Emily Hilda Blake was
born in 1878 at Chedgrave, between
Hilda’s father had
formerly been a bailiff to and tenant of Sir Reginald Beauchamp, who’s sister Hilda she may well have been named after. Sir Reginald took an interest in the Blake
children. He was on the board of the Self-Help Emigration Society and in that
capacity arranged for Hilda and her brother Thomas to be sent to
On the afternoon of
Wednesday the 5th of July, Hilda was ironing curtains which Mary was hanging in
the windows. Around a shot rang out and
It has been alleged that the real motive was that Hilda was having an affair with
As was normal Hilda
appeared before the local magistrate on the Monday of the week following the
murder, where the prima facia evidence against her was heard. She declined to cross examine the principal
witnesses, Police Chief Kircaldy and Dr. MacDairmid who had carried out the autopsy on Mary and was
therefore remanded for trial in the Court of Queen’s Bench at the
Hilda wore a “smart and
becoming” brown velvet dress for her trial that was to last just five
minutes. After the indictment had been
read she pleaded guilty to wilful murder.
The judge advised her against this and to accept defence counsel but
this she refused to do and instead asked for the most severe punishment. The case did not go to a jury. The court adjourned and on the following day
Hilda was returned to court to be formally sentenced. Under Canadian law only one sentence was
available to judge Killam – that Hilda be hanged by
the neck until she was dead. She was
Strangely Hilda made an attempt to escape from prison using a file provided by one of the prison matrons, Emma Stripp. When this was foiled Emma Stripp was charged with aiding an escape and received a two month prison sentence. Hilda wrote a well written and literate poem entitled “My Downfall” in prison which was published in the Western Sun on the 14th of December 1899.
As was often the case
The government of the Dominion of Canada held the power of reprieve but declined exercise the Royal Prerogative of Mercy in Hilda’s case.
Hangings at Brandon
jail Manitoba were quite rare events. In fact there were only four hangings
there, the previous execution having taken place eleven years earlier when
William Webb was hanged on
Hilda’s execution was set for the morning of Wednesday the 27th of December 1899. Hilda would become the first and only woman to be executed in the province. She chose to wear the same brown velvet dress as she had at trial and reportedly managed a good breakfast at 7 am. The Rev. C. C. McLaurin stayed with her and they talked and prayed together until the time came. Hilda had particularly requested a meeting with police Chief Kirkaldy and he came to see her a few minutes before eight. She gave him a letter that she had written to him of Christmas Day and asked him to ensure that there would be no delay in carrying out her sentence. He assured her that there wouldn’t be.
The gallows had been
erected in the jail yard and was of the conventional Canadian/US pattern with a
flight of steps leading up to the platform some ten feet above the ground. John Robert Radclive
(also given as Ratcliffe) was
At 8.30am on this cold clear December morning Hilda’s arms were pinioned in the condemned cell with leather straps before she was led out into the yard by the jailer with the prison chaplain accompanying her and Radclive bringing up the rear. 25 witnesses had assembled in the prison yard and they fell silent when Hilda came into view.
Hilda looked pale but walked firmly to the gallows and asked Radclive to hold the bottom of her dress as she calmly ascended the steps. When she reached the platform she initially avoided stepping on the trap door but did so willingly when Radclive asked her to. Here he strapped her legs and it was reported that she smiled at the noose and told those on the scaffold “Do not think too hard of me. Good bye” before Radclive drew the black hood over her. It is said that she flinched slightly as she felt the rope draw tight around her neck. Rev. McLaurin was reciting the Lord’s prayer and when he reached "forgive us our trespasses" Radclive sprang the trap. No struggles were reported. Her body was buried within the prison later in the day. Hilda retained her composure throughout the ordeal and was described by Radclive as one of the bravest of the 80 or so prisoners that he had executed.
It is difficult to see
how or why Hilda should have been reprieved, despite Dr. Yeomans’
assertions. There was no actual evidence
of mental illness and the murder was clearly premeditated, as evidenced by the
purchase of the gun a few weeks earlier. Although it is not stated in
contemporary accounts that I have read one assumes that Mary Lane’s unborn baby
died too, so in fact it was a double murder and it is more than probable that
Hilda would have known Mary was pregnant.
It has also been asserted that Hilda was something of a pawn in the politics of the day when large scale immigration from
It was reported that Hilda preferred death to a lengthy prison sentence and having to live with her guilty conscience everyday. If so she certainly wouldn’t be the first to feel this way.
A book on this case by Reinhold Kramer & Tom Mitchell entitled “Walk Towards the Gallows: The Tragedy of Hilda Blake, Hanged 1899” was published by Oxford University Press.