T.W. Paterson: When the hangman called at the Wilkinson Road jail

Suttie, who witnesses said didn’t seem to realize what he’d done, was quickly taken into custody.

The building has been through several incarnations as a lock-up. Here, it was the Colquitz Mental Hospital in the early 1960s. (Government of British Columbia photo)

Suttie, who witnesses said didn’t seem to realize what he’d done, was quickly taken into custody.

It makes news from time to time. Prisoner comings and goings, unrest, drugs, even an attempted or successful escape.

But the old castellated dungeon on Wilkinson Road, originally a provincial prison then a mental institution and now the Vancouver Island Correctional Centre, generally conducts its business in rural, residential west Saanich without a fuss.

You’d never know, looking at this fairy tale-like castle, that they hanged people here.

Actually, to Robert Suttie goes the dismal distinction of being Wilkinson’s one and only victim of capital punishment. The hard-drinking Scotsman’s tragedy began 103 years ago while he was a member of a road crew in the Courtenay area. Suttie, 46, and foreman Richard Hargreaves, 40, were friends as well as workmates. Until May 14, 1914, when their friendship ended on the job over what was said to be a trifling matter that resulted in hot words and Hargreave’s telling Suttie that he could “have his time if he wished”.

Suttie, who was considered to be easy-going when sober but mean when drunk, stalked off to the Oyster River Hotel to nurse his anger over a few drinks. After telling the proprietor that he was going to work for a friend, whose rifle happened to be at the hotel, he took the gun and two cartridges and headed for the beach to, he said, shoot seals.

Instead, he returned to where the road crew was working and followed them for a distance. When they neared the water, he dropped down to the beach in search of seals but, finding none, returned to the road where he met his workmates. Approaching Hargreaves, he said, “Well, Dick, what have you got to say now?”

For reply, Hargreaves, who was spreading gravel, threw a shovelful in his direction. Suttie jumped. The rifle discharged harmlessly but spooked Hargreaves, who began running down the road, Suttie at his heels, towards William Storey.

“What are you going to do?” Storey asked Suttie. “I am going to shoot him, Bill,” he replied as he raised the rifle and swung it round in Hargreaves’ direction. Again it discharged, this time the heavy calibre slug striking the foreman just below the heart and passing through his body.

“Oh, Bob,” Hargreaves gasped, and died.

Suttie, who witnesses said didn’t seem to realize what he’d done, made no attempt to escape. He was quickly taken into custody by Provincial Const. George Hannay and lodged in the Courtenay police cells after declaring that he was innocent of any deliberate attempt to kill Hargreaves.

Tried in a single day at the fall assizes in Nanaimo and found guilty of murder, “the evidence of eye-witneses of the crime being clear,” Suttie was sentenced to death by Justice H.H. Murphy. He was moved to Victoria’s Hillside Jail then to the new Saanich Prison Farm on Wilkinson Road to await execution. When his appeal to Ottawa failed, Athur Ellis, Canada’s hangman, arrived to attend to the details.

With a new world war raging in Europe, the Colonist had little space for Robert Suttie, covering his execution in just two paragraphs. He, having maintained during seven months of incarceration that Hargreaves’ shooting was accidental, spent his last night in an agitated state and arguing that his sentence was too harsh. But he “quickly recovered himself and expressed his readiness to meet his end”.

Early Jan. 5, 1915, he stood on the gallows erected behind the east wing of the main building. Asked if he had anything to say, he contented himself with reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Then Mr. Ellis sprang the trap. Twelve minutes later, life, in the quaint terminology of capital punishment, was pronounced to be extinct by the legendary Dr. J.S. Helmcken.

You’ll find no visible evidence of this particular drama at Wilkinson Road today. Years ago, a guard who’d dabbled in the jail’s history, told me that Suttie was buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds. This informant thought his grave was in front of the stables, later used as a garden shed.

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