Manitoba’s first execution — “deed . . . committed by a demon in human shape”

by Bruce Cherney

The Pride of the Prairies saloon boasted six billiard tables and a double 10-pin bowling alley. With its many attractions, the 

saloon had become a popular haunt for home-sick members of militia units temporarily stationed in Winnipeg.

Non-commissioned officers and men of the Dominion Artillery — like all soldiers and sailors across the world at the time — were noted for their willingness to indulge in the odd drop of demon rum. 

In fact, demand was so great that by 1873 there were 28 saloons and bars in a city that boasted only 3,700 people by 1874.  The most popular drinking establishments were the Red Saloon near the corner of Portage and Main and the Pride of the Prairies saloon on Post Office (now Lombard) Street next door to the Manitoban newspaper office.

The latter saloon was billed as a “magnificent establishment” with a “first-class city bar.”

Too frequently, the “wee” drop became a torrent and inebriated men poured out on the streets, along with animosities built up as they drained glass after glass of their favourite beverage in a saloon.

On the evening of June 18, a quarrel erupted between two intoxicated men after a night of carousing at the Pride of the Prairie saloon. A third man intervened, but failed to keep the combatants apart. 

When the fog of night was cleared by the warm morning sun, a cry arose from McDonald, a soldier  en route to his barracks, claiming that murder most foul had been committed. News quickly spread that James A. Brown lay dead on the prairie a short distance from Main Street. His body was peppered with 33 stab wounds, “as if the deed had been committed by a demon in human shape,” according to an August 31, 1874, account in the Daily Nor’Wester.

Manitoba Provincial Police Chief Richard Powers undertook the investigation to uncover the “demon in human shape.”

“At first there seemed to be no clue to the murder, until a man named Thomas Bunce declared that he had heard cries and quarrelling a short distance from his tent the night previous, but thinking it was a row between some Saskatchewan traders, he did not go out to see what it was about,” reported the Daily Nor’Wester.

Bunce said he had heard two men pass by speaking French and English. The witness heard more cries, but, thinking it was a drunken reveler, only shouted at the man to shut up and then went back to sleep. What he probably heard were the cries of the dying man.

The following morning, McDonald roused Bunce from his sleep to look at the body lying in the street.

Bunce then “understood the scuffling and quarreling of the previous night had resulted in murder.”

A clue to the murder was uncovered by Chief Powers after talking to James Degan who had been in the saloon in the company of three soldiers, “all of whom appeared  to be under the influence of liquor.”

Degan said that one of the soldiers, named Joseph Michaud, took his hand and placed it upon a sheath knife he was carrying.

Michaud commented that he was “pretty well ‘fixed up,’” according to the Daily Nor’Wester.

Degan then cautioned Michaud about having such a weapon, but was told “that ‘if he used it it would not be on a comrade; it would be in such a way that it would not be found out.’”

Chief Powers, accompanied by Degan, who would provide the identification of the man wearing the knife, then proceeded to the militia barracks, which were located along the Assiniboine River and west of Upper Fort Garry (near today’s Manitoba Legislature).

Michaud had not lived up to his boast to Degan the evening before that, if he used his weapon, he “would not be found out.”

When approached by Powers and Degan, Michaud was still in the possession of the bloody knife and his serge uniform and shirt were also covered in blood splatters. 

Chief Powers was also told at the barracks that soldiers Marriage, Bernier and Baker had been in Michaud’s company at the Pride of the Prairies saloon. Marriage had an alibi, so only Bernier and Baker were charged as accomplices in the murder of Brown.

As news of the crime circulated, the community’s indignation increased. After the three men were placed in custody, there was a fear that a mob would break into the William Street Jail on Main Street and the co-accused would be lynched. Fortunately for Michaud, Bernier and Baker, cooler heads prevailed and talk of forming a lynch mob ended.

The Grand Jury of the Court of Queen’s Bench arraigned Michaud on a charge of murder, but there was not enough evidence against Bernier and Baker to sustain a charge of abetting in the killing. The evidence presented indicated that Brown had been killed when he interceded in a fight between 23-year-old Michaud and another soldier. 

A repentant Michaud replied that he was “guilty in my heart and I deserve death.”

Michaud’s guilty plea was accepted by Chief Justice Edmund Burke Wood, who also “gave an earnest warning to young men to abstain from the use of intoxicating drink.”

Wood, who had come to Manitoba from Eastern Canada and was appointed chief justice on March 11, 1874, told Michaud “a reprieve was hopeless” and he must prepare himself for death.

It would be the first death sentence handed out by Wood, but not the most famous. A few months later he would preside over a case that had profound ramifications for the young province, which had only four years earlier joined the Canadian Confederation. On November 2, 1874, a jury pronounced Ambroise Lepine guilty of the murder of Thomas Scott with a call for mercy to be shown, but Chief Justice Wood ignored the jury’s request and sentenced Lepine to death. 

The defendant in this case had been the second-in-command to Louis Riel during the Red River Resistance of 1869-70, and headed the Metis court-marshall that condemned Scott to be executed by firing squad on March 4, 1870.

To keep the peace in the new province, Canadian Governor-General Lord Dufferin issued a pardon to Lepine — something that was not available to Michaud, 

according to Wood. 

Michaud expressed his repentance in a letter to Roman Catholic Church Fathers Dugast and Fillian just before his execution on August 26.

“Hear, comrades, a man who perceives too late that the life he has lived has not been that of a man, and less of a Christian,” wrote Michaud. “Educated as a Christian by a mother whose best efforts were to make me good, I finished by despising her advice and making a mockery of her instructions.”

Contrary to his mother’s sage advice, Michaud said he had chosen a wild lifestyle filled with bad companions and over-indulgence in liquor.

He asked his mother for forgiveness:  “... we will never see each other again in this life, but in Heaven we will enjoy happiness which will last forever. Adieu, adieu.”

After Wood pronounced sentence, Michaud had a date with hangman Robert Hodson. The hangman had been hired by Jack Ingram, Winnipeg’s first chief of police who was appointed on February 24, 1874. According to a Winnipeg Police Service museum article, Hodson had approached Ingram and told him he would be willing to perform the deed. 

Hodson told Ingram he had acquired experience in such matters as an assistant to Britain’s famous hangman William 

Calcraft. The English hangman was noted for his “short drops,” whereby the condemned man or woman slowly strangled to death rather than having his or her neck broken by a “long drop” which resulted in a quicker death.

Hundreds gathered outside on August 26 at 8 a.m. at the provincial jail where the execution was to take place. Many others were admitted into the jail by “invitation” to witness the hanging after obtaining tickets from the next-door sheriff’s office. 

At 7 a.m., according to the Daily Nor’Wester, a black flag was hoisted above the jail, “telling the people that a human being was about to be ushered into eternity.” 

The newspaper reporter said “all the preparations for the terrible work to be done seemed to have been made with the greatest care. The upper portion was 

curtained off in black from the public outside, and from the drop to the ground was boxed up so as to screen the body from view.”

Before the appointed hour, Fathers 

Fillion and Dugast led Michaud in prayer in a special area of the courthouse where a temporary altar had been installed.

As the appointed hour approached, the bells across the Red River in St. Boniface began to toll.

Michaud, his arms bound by a belt,  was followed to his place of execution by the sheriff, his spiritual advisors and then “the hangman masked and in a hideous suit of black” who “brought up the rear.”

The newspaper said Michaud continually cried and kissed his crucifix as he stepped toward the scaffold. At the place of execution, the hangman told Michaud was told to kneel down at the trap. “The rope was quickly adjusted to the neck of the unfortunate man and the cap drawn over the face” and then “Michaud was launched into eternity.”

The previous instructions of the British hangman Calcraft seem to have been ignored by his apprentice, since the newspaper said death had been “instantaneous for there was no struggling” and there was only a “smothered gasp as he descended the trap.”

Michaud was left to hang from the rope for a time (the common practice was an hour) before being pronounced dead.

Michaud was buried across the river in St. Boniface. During the service, Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Tache told those attending “to abstain from drinking and rioting.”

The identity of the hangman was not immediately made public. On September 5, 1874, the Manitoba Free Press reported that many within Winnipeg were speculating about his identity. It wasn’t until much later that Hodson was revealed as the hangman.

After the Vaughan Street Jail and a new police station was opened at 221 James St. in 1883, the William Street Jail, where the execution took place, and the attached courthouse were converted into the Hub Hotel.

A total of 52 people have been executed in Manitoba, with 35 hangings occurring in Winnipeg between 1874 and June 16, 1952, when Henry Malaniuk was the last man executed in this province.

When the death penalty was applied in Manitoba, the time between court case and execution was swift. In comparison, U.S. inmates now spend years on death row before a decision is reached whether or not to proceed with their execution. 

The newspaper accounts of Michaud’s execution show a measure of compassion for the man despite his heinous crime. Phrases  such as “horrible pause” before the drop and the hangman wearing a “hideous suit of black” were used, and seemed to imply there was something unsavoury about state-sanctioned execution.

“An affecting scene then took place, kneeling and bound, with tears flowing down his cheeks, Michaud turned towards the persons around them and bade each a mournful goodbye,” wrote the Daily Nor’Wester reporter, who must have had a scaffold-side seat for the hanging.

On November 30, 1967, the Canadian criminal code was amended to allow a five-year experimental period when the only executions allowed would be for convicted murderers of police officers and prison guards. The ban was extended and on July 14, 1976, the House of Commons voted 130-124 to abolish the death penalty with the exception of some 

National Defence Act offenses. At the time, there were 11 “lucky” men serving on death row in Canadian prisons.

Today, the United States remains  among only a handful of democratic nations, including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, that have not abolished the death penalty. Most of today’s executions occur in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

In the U.S., the application of the death penalty remains controversial. Though most states retain the death penalty on their books, some have placed a moratorium on executions or commuted death sentences. For example, Illinois Governor George Ryan announced a January 2000 moratorium following a review of death penalty cases — 13 inmates were taken off death row after DNA evidence exonerated them. 

“There is a flaw in the system, without question, and it needs to be studied,” Ryan said.In January 2003, Ryan commuted all death sentences to prison terms of life or less.