"Cyrus, you did not, did you?"
The year 1871 dawned as a promising one for 20-year-old Cyrus Pickard. He had accepted a job as a hired hand on the farm of Duncan McVannel in West Nissouri Township and was engaged to be married. The date was already set.
But something went wrong. According to one account, the girl's father disapproved of Cyrus and asked McVannel whether Cyrus seemed to be a fit prospect for a husband. The farmer did not have a high opinion of Cyrus and the father called off the wedding.
Dejected, Cyrus quit his job on the McVannel farm and made plans to return to his family in Michigan. However, McVannel refused to pay him, arguing that Cyrus had broken their agreement by failing to work for a full year as promised. The amount in dispute was $25.
For three weeks, Cyrus tried unsuccessfully to collect his pay. He was morose and depressed. Friends said he talked of suicide. His brother Thomas quoted Cyrus as saying, "There is a way to make him (McVannel) pay." A local newspaper later reported a rumour that Cyrus had prepared three bullets: one for McVannel, one for the girl, and one for himself.
On April 21st Cyrus showed up at the McVannel farm. His former employer allegedly said, "Out you damned rascal. If you come here much more I will put you in close keeping." He then turned his back on Cyrus to continue harrowing his field.
Cyrus pulled an old single shot percussion cap and ball pistol from his long black coat and fired at McVannel from behind. McVannel died almost instantly as the bullet hit him squarely in the back, tore through his lungs and lodged under the skin of his chest. With an old, inaccurate pistol, it had to be considered a lucky shot. Or, for Cyrus, unlucky.
Cyrus fled to a nearby farm where his brother was working. When a local farmer came upon the scene, Thomas was crying "Cyrus, you did not, did you?" When told he was under arrest, Cyrus threw the gun and percussion caps on the ground in disgust. It was his last free act.
At the trial in London, there was an attempt at what we would now call an insanity defense. However, the prosecution was quoted as saying that the only insanity Cyrus had was "the insanity of a wicked heart." Cyrus was described as listless and uninterested during the trial. At sentencing, he was given an opportunity to speak, but he had nothing to say. Observers said he had a "dogged and passive" expression as he was sentenced to hang on December 28th.
Between 50 to 60 tickets were issued by the sheriff for London's first private execution - but the public did not exactly cooperate. Several hundred spectators watched from nearby buildings and walls, hoping to catch a glimpse of the macabre spectacle.
J. M. Denton stood with Cyrus on the gallows and delivered a message, acknowledging his friend's guilt and asked that he not be made a spectacle of in the newspapers.
Cyrus' last words, through the tears, were, "Lord Jesus, receive my soul." He had been up most of his last night singing hymns with local ministers. The nervous executioner, disguised in a long black gown, placed the white hood over the condemned man's head and tightened the noose.
Unfortunately for Cyrus, the executioner had placed the knot under his chin rather than at the side of his neck. As a result, the drop did not produce the quick unconsciousness of a broken neck. The horrified spectators had to watch and listen as the young man slowly, convulsively, strangled to death over the next ten to fifteen minutes. He was later buried in an unmarked grave in the jail yard.
In the St. Marys Protestant Cemetery, not far from the Pickard plot that contains several of my ancestors, is the grave of Duncan McVannel. His tomb stone features prayerful clasped hands and a dedication from his wife. At the very bottom are four lines of eroded text that I could not read on that cold, rainy morning I visited.
Did those words from the McVannel family manage to include a little prayer for Cyrus, too?
Dave Dyer is a descendentof Cyrus Pickard and lives in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com. A longer version of this article was published in the St. Marys Journal Argus on December 31, 2003.