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Toronto The history of Toronto’s ‘forgotten 15’ executed at the Don Jail

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The forgotten 15

A rogue's gallery of Toronto's most notorious criminals, hanged in the Don Jail in the 19th and early 20th centuries and dug up a decade ago during a renovation, now rest again in an unmarked grave

The last execution at Toronto’s Don Jail took place in 1962.

It's a bare patch of grass and gnarled tree roots, in a remote corner of St. James Cemetery, deep in the Rosedale Valley.

Nearby graves have tombstones, some adorned with fresh flowers. But there is no stone on this spot.

Lying here, anonymous and unmarked, are the remains of 15 of Toronto's most notorious criminals from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, all hanged at the Don Jail.

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Among them is George Bennett, the disgruntled former Globe employee who, in 1880, confronted and shot the paper's founder George Brown, a Father of Confederation.

The skeletons were found in 2007, when the notorious prison was being converted into the administrative offices for the new Bridgepoint Hospital next door.

Looking up from the lower level of the gallows room in the old Don Jail in Toronto on March 30, 2011

A press conference announced the find. An archeological firm was called into to excavate the site and identify the remains. A documentary crew made a show for History Television.

But then all of the hanged men were reburied in an unmarked grave in St. James Cemetery in December, 2008, after a graveside ceremony conducted by an Anglican priest.

And nine years later, they lay mostly forgotten again. That bothers Toronto writer Edward Brown. Over the past year, he has waged a quiet one-man letter-writing campaign asking various authorities why, despite the elaborate preservation of the jail's architecture, neither Bridgepoint – now affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital – nor anyone else involved thought it necessary to mark the condemned men's second and final resting place.

Despite the vicious crimes they were convicted of committing, Mr. Brown says these men deserve more than an anonymous patch of grass.

"It's a foul topic," he says, standing near the final resting place on a recent weekday morning. "But still, it is part of our history. You can't always be celebrating all the great stuff in our city. … It's just the right thing to do."

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He says his letters to Bridgepoint officials over the past year were largely ignored. At one point, a hospital official advised him to contact the Ontario Heritage Trust, but officials there say any gravestone would be Bridgepoint's responsibility. So does St. James Cemetery. After The Globe and Mail started making inquiries this week, hospital officials did get in touch with Mr. Brown to say they were willing to discuss his concerns.

In an e-mail, Sally Szuster, a spokeswoman for Sinai Health System, said Bridgepoint followed the province's Cemeteries Act legislation in order to meet its "legal and ethical requirements" when the bodies were reburied.

But she said the hospital wouldn't rule out installing some sort of marker: "Further consultation will be required to address Mr. Brown's request, and we have reached out to him, apologizing for the delay in getting back to him, to discuss recognition at the burial site."

There is a commemoration of sorts at the Don Jail site. The last paragraph of a plaque about the jail's exercise yard, now green space on the hospital grounds, tells visitors that the remains of the hanged men were found there. It does not list their names. A series of white paving stones mark the spots where the graves were found. The stories of a few of the hanged men are also told on a plaque inside the jail building, which is open to the public.

Executions at the Don Jail had a medieval air. Before 1905, they occurred outside, with crowds of onlookers peering over the jail walls. Afterward, they took place in a dark shaft built from a former washroom inside the prison. The practice of burying the dead men inside the exercise yard walls stopped in 1930. The last execution at the Don Jail took place in 1962.

Demonstrators outside the Don Jail protest the hangings of Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas.

Kaitlin Wainwright, director of programming for Heritage Toronto, the arm's-length city agency responsible for the blue commemorative plaques placed around the city, said that for her agency to start looking into installing some sort of plaque at the cemetery, it was up to interested citizens to bring forward an application.

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But Ron Williamson, the senior archeologist and founder of Toronto-based Archeologist Services Inc., which actually dug up and identified the remains, says he does not have a problem with the unmarked grave.

"There are lots of burials at St. James that aren't marked – at any cemetery," he said. "They sat in the [Don Jail] yard unmarked for over a hundred years. The decision at the time was not to do it. … I could certainly understand it. … Some of these guys were exceptionally villainous."

Crowds wait outside Don Jail while two hangings take place.


The condemned, and their crimes

In 2008, experts with Toronto-based Archeological Services Inc., painstakingly identified the remains of 15 criminals who were buried after their executions at the Don Jail between 1872 and 1930. Here are their stories.

John Traviss, 22
Hanged: Feb. 22, 1872

The tall (six-foot-three) Mr. Traviss was hired to build a house for William Johnson, described as an "old man" in East Gwillimbury, Ont. While there, Mr. Traviss fell for Elizabeth Nichols. But he learned that Mr. Johnson had been "slandering" him to the woman and her family, and the courtship went sour.

In November, 1871, Mr. Traviss visited the Johnson house and stayed the night. The next morning, riding to nearby Queensville in a sleigh with Mr. Johnson, Mr. Traviss shot him in the neck and ran off. Some of Mr. Traviss's relatives later found the sleigh, driverless yet still plodding along the snowy road, with the dead man slumped inside it.

"Naturally violent when wronged, a spirit of revenge gradually possessed me," Mr. Traviss said, according to a lengthy execution-day confession recounted in The Globe.

John Williams, 49
Hanged: Nov. 30, 1877

According to the archeologists' report, Mr. Williams "kicked his wife to death in a drunken rage" in Weston. The couple had 14 children.

Attempted Assassination of Hon. Geo. Brown by George Bennett, March 25, 1880, Toronto. Illustration by Henri Julien.

George Bennett, 32
Hanged: July 23, 1880

On March 25, 1880, an agitated Mr. Bennett, who had been fired from his post as an engineer in The Globe's press room for his drinking, confronted the paper's founder, George Brown, in his office. Mr. Bennett was carrying a packet of rambling letters detailing his grievances against fellow Globe employees – and a gun. In the ensuing struggle, his cocked pistol fired a bullet into the leg of the Father of Confederation. Mr. Brown died weeks later of an infected wound.

The cloth of the fine three-piece suit the killer wore to the gallows was still on his bones when they were found 128 years later. His coffin had rotted away, but the silver cross on its lid was still intact.

Robert Neill (alias Thompson), under 20 years old
Hanged: Feb. 20, 1888

According to the archeologists' report, Mr. Neill was convicted of murdering a prison guard while in jail facing a theft charge.

Thomas Kane, 33
Hanged: Feb. 12, 1890

He was sentenced to death for the drunken beating and murder of his wife, Mary, who according to the archeologists who researched the case, was actually his sister-in-law. She had been married to his brother, who died.

Henry (Harry) Williams (aka August Schmidt), about 40
Hanged: April 14, 1900

Sentenced to death for shooting a Queen Street grocer during a robbery, Mr. Williams was originally scheduled to be executed on April 13, but that turned out to be Good Friday, according to the archeologists' report. He was hanged the day after.

Alexander Martin, 22
Hanged: March 10, 1905

Mr. Martin, according to The Globe's brief account of his execution, swore at spectators and protested his innocence to the sheriff on the gallows. But earlier that day, he confessed to a clergyman that he had in fact drowned his infant child. He had also confessed a month earlier in a letter to his lawyer: "I had a quarrel with my wife, and I had no sign of work, and our money was low, as I changed the last two-dollar bill when I paid for the boat. We had tried to get the baby into several homes but could not. I was near mad, and did not know what I was doing when I threw the child in the water."

John Boyd, 37
Hanged: Jan. 8, 1908

Mr. Boyd had moved here from Indiana three years earlier and shined shoes for a living. He was convicted of fatally shooting Edward Wandle, the 46-year-old owner of a York Street restaurant. The two black men had quarrelled after Mr. Boyd came looking for Naomi Carr, a "white woman" – The Globe pointed out – whom he had left recently over her drinking. Mr. Wandle wouldn't tell him where she was and hit him over the head with a cane. Mr. Boyd came back a little while later with a newly purchased gun.

Pavel Stefoff, about 46
Hanged: Dec. 23, 1909

On April 22, 1909, the body of Macedonian immigrant Vani Simoff was found hacked to death in an Eastern Avenue rooming house with a hatchet. Fellow Macedonian immigrant Pavel Stefoff was found with what police said were bloodstains on his clothes and more than $100 of what was said to be Mr. Simoff's money in his pocket. He spoke little or no English.

(The Globe later revealed, after his execution, that Toronto detectives had learned he was wanted for other murders in New York and Indiana but had kept this secret to avoid influencing his court case.)

Before pronouncing his death sentence, Justice William Riddell noted that Canada had "spread its arms far and wide" to immigrants and that most "come with an honest desire to labour." But Mr. Stefoff, he said, had killed a man for money: "You did that, not in the heat of passion or of revenge for some past wrong or in the carrying out of some feud, but actuated by greed."

John Ziolko, top, with his accomplice John Cekoski below.

Pasquale Ventricini, 45
Hanged: June 30, 1910

At his trial, the Italian-born immigrant claimed he was acting in self-defence when he stabbed and killed a man in a "drunken fit" on Manning Avenue, the archeologists' report says.

Jan Ziolko, 31
Hanged: April 13, 1915

He was one of two Polish immigrants tried for the $75 robbery and murder of a man with a hammer.

Hassen Neby, 36
Hanged: Jan. 3, 1919

An Albanian immigrant, he was sentenced to death for stabbing and killing a Canadian Pacific Railway bridge worker in Weston.

Frank McCullough (aka Leroy Swart), 24
Hanged: June 13, 1919

He faced the hangman for killing a police detective.

Frederick Davis, 45
Hanged: May 9, 1922

Frederick Davis

On Aug. 7, 1920, the body of eight-year-old Philip Goldberg was found by a passerby in a vacant lot in the Sunnyside area. The boy's throat had been slit from ear to ear, his skull crushed. Witnesses had spotted Mr. Davis walking away from the scene of the crime and had seen him earlier with the boy. He was hard to miss: He had gold teeth, wore a wig, walked with a limp and may have had open sores on his face. He was suffering from syphilis, which may also have given him dementia.

Toronto detectives had tracked him down in a New York jail, serving a sentence for some other crime. A jury here took just two minutes to find him guilty. His lawyer sought to have his death sentence commuted because of his client's reduced mental state, but failed.

Edward Stewart, 33
Hanged: March 24, 1930

A labourer, he was convicted of killing a Gerrard Street butcher during a robbery.

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