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The Trials of Phoebe Campbell
by Christopher Doty

phoebe campbell"I never shall say you done any such thing again - if I have to die for it."

Early in the morning of July 15, 1871 a Nissouri farmer named George Campbell was brutally hacked to death.

His wife, Phoebe, claimed that two men with blackened faces had broken into the family's log cabin near Thorndale and had threatened to shoot Campbell if he did not hand over a large sum of money.

When their gun misfired, Campbell allegedly tried to defend his family. During the scuffle, he was horribly bludgeoned about the head with an axe. On the basis of Phoebe's testimony, six local men were arrested, including Thomas Coyle, her father's hired man.

However, questions began to circulate about Phoebe's part in the crime. Why did she stand by and do nothing while two men chopped her husband to pieces? Why was she so unemotional in the days following the funeral? Why was she seen talking to Thomas Coyle the day after the murder? A subsequent coroner's inquest laid the blame for George Campbell's death at the feet of his wife and Coyle.

"I don't care," said Phoebe. "I'm innocent and I don't care."

But she cared enough to save her own skin. She accused Coyle of the murder but later recanted her testimony and accused her own cousin. By this time the public had little sympathy for the widow. It now appeared that Phoebe's story about the two burglars had been a lie to cover up an affair she had been enjoying with Coyle.

Campbell's murder trial, which began on April Fool's Day 1872, was sensational in the extreme. Phoebe accused her late husband of having an affair with her cousin's wife. The prosecution produced a letter Campbell had written to Coyle. In it, Phoebe wrote, "I never shall say you done any such thing again - if I have to die for it."

When questioned on her changed testimony, Phoebe claimed the ghost of her dead husband had visited her to declare Coyle and herself innocent of the crime. The crown attorney exploded at Campbell. "You can hardly expect any one to believe such nonsense!" he snorted.

The jury took only one hour to arrive at a guilty verdict. Phoebe burst into tears as the judged sentenced her to hang on June 20th. In a confession published after the verdict, Phoebe claimed she and Coyle conspired to murder George Campbell so the two could marry. Coyle also faced trial for the crime but was acquitted. Afterwards, he moved to England.

Campbell was the first woman to be executed in post-confederation Canada and the only woman in Middlesex County to pay for a crime with her life. The newspapers, determined to depict her as a heartless killer, noted that "she went to the gallows without a trace of emotion, and held a lace handkerchief in her hand for a minute after the trap had been sprung." Souvenir postcards depicting the crime were quickly snapped up by onlookers.

In a final open letter, Campbell wrote that "it is a solemn thing to die if not prepared."

George Campbell must have known how she felt.