First Public Viewed Execution in Elizabethtown – 1853

Convicted Man Killed Farmer On Back Road, Hanged in Court Yard”

Strange things sometimes happened to murders in Canada West. Witness the case of John Simpson, alias Christopher Hill, publicly executed in the jail yard at Brockville on November 17, 1853, less than six months after he had beaten to death John Fell, an Augusta Farmer, on a lonely country road within view of the country town.

To-day not only do the bones of John Simpson remain in existence at Delta but stranger still, part of the tanned hide of the murder is also retained there.

Alf Howard he did him skin,

Alf Booth he did him tan

And to make a saddle they did begin

And rode upon poor Simpson’s skin”

So runs the homely jingle still current in Leeds County. Strange doings indeed, but life was still rather primitive in Ontario in 1853, the doctors stood in sore need of anatomical material not always readily obtainable and vengeance remained the all important end of justice.

Simpson’s end came at the conclusion of a long career of petty crime which had involved him in repeated difficulties. Illegitimate son of a woman living in Norfolk, England, he was brought up in a sordid and brutal surroundings, forced to steal and finally, at a tender age of 12 sent to the workhouse.

Sent to Canada

In the spring of 1836, in order to get rid of the boy, he was sent to Canada at the expense of the parish. He drifted to the upper province, stole a watch at Prescott, then a gun at Brockville, and was sent to the penitentiary. On his release he stole a horse at Brockville from a former employer and was again imprisoned. Again freed he returned to crime, carried out thefts in Toronto, Kingston and Brockville, and was once more arrested and sent to the penitentiary for a term of five years.

Simpson’s time was up in the fall of 1862 and at once he returned to his old haunts and his old practices. On his way down from the penitentiary he stole a trunk containing some clothing. Then he made off with a cow belonging to a man living in the rear of Prescott and a few days afterwards he stole a yoke of oxen from a certain Howard, selling them to John Fell, a respectable farmer living in Augusta Township.

Fell suspected that the oxen had been stolen and communicated his suspicions to Simpson when the latter called at his house. The latter denied the charge and offered to satisfy him, either by returning to him what he had paid for the oxen or accompanying him to the person from whom he had bought them. Fell chose the latter course.

The pair left on foot for a wholly fictitious destination on the morning of May 27, 1853. Simpson confessed that they walked along the country road “in perfect friendship”. He had no thought of doing injury to his companion, he said, but when they reached the third concession in the rear of Brockville and Fell remarked upon the nearness of the town, the thought entered Simpson’s mind to strike him down.

Fell was Felled

A dried beech limb happened to be lying on the ground. Simpson seized it, struck Fell from behind on the side of the head and dragged his motionless body into a root-house, where he left it. He continued alone into Brockville, leaving thence for Prescott, where he was arrested through the use of the telegraph, then recently installed. Simpson declared that he never fully realized what he had done until he found himself in prison and from that moment he never sought to escape execution. In his confession made to the three clergymen, who attended him in Brockville jail, he advised boys to “beware of taking little things and then telling lies to conceal it; this has been the greatest cause of my ruin and is the greatest evil going.”

Nowadays Simpson would have been tried, convicted and hanged in secrecy without much ceremony or fuss. But they did things differently with capital prisoners in Ontario 96 years ago when an execution nearly always performed in public, was regarded as a holiday for the entire countryside. On the day fixed for hanging, farmers from all parts of the surrounding district, joined by many belonging to the town itself, attended the proceedings, and watched the hanging from all available coigns [sic] of vantage. And even after the trap had been sprung and Simpson had expiated his crime he was not permitted to rest.

The hanging of a friendless murderer was more than the doctors of that period, always on a search for anatomical material, could resist. In the case of Simpson, it is said that there was actually competition amongst the doctors of the district for possession of the body. A group of practitioners in Brockville made representations to the Sheriff and another group practising in the neighbourhood of Delta also sought possession of it. It was finally arranged by the Sheriff that it should be handed over to the latter by means of a subterfuge. Accordingly, Napoleon Bonaparte Howard, a son of Dr. Alpheus R. Howard, of Soperton and then a mere youth drove into Brockville in a light democrat (wagon) following the execution and was admitted to the jail yard without question. The body of the murderer, placed in a sack, was put under the seat of the democrat and young Howard drove back to Soperton with his gruesome freight.

Dissection of the Body

When it reached its destination, doctors from the surrounding district met at Dr. Howard’s and proceeded to carry out its dissection before an interested audience of students. Portions of the skin were retained for tanning, the work being done in a tannery at Charleston. The remaining specimen is approximately one-eight in thickness and in texture closely resembles other and more familiar leathers.

The dissection completed, poor Simpson’s skeleton remained in the possession of members of the Howard family and has travelled far in the course of the studies of the various physicians belonging to that family. The first of these was Dr. Peter Howard, who died at Soperton in 1843 after having represented Leeds in Parliament. Two of his sons, William W. and Alpheus R. practised at Soperton. To the third generation there belonged Dr. Leonora Howard King, a pioneer woman medical missionary to China, and Dr. Almanzar Howard, who practised in Illinois. Dr. Clarence A. Howard, of Kingston, and Dr W. Leonard Howard of Detroit, are other members of this celebrated medical family.

(Taken from a newspaper article published in 1949)

We have also heard the skeleton eventually was at the Booth Medical Building in Forthton as we[[ that while Simpson’s hide was made into a saddle, part of it was made into a cover for a bible.

If anyone has any additional information on this story we would appreciate hearing from you