To the young Irish-Canadian boy, only 11 years old, the words of Mr. Justice Sullivan of the Ontario court were terrifying:

"George Green, you have been convicted of murder. I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you die on Wednesday, 26 June, 1850."

It was to be, thankfully, one of the last, if not the last instance of a child sentenced to death in a common law court.

George and Margaret

Little George was an adopted son of which the official judicial record shows little, except that he was born in Ireland and came to Canada with his natural parents.

But in about 1846, George's father died. Soon thereafter, his mother, who had other children, must have broken George's heart when she gave him up for adoption in order to facilitate her remarriage.

George's first adopted home was that of the local Presbyterian minister, Reverend Dick.

In 1847, George was placed in the home of Thomas and Eliza Rowan. Thomas Rowan was also Presbyterian and a native of Ireland. Even today, local historical records recognize him as a pioneer of the Township of Emily, now Kawartha Lakes, 20 kilometres west of Peterborough, Ontario.

tree sign

George appeared happy at the Rowan home. He neglected his studies but that suited the Rowans fine as they needed the help at the farm, especially with the cattle.

In May of 1849, the Romans adopted a second child, a four-year-old girl, Margaret O'Connor. Margaret O'Connor was pleasant and bright and quickly endeared herself to her adoptive parents and, she hoped, to her new brother-by-adoption, George, with whom she shared the Rowan home and affections.

On the witness stand at the subsequent trial, Thomas Rowan described Margaret as "a quiet, kind little girl."

His wife Eliza Rowan described Margaret as: "a kind child, good and affectionate."

In a later explanation for the crime, George stated that Margaret was constantly after him, seeking his attention; that "she would not leave me alone... She was a dirty little thing."

October, 1849

In the early morning of October 26, 1849, the Rowans attended a neighbour's farm and left the two children home alone with instructions to George to harvest 12 rows of potatoes. He was to teach Margaret how to do it as he went along.

No one except George Green ever saw Margaret O'Connor alive again.

Just before sunset, Thomas Rowan was shocked to see George running towards him over the neighbour's field - some several kilometres away - exclaiming:

"Margaret has been killed by a bear! We were out in the field and the bear suddenly appeared and went straight to Margaret! Margaret didn't know what it was! She was not frightened and instead put her hand up to it! The bear bit into Margaret and dragged her away off the field, across a rail fence and they disappeared into the forest!"

Thomas Rowan was instantly suspicious of the surreal story. He rushed home and used what little daylight was left to search for Margaret, but to no avail. He and some of his neighbours spent the night at the Rowan house and picked up the search the next morning.

Already, several aspects of George's story did not add up:

  • The location of the alleged attack showed no signs of bear prints even though it was on loose soil.
  • When they inspected the rail fence over which that the bear allegedly dragged Margaret kicking and screaming and bleeding, there were no traces whatsoever. George argued with the searchers and pointed to "bear scratchings" on the fence, which the searchers recognized as woodpecker holes.
  • At one point, George insisted that he search in one direction and the adults search in another.

Just after noon, one of the searchers notice that subsoil under a tree appeared to have been recently turned over. As they brushed aside the loose soil, a child's arm and then head and then her entire body was revealed. It was Margaret. She had been brutally cut on the face and arms. She was cold and dead.

Nearby they found a hoe with blood and clumps of Margaret's hair upon its edge.

Justice?

George, although only 10 years old, was arrested, charged with murder and sent to the Peterborough jail where he was housed with an adult inmate, also suspected of murder. For over six months, the little boy sat in his prison cell.

The law of Upper Canada was not favourable. The 1857 edition of Russell on Crime still relied on these ancient cases English cases:

"An infant of the age of nine years, having killed the infant of the like age, confessed the felony; and, Upon examination, it was found that he had the blood and the body. The justices held that he ought to be hanged but they restated the execution that he might have a pardon.

"Another infant, as the age of 10 years, who had killed his companion and hid himself, was, however, actually hanged; upon the ground that it appeared by his hiding that he could discern between good and evil...."

Finally, his case was called before Mr. Justice Sullivan of the Assizes Court of Upper Canada (now Ontario).

It was May 3, 1850.

The child was given a lawyer and the jury empanelled. The evidence of the witnesses left no doubt that George Green had killed Margaret O'Connor. In the state of the law as it then was, Eliza Rowan was allowed to repeat George's only confession, one made privately to her:

"Margaret came onto the field before noon and ... he had taken the notion of killing her. He struck her with the hoe."

She continued his alleged confession: that Margaret quickly fell to the blows and that George kept on hitting her until she lay still. He then dragged her to the tree and dug a shallow grave.

The verdict of the jury was unanimous and although found guilty, it was recommended that mercy be given to George Green "on account of his youth".

But Justice Sullivan declined to exercise his jurisdiction and instead sentenced the 11 year old boy to be executed on June 26.

There was some reason in this madness. Sullivan had postponed the execution as long as he could in order to give the Government of Upper Canada an opportunity of commuting the death penalty.

On June 4, 1850, the government of Upper Canada by Order in Council commuted the death sentence of little George Green of Emily County, to life in prison, to be served at the Kingston Maximum Security Penitentiary.

Soon after he arrived at the Kingston Penitentiary, George Green died. The child-killer was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Rowans returned to their farm and carried on. In 1888, a local newspaper reported:

"Mr. Thomas Rowan, a wealthy farmer lives retired on the east side and spends his days in peace."

REFERENCES:

  • Hassard, Albert, Famous Canadian Trials (Toronto: Carswell Company, 1924), pages 173-193
  • Russell, William Oldnall, A Treatise on Crimes and Misdemeanors, Volume 1 (Philadelphia: T. & J. W. Johnson & Co., Law Booksellers and Publishers, 1857), page .