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A History Of Niagara’s First Public Hanging

The first such execution by public hanging on record in the Niagara peninsula took place outside the jail in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Monday morning, August 17, 1801, only twenty years almost to the day after the establishment of the settlement. On that day, Mary London-Osborne and George Nemiers were executed together for the murder by poison of Bartholomew London of Saltfleet.

London was among the first settlers to come into the Niagara region. Leaving a wife and children behind in Redstone, Pennsylvania, he cleared a track of land in Saltfleet and farmed it by himself for several years without apparently contacting his family back on the original homestead.

Then Mary Osborne, a young widow of about 28 years of age and also originally from Pennsylvania, became his housekeeper. In due time, she found herself pregnant, whereupon the couple were married despite London’s previous attachment. Everything seemed to progress quite satisfactorily for the two for some time, until one day an old acquaintance of Mary Osborne’s turned up. He was George Nemiers, a 28 year old American from the same Pennsylvania town as the woman. Since London was getting on in years, he decided to rent his farm to Nemiers, and a triangle developed within a short time. Quarrels among the three ensued, culminating in an incident during which Nemiers struck London with a hammer and fractured his skull.

At the trial later on, a physician testified that the fracture itself would have eventually caused London’s death (a piece of fractured skull was produced as evidence), but the couple decided to hasten London’s demise by more effective means instead of waiting for nature to take its course. They decided on poison, and Nemiers went to a physician to procure himself a vial of vitriol. The couple administered the poison, but the amount proved to be insufficient. Not to be deterred, and quite anxious to become the owners of the London farm, the couple bought a mixture of two ounces of arsenic and one ounce of opium (rats bane) in order to complete the task they had set for themselves. They gave London two doses of poison in his whiskey that same evening, and another dose the next day, and by nightfall London was conveniently dead, leaving, according to a recently drawn-up will, his farm to Mary and her children.

It was a short-lived triumph for the two. Only a few days after London’s death, neighbours reported that not all seemed as it should be at the farm. An inquest was held immediately, the physician recognized Nemiers as the procurer of the poison, and within a week the couple was committed to the jail as Niagara-on-the-Lake where they made a full confession.

The trial was held six months later, during which time both tried to charge each other with the actual crime for their own benefit since there was, of course, no positive proof as to who had in fact committed the murder. Mary Osborne believed to the very end that she would be set free for testifying against Nemiers, and he, in turn, kept insisting that she had “lured him to unlawful intimacy, and from the sin of adultery to that of murder.”
In the end, neither of their attempts to put the blame on the other bore fruit. After an eight-hour examination of witnesses with the Hon.Judge Alcock presiding over the trial, the jury found both of them guilty of murder and promptly sentenced them to death. That was Friday afternoon; the execution was set for Monday before noon – swift justice indeed!

Haltered, the two were ordered to walk out onto the scaffold where a large crowd awaited them impatiently. The pair, as the Niagara Herald reports, “remained silent for a time,” then “the floor falling, launched them into eternity.”

The editor of the Niagara Herald, Sylvester Tiffany, concludes his report with the personal touch characteristic of the journalism of the time. “There is visible evidence in the whole of this business,” he writes, “the hand of Providence pursuing adultery, disregard of marriage vows, and murder; and to those who indulge themselves in the two former, it may be a lesson of instruction, that from them to the last is but a step.”

An almost identical situation occurred in St. Catharines half a century later, when Samuel Stinson, owner of the then Samuel Stinson House (later became Russell Hotel) died of poison on April 1, 1846. His wife Ann and her friend William Henry Homes, alias Henry Byron, were charged with murdering Stinson “by administering two drachms of corrosive sublimate in sulphate of magnesium (Epsom Salts) and beer.”

Evidence during the trial, held three weeks after Stinson’s demise, brought to light that the deceased had indeed taken a dosage of Epsom Salts in his beer on that day in order to relieve intestinal pains, and that he had in fact died of poisoning. Where the poison had come from, and how he had happened to swallow it could not, however, be established with any degree of certainty, and the evidence for a total of ten hours deliberating for an additional hour, the jury returned a verdict of acquittal, thus saving the two accused from an infamous end on the gallows.

Another double and even a triple hanging were scheduled to take place in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1825 and 1826, respectively, both of them for robbery rather than murder, but neither of them was carried out in the end. At the fall assizes of 1825, John Higlet was sentenced to death for highway robbery, and William McDonnell for horse stealing, both to be hanged on October 22. Shortly before the execution was to take place, their sentences were respited to December 28, and eventually converted to banishment, the second most serious form of punishment available to the pioneers in the absence of prisons.

At the fall assizes of the following year, Adam Grass and William Corbin were sentenced to death for horse stealing, and David Springfield for sheep stealing, the hanging being scheduled for October 25. On the morning of that day, great numbers from across the peninsula as well as from the United States gathered in the town to witness the unique event. But minutes before the appointed hour, with the crowd waiting in excited anticipation, a message from the King reached the town, coverting these death sentences to banishment as well. The newspaper of the day reports that the crowd was greatly disappointed and adds that “a wagon-load of cakes and gingerbread had to be sold at reduced rates” – much to the chagrin, no doubt, of the enterprising vendor. Story from the writings of Peter Baltensperger.

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One Response
  1. Sarah says:

    Interesting history…keep ’em coming!!

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