"I slipped on the grease and the gun went off."
Walter George Rowe is unique in the annals of London hangings. He never knew, saw or even realized he had killed his victim.
On the afternoon of November 20, 1950 Walter George Rowe and Russell John Bechard hailed a taxi cab outside the Prince Edward Hotel in Windsor, Ontario. They asked the driver, John Jolly, to take them to London. Although they had no money, they promised to pay him at the trip's completion.
The dirty secret of the trip was to sell guns the two mean had recently burglarized from a friend's home. They planned to go to Toronto with the profits - Rowe to attempt a reconciliation with his wife and Bechard to get a divorce from his.
When the cab arrived in London, Rowe told the driver to take them to the corner of Adelaide and Wyandotte Streets. After a futile search for the intersection Jolly, already suspicious of his passengers, stopped at a Supertest gas station at the corner of Adelaide and Hamilton Roads to ask for directions. He learned there was no Wyandotte Street in London.
Rowe began consulting a London telephone directory but Jolly noticed he was searching under the town of Zurich. The driver refused to go any further without payment. His passengers balked. Jolly snatched up the telephone receiver and shouted, "Get me the police, quick."
Rowe pulled out his Colt revolver and ordered everyone to enter the rear of the building. He later claimed he did so to prevent the police from finding the guns in his possession. "I wasn't holding them up or intending to rob them. I didn't intend to shoot anybody," he said.
What happenned next is open to debate. One account has Jolly bolting from the group, slamming a wooden door behind him. Another version claims Rowe and Bechard attempted to rob the gas station but no one would take the would-be-criminals seriously. Rowe himself argued he accidentally slipped on some grease. Only one thing is certain: Rowe's gun went off.
The .38 caliber bullet ripped through the door of an adjacent garage and struck 20-year-old Clare Galbraith who was working on his car and completely unaware of the incident. He died in the hospital two days later, the bullet still lodged in his stomach. Bechard and Rowe fled from the scene of the shooting.
On November 24th both men were apprehended and brought back to London to stand trial for murder. Prominent local lawyer William R. Poole, then just beginning his legal career, was assigned as Rowe's council.
Rowe claimed that he wasn't aware the gun was loaded and that it had discharged accidentally as he slipped on some grease in the garage.
However, the trial hinged on the ability of the prosecution to prove Rowe and Bechard were either committing a crime or in the act of fleeing from one when the shooting occurred. If either of these conditions were satisfied, then the two men could be found guilty of murder and face the death penalty.
"There is absolutely no evidence of intent in this case and there is no one more sorry or more penitent over what happened than George Rowe," Poole argued to the jury. "A tragedy has occurred, gentlemen. Let us not make the mistake of causing another."
Justice R. I. Ferguson then charged the jury: "If you say that they were not, when they got to London, escaping from lawful apprehension, if you can say they were not attempting a robbery, if you can say that he shot at Jolly without intending to cause any fatal harm…then you are in the realm of manslaughter."
Bechard was found not guilty of murder and shipped back to Windsor to stand trial for the theft of the guns. Rowe was found guilty and sentenced to hang.
The execution was delayed for two months while Poole filed for a new trial. His appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court at a ruling on May 18th on a vote of five to two.
Justice Cartwright, one of the dissenting judges concluded that: "The learned trial Judged erred in law in directing the jury that there was evidence on which they could find that the revolver was discharged during the appellant's flight upon the commission of the robbery in Windsor…but for this direction the jury must necessarily have found the same verdict."
Shortly afterwards, the London Council of Churches asked the federal justice minister to commute Rowe's sentence to life imprisonment. That request was denied on June 2nd.
"My Lord, I've been given a fair trial," said a resigned Rowe. "I didn't intend to rob that gas station or shoot anybody. I slipped on the grease and the gun went off."
Nine minutes after one o'clock on the morning of June 5, 1951, George Walter Rowe entered London's history books as the last man hanged in London. His wife did not come forward to claim his body and the 29 year old was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery less than two hours after his execution.
Three days before his client's death, William Poole summed up his feelings about capital punishment by quoting John Donne: "No man is an island, entire in itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; any man's death diminished me because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
In a sad postscript, Rowe's estranged wife was forced to put one of her daughters up for adoption. For 53 years both women would grow up aware they had a sister but unsure of each other's fate or whereabouts - until they came across this web page.