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Father's Hanging Tore Family Apart
by Patrick Maloney
the crime sceneThe London Free Press

"It just feels so complete.
I always wanted a sister."

Fifty years have passed since a stray bullet killed a Londoner and sealed the fate of the city's last hanged man, ripping two young sisters apart in the process.

Now a local historian, his website and two curious teenagers have somehow pulled them back together. Such is the story of Walter George Rowe, a story that has found an improbably happy ending 53 years after his hanging in London.

"I didn't intend to rob that gas station or shoot anybody," Rowe, 29, said after being condemned to hang in 1951 -- the last such punishment meted out in the Forest City.

While Rowe was no murderer, he was a killer -- a small but accurate distinction, given the events of Nov. 20, 1950. The day was filled with small-time crime, but ended with Rowe firing a bullet through a closed door inside a gas station at Hamilton Road and Adelaide Street, just as an unsuspecting Clare Galbraith, 20, stood up in the next room. Galbraith, shot in the stomach, died two days later. But when Rowe was put to death the following June, the crime claimed two more victims: Rowe's daughters, Georgina, 2, and one-year-old Judi.

Their mother was unable to care for both girls and Judi quickly was adopted by a loving family in Hamilton, where Georgina and her mother settled. The girls eventually learned of their father's fate, but did not know what had become of the long-lost sister, despite going to rival high schools. Judi, happy but curious, always wondered about her birth family. Georgina, touched by tragedy and without any family once her mother died, dreamed of the sister she couldn't remember.

The pair looked for each other for decades, but found nothing. Until last month. Christine Blenkhorn, a 19-year-old Fanshawe College student from Hamilton, punched Walter George Rowe's name into an Internet search engine, as she had often done, and found, the website of London historian Chris Doty. He had recently posted the stories of Rowe and other local hangings.

That same week, a 17-year-old high schooler in Portland, Ore. named Samara entered the same name and found the same site. Blenkhorn e-mailed Doty June 6 asking for further information on Rowe, noting the dead man was the birth father of her mother, Judi. At her daughter Samara's behest, Georgina Rowe e-mailed Doty from Portland June 15, looking for any information on her father and long-lost sister.

Taken aback, Doty re-read the e-mails. Could it be these two missives -- sent within nine days of each other -- were from the sisters pulled apart five decades earlier?

"I got confused," Doty said. "I asked Georgina, 'Have you ever heard of Christine Blenkhorn?' and she said 'No.' I said, 'Well, you better contact her because she's your niece.' "This is definitely the best thing that's ever come out of my website." Within hours, Georgina phoned her long-lost sister Judi in Hamilton.

"It's a miracle," Georgina said last week. "You don't know the number of times I've typed my dad's name to see if there's anything there. "My whole life, it's been a dream. I have no blood family and now I do."

Judi, who was stunned when Christine showed her Georgina's first e-mail, is in much the same state of shock and celebration. While she has four children, a husband and a loving adoptive family, Judi has always wondered about her sister.

"When you don't know what your roots are, there's always something loose," she said. "We seem alike. It seems like we know each other."

They e-mail daily, learning about each other's lives (Judi works in a Hamilton hospital, Georgina in a Portland cafe). They share many of the same views, especially on who has made their reunion possible. Their web-savvy daughters and Doty are getting all the thanks.

"Give Doty all the credit. I wish I could thank him in person," Georgina said. "Without the internet, this would have never happened."

That day in 1950 when he killed Clare Galbraith, Walter George Rowe was in a strangely romantic mood. With an associate, Rowe stole four guns from a Windsor home with a plan: He would sell the weapons and head to Toronto to reconcile with his wife and two baby girls.

The plan quickly unravelled. The Windsor cabbie who drove Rowe to London, John Jolly, figured he wasn't getting paid and threatened to call police. Rowe forced him into the Supertest gas station -- where a Country Style doughnut shop now stands -- and the gunshot, reportedly meant to scare Jolly, hit Galbraith. Rowe's lawyer, Bill Poole, couldn't persuade several appellate courts to overturn his client's death sentence. How do you hang a man, Poole asked, over an unintentional shooting?

While Georgina always longed to find Judi, she was reluctant in case her sister had been shielded from their father's story. "I used to always imagine all these scenarios when I could meet her and not tell her about our father, in case she didn't know. "I was afraid to find her in case they'd raised Judi and not told her."

Georgina had a difficult life. Her mother died in a 1963 car crash. Georgina left Hamilton for California at 16. Her husband died of emphysema in 1991, leaving her with only one relative, her daughter Samara. With last month's reunion, however, that's changed forever.

"I've got a family. I've got people to send Christmas cards to. It's just amazing," Georgina said.

To Judi, finding Georgina is the final piece of a puzzle. She offers a simple glimpse into how a killing and a hanging a half-century ago have somehow led the two to a happy ending after a lifetime of wondering.

"It just feels so complete," Judi said. "I always wanted a sister."

This article was originally published in the London Free Press on July 5, 2004. It is reprinted with permission from The London Free Press. Further reproduction without written permission from The London Free Press is prohibited.