prisoner he said, ”After a long and patient trial and being ably defended, you have been found guilty upon evidence that could lead to no other conclusion then that you are guilty of the murder of the 1st John Richardson.” It is clear that you stole his gun.”

VanKoughnett: Your Honor I cannot hear what you are saying. Let me go near to you Sir.”

After a moment of profound silence His Lordship continued, ”It is clear that you waylaid him and deliberately shot him. The jury have found you guilty with a recommendation to mercy. That recommendation cannot affect my sentence but I shall send the recommendation to the proper authorities to deal with as their wisdom is best. But in the meantime I solemnly adjure you not be misled by false hopes of mercy, but to make the best use of the 2 or 3 weeks that you have to live in preparing yourself to meet your creator. You will have the opportunity of consulting your minister of religion and I earnestly implore you to listen to the teachings of the church. If you become truly penitent it will be a matter of comparatively little difference whether you will be allowed a few more years in the world you are in. I cannot hold out ant inducement. The sentence is that you be taken from whence you came and there kept according to law, and that on the 28th day of June, next, between the hours of eight a. m. and four p.m. you be taken to the place of public execution and there hanged by the neck till you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

The prisoner was led out of the court. Before leaving the room he took his handkerchief from his eyes and looked upon the audience, evidently in search of sympathizing countence. As he decended the stairs his sobs could be plainly heard in the court.

While the sentence was being pronounced there was a number of wet eyes in the courtroom, the prisoner presented such a pitiable and pleading object.

JUNE 28,1882- Daily British Whig
Elijah VanKoughnett, the Buck Lake murderer is no more. At nineteen minutes past eight o’clock he took the fatal leap into eternity, in expiation of his crime. Yesterday afternoon the gallows were made ready for its work. The trap was made ready, the rope hung from the hook in the ceiling above and at the end of which attached a 150 lb. anvil to scratch it to its full length. The compartment which has recently been used as a female bathroom was whitewashed and made clean and neat, and made to look as cheerful as possible under the circumstances. About four o’clock the trap was tried, the heavy weight being attached to the rope and it was found to work well. On a little table to one side were two pairs of black, crepe gloves and two black not masks, which are for the use of the despicable hangman.

The cause of death in hanging is complex; the compression of the windpipe by the cord, the obstruction of the return of venous blood from the head, and the flow of arterial blood to the brain, and the stretching or tearing of the nervous structures of the neck, and in some instances the dislocation or fracture of the vertebrae may occur in the producing of the fatal effect, which though attented by the most violent struggle in some cases is probably as nearly instantaneous as possible.

Last night the Sheriff visited the condemned man in his cell, who said he was ready for his execution. At a quarter to eight this morning VanKoughnett was visited by the Rev. Mr. Joliffe who recited parts of the sixths and third chapters of John and the seventh chapter of Ravelations, after which he engaged in prayer with the prisoner. During this time the black flag was hoisted over the goal. At fifteen minutes past eight VanKoughnett was told by the Sheriff “ to prepare for death”. He said,”I’m ready, Sir,” in a trembling voice, and removed his boots. Picking up a clean white handkerchief that was provided for him, he left the cell in the company of Rev. Joliffe and the Sheriff. When he reached the corridor and saw the officials standing at the foot of the stairway he burst into tears and exclaimed in a loud voice,”Oh Dear me.” On the way to the scaffold he saw a man from Wolfe Island, the only spectator allowed in the goal outside of the Press and the officials. VanKoughnett with tears steaming down his cheeks said,”Is that my brother? Is not my brother here?”

He answered in the negative, when he obediently turned and proceeded up the stairs. The room in which the hanging took place did not admit any natural light, especially with the door closed and light was provided by two small lamps placed a few feet from the scaffold. The execution took place by lamp light. The prisoner took his place on the trap. The hangman approached the doomed man’s back with a cord about twelve feet long. He pinioned the victims arms behind his back at the elbows. While doing so he tugged upon the cord with such brute force that VanKoughnett cried out in pain and said ,”Please don’t tie my arms so tight”; “it hurts my shoulders.” The thongs were loosened and made easier and VanKoughnett said,”Oh my Dear Lord look upon me with tender compassion and bless my poor soul.” His legs were then bound together by the hangman with the end of the cord which was already tied around his arms.

The trap is about six feet long and three feet wide. The rope was placed around his neck with the knot under his right ear. Then VanKoughnett asked for Mr. Corbett, the Sheriff and said, ”Mr Corbett you will not forget to send my photograph to my mother.” He was assured it would be done. ”Remember VanKoughnett,” said Rev. Joliffe ,”That God has promised mercy to every sinner” ”Lord have mercy upon me “ was the response. The poor wratch it seems had a chew of tobacco in his mouth all the time, as at this juncture he spat a large quid from his mouth which fell right in front of the executioner. No cap was placed upon his head which had been the custom heretofore.”Good bye gentleman”, said VanKoughnett. Rev. Jollife standing immediately behind the trap then engaged in prayer,”the prisoner has confessed his guilt and is about to atone for it with his life, help him Lord.” “Do, do Lord”, cried out VanKoughnett. The prayer was continued and just as the word ‘Amen’ was pronounced , the trap was sprung VanKoughnett was launched into eternity. The fall did not break his neck and he died of apoplexy. The body was cut down at the end of a half hour and placed in a rude coffin. He struggled very little after the drop.

Two oranges were given to VanKoughnett by the Sisters of Mercy, but he did not eat them. He requested Rev. Joliffe to write a note directing that one be given to his brother George and the other to Susan Green (his sister ). He left his last testament to his daughter. He left not a word for his wife’s ear. She last visited him four weeks age, he still held her accountable for his position. A week before his execution word had been received from Ottawa that no reprieve would be granted and at the time VanKoughnett lost the viciousness that was apparent in his character.

The drop was between five and six feet.The body was cut down and laid in the coffin and an inquest was held by the Coroner Shaw at ten o’clock. The verdict was that the deceased had come to his death in accordance with the sentence of the court.The government refused to hand his body over to his relatives for burial and in the afternoon he was buried in the goal yard.