The former Don Jail is rich in history. Fifteen convicts were executed in the exercise yard between 1871 and 1930. Their lives are the subject of a work-in-progress titled The Way of Transgressors. Remember Me, one of the stories in the collection, concerns the execution of George Bennett. Bennett hanged in 1880 for the assassination of Father of Confederation, George Brown. Little has been written about the life and death of George Bennett.
Ten minutes after the drop, George Bennett, alias George Dickson, was pronounced dead and his body cut down. Prone on the gravel in the exercise yard, Bennett’s body – ankles and wrists pinioned – was heaved onto a flimsy cart and wheeled inside the facility. A black flag was hoisted up the gaol flagpole. The hangman, an ex-whiskey detective named English, removed the canvas mask required to conceal his identity, scratched at his coarse cheeks. Sometimes English went by the name Ellis.
Officials dispersed. Inmates dismantled the scaffold. A chatter of newspapermen departed. Outside the prison, the festive throng of spectators thinned. A small crowd lingered by the Don Bridge, shaded by a copse of black locust trees.
English drew a small hardback book from inside his jacket and made notations with a dull pencil. Gathering the half-inch soaped rope into a butterfly coil, he untied the noose and placed the rope into a sack. He stood a moment and gazed into the gauzy white face of the rising sun. At the base of the wall behind him, the inmate assigned to dig Bennett’s grave went at the earth with pick and shovel, quietly humming the chorus to It Is Well with My Soul.
Before retiring to an unadorned apartment inside the gaol where he had slept the previous night, the hangman collected his forty-dollar fee from Governor Green. Undressing, he leaned over a washbasin, splashed warm water on his face. He lathered shaving soap in a mug and shaved his cheeks smooth. He gulped from a flask and changed into a new black suit. Sitting down heavily on the stained mattress, English unfolded a penny knife and cut lengths of rope from the cord that had recently launched Bennett into eternity. He placed personal effects into a carpetbag patterned with rosebuds, then lay back on the cot and catnapped.
An inquest was held pro forma in the small, black-and-white tiled prison hospital, austere as an anchorite’s cell. Thirteen jurors were selected. Bennett’s corpse was displayed on a table. The black sack covering the condemned’s head was removed. The cord used to pinion his wrists and ankles was cut and the corpse stripped of clothing.
At five feet, two inches, Bennett was below medium height and weighed 126 pounds. He wore a black Van Dyke beard. Between purplish lips his tongue protruded, a black wedge of meat. His eyes were closed. His nose appeared to have been recently broken. Livid contusions marked his neck. His hands were a shade of blue similar to a morpho butterfly. The autopsy revealed congestion in the brain, lungs and heart. The posterior ligaments of his upper vertebrae were separated. As a result of the drop, his spinal column had dislocated.
Medical examiner’s conclusion: Death was instantaneous.
The jury’s verdict, unanimous: The condemned had experienced no pain.
It was forenoon when English approached the crowd lingering by the locust trees, rope sack and carpetbag slung over his shoulder. In his free hand he held up samples of rope, repeating, “Souvenir? Souvenir. Justice is done. The righteous rejoice. The honorable George Brown’s killer, finished by this rope. An historic day. A souvenir?”
Horse blankets spread on the ground, a rank stench fouled the air as families fried carp livers, potatoes, and bay mussels on naphtha stoves, breakfasting in the fashion of a picnic. A knot of ragged men hovered around the mossy stump of an enormous oak tree, wagering on card games of Faro and jawing profanely at one another as they might in Sluttery’s Tavern, a King Street groggery popular among this class.
A couple sat on the ground leaning against the spokes of a wagon wheel eating sliced June apples and paste made from cashews spread on three-day-old bread dipped into mugs of cold coffee. Playing in the box of the wagon, the couple’s children, a girl with a pinched face in a shabby gingham dress and her younger brother took turns tormenting a wounded jaybird with a blunt stick. Harnessed at the front of the wagon, a gelded mule twitched his ears and whimpered. Eyes clouded the colour of zinc, the mule swayed his head, braying.
Piercing the jaybird through the wing, the girl chastised the mule, “Shut up, Guff. Or else you’ll get it, too.”
The crowd surrounded English. Boys climbed out of trees. Men in blue and white check vests and felt derbies ambled toward the hangman, rubbing their huge bellies and inhaling deeply from hooked ceramic smoking pipes. On the riverbank, a shoeless lunatic in overalls the locals called Vegetable hooted wildly as a silvery brook trout tugged at the end of his line. Vegetable’s name was really Matthias. In summertime, Vegetable holed up under the Don Bridge. In winter, he secreted away to a nest he’d slung between webbed trusses in the attic of the smallpox hospital north of the gaol.
An emaciated teenage boy with a harelip and rags for clothing dangled from a limb, kicking his spindly legs. In a voice like bone pressed to an emery wheel, he recited a Bible verse about the powers of darkness, shouting at English, “What’s it feel like, killing for a living?”
English’s expression remained flat. Indecipherable. A weathered tombstone. By habit, or no, instinct, he sized up the changeling-like boy, calculating where the lad fit on the Table of Drops scale.
“Tell me your name, boy,” he shouted.
A voice in the crowd cried, “What he’s called doesn’t matter—”
A second voice added, “He’s Vegetable’s.”
Perched above the crowd, the slender boy repeated, “What’s it feel like, killing for a living?”
Gazing into the boy’s resinous eyes, English ignored the query, instead removing the hardback book from his jacket. Thumbing the onionskin pages, he calculated figures in his head and then jeered, “I approximate your weight at what, ninety pounds?” Guffawing, he studied the page in mock disbelief. “Would you believe to end a waif-like you necessitates a twelve-foot drop?”
English snickered, “Sorry boy, at that height likely I take your head off.”
The boy heckled English. “I wear the armour. I’m not afraid of you or your rope. Still haven’t answered, what’s it feel like, killing—?”
“Well,” English interrupted, “if you must know, it feels like, like a full stomach and a clean suit of clothing. It feels like the taste of costly bourbon.” His nostrils flared. “It feels like a close shave and like the scent of a perfumed lady.” Locking eyes with the crowd, he concluded, “It feels like a downy pillow at close of day.” Tucking the book into his breast pocket, he clasped his hands and mocked, “At least from my end of the rope, anyway.”
The hushed crowd erupted in laughter. The raw-boned boy appeared to shrink sizes.
“Now,” English taunted, “Tell me, what’s the feel of hunger? How does it feel to have the face of a praying mantis? Tell me, what’s it feel like to be insignificant ?”
The woman seated with her back to the wagon wheel leaped to her feet and beckoned English over. She snatched a sample of rope from the hangman. Strands of auburn hair came loose from her chignon. Her cheeks flushed as she clenched the fibrous twine, shoving the rope toward her husband. Face set in a moue, she sulked, “This is foul. I want it.”
Obeying, her man paid English with money from his purse.
Pressing the rough cord to her breast, she turned a mock pirouette, perspiration glistening on her nape. With a hint of leer, she asked English, “How much of your rope to do me?”
After the hanging, Governor Green took breakfast. He instructed the chief turnkey to assign two inmates to prepare Bennett for burial, dressing the cadaver in clothing delivered the previous afternoon by Bennett’s three siblings, Patience, William, and Julie, as well as a flaxen-haired gentleman in a waistcoat, striped trousers, and Christy stiff hat also named William. This second William went by Billy.
Upon arrival at the gaol gate, the foursome’s way had been blocked by Vegetable, splayed on the ground. He rose to meet them and bowed himself with his face to the earth. Clasping the hems of Patience and Julie’s matching blue satin polonaises, he wept, “Angels, turn aside. This household is unclean.”
Julie knelt and, without malice, inquired, “What is your name?”
“I am the replacement, Matthias.”
Julie retrieved a small, embroidered sachet containing a jot of lavender from her reticule and placed it in Matthias’s filthy palm. Stepping around the senseless man, the others followed as she opened the gate and entered the prison grounds. From numerous cell windows, licentious inmates hooted obscenities. They clawed at the air like confined passengers on a doomed ship.
Bald-faced hornets swarmed the mucronate opening of a papery, grey nest constructed in the architrave molding above the entrance door. Patience, tall, comely, and darkly complected, tugged the bell pull. In his whitewashed hands, William, a painter by trade, gripped a parcel of clothing wrapped in red butcher paper to his chest. Julie, the baby of the family, shaded herself under a parasol. Fearful of a wasp’s sting, she pulled her grey straw hat trimmed with brown satin over her ears.
Carved into the alabaster keystone above the portico, the terrified likeness of Cronos, the father of time, gazed into a blank future. Following at least a dozen pulls, a turnkey with a tragic expression opened the heavy door.
Patience murmured, “We’re here to visit our brother.”
Staring at them like they were zoo animals, he asked, “And?”
“And?” Patience cast a quick glance over her shoulder, “Allow us entry, please.”
The turnkey studied Patience with agitation, suspicion. The intense midafternoon sunlight made everything appear increasingly queer.
“Who’s your brother, then?”
“George Dickson,” Patience said, before correcting herself. “Bennett, George Bennett.”
“Bennett or Dickson? Which?”
Their father was a coloured man of West Indian origin and unlike his brother and two sisters, Bennett had exhibited no Negroid features.
The turnkey was indignant. “Bennett? The white man?”
Patience unfolded the pass Sheriff Jarvis had provided granting permission to visit their brother in the death cell. The turnkey scrutinized the paper as sounds of carpentry, hammering, sawing, came from the rear of the gaol. Swatting at a wasp, Julie lost her balance, nearly toppling down the limestone steps. William reached for his little sister’s elbow. He dropped the parcel. The contents spilled out.
The turnkey looked past Patience to Billy, “Can you vouch for the Negress?”
Billy’s Adam’s apple rose and fell before he said, “The Negress is my wife.”
The door creaked closed. While they waited, a wasp stung Julie on the cheek. The white-hot sting brought her to tears. With help from Patience, she sat down on the steps, one hand pressed to her cheek.
Minutes lapsed before the turnkey reappeared. In a mordacious tone he snarled, “No.”
“No? No, what?” Patience inquired.
“No visit,” he smirked, “Not today.”
“When? Tomorrow our brother—”
Julie pawed at her neckline, “My throat. I can’t—” William removed Julie’s gold collar pin – engraved with her initials – from the collar of her shirtwaist and dropped it on the step. Billy rubbed the back of her hand and attempted to settle her, repeating, “Shh, shh. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“I don’t understand,” Patience pleaded, holding up Sheriff Jarvis’s pass, “We’re permitted.”
Julie panted, gasped, “Breathing. Difficult.”
The turnkey uttered, “He wants visits from none of you. Bennett’s words, not mine.”
The heavy door closed tight as a fist. Jowls swollen, Julie clawed her throat, wheezing, “I can’t breathe—”
Face at the mull post, Patience pleaded, “Please. Please. At the very least, help my baby sister. She’s only fourteen.”
The door remained closed.
William gathered the contents of the parcel into a neat pile, and left the reassembled package on the steps. Taking to their legs, they crossed the Don Bridge to the public road. Prison laborers digging a ditch beside Gerrard Street paused to watch the foursome board an omnibus bound for the city.
After consulting a walking boss, turnkey Wilson, a jittery man with a pronounced overbite, pulled aside two inmates, Deacon and Mann, before their work gang set out to complete work at Riverdale Park.
Scheduled by the mayor to open in less than two weeks, swathes of the new park still required attention. Gangs of inmates had been at work laying walkways, constructing a rockery and fountain, planting double rows of saplings along the boulevard beside Sumach Street. They leveled the earth, cleared tracts of bosky, and backfilled a ravine. The rush was on to drain mosquito-infested, swampy lowlands near the sluggish, brown Don River. The work was grueling; the miasma emitted from the swamp, combined with the rancid stench wafting from Lamb’s Blacking & Glue Manufactory immediately south of the parkland, was intolerable.
Wilson guided Deacon and Mann to the room containing Bennett’s corpse. Deacon, a nasally woebegone grumbler as crooked as a corkscrew, was awaiting trial for housebreaking and petty larceny. Once set upon with a cricket bat, portions of his skull bone appeared to float under the flesh of his shaved head. Where his right eye had been knocked out during the assault, dense scar tissue formed a sphincter-like opening on his face.
Fourteen-year-old Mann, eyes as blue as deep water, had been sent up fifteen days for drunkenness. Two days remained on his sentence. Despite recent setbacks, for the most part, Mann was a happy-go-lucky fellow.
In infancy, he had been left partially deaf after a bout of typhoid he was not expected to survive. Gamins he ran with called their cheery friend “Mann Lucky,” “Just Lucky” or “Lucky.” Mann pledged to himself that upon release he would leave the gaol, find a situation, and be done with the city. Ages ago he lost his pop and his ma and his siblings to smallpox. He had no one.
Resembling a grotesque Jumeau doll, George Bennett’s sutured and stitched body lay unclothed on a table. A splendid black coffin ferried from Cobourg – the town of his birth – on the night steamer, Mirth, and delivered before dawn by a teamster from Small’s Wharf stood propped in the corner. The lid displayed St. Peter’s inverted trefoil cross. Items of clothing sat neatly folded on a sturdy workbench.
Wilson turned up the gas, washing the room in sickly, yellow light. The prisoners paused at the sight of Bennett. Slowly, Mann removed his cap, crossed himself.
Deacon chortled, “What’s this, then?”
Turnkey Wilson shoved the inmates forward. “Clothe it and get it coffined.”
“Wait now,” Deacon whined. “This is women’s work. Strumpets in the west wing could know better what to do with this bloke.” Glancing in the corner, Deacon sized up the coffin, and added, “A papist, too.”
“Governor’s orders,” Wilson barked. “Get on with it before he’s hardened.”
Deacon and Mann set to dress Bennett in fineries of the day: a double-breasted pine green, sable brushed, frock coat with matching vest and trousers. Size five stacked heel cordovan leather shoes. A white collar. Loosely tying a barrel knot around his own neck before passing the tied cravat to Deacon, Mann gently cupped the back of Bennett’s head, raised it slightly allowing Deacon to slip the black satin cravat over the scalp and around the dead man’s neck. Wilson watched idly from the doorway.
Mann wiped a spot of grime from Bennett’s ashen cheek with his frayed cuff, grooming the dead man’s thick moustache with his fingertips. Mann asked, reverently, “Who is he?”
Straightening the cravat, Deacon shrugged. Mann instructed, “Not too tight.”
Wilson leaned in the doorway, chewing his thumbnail as the pair retrieved the coffin. Mann grasped Bennett’s shoulders, Deacon his ankles, and together they lowered the body into the box.
Mann knelt, smoothed Bennett’s lapels, patted the dead man’s firm chest. Lid set in place, the white metal thumbscrews remained unfastened.
In a pasture behind the gaol a dog barked.
Deacon and Mann turned to Wilson. Mann asked, deferentially, “Sir? Now?”
Cast in yellow gaslight, the men appeared jaundiced. Wilson instructed each to turn out the pockets of their Garibaldi jackets. Without hesitation, Mann complied. Deacon stared at his boots, “I didn’t nick nothin’.”
Wilson jabbed his billy into Deacon’s throat. “Like I said, turn ’em.” Deacon removed an engraved silver timepiece, a Dickson family heirloom with cylinder movements and a lady’s gold collar pin from his pocket.
Wilson seized both.
“A fine timepiece,” Deacon stammered nervously. “Too fine to bury.”
The turnkey held up the timepiece, studied it. “Valuable,” he murmured and before slipping the watch into his pocket glanced at the open doorway. “Valuable, indeed.”
Deacon and Mann fastened the coffin lid in place. Wilson watched, hovering over their shoulders. Turning the collar pin over in his hand, he asked, “Either of you knew of this man?”
“Knew ‘em? No, only that he ended another man.”
Mann asked, “Which man?” Wilson winked, “The man. Brown.” He tossed the collar pin at Mann, who reflectively snatched it out of the air. The turnkey murmured, “Son, in this life, there’s profit in not knowing.”
“There’s profit. In not knowing,” Wilson repeated himself, louder.
Mann sighed. “Oh. Profit. Of course.”
Mann tightened the final screw on Bennett’s coffin and squeezed the collar pin in his palm. The coffin was placed on a cart. Wilson ordered, “To yard.”
Mann pushed from the rear. The exercise yard was ablaze with sunlight. Mann leaned down, placed his boyish face close to the seam where lid and coffin joined and breathed, “Remember me.”
With these final words seeping into the dead man’s box, Bennett joined the choir invisible in the ground. Rev. Father Egan recited a benediction. Puffs of incense from the polished brass censer drifted above the exercise yard, over the wall, over the river, over trees, over public roads, over Riverdale Park, to the top of the sky.
Upon his liberty, Mann was true to his word. He found a situation to convey him away from the city, replying to an ad in The Globe seeking agents to sell chromolithograph portraits of the late Hon. George Brown in townships throughout the province. He earned thirty-three cents on the dollar, plus a stipend for lodging.
With the take from a poker match he purchased eel-skin trousers, a pair of Chelsea boots, and a green vest. He sat in a haircutter’s chair for his first fifteen-cent haircut.
The collar pin given to him by turnkey Wilson pinned to his vest, he walked the highway between Toronto and Cornwall, hawking the likeness of George Brown on a plate.
“Souvenir? Souvenir. An historic day. A souvenir.”
Passing through Cobourg on the road from Kingston, he encountered a downcast young Black woman in a satin polonaise, sitting on a covered porch, alone on a comfortable swing chair.
“Hello,” he greeted her. “I am thirsty.”
She offered water. The most exquisite lady he’d ever encountered eyed the collar pin fixed to his chest.
For perhaps the first time in a long time, she smiled. “The pin. Where did you come by it?”
“A long story.”
“Sit. Please. Join me so I might hear.”
Remember Me appeared in CVC Carter V. Cooper
Illustration by Nick Burton