Pioneer Justice

Pioneer justice might be described as ruthless. But the question remains, did they always get the right man?

We often think of public execution by hanging as a symbol of the myth of the old west as told in novels and seen on television and at the movie theatre. But, Grey County was also the scene of such public exhibitions of pioneer justice.

Pioneer Justice:
Grey County's First Hanging

The first public hanging in Grey County occurred in Owen Sound on December 5, 1884. (Because the County Court and Jail was located at the County Seat of Grey County, that is where the hanging occurred.)

In the movies, hangings where festive events with hundreds of area citizens, and their children, arriving in town for the big event. Often there were community picnics and other festivities planned for the day the condemned person went to the gallows. 

Sadly, this phenomenon of public celebration was not just a Hollywood creation. No, it happened in Grey County as well!

It was a cold and dreary early winter day as hundreds of onlookers from many parts of the region gathered in the streets outside the County Jail to see pioneer justice meted out. 

At 8:00 o’clock in the morning the church bells of nearby St. George’s Anglican Church rang out moments after a black flag had been raised on the flag pole of the County Jail. 

A few moments later, the gate to the jail’s courtyard swung open and about 60 invited guests were ushered in to witness this historic, but gruesome event. These 60 invitees had received hand-written invitations to attend the first public hanging in Grey County.

Once inside, the dignitaries would have seen the gallows. It stood in the southeastern corner of the courtyard. It had been erected with great care to meet the traditional standards of this tool of execution. The condemned man would walk up thirteen steps to meet his fate. From the cross arm of the gallows hung a length of sturdy rope which would deliver the executioner’s fatal message.

Outside the courtyard, citizens scrambled to find a view of the events about to take place. Some went so far as to climb the east hill of Owen Sound and search for a favourable vantage point. The Sheriff, perhaps expecting the lengths the public would go to see the doomed man meet his fate, had ordered that a high wall be erected to block the view of the “uninvited guests”.  

About five minutes after the church bells had tolled, the condemned man arrived in the courtyard. Accompanied by two clergymen, Reverend Howell and Reverend Scott, following the Sheriff and other dignitaries, the prisoner whose name was Cook Teats, made his way towards his place of execution.

Local newspapers reported that Mr. Teats ascended the gallows “with a firm step” and “never seemed to lose his self-control”. The same journalists recorded that when he stepped on the trap door he wryly remarked “well, this is the fatal board”. When the hangman attempted to tie his legs together Teats “asked him to wait until the prayers were said”.

When the trap door was sprung and the length of rope stretched to its limit, the expected did not happen. No, it took more than an hour for the last breath of life to leave the condemned man.

Did Pioneer Justice Get it Right?

Mr. Teats was a blind man who had been convicted of killing his wife of only two months. He had professed his innocence to the end. And, in a bitter irony, the courts may have indeed hung the wrong man!

A few years after that fateful day, rumours began to circulate that another person had made a deathbed confession to the killing of Mrs. Teats. 

There was never any public exoneration of Cook Teats. Whether the first hanging in the history Grey County was justified, or not, will always linger in the mists of time. Something to ponder.

A version of this story first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.


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