This is the story of one of the last public hangings in Canadian history.
George Stewart Dowie, as far as anyone knows, was a sailor. Charlottetown, P.E.I. was an occasional port of call, and he would stay at the house of a certain woman referred to later as his "female acquaintance" when he came in to town. In retrospect, he would say that, "there was no sin of which I was not guilty"
One night at this location, after a heavy session of drinking, he and another man began to fight over a woman. Dowie ended up stabbing the other man, fatally, in the chest. Quickly arrested, after a short trial Dowie was found guilty and sentenced to hang. All appeals for clemency were promptly refused by the Colonial Office. And so, on April 6, 1869, George Dowie was sentenced to meet his fate.
In the early years of the former British colony, the first death sentence was passed in 1778. Elizabeth Mukely was a servant who had commited the audacious crime of stealing £ 7.7 from her employer. Any such theft from one's master, in Britain's 18th century criminal code, carried an automatic death penalty. Luckily, no one in the colony could be found who was willing to hang a woman. As a result, she was merely banished
By the 1860s, the British North American Colonies were progressively moving state executions indoors. In fact, there was growing opposition to the death penalty in of itself on Prince Edward Island, let alone approval of public execution.
And so we return to George Dowie, who at half-past noon was taken from his jail cell to the gallows. There was, of course, a crowd of spectators assembling an hour and a half before this moment: 1500 people, to be exact, in a city that only had 7,000 residents. The City Militia was present in case rowdiness erupted, and according to newspaper accounts they were visibly nervous. For example, when someone shouted "Rescue him!" as Dowie appeared, the Guard flashed their bayonets promptly.
Dowie was granted a last statement, according to tradition. As it was eight pages of small handwriting, accompanied by an additional seventeen-stanza poem dedicated to his mother and wife, the authorities provided him with a chair from which to read. Apparently, he had experienced a religious conversion, and proceeded to confess his past sins and his new devotion to Christ. His primary message was one of warning to others to shun "drink, vicious inclinations, evil habits, and dens of iniquity." The reading took half an hour. There was also a moment where he thanked the Clergymen who were present to pray for him, the lawyers who had worked for him, and confessed that he had no hard feelings towards the executioner. Then, Dowie turned to face the rope. The noose was fitted, the trap door swung upon.
The rope broke
As the platform was fifteen feet from the ground, it was a painful descent after which Dowie lost consciousness. With the crowd in deep confusion, the officials rushed Dowie back to the jail. When he woke up, he thought he was dead. Upon discovering he was alive, he assumed that clemency had come through for him at the last moment. However, that was not the truth. He remained calm in spite of this, as the executioner and company were hurriedly rigging another rope. An hour later, Dowie found himself back at the scaffold, this time so shaken that he had to be carried up the stairs. The noose was fixed, the trap door swung open.
This time, it was a broken cleat which caused the poor man to hit the ground.
The crowd surged forward, held back by the militia. The executioner, meanwhile, opted to have Dowie hoisted by hand with the help of assistants. Dowie was very still, likely stunned or once again unconscious. This time, after fifteen minutes, Dowie was cut down and pronounced dead.
There was a public outcry in the aftermath of such an horrific procedure. Some assumed that the initial mishaps were a sign of divine clemency. Others simply were disturbed by the traumatic experience and felt that Dowie had, at least, behaved with dignity. To quote one newspaper's editorial: "Let our people resolve that a public execution shall never again take place in the colony." This same newspaper had, of course, recorded all of the gruesome details which I have related here for those who were not in attendence. The other major newspaper refused to provide such graphic description.
This unpleasant chapter in Island history took place at Pownal Square, where the jail (an imposing edifice called Harvey's Brig) and the public gallows once stood. Today, incidentally, it is a peaceful park with stately trees and a popular children's playground. There is no visible trace of what once existed there. There is only the history.