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Murder in the Family
by Christopher Doty

illustrative photo"For God's sake Sovereene, confess. Don't die with a lie in your mouth!"

Not everyone gets a second chance after being sentenced to death. Henry Sovereene was one of those lucky ones - and then he blew it.

In 1828 the ne'er do well cobbler, farmer and livestock entrepreneur was sentenced to death for cattle rustling but obtained a reprieve with a promise to lead a better life.

That promise was broken on the morning of January 23, 1832 when Ephraim Serles, the uncle of Sovereene's wife, Mary, was awaked by a banging on his door. It was Henry Sovereene and he was bleeding from wounds on his arm and chest. Sovereene claimed two men with blackened faces had broken into his house on the fifth concession of Windham Township (north east of Delhi, Ontario) and had attacked him. Fearing for the safety of his family, he ran the quarter mile to Serles' house for help. It was a fishy beginning to a horrific crime.

A newspaper description of the murder scene is not for the squeamish: "Between the house and the barn lay Mrs. Sovareen (sic) weltering in a pool of blood with ghastly wounds all over her body and an old shoe knife sunk to the hilt in her side and left there. She was in her night clothes; and in one hand was grasped a handful of grey hairs, which she had clutched from the murderer in her death struggle…In the house a most revolting scene met the eyes…Some of the children had their brains dashed out with a stool; others were hacked to pieces with an axe."

Seven members of the Sovereene family were dead. Only the father and his young daughter, Anna, had survived the massacre.

But despite some theatrical sobbing, Henry was soon recast from victim to murderer. A search of the property turned up the broken, bloody blade of a knife that had belonged to Sovereene's son, David. Sovereene himself was discovered to be carrying a bloodied jack knife in his pocket - though he claimed the blood came from his own wounds. It seemed he had to stopped to fill his pipe with tobacco while running for help. A doctor later surmised those wounds were self-inflicted.

Hidden inside the house were a suit of clothes saturated with blood, brain tissue and hair. They belonged to Sovereene. The hair in the wife's hand was also that of Sovereene. Even to London's fronteir law officers, the evidence was overwhelming.

A motive for the seven murders was never established, but it was rumoured Sovereene had killed his family to keep them from telling the authorities about some crime he had committed. A more likely explanation is that Sovereene simply slaughtered his family in a drunken rage.

Mr. Justice Macaulay, the judge who had shown mercy to Sovereene just four years earlier, could barely compose himself as he charged the jury: "Your duty requires that you should bring to its discharge calm and unruffled minds - minds far freer from excitement and agitation that that which I am at present able to exercise."

The verdict, of course, was guilty. Sovereene didn't crack as Macaulay prepared to hand down the death sentence. "God knows, if I die for the act, I die an innocent man," he said to the court.

Despite a raging cholera epidemic, London was packed for the hanging on August 13, 1832. Onlookers crowed every outside nook of a nearby general store like overgrown pigeons.

Although Sovereene never protested his guilty verdict he maintained his innocence, possibly in the hope he would be reprieved again.

Rev. James Jackson, who had acted as religious advisor at London's first hanging, found Sovereene a tough nut to crack. Despite Jackson's best efforts to wheedle a confession out of the prisoner, Sovereene refused to talk. At his hanging he only asked to remove his shoes and then, according to one witness, he "ascended the scaffold with as little concern as a gladiator would the stage."

His indifference to the execution proved so infuriating that his attorney, John Ten Brocek, called out from the crowd, "For God's sake Sovereene, confess. Don't die with a lie in your mouth!"

Guilty or not, Henry Sovereene did die with a noose around his neck.

As was the custom of the day, Sovereene's body was immediately cut up by surgeons for medical study. The unused portions of the corpse were dumped on to a municipal garbage pile. Some would say it was a fitting end for London's first mass murderer.