Carleton County Man
Who Was Hung Twice
Saturday, February 7, 1981 the article below appeared in the
Toronto Star paper on the hanging of Benny Swimm. Written by
When Benny Swimm was convicted
and twice hanged for the 1922 Murder of his former mistress and
her husband, it spotlighted the squalid, incestuous conditions in
rural New Brunswick
Crouched behind the barn, he
could see the smoke coming from the chimney, and now and again
the hint of a light flowered dress as the woman passed in front
of the window. The snow was thick on the ground, and the man
shivered involuntarily and pulled the light gray raincoat tighter
around him as he waited.
The sun had gone, and his hands
were growing numb when finally the door to the summer kitchen
opened and a heftily-built man with dark hair emerged carrying an
axe. The watcher shrank back against the wall, his frozen fingers
gripping the revolver with the broken spring. "Please God,
let it work," he prayed as the sharp thuds of the axe
splitting the logs echoed back from the woods. "Please God,
let it work."
The man finished chopping,
gathered up an armful of wood and was carrying it back to the
farmhouse when Benny Swimm stepped in front of him, faulty gun in
There are murder cases that
split the sky and illuminate the human condition for us like
lightning over a shipwreck, and such was the Benny Swimm case.
It was motivated by the oldest
of creature passions-sex and jealousy, but the flash of that
revolver also revealed that in the backwoods of New Brunswick in
the 1920's and for decades after, Canada had it's own hillbillies-poor
degenerate and downtrodden people, living on the proceeds of
moonshine and the game they could shoot, their lives marred by
violence and incest.
The story of Benny Swimm and his
lust, perhaps even love, for Olive Swimm is an epic one, and the
final scene in the drama, related to me by an elderly, elfin
lawyer who was there that day in the CARLETON COUNTY JAIL, was so
gruesome he still finds it hard to talk about 60 years after the
Benny was born around the turn of the century in a one room shack in the New Brunswick "badlands", the poor, borderline farmland of forest on the east side of the St. John River north of Woodstock. He was a moody, difficult boy who didn't get along at home, and went to live with his Uncle John in the woods near Rockland.
He fitted in no better at school, and one day when he was 12 he came home glowering. "how can I stop those kids at school plaguing the life outta me ?" he asked his uncle.
"Rip their bloody guts out,"
said John Swimm shortly. And Benny did. Next day after school,
when the taunting began, he ran at a crowd of tthem, slashing and
swinging with his knife. He didn't go back to school after that.
As he grew into lonely manhood, there was one consoling feature in Benny's drab existence. His cousin Olive Swimm, a bright girl of manifest sexual attractions. We are fortunate in having a picture of the Swimm household and of the conditions in the badlands at that period from an English policeman and writer, William Guy Carr, who set down his memories years after the murder case.
Coming to New Brunswick after
serving in World War 1, Carr was shocked to find what he
described as "the poorest human beings I have ever met in a
His work as a policeman brought him in daily contact with the moonshiners, who sold their product for $2 a gallon, and he recalled standing on a hill within sight of the shacks of six families, only one of which could say that its members had not in the pass few years been charged either with murdur or incest.
Children commonly told him that,
sleeping all in one room with their parents and older brothers
and sisters, they would play at " mothers and fathers"
from the age six on. Carr had only pity for these people who had
been steadily pushed back to the edge of wilderness.
Into this setting Carr and two of his companions came on a fall hunting trip some time before the murder and by chance, spent the night in John Swimm's cabin at Rockland. After a foray into the woods for deer before daybreak, they arrived back at the shack, to find a young woman making buckwheat pancakes on the griddle for them.
It was Olive Swimm. " She
was in absolute contrast to everything else about the place,"
wrote Carr. "Her face was not pretty but she had the build
of a Venus. She was dressed in a plain gingham dress beneath
which her bare legs showed white as driven snow."
"Her jet black hair hung
loose and accentuated the whiteness of her beautifully moulded
neck. Her arms were bare and dimpled. There was plenty of fire in
her dark brown eyes, and her mouth was well shaped and her
somewhat thick lips full and luscious as over-ripe strawberries."
Olive, the Daisy Mae of the
badlands, had been the storm-centre of love quarrels since she
was 12. She cared nothing for clothes or adornment," all she
had was a glorious youthful body,' and wrote Carr a little
waspishly,"her whole attitude advertised the fact she was
As they munched their way into a
foot high pile of pancakes, pouring on the home-made maple syrup
and wild honey, the three hunters could hardly keep their eyes
off the equally voracious Olive who with her father, was tucking
into the ham and beans the men had brought with them.
One of them in particular, Roy,
found Olive returning his bold glances, and when the men
dispersed to the woods again after breakfast, Roy offered to hold
back and enter the woods near the farm to drive out game.
As he left, Carr saw Olive come out of the shack with a rifle, saying she'd walk a way with Roy and get some partridges for dinner.
It was a poor days hunting,
although as Carr walked through the infinite stillness of the
woods, listening to the leaves crackle and the crunch under his
boots, he heard a single shot.
He found Roy sitting in his car,
a mile up the road from the farm with the windshield shattered.
He'd apparently taken Olive for a drive and when they'd parked on
a wagon trail, a bullet had passed without warning between their
heads. Roy threw himself down on the seat, but Olive jumped out
shouting, " Benny, Benny, Don't shoot again."
It was their introduction to
Benny Swimm, a man of strong jealous passions.
John Swimm eventually moved to
Benton, south of Woodstock near the Maine border, in search of
better farmland, and Benny and Olive, their tempestuous affair on
one day and off the next, moved from place to place. Then at the
end of February, 1922, Olive met a big dark haired ex-soldier,
Harvey Trenholm who had been decorated in World War 1.
He was all the man Benny wasn't-hardworking,
reliable, physically attractive, and with the glamor of the scent
of war still clinging to him. Olive, 17, and never more stunning,
gave herself to him.
Benny, sullen and upset arrived
at her father's place March 13, and tried to see her, but was
turned away. A couple of days later Olive and Harvey were married
in the Baptist church at Meductic by Rev. H. D.Worden and went to
live and work on a farm owned by a man named Sharp on Benton
Ridge. The understanding was that Trenholm would buy the farm in
a few weeks.
It was as if another man stolen
his wife, and Benny knew what he must do. He sold his coat and
vest to raise money, then traded his rifle for a revolver with a
broken spring. He took the train to Woodstock from Hartland then
set out on a 12 mile hike to Benton.
At one point Alfred Ball,
driving along with his team gave him a lift. " A young
fellow took my wife, and I'm going to look into it," Benny
told Ball. Farther along he called on Mrs. Jessie Kirk to ask the
way to the Kirk farm, and couldn't help telling her the reason
for his journey.
"I want to have them both
arrested. It ain't right what they did," he said.
" They are married. Don't meddle with them." Mrs. Kirk advised.
" All they can do is kill me anyway," he said half to himself.
" What might your name be ?" she asked curiously.
" Benny Swimm" he said, and walked on towards the Sharp place.
Sharp had gone to town that day,
leaving Trenholm busy whittling maple sap tips while Olive worked
at household chores. Happy as birds in the home that was soon to
be theirs, they had no inkling that Benny was waiting outside as
the afternoon darkened.
And when Harvey Trenholm
suddenly found himself looking into the barrel of the revolver,
he had no chance to flee. Benny shot him full in the face and he
dropped dead on the spot.
Olive ran to the kitchen door at the sound only to be met by Benny, holding the gun on her. He grabbed the collar of the cotten dress and ripped it open then plunged the revolver between her breasts and fired. She staggered back into the kitchen, trying to get away from him, but he caught up with her in the living room and shot her again in the back, killing her.
He could not look at her. he
could not see for the tears. Somewhere he found a pencil and a
pad. He scrawled. " Goodbye Olive Swimm," the added,
"And sleep." He had to step past Trenholm's body, the
blood already stainging the snow, as he made his way to the sheep
pen behind the farm.
Shaking, sobbing he took out out
the gun again, held it to his head and fired. The blasted knocked
him over and h felt the steady drip of blood on the snow. But he
felt, and that meant that he was alive.
Benny pulled himself up on the picket, and gingerly felt his head. The bullet had struck his skull, deflected, and run under his skin, ending up as a lump above the eye.
He shuddered, checked the gun.
There was one bullet left.
He put the gun to his head again, then with a cry of mixed shame and anger at his lack of courage, he stumbled away through the deep snow across the fields.
Next morning Sheriff Albion
Foster arrived on a horse drawn sleigh from Woodstock, and had no
difficulty following the trail of blood across the fields to a
house seven miles away where Benny, wearing a cloth around his
head, had asked for shelter.
The sheriff found him upstairs
in bed and his first words were. "Sheriff, this is awful. I
suppose I will hang for it."
"It's awful what a woman can bring a man to do," he told reporters as they took him back to the county jail in Woodstock. At his trail in April, Benny cut what one newspaper called " rather a neat figure" in a respectable brown suit but he didn't have a hope.
The defence tried to show that
insanity ran in the family, producing evidence that his
grandfather had been subject to fits, and that one of his
brothers, notoriously unbalanced, had stoned his own horse to
death. The same brother, testified Benny's mother, had chewed
Benny's face when Benny was four years old.
Benny took his death sentence quietly enough, but when he got back to his cell he began raving and had to be sedated. His excution set for July 15 was postponed for a psychiatric examination, but the doctors decided he was faking madness and the hanging was set again for Sept. 15.
Then ocurred a grim little
comedy, Sheriff Foster couldn't find a hangman. The two regular
men weren't available, one having a broken leg, and Foster had to
get the execution delayed a month while he went to Montreal and
hired a man named Doyle who claimed to have taken care of a few
in his time To be on the safe side Foster hired a back-up hangman.
The jail still stands today and
a couple of blocks away in one of Woodstock's many handsome
gingerbread wooden houses, I found Ken MacLaughlan, 82 or 83,
he's not sure which, a lawyer who covered the Benny Swimm
execution as a reporter for the Saint John Globe.
A tiny figure, the image of the late tycoon, Lord Beaverbrook, MacLaughlan perched on the edge of a velvet Victorian chair, looked out the window with misted blue eyes, and recalled that even though he rose before 4 a.m. there was quite a crowd at the jail when he arrived that morning in 1922.
Inside,, as the judicial inguiry
into the execution was late to hear, Sheriff Foster hadn't slept
at all, like Christ at Gethsemane, Foster at 4 a.m. found both of
his hangmen were fast asleep," and poor Benny was asleep at
that time too."
Shortly after, he found Doyle
awake and having a shave. "I thought I would clean up,"
said Doyle nervously. Foster noted he was using a safety razor.
The Sheriff had given strict instructions that there was to be no
drinking before the execution and, he said later, he saw no sign
of drink on Doyle.
When he went to get Doyle at 4:50 a.m. he told the hangman, " Now Doyle make no mistake."
MacLaughlan, meanwhile, had been
ushered into the death cell, where two ministers were conducting
" a lugubrious religion service. Ever since that day I have
hated the two hymns we sang. I remember them now- What a Friend
We Have In Jesus and Sin Has Left a Crimson Stain," said
MacLaughlan with a tiny shudder.
MacLaughlan had met the hangman, a loud-voiced, hearty fellow, the day before, but when he saw him now he was sure, " he was either doped or drunk."
"Beat it." the hangman told the ministers and officials in the cell. "Are you the one?" Benny asked him. "I'm the guy. said Doyle.
MacLaughlan remembered that Benny complained he was cold and had a sore throat, and one of the three attending doctors went to get him a sweater.
"He seemed at that moment a very inoffensive, pathetic little character," MacLaughlan recalled.
At first Benny objected to being
strapped around the legs and having his arms pinned, but when
Doyle said it was necessary, he submitted, then walked awkwardly
up the steps to the gallows, which had been built behind a
concealing fence in the prison yard.
"He was saying the Lord's Prayer, I remember it, and Doyle told him, " That's right Benny, talk to God, he's the only friend you've got now," said MacLaughlan.
"Benny had just got to "For Thine is the Kingdom" when Doyle sprang the trap. And as he dropped he swung against the side of the gallows with a thump.
Doyle came down the steps a few minutes later saying in a loud voice, " Clean and pretty, clean and pretty, that's how I like to see a job done." The crowd hearing his words stirred angrily.
Four minutes after the trap was
sprung, attending physician Dr. Thomas Griffin was under the
gallows noting that Benny's pulse was still beating when someone,
it's not known who, cut him down. He was lowered to the ground
and the rambunctious Doyle declared, " He's dead as a
But when they carried him inside and laid him on a bench in the jail corridor, Griffin noticed his pulse was stronger. He was breathing lightly, and Griffen feeling his neck found it had only been dislocated and not broken. Helplessly responding to a doctor's instinct he manipulated the neck to ease the pressure.
Outside the jail the crowd, perhaps hearing the news, was growing increasingly restive and angry with Doyle, and Foster told the hangman to get upstairs to a safe part of the jail.
Now Benny began making gasping
noises in his throat as if he might come around at any moment.
" It's just a death rattle," said one man.
"No." said Griffin. "He's not dead. I could bring him back to consciousness."
"Well the sentence has been carried out. He's been hanged by the neck," said one.
"No !" boomed Sheriff Foster, and when everyone looked at him they saw tears were streaming down his face. "The sentence of court was that he will be hanged by the neck until dead, and he will be hanged by the neck until dead."
Sensing that the officials were hesitant about going on with their grisly task while he was there, reporter MacLaughlan went out to talk to the coroner's jury waiting to declare Benny officially dead.
Meanwhile, the two ministers who had come to pray now found themselves with a grimmer task.
Together with the backup hangman, the men of cloth carried the still unconscious figure up the steps of tthe gallows, and held him up while a noose was attached again around his neck.
"I heard the thud, and knew it had happened, " said MacLaughlan. An hour had passed since the first hanging, and this time there was no mistake. Dr. Griffen found Benny's neck was broken, and when he was cut down some 15 minutes later he was well and truly dead.
The callous reaction of a few at
the time was, "Well Benny killed two people-it's only right
he should have hung twice."
The judicial inquiry tactfully blamed no one for the botched job and , minutes after the second hanging, workmen were tearing down the scaffold as if to erase the town's memory of what had happened.
"It was a terrible thing," Ken MacLaughlan recalled as we walked by the picturesque jail on a frigid January day. "I think everyone who had anything to do with it was pretty well shaken."
And it may have been the harsh wind sweeping around the corner, but his misty blue eyes were watering.
SECOND HANGING OF BENNY SWIM
Carleton Sentinel Friday,
October 13, 1922.
The story of the hanging as given to Deputy-Sheriff H.V. Mooers to a Telegraph reporter, was as follows:
"Benny Swim was brought out
of his cell at 5 o'clock, supported by Hangmen Doyle and Gill,
and led to the scaffold. During this time the doomed man kept
praying continuously. The black cap was placed over his head and
the noose adjusted. When this had been completed Doyle sprung the
trap and immediately went down and opened the door. He asked the
doctors present to go in and examine Swim. Dr,Griffin, the
official jail doctor; Drs. Grant & McIntosh and a visiting
doctor named Mappleback, all entered along with the sheriff,
deputy and other officials. Dr.Grant took the stethscope and
started to examine Swim's heart, while Dr. Griffen and Dr,
McIntosh felt his pulse. He did not hear what they were saying
but took for granted that they pronounced him dead. Gill, I
think, cut the rope. Swimm was then carried into the jail and
placed on a bed.
"They were just about to
bring in the jury when the doctors noticed that he was breathing.
All gathered around him and evidently concluded that he would
live for only a few minutes, but instead of that his pulse was
evidently getting stronger. They must have waited nearly an hour
and then evidently concluded the hanging would have to be done
over again. In the meanwhile Doyle had retired to his room in the
jail building. When it was decided to take Swim back to the
scaffold. Doyle was not disturbed, as he was not in a fit
condition. He had been drinking heavily and was apparently too
drunk to realize what he was doing. Gill performed the second
hanging and made a good job of it. The body was not cut down for
nineteen minutes. At that time Swim was dead, and the body was
carried into the jail and the jury summoned. The body was then
passed over to Jesse Foster, an Uncle of the deceased.
Asked about the alleged remarks
made by hangman Doyle to the condemmed man, the deputy sheriff
He did a lot of bragging, and talked foolishly like a drunken man will do. He snapped the trap while Swim was still praying.
At that time Benny was trembling violently and was getting very weak.
Questioned regarding the
condition of the hangman, the deputy said:
"The officials had no idea he was so drunk until he came out with the prisoner. He was in a worse condition than they thought he was. They blamed the trouble in the first instance to his drinking."
Dr. Griffin, the official jail
physician when interviewed by The Telegraph reporter regarding
the taking down of Swim before he was dead, said:
" I do not know who ordered him cut down. Dr. Grant had been listening with a stethoscope and turned to hand the instrument to me when the body was cut down. I did not see who actually cut the rope. Swim was unconscious when he was carried into jail. I was examining him looking for a fracture. His neck had not been broken. I discovered a dislocation between the third and fourth vertebrae and while I was working with him he began to revive. I advised the sheriff that the only thing to do was to hang him over again. The sheriff was fortunate in having hangman Gill present for he made a good job the second time. Benny Swim was not conscious at any period."
The body of Benny Swim was taken
to his former home at Mainstream, and the funeral took place
Mainstream is five miles back of Hartland.
Hangman "Doyle" was kept in the jail until the afternoon and was then escorted to Teed's Mills, six miles out of Woodstock, and from there he entrained for Montreal. Deputy Sheriff Mooers said they did not think it advisable to let him out during the day as there was a strong feeling against him due to alleged remarks made to the condemned man.
The Sheriff, when communicated with today, concerning the above, expressed himself as greatly pleased that the Attorney General will hold an investigation.
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