Toronto's Disastrous First Hanging


A gruesome history of capital punishment in Toronto

In 1798, John Sullivan, an illiterate Irish immigrant new to the town of York, was on a drinking spree with his friend Flannery, nicknamed "Latin Mike" for his habit of reciting quotations he had learned in church. During a spirited drinking bout, Flannery forged a note for three shillings and ninepence (less than a dollar) under the name "Fisk" and persuaded Sullivan to hand it in to the bank. Successful, the pair spent the money on whisky at a local bar, but when they were found out Flannery fled town leaving his friend to take the fall. Sullivan was tried, convicted and hanged from a makeshift rig on King Street opposite Toronto Street where a crowd of people in their best clothes had turned out to witness the spectacle. However, the city was only five years old at that point and certain systems would take years to perfect—such as breaking a man’s neck with a rope. While the townspeople were eager for the weekend entertainment a hanging would provide, none of them volunteered to be hangman. Unluckily for Sullivan, he was sharing the jail with a guy named McKnight, who was more than happy to help out for a pardon and $100—or approximately 100 times more than the sum originally involved in the crime. New to the business, McKnight was said to have tried and failed twice to tie the noose correctly.

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