November 14, 1890
Woodstock, Ontario
John Reginald Birchall (24) is hanged for the robbery and murder of a man meant to be a business associate

Birchall printed an advertisement in a newspaper seeking fellow Brits interested in farming in Canada. For £500 (roughly £65,000 today), Birchall promised to teach prospective clients how to raise livestock as well as sell them a share of his ranch.

John Reginald Brichall
via Ontario Traditional Music Library

Two men answered the ad: Frederick Benwell (21) and Douglas Pelly (25). After securing the money promised by Benwell, Birchall shot him beneath the left ear on February 17, 1890. He then left Benwell’s body in a swamp; the frozen corpse was found four days later. Eventually the first clue was found: an amber and silver cigarette holder bearing the initials FCB.

The day after the holder was found, Birchall met with another mark, 25-year-old Douglas Pelly. According to Pelly, Birchall decided to celebrate their recent business agreement by taking a moonlit stroll with Pelly along a rocky cliff. Though he could not prove it, Pelly believed Birchall’s joking taunts to continue closer to the cliff’s edge was in preparation to push Pelly to his death. The apparent plan was interrupted by a passerby and Birchall abruptly decided the pair should leave the cliff.

While famed detective John Murray investigated the swamp corpse, Mr. and Mrs. Birchall came to identify the body of the unfortunate man based on the personalized cigarette holder. They believed, Mr. Birchall claimed, the body belonged to a man they briefly met on a ship whose given name was Fred, “and his last name began with a ‘B,’ although for the life of me I can’t remember it.” Murray found it odd anyone would feel compelled to travel the Atlantic Ocean to identify someone who meant so little they couldn’t be bothered to remember his last name. Collaborations with English police revealed Birchall’s advertisement and Birchall was questioned.

Birchall feebly suggested Pelly had been the real culprit, though the diversion was unsuccessful. Birchall was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging. On November 14, Birchall was hanged by an inexperienced hangman, slowly strangling to death. Witnesses noted his body convulsed for five minutes, his hands — bound behind his back — opening and closing, before he was pronounced dead.

Illustrated Police News. November 22, 1890

“Ballad of J.R. Birchall (The) – LaRena Clark.” Ontario Traditional Music Library. Accessed: November 14, 2019.
Butts, Edward. “John Reginald Birchall.” January 24, 2008. Updated: December 14, 2013. Accessed: November 14, 2019.
“When Justice Triumphed.” Sunday News [New York, New York]. October 31, 1948
“Execution of Birchall.” Illustrated Police News [London, England]. November 22, 1890

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s