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Hants County's Last Hanging


 

 

"SIR, In the interests of justice and humanity, I have presumed to address you from a penal prison, and under circumstances of embarrassment which will, I hope, ensure to me a little consideration at your hands."

So begins the letter of one George Stanley Kavanagh to the editor of the Freeman's Journal in Dublin, Ireland. The letter was never sent. It can be found on a shelf in the West Hants Historical Society's Museum in Windsor. The museum also houses the noose used to hang Kavanagh for the murder of Freeman Harvie.

Kavanagh's hanging would be the last execution to take place in Hants County. Before his execution, Kavanagh penned over 15 letters to politicians, newspapers and friends. Each letter proclaimed his innocence and asked for money to help with legal fees. For some reason his letters were never sent.

In his letter to the newspaper editor, he writes of false claims printed about him in The Halifax Herald.

"It has pained me more than words can tell, to have all kinds of things written about me in the press. One account has it that I belonged to an Irish secret society that had for its object the killing of old men."

The Halifax Herald from Feb. 9, 1906 quoted Kavanagh's former landlady, a Mrs. Forsey, who said that Kavanagh had told her about murdering an old man in Ireland. Apparently he made this claim one morning at the breakfast table, saying that "the Whitecaps" had forced him to do it.

Whether or not these claims are true is difficult to say. There are many inconsistencies among newspaper clippings, court documents, and Kavanagh's letters.

The evidence in the case speaks for itself. Unless the people who testified were complete liars, anyone reading the synopsis of the evidence would find it difficult to believe Kavanagh's claims of innocence.

Kavanagh (who had at least three aliases) was boarding with Freeman Harvie, 66, of Ellershouse, in late January of 1906. Neighbours said that Harvie was quite hard of hearing.

On the night of Friday, Feb. 2, 1906, Joseph Fisher and his son David came to visit Harvie, who was doing up the local school's taxes when they arrived. While the three of them were talking, Kavanagh came in the back door without speaking to them. At 8 p.m. that night, the visitors left.

According to a synopsis of evidence in the case of The King versus George Stanley, "This was the last time Harvie was seen alive. So far as we can learn, no one saw him from that time until his body was found in the cellar under a pile of potatoes, with the head cut off. . . . The head was afterwards found under a bucket, turned upside down in the corner of the cellar."

Kavanagh had come to Ellershouse about a week before the murder. He claimed that he was installing telephones for the telephone company. He requested the help of two young men from the community and offered to pay them $2 a day. This work never started. He also told some of the local residents that he was looking to purchase a small farm in the area. During this time, Kavanagh took up residence with Freeman Harvie.

On the day of the murder, Kavanagh borrowed a knife from David Fisher. That night, sometime after 8 p.m., Freeman Harvie was murdered.

According to the coroner, his throat had been slit by a small knife. His head was then cut off with the aid of a saw.

The next morning, Kavanagh went to the Fishers' home with some deeds and announced that he had purchased Harvie's property. He told Joseph Fisher that Harvie had gone to Halifax to see his lawyer. Kavanagh also returned David Fisher's knife. David would later testify that his knife had been sharpened.

The accused had several men from the community at the house that weekend to help him get settled into his new home. Many people who testified noted Kavanagh's insistence that nobody go into the basement or porch. During the entire weekend, he was the only person allowed to enter the porch, where the stairs to the basement were located.

On Saturday, the Fisher family, along with Edgar McCarthy, had supper in the home. Kavanagh fetched potatoes from the basement, presumably from the same pile where Harvie's body was buried. On Sunday, witnesses observed Kavanagh nailing the basement door shut.

Freeman Harvie's body was not discovered until Monday. It took all weekend for the residents of Ellershouse to become suspicious. In hindsight, the clues were not that hard to put together. Almost as soon as he made his claim of purchasing Harvie's farm, Kavanagh began selling off most of the property. He tried to sell anything and everything of value in the home - and it caused his downfall.

When Kavanagh offered to sell an organ to Edgar McCarthy for $30, it made McCarthy suspicious. Hours later, McCarthy and Joseph Fisher broke into the basement and found Freeman Harvie's body.

A local citizen caught Kavanagh near the railroad tracks. The newspapers from the days following his capture supplied the gruesome details of the headless body found in the potatoes. Kavanagh accused Edgar McCarthy and Joseph Fisher of aiding in the murder. At one point, Joseph Fisher was led to the courthouse in shackles.

By the time of the trial, the prosecution had decided to charge only Kavanagh with Harvie's murder.

It was later discovered that Kavanagh had served time in a Dublin prison for robbery. A letter from the Dublin prison requested information regarding the case and Mr. Kavanagh's behaviour in Windsor. They noted that "convict Ryan (Kavanagh), while in penal servitude here, was well conducted and was always regarded as a man of quiet disposition."

Kavanagh displayed this quiet disposition on the day of his hanging. The Halifax Herald reported that he didn't speak during his few final hours.

When Kavanagh was led from his cell, he thanked the jailer and the officers for their kindness. A priest was praying as Kavanagh was led to the gallows behind the old Windsor Courthouse. There were eight people present at the hanging, including Dr. J. B. Black and a Roman Catholic priest.

At 3:20 a.m. on Aug. 1, 1906, George Stanley Kavanagh was pronounced dead by Dr. Black. His remains are buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Windsor.

* * * * * * * * * *

A newspaper report stated that Kavanaghs real name was William Kavanagh and that he was born in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary.

This article appears courtesy of the author Brodie Thomas of the West Hants Historical Society.

Brodie Thomas, a native of Cogmagun, Hants County, is a freelance writer living in Corner Brook, Nfld.