Nanaimo has a claim to fame that you’ll likely never seen in the Guinness Book of Records.
Arthur Elllis set it back in 1913, but it’s not the sort of thing that chambers of commerce like to talk about, so it’s been all but forgotten.
Mind you, not even Arthur Ellis bragged publicly of his feat until years after, and then only to a handful of professional acquaintances.
So: Hands up all of you who know that the quickest hanging on record was held on Vancouver Island, in the heart of the Hub City.
I’ve told the story of Henry Wagner, the so-called Flying Dutchman, of how he and Bill Julian raided upper-Island coastal communities once too often and were caught in a police trap at Union Bay. Of how, when the dust — blood would be more accurate — settled, B.C. Provincial Police Const. Harry Westaway was dead, Wagner was in custody and Julian was on the run.
Murder was a capital offence in those days and, for Wagner, it was the gallows. Which brought to his cell in the Nanaimo jail a visitor from the East. In private life the polite, bespectacled and mild-mannered English gentleman presented himself as Arthur English; when on the job, he was better known — notoriously — as Arthur Ellis, Official Executioner to the Dominion of Canada. Or hangman if you prefer, although he hated it when people called him that.
Years after, journalist B.A. ‘Pinky’ McKelvie wrote the story of the fastest-ever hanging for the B.C. Police magazine, The Shoulder Strap.
In town to cover Wagner’s execution, he’d stayed at the Windsor Hotel and had a friendly chat with a fellow out-of-towner.
Mostly they talked about art and poetry, McKelvie mentioning almost as an aside that he was a journalist, in town for the “regrettable affair at the jail”.
Upon taking his leave, the friendly stranger, who hadn’t identified himself, said with a wide smile, “I’ll see you later.”
“When I stepped through the little door into the high-walled yard of the jail,” McKelvie recounted years after, “to my surprise the first man I saw was my friend of the breakfast table”. Rushing up to the startled newsman, Arthur Ellis said, “You didn’t know you had the honour of breakfasting with the executioner.”
“I certainly did not!” replied McKelvie, with a pronounced edge in his voice.
Ignoring, or overlooking, McKelvie’s sudden chill, Ellis chattered on, then said that he wanted McKelvie to do him a favour. With a shudder, McKelvie listened as Ellis explained that this was the first time he’d been called upon to perform an execution on the west coast, and “conditions here are identical with those under which my uncle established a world’s record in execution in England in 1887. I’m out to establish a new world’s record.”
He said he’d armed an attending policeman with a stop watch. He wanted McKelvie to stand beside the officer and “see that the instant the condemned man’s foot touches gravel when he comes through that door that the watch starts, and that it stops the second the trap is sprung.”
McKelvie, who’d walked his beat as a police reporter in Vancouver packing a .25 automatic, and who was there the day the chief of police was gunned down, quickly overcame his initial aversion to his breakfastmate-cum-hangman and agreed to participate in Ellis’s macabre quest for a new record. Actually, he said that he went along with it out of a sense of relief, so apprehensive had he suddenly become upon being told that Canada’s greatest executioner had a favour to ask of him.
Bounding up the scaffold steps, Ellis turned, smiled, commented on Nanaimo’s glorious weather, and announced his intention to outdo his uncle. None of those there to conduct or to witness this most sombre of occasions objected and he informed them that, when the condemned man appeared, they were to lift their hats—not out of respect for him but for the law. He then explained that the bottom of the scaffold, usually screened to conceal the condemned man once he plunged through the trap, would, for this special occasion, be left open so that they could see “everything.”
As Wagner entered the courtyard, Ellis signalled for the countdown to begin. The moment the Flying Dutchman mounted the gallows, accompanied by a sheriff and a Salvation Army officer, Ellis sprang forward with a black cap in one hand, leg irons in the other, hooded, hobbled the prisoner, positioned him over the trap and—just words into the Lord’s Prayer—threw the lever. Wagner crashed earthward and bounced violently at the end of the prescribed drop as Ellis shouted, “Time!”
“Forty-seven seconds,” said the policeman with the watch.
Ellis was ecstatic. Smiling widely and rubbing his hands, he informed those present that they’d just witnessed a new world record in hanging—11 seconds under the record set by his uncle, 26 years before.