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Gordon Cameron

Thoughts from the gallows: A meditation on the Bloody Assize and death by hanging

It was a jarring sight.

Through the trees in a little clearing hung a solitary noose. This instrument of death which delivered the ultimate punishment for untold numbers of criminals, large and small, was not a figment of my fecund imagination, but was as real as the trees that surrounded me or the gravel path underneath my feet.

No one was destined to meet their maker at the end of this rope struggling for breath as they slowly suffocated or more mercifully having their neck snapped by the force of their fall. It was all a part of the Fieldcote Museum’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of the so-called Bloody Assize.

The Assize, a travelling court charged with the passing judgement on the most serious crimes of the day, was asked to decide the fates of 19 men all accused with high treason for helping the invading Americans during the War of 1812.

Fifteen were convicted and eight were hanged July 20, 1814 on Burlington Heights where Dundurn Castle now stands.

Now, I can’t say that I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about hangings. I’ve seen them represented in movies, read about them in books and even seen still photos of the aftermath, but it was seeing that noose along with a mural by artist Lori Le Mare that made me understand these hangings on a much more human level.

In the painting, which takes up almost an entire wall of the museum’s second floor,  eight pairs of legs appear suspended in mid-air against the background of a bright summer’s day. The scene looks quite peaceful until you realize that it represents the death of eight people.

No faces are shown, but each of the pairs of legs sports unique pants and shoes/boots that allows the viewer to create a unique personality for each of the condemned.

In a strange way the ability to project a personality on to otherwise anonymous individuals, makes it easier to identify with them. It makes it easier to see them not as traitors, but as your friend, your neighbour, your brother, your father or perhaps even yourself. They were no longer abstractions, they were real people.

This realization doesn’t mean I’m looking to excuse 200-year-old acts of treason. Britain and the United States were at war, and in Upper Canada, being a British colony, residents were expected to be loyal to the king. But many were recent arrivals from the US, and others preferred American-style democracy to the monarchy. One of the museum’s interpreters suggested to me that some may have even collaborated with the invaders at the barrel of a gun. The choices to help the Americans were all human decisions made in the face of very difficult circumstances — decisions that cost lives.

Pondering the empty noose swinging gently on the breeze I wonder how far I would go to stand up for what I believe in if I knew that it might mean I could die on the end of a rope.

I hope I wouldn’t waver in my convictions, but I also hope I’m never put to that test.

Gordon Cameron is Group Managing Editor for Hamilton Community News

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