"I've killed the old woman; by God I have!"
The common-law relationship between Benjamin Simmons and Mary Ann Stokes started badly and deteriorated from there.
Simmons, a chronic alcoholic, and Stokes, "a woman of discreditable character", met in 1883 after the two had been arrested in a raid on a London brothel. What they saw in each other is anyone's guess but for two years they enjoyed a meagre co-habitation in a grotty apartment near the corner of Dundas and Ridout Streets. Stokes scrubbed floors to make ends meet while Simmons drank up whatever spare money was left over.
On the evening of June 5, 1885 Simmons returned home - intoxicated as usual - to discover Stokes had enjoyed a visit from John Chevins, a former lover. Jealousy and drunkenness can be an ugly combination. Simmons flew into a violent rage over the incident and demanded his wife give him ten cents for whiskey. She refused.
Simmons claimed he was too drunk to remember what happened next. Witnesses later recalled that a blood-spattered Simmons ran out of the building shrieking, "I've killed the old woman; by God I have!" He was flourishing a bloody, broken clasp-knife.
Inside the apartment lay a badly bleeding Mary Ann Stokes. She had been stabbed four times and with such ferocity that the blade of a knife had snapped off between the bones in her arm. It had been driven in with such force that it later took the combined strength of three doctors to remove it. Although Stokes was still alive and "moaning hysterically" she had lost a tremendous amount of blood. She died two days later.
Simmons made no attempt to escape and made no attempt to speak in his own behalf at his trial. He only asked that he be given the longest time possible to prepare for the inevitable death sentence. The judge obliged, setting the date at November 27th.
Despite the brutal nature of the crime, there was a surprising amount of public sympathy for Simmons. He was, after all, not a career criminal and his father was a well-respected hotel owner. A petition with some 1600 names was submitted to authorities in an attempt to have Simmons' death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The Privy Council, however, was not so forgiving.
Simmons execution was an emotional one. After being led to the scaffold he raised his hand and prayed for mercy. As the hangman pinioned the prisoner's arms and legs and pulled a black cap over his head, many onlookers turned away from the sight in tears. "I wish I was away from here," muttered one onlooker as a local minister read the Lord's Prayer. When he came to the line "deliver us from evil" the executioner sprang the lever and the vagabond life of Benjamin Simmons came to its end.
After the hanging, Simmons' body was taken to the lower room of the jail where Dr. Wishart of Western University attempted to prove a recent theory that the eyes of a person meeting a sudden death retain the image of the last thing they see. The theory proved to be bogus.
But there was little doubt in anyone's mind of the horrific image that would have been burned upon poor Mary Ann Stokes' eyes.
In recent years decendents of Simmons have promoted a theory through song ("Goodbye Benjamin") and research that their ancestor was executed to distract the public from the hangings of the leaders of the North West Rebellion - including Louis Riel. Click here to visit the site.