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Past and Present
The Last Night of a Youthful Homicide

Those who resided in “Muddy Little York,” from ’25 to ’28, will recollect the state of antagonism and irritation that was kept up between the conductor and friends of a certain periodical, and certain aristocratic families, usually designated the “Family Compact.” This paper, for sundry reasons which seemed good and sufficient to its editor, ever and anon kept reciting certain facts and incidents, either real or pretended, in the former history of these families, which they would much rather have had remain in oblivion. Not being so thoroughly schooled in the Christian doctrine, or rather duty, of forbearance as might have been desirable, some of the junior scions of these illustrious houses, proceeded one afternoon, I think in ’26 or ’27, to the office of the said obnoxious paper and tumbled the press and type into the bay. I need not inform the reading people of Canada the issue of the lawsuit which ensued thereon. But all persons will easily imagine that an tea of this kind was not likely to allay, but greatly to increase the irritation that had previously existed. Sundry squabbles and conflicts took place between the partizans of the two hostile interests, till, at length, one evening in the summer of ’28, one Knowlan, a reputed bully for the “ Compact,” was shot in the street, which resulted in his death in a few hours after. The act was charged upon Chas. French, a very young and a very small man, who had been for some years printer in the office of the newspaper referred to. French with three reputed accomplices, whose names were G—, F-, and G-d. G--d turned king’s evidence, and saved his neck, although it appears from the dying testimony of F- to the writer, he was the prime instigator of the deed. The other three were imprisoned together, and, after the lapse of some weeks, took their trial for the crime of murder. G- and F-were cleared, and poor young French was found guilty, and condemned to death. If I mistake not, only about twenty-four hours intervened between the passing of the sentence and its execution.

The writer’s personal acquaintance with the homicide was confined to that brief but eventful period of his life. We had been brought up within the narrow precincts of the same little town, and knew each other by sight, but had no intercourse. Being accidentally in town for a few days, the writer gladly availed himself of the invitation to accompany the Rev. Jas. Revlone of our ministers, on a visit to the condemned.

He was then far from being in a gracious state of mind. He was alone. His companions had been acquitted and discharged, and he was condemned to death. He was quite disposed to think himself hardly dealt with. Close and searching words were addressed to him, and he was urged to improve his few remaining moments in crying to God for mercy. We then engaged in prayer, and left him very much subdued. And he seems to have taken our advice in flying to the throne of mercy so soon as he was left alone in his cell.

When the writer returned in the evening in company with an excellent Local Preacher, now in the ministerial work, who had constantly visited the prisoners two or three times a week, and preached to them, we found him rejoicing in the favour of a sin-pardoning God. Yes, while the poor young man with the crushing thought of a death out of Christ in a few hours before him, had poured out strong cries and tears to Him that was able to save him; nor had he cried in vain. And every subsequent moment only confirmed the persuasion, that God had freely magnified his mercy in the justification of a repenting sinner.

At his request, my friend and I spent the night with him in his cell. The writer has often watched with those who were expected to expire in a few hours; but the scene never equalled in solemnity that of being locked up with a person in perfect health, in the full exercise of his powers of mind, who knew that at a certain hour on the following day he must be launched out of time into eternity, by the hand of the executioner.

Does the reader wish to know how we felt or how the hours of that last night of the youthful homicide were spent ? In answer then, I would say, I never spent a night more full of interest, or one on which I have looked back with more pleasure. That night convinced me that death is by no means so terrible a thing as we imagine; and, that it may be rendered even triumphant by a sense of the favour of God, and the prospect of a blessed immortality.

When the massive doors of the spacious cell were locked upon us, we first fell upon our knees and prayed—we each engaged in prayer vooally, and the prisoner as well as we. When we rose, my friend read and expounded a chapter which set forth God’s method of justifying and saving sinners. Next, both my friend and I related our Christian experience, enlarging on the mistakes and errors that baffled us for a time in our attempts to come to Christ; this we did for his instruction. We then listened to the recital of the exercises of his own mind, till he came to the point where he found peace to his soul. And we were led to the firm persuasion that he was truly taught of God, and had been made a happy though unworthy partaker of his grace. These statements included an account of his whole career; and he recounted his steps by which he was brought to end his life on the gallows, including a full disclosure of the facts of the murder. This issue was, in short, the result of not making God “ the guide of his youth,” and by consequence, "his going in the way of evil men.” Some ill treatment one evening from Knowlan in the market-place, had awakened both his indignation at, and fear of that person. One night subsequently,—the night of the murder—‘French and his confreres had gone to the theatre, a place of evil resort. Knowlan was there with a pair of tongs in the pocket of his hunting coat; and threatened to “ measure them over French’s head.” The four young men withdrew, and it would have been well, if they had gone quietly home. Pity but they had —-two lives would have been saved. But instead of going home, they adjourned to a neighboring tavern, where they prepared themselves for deeds of violence by liberal potations of alcohol, and concerted their plan of operation. One produced a pistol belonging to himself—another loaded it—the third (who was afterwards the King’s evidence) gave the pistol to French, and told him, that if he did not shoot Knowlan he would shoot him. Thus stimulated and abetted, this unhappy man sallied out, followed at a convenient distance by his companions, and planted himself by the side of the road along which they expected K- to pass from the theatre, and awaited his coming out. Soon the people, in parties of two, three, and so on, were seen coming along the way; and among the rest Knowlan was seen in company with another. When he spied French standing by the side of the road, he drew the tongs from his pocket, and made a run at F-, who discharged his pistol under the uplifted arm of the other, who immediately cried out and fell. F-might easily have made his escape, but a kind of fatality seemed to prevent it. He fled as far as a tavern in the neighborhood of the Blue Bell, where he went to bed, out of which he did not rise till he was aroused from it at a late hour the next morning, by the officers of justice. The rest is known.

The premature death of his body no doubt led to the salvation of his soul. Of this he seemed himself to have the firmest persuasion. A large part of the community sympathized very strongly with the unfortunate young man. They considered his youth and the provocations he had endured; and therefore a petition to the Governor for his reprieve, or a commutation of his punishment, was very numerously signed, considering the short space there was for doing it in. And as there never had been but two executions in the district before, and those for very aggravated cases of murder, it was strongly hoped that the Executive would be induced to interpose and save him from a cruel death. And while we were employed as has been related, the Governor in Council met in the Court House to deliberate whether the sentence of the law should be executed or not. But all this time his fate was in suspense, he seemed to manifest no anxiety on the subject; but on the contrary, seemed rather “ desirous to depart and be with Christ.” It seemed there were too many and powerful influences in the Council against the prisoner’s life; and it was decided that the law should take its course. Accordingly, about twelve o’clock at night the Sheriff came to the door of the cell and knocking to attract attention, said “Charles, I am sorry to inform you there is no hope.” His ready and cheerful response was, “thank God! I don't want to live!” And then informed us he would much rather die; for that he was then happy and knew he was prepared, hut that if he was suffered to live longer he might forget his God and relapse into vice and folly. His mind continued in this happy frame to the last; nor did he seem to have any dread of the struggle of death. “Perfect love” seems to have “cast out fear” of every kind. Indeed he was very cheerful, and in the course of the evening he gave us an account of the prison discipline, and took us, (he was not bound,) into the cells which opened into the one we occupied. Finding some fruit in one of them, which he had on hand for some days before, he pressed us to eat, and partook thereof himself, apparently with a good appetite. He and the writer being young, and unusued to watching, nature seemed to require repose. Wrapping himself therefore in a blanket, there was no bed, he stretched himself by the stove and slept for two or three hours, while the writer reclined upon a piece of carpet with his over coat round him. Our elder friend kept watch for the morning, and summoned us at the early dawn. This was the last time our young friend was to greet the day on earth. He rose with as much alacrity and cheerfulness as if it were to be his bridal day. And no doubt that day he met the Heavenly Bridegroom. We hastened to pay our orisons to God, in which we severally engaged again in rotation. After this we both left, and the writer spoke to him no more. He embraced me with tender affection, and expressed a confident hope of meeting me in heaven. My friend returned after breakfast, and found him in the same delightful state of mind, and continued with him until he was led out to execution. He betrayed no trepidation ; but proceeded to wash and prepare for execution with the same cheerfulness that he might have been expected to prepare for a morning walk. My friend observed that when he put on the white dress in which he was to be hanged, and reached out his hands to him to have him button the wrist-bands, that there was not the least indication of nervous tremor about him. And the writer accidentally passing the jail saw him executed, (the hour had been kept a secret, perhaps from fear of some demonstration in his favor,) and remarked that as he was lead out by the Local Preacher on one side, and the Sheriff on the other, that there was no unusual paleness on his countenance, and that he mounted the steps of the gallows with a firm tread. He did not undertake to address the assembly, which was not large, being totally unused to public speaking. This was done for him at his request, by the Rev. Wm. Ryerson, who had also devoted much time and attention to him. The substance of this address was this, that his present position was the result of disregarding his employer’s advice, to which gentleman he expressed himself under great obligations, and of keeping bad company, which had urged him on to the crime for which he now suffered. This address being hurried through by the Sheriff, who seemed anxious to expedite the matter, a clergyman read the usual prayers till he came to the Lords Prayer, in th£ midst of reciting which the drop fell, and the quivering, palpitating body of this young and beautiful person was left dangling in the air. I regret to add, that the clumsy manner in which it was done, made his death more like a piece of butchery than an execution. The unnecessarily large new rope, which he had scarcely sufficient weight to straighten, was left in such a position that, as he fell, it caught under one of his arms, which were pinioned behind him, and the executioner had to go down the rope and wrench it off. But a few struggles and the pain and dying were o’er; and his rescued ransomed spirit, no doubt, made its escape from sin and suffering forever. The assembly wept and turned away in sorrow. His relatives being quite respectable, his body received a decent sepulture.

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