25 November

Lower Canada Modifies British Criminal Law

The Quebec Act of 1774 retained French civil law in Canada, but introduced British criminal law because it was more merciful than that of France. British criminal law was cruel enough (see October 2) and a session of the Parliament of Lower Canada that opened on November 25, 1823, took steps to modify it. Among other things the penalties for petty theft were revised. Until then, for instance, a man could be hanged for stealing five shillings from a warehouse, shop, or stable, or for stealing forty shillings from a dwelling house or wharf.

One of the worst examples of capital punishment for petty theft occurred in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1828. Patrick Burgan, a boy of eighteen years, was charged with entering the dwelling of John B. Smith, a manufacturer of ginger beer, and robbing the till of twenty-five cents. Young Burgan was tried by a jury of twelve members and pronounced guilty, with a recommendation for mercy. The judge sentenced the boy to be executed, said there was no hope of mercy, and advised him to lose no time in preparing for his death.

Despite the recommendation of the jury, and a petition sent to Lieutenant-Governor Sir Howard Douglas, the law was allowed to take its course. Patrick Burgan was hanged from the second storey of the old jail. The executioner was Blizard Baine, an Englishman who had been sentenced to two years for robbery. For acting as hangman, Baine was released from prison, given £10, and told to leave the city in a hurry. The difference in the currency (Burgan stole twenty-five cents but Baine was given £10) was that a number of currencies were circulating in the Maritimes until 1858.

Among the cruel spectacles of those days were public hangings. One of the last public hangings in Canada was in February, 1869, when James Patrick Whelan was executed in Ottawa for the murder of D'Arcy McGee (see April 7).


25 November

-1657    Marguerite Bourgeoys opened a school for French and Indian children at Ville Marie (Montreal).

-1758    General John Forbes captured Fort Duquesne and named it Fort Pitt, now Pittsburg. This marked the end of French rule in the Ohio Valley.

-1783    Sir Guy Carleton sailed from New York. Britain retained Detroit and Niagara as hostages to see that the peace terms were carried out.

-1837    William Lyon Mackenzie proclaimed the creation of a provisional government. This led to an armed clash in which he was defeated (see December 8).4

-1847    A railway was opened between Montreal and Lachine, Quebec.

-1851   The Y.M.C.A. was organized at Montreal.

-1857    Prime Minister Sir Etienne Taché resigned.