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hangings of london

Alas, Poor Cornelius
by Christopher Doty

burley's skull"Yes! O yes! It was I who did this murderous deed."

The events leading to London's first and most macabre hanging began in the woods of Bayham Township along the shore of Lake Erie in late summer of 1829.

Constable Timothy Conklin Pomeroy was in pursuit of 26-year-old Cornelius Burley who was wanted for theft, arson and destroying cattle. His uncle and two cousins had given the fugitive refuge from the law.

On September 16th Pomeroy was travelling through a pine forest with his associates when a voice cried out "Halt!" A rifle shot immediately cracked out and Pomeroy slumped to the forest floor, dead. A cap discovered at the scene of the crime implicated Burley. A 100 pound reward from the crown soon led to the capture of Burley, Henrich Ribble and his two sons: Anthony and David.

Burley and the Ribbles were housed in a cramped, primitive cell at a temporary wooden courthouse. Burley later refused to leave its hellish conditions during a jail break that winter, believing he would be found innocent of the crime.

But Burley, who was tried first, was found guilty of Pomeroy's murder and sentenced to hang on August 19, 1830. In light of his determination to stand trial, many people believed the Ribbles were the ones guilty of the constable's death.

"They were active, intelligent, desperate men, well skilled in the use of firearms, good marksmen, successful hunters. Buleigh (sic) was just the reverse," noted one-time London resident Freeman Talbot. "He was a poor, ignorant, weak-minded mortal, almost an idiot."

London's first gallows were erected in the courthouse square facing Ridout Street. People came from miles around to see the hanging - allegedly as far away as Hamilton and York (now Toronto). In a time when horse-shoe tossing was considered a major sport, a hanging ranked as one of the year's must-see events. An estimated 3000 people - ten times the village's population - turned out to gape at he spectacle.

Reverend James Jackson, who was determined to save Burley's soul, managed to extract a confession which he read from the scaffold. Jackson's verbose hand was evident in the text - particularly when one realizes Burley was illiterate and poorly educated:

"I accordingly presented my rifle, and ordered him to stand back, but gave him no time to escape till I fired on him, which shot was instrumental in bringing him to an untimely grave, and me to this disgraceful end. Yes! O yes! It was I who did this murderous deed; it was I alone who was guilty of shedding the blood of that trusty man, Mr. Pomeroy, who was faithfully performing his duty to his King and his country."

The confession guaranteed the Ribbles - who had yet to be tried - would be acquitted. Jackson later sold printed handbills of the confession.

On the first attempt to hang Burley the rope snapped, sending the prisoner plummeting 20 feet to the ground, knocking him unconscious. The second try was successful, making Burley both the first and second man hung in London. His remains were quickly dissected on the spot by specimen-hungry surgeons.

orson squire fowlerBurley's cranium was later toured across North America and Europe as an example of a criminal skull by Orson Squire Fowler (left), an expert in the pseudo science of phrenology. Outside of Yorick in Hamlet, Burley's skull probably became the most famous of the 19th century.

In the 1880s it was presented to the Harris family of Eldon House in London. Re-discovered in 1960, the skull remained as an off-again, on-again museum exhibit at Eldon House until a relative, threatening legal action, claimed it in 2001 and gave what was left of Cornelius Burley a proper burial.

Click here to read more about the fight to bury Burley