February 10, 1956
February 10th, 1956 was a cold day in Montreal. At the Bordeau
Jail, a death flag flew and a chime sounded seven times announcing that
a man was about to die. That man was Wilbert Coffin.
Wilbert Coffin was a mining prospector and experienced woodsman from
York Centre, in the County of Gaspé, Québec. The unspoiled
wilderness of the Gaspé region made it a popular spot for American
outdoorsmen. Three such outdoorsmen arrived from Pennsylvania in 1953.
They never returned home. Their bodies were found in a forest. They had
been murdered. The last person to have seen any of them alive was Wilbert
Wilbert Coffin, had been seen with the youngest of the three Americans
at a gas station. He had purchased a pump to repair the pickup truck the
Americans were driving. The case proved to be complicated without an eye
witness, the prosecution had to rely heavily on circumstantial evidence.
After much deliberation, the jury found Wilbert Coffin guilty of murdering
one of the hunters. The mandatory sentence was death by hanging. The sentence
was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. There, a majority
of justices affirmed the judgments of the lower courts. Wilbert Coffin
was again found guilty, and returned to Bordeaux Jail in Montreal to await
Many were upset by the ruling. They believed Wilbert Coffin to be innocent
that his conviction relied solely on circumstantial evidence. (Senator
Jacques Hébert, a journalist at the time, was cited for contempt
of court for his subsequent articles on the case.) Increasingly, Canadians
questioned the death penalty. One of the best arguments against the death
penalty has always been the possibility of error. (For example, Canadians
such as Donald Marshall, David Milgaard, Guy Paul Morin were all found
guilty of charges whose penalties were death. They were all later proven
innocent and released.) The argument against the death penalty eventually
won Canadians over and the practise was abolished in 1976. Sadly, this
came to late for Wilbert Coffin.
Despite his appeals for clemency and his claims of innocence, Wilbert
Coffin was executed on February 10, 1956.
If Wilbert Coffin was innocent, it is a mistake that can never be corrected.
Did you know?
By 1859, the offences punishable by death in Upper and Lower Canada were,
"murder, rape, treason, administering poison or wounding with intent
to commit unlawfully abusing a girl under ten, buggery with man or beast,
robbery with wounding, burglary with assault arson, casting away a ship
and, exhibiting a false signal endangering a ship."
By 1869, the statutes covering capital punishment were revised such that
only three crimes carried the death penalty: murder treason and, rape.
In 1961, new legislation reclassified murder into capital and non capital
offences. Capital murder was defined as follows:
"Murder that is planned or deliberate murder that is committed in
the course of certain crimes of violence, by the direct intervention,
or upon counselling of the accused or the murder of a police officer or
prison guard or warden, acting in the course of duty, resulting from such
direct intervention or counselling."
Such a murder was punishable by mandatory hanging, unless the accused
was 18 years of age, in which case he was, if tried as an adult, to be
sentenced to life imprisonment.
When was the last execution in Canada?
On December 11, 1962, the following persons were hanged at the Don Jail
in Toronto: Arthur Lucas, aged 54, for the premeditated murder of an informer
and a witness, with the motive of racket discipline and Robert Turpin,
aged 29, for the unpremeditated murder of a policeman to avoid arrest.
Have any women ever been executed?
Yes, 13 women have been executed in Canada since Confederation. The first
woman to be executed was Phoebe Campbell in 1872 after having been convicted
of murder. The last woman to be hanged in Canada was Marguerite Pitre.
She was executed in 1953 after being convicted as a co-conspirator in
Canada's largest mass murder.
Did you know?
- The total number of death penalties between 1867 and 1971 is 1481.
The total number of executions is 710 (697 men and 13 women).
- Ethan Allen, Joseph Ruel, and Thomas Jones, all convicted of murder,
were among the first to be executed after Confederation.
- At the Bordeaux Jail, a chime sounds 7 times to announce a man's
execution and 10 times to announce a woman's.
- Death by hanging was the only legal method of execution ever used
- The death penalty was abolished under the Criminal Code in 1976.
- Its reinstatement was debated and rejected by Parliament in 1987.
- In 1997, in response to a resolution of the Canadian Police
Association calling for the return of the death penalty in certain
cases, Justice Minister Anne McLellan issued a press release stating:
"It is not the intention of the Government of Canada to reinstate the
- The National Defence Act was amended in 1998 to abolish the
death penalty in Canadian military law, bringing it in line with
Canadian criminal law. Life imprisonment without eligibility for parole
for 25 years replaced the death penalty for the most serious offences.
In 1997, in response to a resolution of the Canadian Police Association
calling for the return of the death penalty in certain cases, Justice
Minister Anne McLellan issued a press release
(http://canada.justice.gc.ca/en/news/nr/1997/deathp.html ) stating: "It is
not the intention of the Government of Canada to reinstate the death