by Bruce Cherney (part 4)
One day before his execution for the murders in Stuartburn of Wasyl Bojeczko and his four children, Wasyl Guszczak told his guards that it had never been his intention to make good his escape from the Manitoba Provincial Jail on Vaughan Street, but only made the attempt to amuse himself and show that it could be done.
His ability to manipulate and shape metal into escape tools was also shown when he later fashioned a key from a piece of metal from a pail and removed his shackles. Guszczak made no attempt to escape at that time, but said he just wanted to have a laugh with his guards while awaiting his fate. Using the manmade key, Guszczak freed himself from the ball and chain that had been placed on his leg following his May 14, 1899, escape attempt from the provincial jail.
“There was great relief among the jail officials when Guszczak was safely back in his cell (on May 14) and it is certain that he will not have another opportunity to spend his waking hours in cutting his way out of their jail,” reported the Manitoba Free Press a day after the escape attempt. “His comfortable bed has been taken from him and from now until the time of his execution he will sleep on the comfortable side of a couple of planks. He will also take his exercise with a heavy ball and chain attached to his leg, and extra precautions have been taken in the matter of the guard.”
While Guszczak and Simeon Czuby awaited their date with the hangman, they could hear three carpenters busily erecting a gallows in the jail yard.
“The structure was erected in an angle formed of two wings of the jail facing to the southwest and has the jail wall for one of its sides,” reported the May 29, 1899, Winnipeg Telegram, “while the other is about four feet from the jail door through which the condemned men pass on their way to the scaffold ...
“From the outside it appears to be merely a high box-like enclosure probably eight feet square and about twelve or fourteen feet high made of ordinary rough lumber ... Directly underneath the cross-beam and in the platform are placed the trapdoors on which the condemned men are to stand, and which when sprung will allow them to fall to their death.”
Meanwhile, Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Albert Clements Killam’s prediction that Ottawa would not stop the executions became fact when the federal government issued an order-in-council on May 22 allowing the law to take its course.
“There stepped off the train among the passengers from the east today (May 23), a short thick-set man with a rather florid complexion and heavy reddish moustache, wearing a dark suit and a light felt hat,” reported the Free Press. “He no sooner touched the platform than he quietly mixed with the crowd and had disappeared before attracting any attention.”
The man who stepped off the train was John Radcliffe (sometimes referred to as Radclive), the official hangman for Canada — the only man in Canadian history to hold that title — who came to town to perform the double hanging at the provincial jail. It was the first time that Radcliffe performed an execution in Manitoba. The last execution in Manitoba had occurred on December 28, 1888, in Brandon, where William Web was hanged for the murder of his wife, Mary Jane Web.
Radcliffe was placed on the federal payroll as a hangman by a Dominion order-in-council in 1892, on the recommendation of the Canadian Prime Minister Sir John Thompson. He had trained in England under British hangman William Marwood. He can be shown to have hanged at least 69 people in Canada, although his total was probably much higher. At his death, the Toronto Telegram said he had 150 executions. He died of alcohol-related illness in Toronto on February 26, 1911, at the age of 55.
Three years later on October 29, 1902, the Brandon Daily Sun published an account from an unnamed Alberta newspaper alleging that Radcliffe had decided to leave the east and settle in Manitoba, “where his business is making rapid strides.”
According to the brief article, Radcliffe had taken a suite at the Queen’s Hotel on Portage Avenue when he was in town to execute Guszczak and Czuby. While staying in the hotel, he became the friend of “Spence the bartender,” and “appointed Spence, who was crazy to see the hanging, deputy executioner ... and no doubt did the square thing by Radcliffe in the matter of free booze.”
The truth of this statement cannot be verified, as Spence is not listed among those on the scaffold when the two men were executed. But J.Lyons of the Queen’s Hotel is definitely mentioned as being on the scaffold (Telegram, May 29, 1899), although it is not related in what capacity he was serving. Lyons is not mentioned among the jury sworn in to witness the hanging of the two condemned men.
Regardless of the truth behind the Daily Sun article, it served to emphasize Radcliffe’s fondness for strong drink to enable him to perform his unpleasant duties.
Shortly before Radcliffe’s death, in an interview cited by American psychologist Rachel MacNair, he had hinted at his inner demons (article by Patrick Cain, Toronto Star, May 20, 2007): “Now at night when I lie down,” he said, “I start up with a roar as victim after victim comes up before me. I can see them on the trap, waiting a second before they meet their Maker. They haunt me and taunt me until I am nearly crazy with an unearthly fear.”
Radcliffe was socially alienated, but despite being haunted by visions of his victims, saw no disgrace in his job.
Radcliffe told a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen (printed March 20, 1902): “I have a duty to perform, and in the performance I protect society, my wife (she eventually left him) and daughters, as well as outsiders. No one knows my feelings. Instead of getting used to it, I seem to feel worse after every succeeding execution.”
At the time of the article, Radcliffe uttered some ill-advised, anti-French-Canadian words in a tavern which caused a riot in Hull. He was badly manhandled by a mob, and had to be taken into police protective custody and ushered across the river to Ottawa.
A reporter from the Brandon Daily Sun managed to secure a brief interview with Radcliffe (published January 12, 1902) as he passed through town on January 11 on his way to perform a hanging in Regina.
Radcliffe, while resting in his train berth, was asked rather bluntly by the reporter, “How has business been lately?”
The hangman replied: “See here, young fellow, you are a newspaper man and I never talk to them. I don’t want any notoriety. I get enough of that already. If I say anything to newspaper people it works up feeling against me, so I don’t say anything. See! I have a business to do and I do it. Some one has to do it and it’s better to have it well done than to have it botched. If the people say that a man must be hanged why they are as much responsible as them ... that does the job, ain’t they?”
The execution of Guszczak and Czuby was delayed for a day until Saturday, May 27, by Justice Killam, as he claimed that he hadn’t received the official warrant by mail from Ottawa allowing their hangings to proceed.
There seems to have been some confusion about why the executions were delayed. According to the Canadian Criminal Code, it was only necessary to notify Manitoba Sheriff Colin Inkster by telegram that the executions could proceed. Justice Killam admitted such a telegram had been received, as it was delivered to him by Sheriff Inkster, but insisted that it also contained the statement that an official letter would follow. It was this addition which prompted Justice Killam to give the condemned men a “respite” (reprieve) for one day, while he awaited the letter.
In consultation with Sheriff Inkster, the justice had concluded that the telegram was unofficial, while the letter was the official document because it bore the signature of Governor-General Lord Minto, acting on the behalf of the Canadian government.
Meanwhile, Senator Richard William Scott, the secretary of state in Ottawa, assured Justice Killam in another telegram that he had the federal government’s official approval to carry out the death warrants, but the justice would not revoke the respite he granted the condemned men. In fact, the Canadian Criminal Code specified that a provincial chief justice could grant a reprieve from execution for any period of time, if he believed the Crown (Canadian government) had not been given sufficient time to review such cases. Justice Killam used a broad interpretation of the code as granting him the power to issue a respite.
A series of telegrams were exchanged between Ottawa and Winnipeg. In one telegram to the Manitoba chief justice, Scott stressed: “In the case of the two convicts sentenced to be executed tomorrow (May 26). His Excellency (Lord Minto) has ordered that the law should take its course.”
Justice Killam replied: “Received message that His Excellency ordered law to take its course. In absence of official letter had already reprieved one day, expecting letter tomorrow.”
During the respite, both men received relatives from Stuartburn who came to say goodbye to the condemned.
Czuby’s boys urged their father to accept spiritual comfort from a priest, but he remained steadfast in his refusal, a position he adhered to since first becoming a prisoner months earlier.
Czuby’s refusal to see a priest resulted in Catholic Church authorities refusing to have anything to do with his body after his execution. On the other hand, they accepted the responsibility of ensuring Guszczak received a proper burial, since he regularly saw a priest.
“He (Czuby) grows extremely excitable when anyone talks with him regarding his approaching death,” according to a report in the May 26, 1899, Free Press, “but at other times is calm.”
The continued agitation shown by Czuby, even before he went to trial, prompted court officials to seek an opinion on his sanity. In the end, two doctors found him fit to stand trial for his crime.
Guszczak was visited by his wife, who came with the couple’s four-month-old baby. “The meeting between Guszczak and his wife was very affecting and for once he showed some indication that he realized his terrible position or felt there was something in the world worth living for. He had never seen his child before and he fondled his offspring very tenderly.”
On the Saturday morning that the two men were to die, the day emerged overcast with a drizzling rain falling. “It was a depressing setting for the tragedy, which was to occur in the Winnipeg jail yards,” commented the Telegram on May 29, 1899.
The newspaper reported that a small crowd of about 28 people had gathered at the jail doors. At 7:30 a.m., when Sheriff Inkster arrived, the doors were opened and the 20 permitted by invitation to observe the executions — they had been issued tickets — entered the jail yard.
Both men had arisen early and partook of a breakfast of bread and butter and coffee. Guszczak was in the company of Father Kulaway and accepted the Sacrament. Czuby continued to reject the ministrations of the church.
“He (Czuby) walked around his cell, talking incoherently, protesting his innocence and refusing to listen to the pleading of a young priest, who, through the grating in the door, begged him to make his peace with God and prepare for eternity.”
Just before their eight o’clock date with the hangman, preparations were made to take the two men to the scaffold.
Czuby was dressed in Galician (Ukrainian) costume, and was divested of his sheep-skin coat by hangman Radcliffe. Under a morbid clause in his contract as Canada’s official hangman, Radcliffe was literally entitled to take the clothes off the back of anyone he executed.
Immediately after the hangings, Radcliffe told a Winnipeg Tribune reporter that he was going to send the coat to a friend “who makes a collection of such gruesome relics.”
Although he never received the actual rope used in any hanging he performed, Radcliffe also liked to sell off pieces of rope as souvenirs. One time, Radcliffe was caught in a B.C. hardware store by a local sheriff buying extra rope, which he intended to cut up and resell as souvenirs of the execution of such-and-such a person.
In Vancouver, the Star reported he proposed to cut off the queue (pigtail) of a condemned Chinese man, “and divide it up as souvenirs of the occasion, and altogether expressed himself in ways that show him to be a person of coarse temperament.”
After the removal of his coat, Czuby was only clad in a pink-coloured undershirt and a pair of brown trousers, “made after the Galician fashion” (Telegram). Czuby went to his death with just “coarsely knitted grey socks” on his feet.
Guszczak was dressed “somewhat more Canadian than Czuby. He wore a gray coat and vest, with black trousers — the trouser having no braces, being merely buttoned around his waist and partly open in front. He had on a rather dirty white shirt, with a low collar.”
On his feet, he wore slippers.
Czuby was the first to be pinioned by the guards. “In a sheepish fashion and babbling incoherently, he was led down the stairs between the guards. A few seconds later came Guszczak, also between two guards ... His face was slightly pale, and there was a nervous, furtive glance in his eyes; but he walked rather firmly, and went to his death like a man.”
Standing on the gallows to greet the condemned men was Sheriff Inkster, formally dressed in a uniform with cocked hat and sword. Two priests, the brothers Kulaway (Kalavle in other accounts), were also there, as were Magistrate T.C. Keenleyside, “and one or two representatives of the press ...,” among others.
Since the upper and lower portions of the gallows were enclosed — only the prisoners as they stood on the scaffold could be seen from ground level — the few spectators who had been admitted observed the proceedings from an upper floor window of the Vaughan Street gaol where they expected to get a better view of the results of the hanging.
The hangman Radcliffe began by testing the ropes fastened to the cross-beam. He then adjusted the ropes around the condemned men’s necks.
“Both were pale. Guszczak looking nervous and slightly agitated, while Czuby had a wild look in his eyes and began talking rapidly and attempting to gesticulate. He could make but few movements, however, for both “arms were pinioned, and likewise strapped around the legs, just below the knees.”
Czuby was said to have continued to protest his innocence in Ukrainian. While desperately staring upward at the spectators in the jail’s upper floor windows, he shouted out:
“I am not guilty!”
“I never was there!”
“I know nothing about it!”
“You are hanging the wrong man!”
“It was Guszczak done it all!”
“It was not me!”
“Oh, do not hang me!”
Meanwhile, Guszczak turned to a guard, and said in English, “Good bye, Downey.”
He then turned his attention to his confessor and repeated the words, “Jesus, Jesus,” adding just before he was to be hanged, “Have mercy on my soul.”
Czuby ceased his protests when Radcliffe drew a black hood over his head and further adjusted the rope, arranging the knot under Czuby’s left ear. The same was done to Guszczak.
“Without a word of warning” he pulled the lever and the trap door swung open. The ropes became taut. The Telegram proclaimed that “Wasyl Bojeczko and his four little children had been avenged by the majesty of the law.”
But somehow the rope had slipped on Guszczak’s neck. According to the Telegram reporter, who viewed the bodies immediately following the executions, the rope had slipped around to the front of Guszczak’s head and the knot was against his face and passed over his mouth. It wasn’t until 17 minutes after they had dropped through the trap door that both men were pronounced dead by coroner Dr. J.O. Todd and Dr. Edward Benson, the jail’s physician. The Free Press on May 29 reported it took 15 minutes for Guszczak’s heart to stop beating and 17 minute for Czuby’s heart to cease beating.
When he was asked why the rope had slipped, Radcliffe told the reporters present: “That is what I cannot explain. It is the first time. It made no difference to him however.”
Indeed, the two men were dead. Guszczak’s body was claimed by the Roman Catholic Church and was taken to St. Mary’s Cemetery in Fort Rouge. Czuby’s was taken by Sheriff Inkster to Brookside Cemetery “and interred in the black plot;” that is, an unmarked grave.
(Next week: part 5)