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GUEST COLUMN: Elizabeth Workman didn’t deserve to be executed

Published on

Bob McCarthy

In a recent guest column titled, ‘Where is the Body of Elizabeth Workman,’ Sarnia Journal readers were informed that this woman “beat her husband to death with a mop handle.”

Bob McCarthy
Bob McCarthy

What they weren’t told is that she was a chronically abused woman. A newspaper editorial from 1873 clearly stated, ‘The deceased James Workman had for a long period of years been a most intemperate and tyrannical husband and father; that his wife had frequently to take refuge in the dwellings of her neighbors from his violence; while on the contrary it was shown that she was a quiet industrious hard-working woman.”

Elizabeth Workman was found guilty of causing the death of her husband. But the trial transcript of CASE 666/1873 (the actual case number) clearly shows none of the evidence given for the Crown was sufficient to show this violence was done with murderous intent, or that she really intended to kill him.

Instead of having malice aforethought, she might only have been reacting to his abuse, acting in self-defence of either herself or her nine-year-old son.

Following her conviction and sentencing, petitions requesting clemency were signed by hundreds of local residents. Alexander Mackenzie, Lambton’s Member of Parliament and future prime minister, hand-delivered these petitions, along with a letter he’d written himself, to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. Their efforts were to no avail.

Elizabeth Workman did not have a lawyer appointed until the night before her trial. No witnesses were called on her behalf. Her hanging was a travesty of justice.

Throughout Canada’s history, 58 women have been sentenced to death by a judge. In 33 of the trials, the jury recommended that mercy be shown. All but one of these 33 sentences of death was reduced to a lesser term. Only one of these 33 women was hanged – Elizabeth Workman.

Just before 9 a.m. a rope noose was slipped around her neck and a flour bag drawn over her face.

Clutching a small bouquet of white flowers she uttered her final words: “I can only hope that what I have been going through will serve as a warning to all wives who had drunken husbands, and to all husbands who had drunken wives.”

When the rope was cut following pronouncement of death, the body of this abused woman fell six feet into a pit already dug beneath the scaffold.

Her remains are there to this day, under the tarmac of a parking lot. There is not even some kind of marker to show she lived.

Since her execution was contrary to the recommendation of the jury, as well as public opinion, Elizabeth Workman’s case is unique among women who received the death penalty.

A poor, marginalized, working-class woman, she was not well served by a judicial system that accorded her little regard, a system that may have allowed gender, class and politics to interfere in her fair treatment.

Why was Elizabeth Workman, an abused woman, the only female ever hanged in Canada contrary to the jury’s recommendation?

She didn’t deserve to be executed.

Bob McCarthy is a local historian and the author of CASE 666 – Travesty of Justice


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