April 28, 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of British Columbia’s last execution.
Leo Anthony Mantha was a tugboat operator and former sailor. He was gay and wanted to have a long-term relationship with his boyfriend Aaron “Bud” Jenkins. Jenkins tried to break up with him and Mantha lost his shit and stabbed Jenkins to death. He was subsequently tried, convicted and executed.
Capital punishment was on the books in Canada until 1976 when Parliament narrowly voted to abolish it. The only method ever used in this country was hanging.
In British Columbia most executions were carried out at Oakalla prison in Burnaby. Initially the gallows were located in the prison courtyard but later moved inside to an abandoned elevator shaft.
The prison was torn down in the early ‘90s and the site is now occupied by a subdivision. The site of the gallows is now a non-descript park where middle class people walk their dogs and go for morning power walks.
Jean Howarth (1917-2004) was a reporter at the Vancouver Province at the time of the Mantha execution. An opponent of capital punishment, she wanted to shed the light of day on legislated killing. She witnessed Mantha’s execution.
I believe that her article, which appeared the day after the execution, is the most harrowing, sobering and sincere thing ever written about Leo Mantha.
Howarth, Jean. “Mantha dies on the gallows.” The Province [Vancouver] 29 Apr. 1959
Leo Anthony Mantha dropped to his death down the old elevator shaft at Oakalla at 12:07 Tuesday morning.
He came into the bleak little concrete room looking frozen and expressionless and he didn’t say anything.
Mantha had been convicted of murdering Seaman Aaron Jenkins in his bunk at HMCS Naden naval base at Esquimalt last September.
The murmur of the priest’s prayers came with him. After half a minute the priest stopped praying, because there wasn’t anything to pray over any more.
My invitation to the hanging had sad that I must be there at 11:45 p.m. So I was there.
A young guard took me down to the prison.
“It’s very quiet,” I said.
“It’s always quiet nights like these,” he said.
“The others… seem to mourn.”
We came up to the prison door and a guard unlocked it and let us in. A guard at the door took my invitation.
“Is it your intention to witness this?” he said.
“Yes.” I said.
“It’s a pretty grisly business for a woman.” he said.
“I know,” I said. “I think it’s time women in Canada knew how grisly it is.
People kept coming in. The six members of the coroner’s jury came and sat solidly along a wall. Mantha’s lawyer George Gregory came, with another lawyer.
The condemned man had asked for them.
He had asked for the prison doctor, Dr. R.G.E. Richmond, to come too and certify him dead. The doctor said he (Mantha) wanted some friends around him at the end.
The doctor said that Mantha had eaten a good dinner… a T-bone steak… and enjoyed it.
Mantha was very calm, he said, calmer than most condemned men that the doctor had seen. He needed only a mild sedative, a tranquilizer.
The priest had been with him since 8 o’clock. They had prayed the last hour and a half with a stop once for a cigaret. He had given the priest a sealed letter for his sister down east.
LINE KEPT OPEN
Warden Hugh Christie came in then. He said Mantha had wanted the lawyers because he had no family and he wanted to be sure it was all done right.
There was a link open to Ottawa, but they didn’t expect the phone to ring.
The hangman came.
He is a very short man, very fat with little round eyes like black buttons behind horned rimmed spectacles. He carried a strap in his hand to fasten Mantha’s leg as he stood on the trapdoor; and he wore a black beret.
VERY LONG TIME
We seemed to have been there a very long time and I looked at the clock wishing it was over, and then feeling a terrible guilt at rushing the time.
And then suddenly Warden Christie looked at the door and nodded his head.
We were all walking very rapidly then out through a locked barred door and another, and up some stairs and into a little rectangular cement room.
FENCED WITH STEEL
The room had a trap door in the floor, fenced around with steel. Standing around it and facing away from it was a row of prison guards.
We went down to the end of the room behind another steel fence. There was silence for a minute. And then we heard the shuffle of feet and Leo Mantha came in with his hands strapped behind him. The priest’s voice murmuring prayers.
The hangman put his strap around his legs and pulled a black cloth over his head and the noose.
And stepped back and reached down to a little lever on the floor.
THEN WAS SICK
Only I put my hands over my face then because I was sick.
I didn’t go down to view the body. I couldn’t.
Mantha was 31 and unmarried. Last Sept. 5 he had stabbed a sailor friend as he lay in bed. They were homosexuals and they had a fight because the young sailor planned to get married.
I went to see Leo Mantha hanged because I do not believe in capital punishment. It was my idea that I go.
A man had been assigned to the job and the managing editor did not want to let a woman go. None of my superiors did. It made them uncomfortable.
I went to New Westminster myself to ask permission of Sheriff Frank Cotton. When I told him what I wanted he said at once, “No, I couldn’t.” then he added, “I’m not trying to deny you, just to protect you.”
But he agreed to listen to me.
I told him why I wanted to go. That a hanging was the responsibility of all Canadians and that I did not think we should do in the dark corners what we could not face in the light. That I would not be writing it hysterically or dramatically, but with as much sober truth as I could muster.
After a while he said, “will you sit out in the other office and let me think for a while?”
I sat in the other office for 21 minutes. Then he opened the door and beckoned me in. He was looking grey and unhappy.
“I have decided to let you go,” he said.