Sarnia author tries to right a historic wrong in the hanging of an abused woman

Submitted photo Elizabeth Workman was hanged in front of the Lambton County building in 1873 after killing her abusive husband. The jury asked for mercy and that she only be sent to prison. But the plea and a petition with 1,500 names backing the request fell on the deaf ears of then Prime Minister John A. MacDonald. Author Bob McCarthy is now trying to right what he calls a travesty of justice by bringing the story to light and pleading for clemency.

Submitted photo
Elizabeth Workman was hanged in front of the Lambton County building in 1873 after killing her abusive husband. The jury asked for mercy and that she only be sent to prison. But the plea and a petition with 1,500 names backing the request fell on the deaf ears of then Prime Minister John A. MacDonald. Author Bob McCarthy is now trying to right what he calls a travesty of justice by bringing the story to light and pleading for clemency.

When author Bob McCarthy stumbled upon the story of Elizabeth Workman, he knew it was a story which needed to be told.

But the Mooretown woman’s story of hardship and eventual death by hanging in 1873 has moved him to try to right what he calls a travesty of justice.

McCarthy is a retired high school teacher who takes true stories from Sarnia-Lambton’s past and uses their facts in fictional stories. He was researching for his last book, Poppa Caz Remembers, when he looked on the wrong microfiche at the library and saw Workman’s story. It peaked his interest enough to begin a long hunt to find the transcript of the trial. When he finally had it, McCarthy knew he needed to write about it. “It was just 77 pages and the Case number was 666. It was almost like it screamed at me ‘we gave it this number so someone in the future would look into it.”

Workman, one of only 11 women ever given the death penalty in Canada, was found guilty of killing her husband. It was a brutal death; his hands and feet had been bound, likely to the bedpost, and he was beaten with a mop and his own butchering tools. In the short, 17-page transcript of the trial it says there were at least 30 blows in all, including one to his head which went right to his brain.

But despite the brutal beating, McCarthy says the jury asked the judge for clemency – to sentence her to life in prison instead of hanging. It was well known in the community that Workman had supported her drunken husband and that he was “cruel” and “frequently ill-treated her” in the words of the transcript.

In other words, McCarthy says, she was a battered woman who simply could not take the abuse anymore. The jury, he says, saw that. The judge did not. “He basically said in his ruling that she should have known well enough to obey her husband.

“She was of a lower class,” says McCarthy, noting she took odd cleaning jobs to support her husband and nine year old son. “Women were treated differently than now. They had no rights under the law to be anything other than an asset to her father or husband.”

Author Bob McCarthy

Author Bob McCarthy

But, in an extraordinary move for the time, the community took up Workman’s cause. About 1,500 men from Sarnia signed a petition which asked for clemency for Workman. One of those signatures was Alexander Mackenzie, the local MP who would one day be prime minister. Mackenzie also wrote a letter to then Prime Minister John A. MacDonald to personally plead her cause.

But Workman would find no mercy at the feet of MacDonald, in part, McCarthy speculates, because of the bitter rivalry between Mackenzie and the prime minister.

On June 19, 1873, Workman was hanged at the Lambton County Building.

The case, McCarthy says, cries out for justice decades later. “A lawyer was appointed to her case one day before the trial,” he says. McCarthy is not even sure the man talked to her. And Workman never testified in her own defense.

McCarthy has now written a book about Elizabeth Workman’s case called Case 666: Travesty of Justice, The Elizabeth Workman Story. In it, a young mother in the 1930s tells the story to her children after reading notes from witnesses to the hanging.

In McCarthy’s story, the mother holds a retrial at the local high school using the first practicing female lawyer as Workman’s defense attorney. “She gives Elizabeth Workman the defense she never had in the original trial.”

But McCarthy isn’t content just to bring Workman’s story to light. As he’s preparing to self-publish the book, he’s taking pre-orders hoping interested Sarnia-Lambton residents will be willing to buy not just one copy, but contribute enough money to buy several. McCarthy says the buyers would receive one copy and then the others will be distributed to all of the 308 members of parliament, 105 members of the senate, and the governor general. He also wants to place two books in libraries in each of the 308 ridings in the country. It’s a bid to make Workman’s story known as he lobbies to have the federal government give Elizabeth Workman the clemency the jury wanted posthumously – to say she should not have been hanged.

McCarthy has already talked with Sarnia-Lambton MP Pat Davidson about the idea, although she’s not sure if it can be done.

McCarthy is determined to right what he says is a travesty. “It was wrong. It should be corrected. I believe it can be done,” he says.

And the author believes it is an issue people across the country would want to see addressed. “This is a battered woman’s story,” he says. “If it was a man who was treated by another man and killed him, the jury would find him not guilty…Now, Elizabeth would have gone to a battered women’s home.”

And McCarthy plans to pursue clemency for Workman as long as he can. “As I started writing this, it was just another story, but then I started thinking this really was a travesty of justice. This should have never happened…she was not treated fairly.”

And while he admits any declaration from the federal government now does little for Workman, McCarthy says it is important. “The status of women is being addressed now in all parts of life. Maybe (clemency or an apology) will show the government believes women are equal.”

McCarthy will be taking advance orders for the book until May 25. You can order books by contacting him at robemcca@xcelco.on.ca or on The Book Keeper’s website www.sarniabookkeeper.com

– Heather Wright

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