Murder in Brandon — petition for death sentence to be commuted as Blake called a “moral lunatic”

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

In the 1891 Canadian Census, Alfred Perry Stewart declared he “employed”  two people — Tommy and Hilda Blake, who were listed as “Dom.” (Domestics) with their professions given as “general servants.”  

Allotting them the status of servants was contrary to the perceived intent of bringing “orphans” over from Britain to be adopted by Canadian families or at the very least, treat them like members of the family.

The trade in “orphans” was allowed to flourish because British Home Children had few rights in their homeland and virtually no legal protection when they came to Canada.

Hilda and Tommy Blake were originally sent in May 1888 to the Stewart family at Burnside Farm, about 16 kilometres south of Elkhorn in the community of Kola (on PR 257 near Saskatchewan border). The Stewarts were relatively wealthy landowners. Matriarch Letitia Stewart was a God-fearing woman, who allowed her home to be used for Church of England services and later donated land and founded the Kola Barton Church (Kola Anglican Church). 

It was Letitia who applied for “a couple of poor orphan children to be brought up” on the Stewart farm. Constance Beauchamp, sister of Sir Reginald and honourary secretary for the immigration department of the London-based YWCA, replied to the Stewarts that her brother had told her there were two orphans willing to go to Canada — the Blake children — under the auspices of the Self-Help Emigration Society. 

A.P. Stewart related in subsequent court appearances that he had paid for the passage of the Blake children to Canada and should realize some return for his investment. 

Although a mere child, Hilda Blake became so dissatisfied with the treatment she received at the hands of the Stewarts that she ran away. While in flight, she was observed crossing the field of Mary Rex, a widower, who told her hired man Lisle Carr to intercept the 11-year-old child. Around the same time, Stewart sent out his stepson, 17-year-old Archibald Head, to find the girl.

A clash occurred on the prairie with Carr and Head using bluster to decide possession of Blake. The dispute over Blake intensified when Stewart’s other stepson, Joseph Singer, arrived, but Carr managed to gain the upper hand and brought Blake to the Rex farmhouse.

A.P. Stewart later appeared at the Rex farmhouse, telling the widow, she couldn’t trust the girl, claiming Blake was a liar and thief. To stress her unreliability, he used the disparaging remark that she was a “workhouse child.” But Stewart couldn’t provide proof of guardianship, so he was turned away and Blake remained with Rex. 

A court battle ensued over her guardianship with the Stewart family convincing the Crown to charge Mary Rex with kidnapping. The case was dismissed when prosecutors were unable to prove the Stewarts had legal guardianship of the child. Rex sued the Stewarts for malicious prosecution and received $46 in damages (the cost of her defence) and became Blake’s guardian. 

Another clash between Stewart and Rex occurred when Blake was later recaptured and returned to Burnside Farm. This time, Blake rejected Rex and sided with the Stewarts in court. It is speculated that  Blake’s change of heart arose because Rex was unable to provide her with the education she desired and had worked her too hard, using her as a fieldhand rather than a domestic servant. Others contend that Blake had been intimidated by A.P. Stewart into changing her earlier testimony.

During the second guardianship trial, Blake refuted her earlier claim that she had received “ill-treatment” at the hands of the Stewarts. The result of the trial was that Rex’s guardianship was revoked, Archibald Head and Joseph Singer were acquitted of “child stealing,” and Blake once again was placed in the care of the Stewarts.

The two court cases were not so much about the rights of Blake, but who possessed the right to claim the child. The testimony from Blake showed she felt no one had a claim to her person. She spoke of having “no mother or father in this country.”

Joseph Singer, who became a lawyer in Virden, told the Morning Telegram on July 17, 1899, that Blake had returned to the family but ran away for a second time (to an unnamed neighbour near Elkhorn; not the Rex farm). Singer said she left the farm in 1890 for Winnipeg when he lost track of her. Since the 1891 census still lists the Blake children in the Stewart household, his remembrance was faulty. The Stewarts did not pursue Blake when she ran away for the second time.

Blake apparently spent the next few years in Winnipeg before arriving in Brandon in 1898 and taking the position of “mother’s helper” in the Lane home. 

Blake became the subject of many rumours following her confession. It was alleged she had murdered “young (Robert Burn) Stewart,” who committed suicide under suspicious circumstances. The Portage la Prairie News and Review  claimed “her success in escaping the results of this crime emboldened her to commit a second.” But it was a false accusation as  Singer’s death was officially declared a suicide and there was absolutely no evidence indicating Blake was somehow involved.

Blake’s appearance in the Brandon Assizes on November 11 was unique in Manitoban history as she was on the docket with another women also charged with murder. Agnes Flendenning was alleged to have left her baby out on the prairie to die of exposure. Flendenning, who at first pled not guilty, agreed to the lesser charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to five years imprisonment. 

In a case taking just minutes, Blake refused counsel and said she wanted to plead guilty. But Chief Justice Albert Killam insisted she at least consult with lawyer George Robson Coldwell who was in the court.

Ironically, Coldwell had appeared in the second “child stealing” case on behalf of Mary Rex and had told the court that during an interview Blake revealed to him she lived in fear of A.P. Stewart and the “two young men” living with him. Coldwell’s testimony was refuted by Blake who sided with the Stewarts in the second guardianship trial.

“My client insisted that she would plead guilty (of murdering Lane) no matter what I advised her,” Coldwell recalled years later, “though I told her it would mean death and this she welcomed.”

“You are a self-confessed murderess and nothing could be done but sentence you to death,” said Chief Justice  Albert C. Killam. “Your case will be reported to Ottawa for a reprieve but the court holds out no hope that the sentence of the court will be commuted.”

Killam told Blake she was to “be hanged by the neck until dead” in the Brandon Provincial Jail on December 27.

Once outside, the woman began to sob. “On everybody’s face in the courtroom was pity for the pretty, modest-looking prisoner,” wrote one reporter.

It is possible Blake was cognizant of the implications of her plea, although others argued her circumstances were unique and it was possible she was experiencing mental anguish which clouded her judgement.

After being sentenced, the Blake case took a series of strange turns. For one, she was alleged to have tried to take her life by swallowing an overdose of laudanum, a narcotic derived from opium.

This information came out during the trial of Emma Jane Stripp, the prison matron accused of also being involved in an escape attempt by Blake.

A July 20, 1899, Manitoba Free Press report of Stripp’s trial said the woman at first denied she had taken both the bottle of laudanum and a file to Blake, but under questioning by Kirkcaldy broke down. “Chief,” she confessed, “I will tell you the truth. I did take those things into the jail.”

Stripp said she brought the file into the jail concealed in a book and had brought the laudanum to Blake because she was “suffering and needed it medicinally.” The drug she smuggled into Blake had been “watered down,” according to Stripp, and wasn’t powerful enough to allow Blake to commit suicide.

It turns out Stripp had smuggled two files (another newspaper report alleged three files were smuggled into Blake’s cell by Stripp concealed in bananas), the first of which Blake handed over to Kirkcaldy. But the second was only turned over under pressure from the police chief who informed Blake of Stripp confessing she had given her two files. The fact Blake had the files was discovered when the window bars in her cell were found by jailer Noxon to have been sawed halfway through, although an attempt had been made to cover up the saw marks by using a “black substance.”

The Stripp trial revealed another piece of information which had not been heard at Blake’s trial. Testimony emerged that Kirkcaldy had found a piece of paper written by Blake which alluded to an affair with Robert Lane, the husband of the murdered woman. It was alleged to have been the reply to an earlier note from Lane.

The incriminating note contained the passage from Blake that her supposed lover had “taken the time to be worried about me ... you were near endangering yourself for my sake.”

Due to the possibility of the affair some came to the conclusion that Lane was an accomplice in his wife’s murder. Others cite the possibility that the alleged affair was simply a figment of Blake’s over-active imagination. Whatever the note implied, Lane was never charged with a crime and went on to become a highly-successful businessman in Brandon. 

Lane married 22-year-old Jessie McIlvride, his bookkeeper and sister of his partner Alexander McIlvride, in a “quiet wedding” ceremony on September 9, 1900. The marriage presumably occurred with the blessing of Jessie’s brother, but for unspecified reasons, a few months later her brother dissolved his partnership with Lane.

The result of the circumstantial evidence linking Robert Lane and Blake was a rekindling of sympathy for the young woman, whom some believed had been exploited and led into sin by her employer.

While in jail, Blake was visited by Dr. Lillian Yeomans, an early Manitoba  suffragette and founder of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which, besides abstinence and the banning of alcohol, espoused women’s rights, including the right to vote. 

Yeomans and the WCTU took up Blake’s cause in their desire to fulfill their mandate to protect young girls and women who didn’t have the advantage of a decent home life and were vulnerable to sin and sexual dangers presented by men: “man was the seducer, women his victim, and, unfortunately the law favoured the former.”

A poem written by Blake called My Downfall, written in the Brandon Provincial Jail and published in numerous newspapers, including the Brandon Sun, gave the impression that a sexual relationship existed between herself and Lane. She wrote:

But one day the devil, in the form of a man;

Came smiling towards me; said he “You can know more, if you’ll take them,

Of joy and pleasures,” I heard him say.

Than e’er you have dreamed of; I’ll show you the way.

The poem, the circumstances of Blake’s upbringing and new evidence resulted in petitions being circulated in Brandon and Winnipeg asking for the Canadian government to commute Blake’s death sentence.

Yeoman’s petition to Canadian Governor General Lord Minto began; “That one Hilda Blake, a young woman of unknown parentage, from the first a waif cast on public charge, is confined in the City of Brandon, Manitoba under sentence of death (should have her sentence commuted),” because she had no defence counsel, “her probably vicious heredity” casts doubt on “her moral responsibility,” and there was a need for a full inquiry due to the new circumstances of the case.

All the opinions subsequently expressed by Yeomans were based on just one 90-minute interview with Blake.

While Yeomans may have believed she was supporting Blake’s cause, the words and terms she used to describe the woman are far from  flattering, and her arguments in favour of commuting the death penalty imposed on Blake are often extraordinarily convoluted. Yeomans judged Blake to be a “moral lunatic;” the implication being that Blake was insane which was another reason for her case to be reviewed. 

“The character of a moral lunatic is not immorality, but un-morality; and an unmoral, yet reasoning lunatic, is more dangerous than any other, because he or she is able cleverly to plan evil while the absence of an inhibitory moral sense leads to its being recklessly carried out,” wrote Amelia Yeomans to Winnipeg newspapers on December 13, urging them to tell people to sign the petition.

“I believe that Hilda Blake belongs to this class, that her whole history marks her as a moral degenerate, that her case should be profoundly studied by experts in insanity, and their opinions obtained before we come to any conclusion respecting her ...

“Her refusal to have counsel I regard as an insane freak, having its root in a most irrational self-importance, of which she seemed to be full (of) when I saw her.” 

The Winnipeg petition won widespread support and was signed by such luminaries as Winnipeg Mayor A.J. Andrews, Conservative Party member Rodmond Roblin, who in a few months would become the Manitoba premier, and Georgina Stewart, the provincial president of the WCTU.

Although only 487 people had signed the petition by December 20, the Winnipeg Daily Tribune wrote “the number is thought large considering the short time, three or four days, the petition was before the public.”

The Brandon Sun said many refused to sign the petition, “but the majority appear to desire her to escape the gallows.”

The Voice, a labour newspaper, in a December 21 editorial argued for Blake’s execution, saying what the signers of the petitions had “forgotten (was) the terrible result of this deed of murder. Do they think of those poor children robbed of that great blessing of providence, the care of a loving mother.” 

Letters to the editor appeared in newspapers across the province —  some sympathetic, some favouring the carrying out of the death sentence. 

“The fact that she was reared in a workhouse, deported from her native land at a tender age to eke out an existence as a drudge among strangers, good, bad, or indifferent as the case might be, to the girl’s welfare tells us the whole pitiable story,” wrote one individual.

Winnipegger G.W. Winckler in a December 12 letter to the editor wrote that he favoured “this girl’s temporary respite from death ... based on the impression that here is another or others implicated in the murder. It is inconceivable, without a fuller motive being disclosed, why she committed the act.”

Some people took their wrath out on the British Home Children, calling them “villainous and criminal,” demanding immigration of such children stop.

Disparaging talk about Blake partially centred around her habits while awaiting the hangman’s noose, which included reading “useless novels” and “playing practical jokes.” The Sun and other less sympathetic newspapers mentioned that she took pleasure in singing “Coon songs,” which she apparently learned after seeing the Coontown 400 perform. 

The racist tone of the troupe’s name reflected the commonly-held attitude of white America towards blacks. But the troupe of African-American entertainers were quite popular among white audiences and performed what was termed “ragtime operatic burlesque.” Scott Joplin was the most popular ragtime composer and musician of this era. Among his most famous compositions is the Maple Leaf Rag (1899) and the Entertainer (1902) which is the theme of the Oscar-winning movie The Sting (1973).   

Canadian newspapers continually denounced lynchings of blacks in the U.S., but still felt no qualms in using what we now know as insulting racist labels in articles. At the time, it was more an indication of a lack of knowledge that such labels caused injury rather than intentional malice towards blacks. The prevented lynching of the “unfortunate foreigner” in Brandon was used as evidence that Canadians believed in the rule of the law, while the U.S. was stained by the “crimson emblem” of “lawless despotism which required the services of Judge Lynch in order to secure the punishment of crime, or to wreak upon a possible unoffending coloured citizen the unrighteous vengeance born of hatred and oppression.”

That Blake would spend her time reading “trashy novels” seems a surprising statement since the novels she read were by popular and respected authors Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë and Walter Scott. But the view of the male-dominated establishment was that women could be corrupted by such books, which were judged as dangerous to the existing social fabric because they solicited sympathy for women and promoted the concept of the “New Woman.” 

On the other hand, Jessie McEwen, the president of the Brandon Local Council of Women, in the 1890s said, “Good books and bright magazines are as needful as bodily food and clothing.”

In their book Walk Towards the Gallows: The Tragedy of Hilda Blake, Hanged 1899, Brandon University professors Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell, make a convincing argument that Blake may have identified with the orphans Jane Eyre (Brontë) and Oliver Twist (Dickens). 

Blake possibly saw herself as the tragic heroine of Victorian novels typified by Jane Eyre. Many of the things that happen to Jane eerily echo events in Blake’s life — real or imagined by her. In Brontë’s novel, 10-year-old orphan Jane is abused by the children of her uncle who dies shortly after adopting the young girl. Years later, Jane falls in love with Edward Rochester, the owner of Thornfield Manor, where she is his ward’s governess. Their union is delayed by Edward’s unfortunate marriage to the violently insane Bertha Mason, who sets fire to Thornfield and dies in the flames. While attempting to save Bertha, Edward loses a hand and his eyesight, but Jane’s love is so strong that his injuries don’t deter her from marrying him. He eventually recovers sight in one eye and they live happily ever after.

Oliver was an example of the “principle of good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last.” 

Mr. Grimwig said of Oliver, “I know that boy will be hung,” but the orphan lad could not knowingly or without coercion be swayed to the side of evil by Fagin or Bill Sikes.

She may have imagined herself as Nancy, the “tart with a heart of gold,” found in the pages of Oliver Twist. Nancy was wronged by Sikes, but she stuck by him. Yet in a fit of anger brought on by Fagin’s manipulations, Sikes murders Nancy despite her protestation, “I have been true to you, upon my quilty soul I have.” 

Did Blake believe she was undergoing a similar fate due to Robert Lane? But Blake never pointed the finger at Lane. The only potential indication of a relationship are Blake’s reflections in My Downfall. Without a trial, no real evidence emerged of an affair between Blake and Lane.

With her books providing company and feeding her imagination, Blake said: “I feel as if I could sit quietly down and await my fate. I have never felt the like before, although I have pretended to be submissive.”

In the wake of growing public pressure, Manitoba’s attorney general on December 14 wrote to the federal justice minister asking that the death sentence be deferred until a more complete investigation was undertaken. The case had thus taken on political overtones and eventually caught the attention of Governor General Lord Minto, Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the federal cabinet. 

Three times the cabinet met to discuss the case, including a letter from Blake which no longer survives (the problem with the Blake case is the absence of official documents to flesh out events) and is alleged to have placed some blame for the murder on Lane.

It was her letter which led Minto to favour commuting Blake’s death sentence. He came to believe Lane was somehow involved in the murder, but as an appointee of the Crown he could only officially act on the recommendation of the elected Laurier government. 

“If her confession is accepted against herself, that confession lays bare the most horrible story I have read against Lane ... the confession tells the story of herself and Lane, and if it is true enough to condemn her it must be true enough to condemn him,” wrote Minto to Laurier. 

“It is certainly one of the most painful duties which I have had to perform since I have occupied the position of chief advisor of the Crown in this country,” wrote Laurier to Minto on December 26, “but notwithstanding all the sympathy which one must feel for the poor girl, the crime remains abominable to me.”

Taking the advice of his cabinet, Laurier decided that he would not ask Minto to commute the sentence, which resulted in Blake becoming the first and only woman to be executed in Manitoba’s history, and only one of two women executed between 1873 and 1922 in Canada. 

With no other appeals available to her, Blake was scheduled to hang on December 27. 

“The law has taken a stern course, with the murderess of Mrs. Robert Lane,” said an editorial in the Morning Telegram. “Although a strong feeling of sympathy existed for the girl, the ends of justice had to be met ...”

Prior to her date with executioner John Radcliffe, Blake was reported as saying, “Am I not brave? I seem to be possessed of two natures, one good and one very bad, and they seem to control me at different times. I am either good, or very bad. You cannot think of me altogether bad.”

A dispatch from the Brandon jail reported: “Her demeanor (when confronting the hangman) during the ordeal was no less wonderful than her remarkable fortitude since the death penalty was passed on her.”

Twenty-five people were  present to witness her death scheduled for 8:40 a.m., including her jail guards, policemen, jurymen and the press.

“She seemed reluctant to mount the steps, and she asked the hangman to raise her skirt so that she could get her feet on the first step. She then walked steadily to the top and turned and looked searchingly into the faces of those below. Radcliffe gently urged her on.”

“I’m going,” she said as she mounted the remaining 16 steps of the scaffold.

“Step over here,” Radcliffe said, indicating the trap door. Blake didn’t hesitate.

Blake then asked the priest to kiss her good bye.

She turned to one witness, Robert Lane’s partner Alexander McIlvride, and said, “Do not think too hardly of me.”

Blake then said, “Good bye.”