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To write a wrong

Phyllis Humby's picture
Sat, 09/07/2013 - 11:13 -- Phyllis Humby

Officials pronounced Elizabeth Workman dead, and then dropped her like a sack of potatoes into the six-foot hole. Her open grave was right beneath the gallows. How convenient. Though not the only woman hanged in Canada, she has the distinction of being the only woman hanged despite a plea for mercy by the jury.

You might find this interesting since most of us regularly travel past Elizabeth Workman's final resting place. That's right. She was executed and buried on Christina Street. It's the site of a motel and restaurant now, but in 1873 it was the Sarnia Jail and Courthouse. It makes me wonder how many more people they buried there.

I learned about Elizabeth Workman and her fate in a recently released book Case 666 – Travesty of Justice. Author Bob McCarthy points out that the whole ordeal seemed a little shady right down to her case number. Hmmm, 666. Isn't that believed to be a symbol of the devil?

Aside from the jury, townspeople and politicians alike begged for mercy for the woman. Apparently, everyone knew that her husband was an obnoxious and abusive drunk. Maybe they figured he deserved to die, or more likely, that Elizabeth and their young son deserved to be rid of him. More than a thousand signatures on petitions asked for commutation of the death sentence. The judge said uh uh. No mercy.

If I'd written the book, I would have focused more on this whacko out-of-town judge. He sentenced her to death ‒ blatantly and adamantly refusing to consider clemency. I wonder if during McCarthy's research, he came across any other trials this judge presided over. How did he sentence other offences? Maybe back in those days he was considered the 'hanging judge'. That's my opinion. At least we can take comfort in the fact that the judge wasn't a Sarnian.

According to the book, there was a lot more to this sentence than a harsh judge. Records indicate that the execution of this poor immigrant from Scotland might have been a political show of power. If that's the case, then shame, shame. That's dirty politics at its worst.

Like it or not, this callous execution in 1873 is part of Sarnia's history. The young mother, convicted of bludgeoning her husband to death, hanged for her crime. That's the end of it. Or is it?

Would you believe that Bob McCarthy is so passionate about Elizabeth's plight that he feels it's not too late to commute her sentence to time served while waiting for her trial?
Forget about concealing this blemish on the city's reputation. McCarthy provided French and English editions of Case 666 to every MP. That's not all. Proof of the dastardly deeds – the murder of Mr. Workman and the hanging of his wife – will be on library shelves across Canada.

But what does this re-hashing of history mean to Sarnia? Will the city budget for a sculpture of Elizabeth Workman and a commemorative plaque to mark her gravesite? Will it be touted as a tourist attraction, along with our pristine beaches and blue water? Let's not forget that she was a convicted murderess. Do we really want to pay homage to this person?

On the positive side, maybe it will be a wakeup call for bullying husbands. Perhaps a trust fund will be set up in Elizabeth Workman's name to help women escape abusive relationships.

It's even possible that McCarthy's book and extraneous efforts to publicize Workman's case will result in a posthumous commutation of her sentence. Regardless of how you feel about this, I applaud all efforts to right a wrong. 

Case 666, Travesty of Justice is available at The Book keeper. For more information visit Bob McCarthy's website

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