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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Real Arthur Ellis – Canadian Hangman

Canada's Last Hangman - John Ellis
The Crime Writers of Canada annually honour the best crime fiction and non-fiction in Canada with the Arthur Ellis Awards. The shortlists for the 2013 Awards will be announced next Thursday evening. I only vaguely knew the Awards were named after Canadian hangman, Arthur Ellis.

Arthur Ellis was actually a pseudonym. The first Arthur Ellis was Arthur B. English who had emigrated from England. Most sources say he was related to English hangman, John Ellis.

He became Canada’s official hangman in 1913 and continued in that role until 1935. It was claimed he presided or assisted in over 600 executions in England, the Middle East and Canada.

Arthur Ellis
B.A. McKelvie in an article My Friend, the Hangman, from the book Outlaws and Lawmen of Western Canada – Volume Two, discusses his personal relationship with Ellis:

Arthur Ellis was an artist. I like artists who take a pride in their work. Besides, he was a genial, kind hearted little chap, always ready to alleviate distress. I’ve seen him cry when told of the sufferings of a poor family.

His work he regarded as purely impersonal. His was a duty to perform, and he did it. “I am an executioner (he shunned the word “hangman” as being vulgar) because I believe that I can carry out the judgement of the law with less pain and anguish to the condemned than can any other man in the world,” he once told me.  

Later McKelvie was provided an explanation on the knot that sent a chill up my back:

“I’ll show you,” exclaimed Arthur. He grabbed his club bag, which I naturally thought had his pyjamas and brush and comb. He opened it and displayed a fine assortment of ropes and black caps. Deftly he tied a noose. “Now,” he said with mounting enthusiasm, “I’d place it right there,” and he indicated a point just beyond my left ear – and his cold hands rather fondly felt my neck. “I’d break the third vertebrae,” he boasted. Honestly, I didn’t quite like being a guinea pig for a hangman’s lecture on his art. Especially so, when to further demonstrate the exactitude with which the rope should be adjusted, he wanted to put a black cap over my head and the noose around my neck.

He was forced into retirement in 1935 when he relied on a weight given to him for Thomasina Sarao in making his calculations for the execution. She was actually 35 pounds heavier. When she dropped she was decapitated. It was the last public execution in Canada.

His successor also took the name of Arthur Ellis.

Our nation’s last executioner used the name John Ellis. As abolition was being debated in Canada’s Parliament in the 1960’s he gave an interview to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The interview can be seen on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLKDsjLFx4s. Wearing a hood for the interview as seen in the photo with this post was chillingly apt. I found the interview disturbing.

As often the case I found the real story more powerful than fiction. I am grateful Canada no longer has a hangman.


  1. You're right Bill...fact more powerful than fiction in this case. A chilling interview for the way he was so calm and matter of fact about his job.

    I'm very glad we don't have the death penalty any longer too.

  2. Bill - This is really eerie! It's all the more so because of his impersonal way of describing what he did. And I hope for the day when the U.S. doesn't have the death penalty any longer either.

  3. Bernadette: Thanks for the comment. I found it unsettling his impersonal approach. I am not sure what I expect to hear from an executioner.

  4. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I wonder if most or even all executioners have so little emotion about taking life.

  5. Gosh, this is so disturbing I can't even read his quotes.

    This is one of the worst jobs on earth, glad Canada, England, the rest of the European Union and Australia have abolished this heinous punishment.

    When the execution of Troy Davis was carried out a few years ago in Georgia, the former warden of the prison was on MSNBC. He was adamently opposed to that cruelty and said that all of the prison staff who watched executions needed counseling because they were so disturbed about it.

    He had become a vehement anti-death penalty advocate.

    Some states here are abolishing the death penalty when looking at how many innocent people are gotten off death row by the Innocence Project.

    However, so many others are doing nothing. The Texas governor and his sidekicks seem to enjoy sending people to their deaths. Nothing stops them -- lack of evidence, contradictory facts, inadequate counsel, problems with judges. You name it. They ignore it.

  6. Kathy D.: Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    It is not easy watching the interview and reading the quotes.

    I am not surprised by the comments from Georgia. Killing people is bound to negatively affect the executioners.

    I expect Texas will face the regrets Illinois had when it truly assessed those sentenced to death.

  7. Arthur English was definitely NOT related to John Ellis.Different surname gives a clue!6

    1. Depending which source you read he may or may not have been the nephew of Ellis. As set out in the post most sources say they were related.

  8. I read an article online that says he took the name "Arthur Ellis" because he admired the work of John Ellis, the British hangman. Also, I'm not sure why so many articles call him "Arthur B English." One says the B stands for "Bartholomew." Yet his actual name (at least according to his tombstone in Montreal's Mount Royal Cemetery was "Alexander Armstrong English."

    1. Thanks for the comment. There are varying details depending on the source. He was something of an enigma.