Drop Dead

A Horrible History of Hanging in Canada

Reviewed by Tanja Hütter

Posted September 18, 2019

At the risk of being labelled morbid, I have to confess that I found this book fascinating.

In Drop Dead by Lorna Poplak, the author has provided a serious exploration of Canada’s history of capital punishment from Confederation to abolition, honing in on the preferred method: public hanging. Poplak uses the results of her research well and tells captivating stories about the people who were involved — from the accusers, to the accused, to those who carried out the sentences.

While some of us are old enough to remember the period prior to the abolishment of capital punishment, we tend to think of it as a sentence for murder and treason. However, in Drop Dead we’re told that in the nineteenth century more than one hundred offences were punishable by death, including leaving graffiti on church walls and stealing a cow.

Given the numbers of characters and stories that are included in this book, it would be difficult to single out just one. Yet the chapter on Arthur Ellis, Canada’s most famous hangman, stands out for a few reasons.

Ellis was the hangman of choice across Canada for twenty-five years, handling some of the most publicized sentences of his day. When his work took him to smaller communities that did not have a gallows, he made his own and painted it red.

Due to poor record-keeping, and the tendency by other hangmen to use Ellis’s name as an alias, it is impossible to say with accuracy how many people he executed over his career. Ellis claimed that it was more than six hundred people, across Canada, England, and the Middle East.

His success came to an ignominious end in 1935 when he miscalculated the drop of a female prisoner that resulted in her decapitation. Distaste for executing women was already prevalent among the Canadian population — only one per cent of those executed were female — but this tragedy put an end to selling tickets to the public.

Drop Dead shines a light on a dark history. Yet, thanks to Poplak’s ability as a storyteller, as well as the inclusion of images and a well-curated bibliography, her book is, dare I say, an enjoyable read.

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This article originally appeared in the October-November 2019 issue of Canada’s History.

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