Emily Hilda Blake – hanged in Manitoba, Canada.

 

Background.

Emily Hilda Blake was born in 1878 at Chedgrave, between Lowestoft and Norwich in Norfolk (England), the fifth child of a police constable and his wife.  By age nine both her parents had died and she and her brother were living in Heckingham Workhouse, typically a pretty miserable existence.  She always used the Christian name Hilda rather than Emily so I have done the same in this account.

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 Canada in the May of 1888 with Hilda to live in the household of a farming family by the name of Stewart.  Hilda did not like her new home and soon ran away.  This was to lead to a custody battle between the Stewarts and their neighbours who had taken her in.  Eventually Hilda got fed up with it all and ran away again, taking a job as a domestic servant with Robert and Mary Lane in Brandon, Manitoba, in the summer of 1898. Here among other duties she helped look after the couple’s children.  By the summer of 1899, 32 year old Mary had another baby on the way.  Click here for a picture of Hilda.

 

The crime.

On the afternoon of Wednesday the 5th of July, Hilda was ironing curtains which Mary was hanging in the windows.  Around 4pm a shot rang out and Mary Lane cried out before running from the house and collapsing on the side walk (pavement) outside it.  Her neighbours rushed to her assistance and got her back into the house but Mary died within a few minutes on the floor of the parlour from a bullet wound to the back without being able to identify her assailant.  Mary’s children were playing out in the back yard and fortunately did not witness their mother’s death.  The only person who did was Hilda.  She claimed that a tramp had entered the house and shot Mary after she had earlier refused his request for food.  The local chief of police, James Kircaldy, investigated what for Brandon was a most unusual crime and took a detailed description of the alleged tramp from Hilda.  As Kircaldy pieced together the evidence he came to the conclusion that Hilda’s story of the tramp didn’t hold water and in due course arrested her.  The murder weapon was located in a garbage can nearby and it was found to have been purchased by Hilda in Winnipeg a few weeks earlier, an odd purchase for a 21 year old domestic servant to make!  Kirkaldy charged her with the murder and she gave him a confession.  In this she stated that she shot Mary in a fit of jealousy over her love for Mary’s children. 
It has been alleged that the real motive was that Hilda was having an affair with
Robert Lane and felt that she couldn’t get him while Mary was on the scene.  If this was indeed the case there was no actual evidence that Robert felt the same way about her, although apparently the police never interviewed him.  Indeed this second possible motive was rapidly brushed under the carpet to save Robert’s good name.  He remarried soon afterwards, perhaps needing a mother for the four children as much as another wife. 

 

Trial.

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 Brandon courthouse before judge A.C. Killam on 15th of November 1899. Killam was the same judge who had presided over the custody disputes ten years earlier.

 

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 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 returned to Brandon jail to await her punishment.

 

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 in Britain at this time, especially where the prisoner was female, there was agitation for a reprieve.  In Hilda’s case this was led by Dr. Amelia Yeomans who asserted that Hilda was “morally degenerate” and suffered from “moral insanity.” Dr. Yeomans was an early suffragette in addition to being a physician and erstwhile president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

The government of the Dominion of Canada held the power of reprieve but declined exercise the Royal Prerogative of Mercy in Hilda’s case.

 

Execution.

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 the 28th of December 1888 for the murder of his wife Mary.  Walter Gordon followed Hilda to the gallows on the 20th of June 1902 for multiple murder and Harry Green became the last to be hanged on the 25th of February 1915.

 

Hilda’s execution was set for the morning of 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. 

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 Canada’s hangman at this time and officiated at Hilda’s execution.  He was familiar with William Marwood’s methods and used a similar drop designed to break the prisoner’s neck.

 

At 8.30am on this cold clear December morning Hilda’s arms were pinioned in the condemned cell 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 Raclive 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.  The chaplain 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.

 

Comment.

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
Britain was opposed by many in Canada who didn’t like the influx of poor, inner city children.  Hilda’s crime epitomised their case.
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.

 

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