Retrial finds last woman hanged not guilty

Tara Bradbury
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The Newfoundland Historical Society hosted a public lecture Thursday night involving the retrial of Catherine Snow, the last woman who was hanged in Newfoundland. The panellists for the event included (from left) Supreme Court judges Seamus O’Reagan, Carl Thompson and defence lawyer Rosellen Sullivan. To see video from the event go to — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

They say Catherine Snow’s ghost haunts the Supreme Courthouse in St. John’s, where she was hanged for murder almost 178 years ago.

Her spirit might finally be able to rest, after an audience of about 400 “jurors” deemed her not guilty of the crime Thursday night.

The Newfoundland Historical Society organized a public event with Supreme Court judges Seamus O’Regan and Carl Thompson as well as defence lawyer Rosellen Sullivan, examining how the case was handled in 1833 and how it likely would have been tackled under today’s laws.

 It had originally been scheduled for the Marine Institute’s Hampton Hall, but was moved to L’École des Grands Vents due to demand. The school’s auditorium was filled more than a half an hour before the event was set to begin, and organizers were forced to turn people away at the door. Former Newfoundland and Labrador chief justice Alex Hickman was in the audience, as were a number of provincial court judges, lawyers, politicians and Jane Crosbie, wife of Lt.-Gov. John Crosbie.

According to details presented by Fred Smith, the historical society’s vice-president, Snow (nee Mandeville) was charged with the 1833 murder of her husband, John Snow, in Salmon Cove, near Port de Grave. Also charged were her first cousin, Tobias Mandeville — with whom she was allegedly having an affair — and Arthur Springer, one of her servants. John, a farmer and fisherman, disappeared one summer night and was never seen again, his body never found. Blood was found on his fishing stage.

Snow gave two different statements to investigators, one saying she didn’t know what happened; the other saying he had gone outside, she heard a gunshot, and he never returned. Mandeville and Spring confessed to having participated in his murder: Spring said Snow had incited them to murder her husband, and he and Mandeville pointed to the other as the one who had pulled the trigger.

The trio went to trial Jan. 10, 1834, and the jury found them guilty within half an hour.

Spring and Mandeville were hanged within a month, but Snow, it was discovered during the trial, was pregnant with her eighth child and her execution was delayed until after the baby’s birth. A petition to keep her from being hanged failed.

Snow maintained her innocence  until the end, even proclaiming it as her last words on the gallows.

O’Regan told the crowd Thursday night all of the evidence against Snow was circumstantial, and included the fact she had sent two of her children to spend the night elsewhere on the night of the murder, she had refused to allow investigators into her home, Mandeville had slept in her home the two nights following the murder, she had “fled” to Brigus a few days later, and she had sent a message to Mandeville  instructing him not to say anything.

“In order for this to be used against her, it must be consistent with guilt and no other rational explanation,” O’Regan said.

At the end of the hour-long event, O’Regan asked the audience to vote with a show of hands. An overwhelming majority indicated they felt Snow was innocent, while many said they didn’t have enough evidence to convict or acquit her. Only four people indicated they thought Snow was guilty of murder.

“Definitely not guilty,” Jane Crosbie told The Telegram afterwards. “There wasn’t enough evidence. From what I heard, there was nothing, really. It was certainly interesting, and I’d love to delve more into it.”

Sullivan said afterwards the case perhaps would never make it to court in this day and age.

“You’d have to do all your pre-trial applications about whether all those statements would be getting in. If the statements didn’t get in for whatever reason, (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) or whatnot, then there’s zero evidence. I don’t think it would have been able to go to court, but it’s a different world; 178 years is a long time.”

Sullivan’s greatest objection, she said, would have been that Snow and Mandeville had the same lawyer — something that would be impossible today.

“When you have two people charged as party to an offence, one saying that the other incited him to shoot, by definition your defence has to attack the credibility of that person, so you cannot have the same lawyer. You cannot cross-examine your own client. It’s at the expense of one or the other,” she explained.

“I think this was definitely historically significant, but it wasn’t much of a legal exercise. It’s apples and oranges.”

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Supreme Courthouse, Newfoundland Historical Society, Supreme Court Marine Institute

Geographic location: L’École, Newfoundland and Labrador, Salmon Cove Port de Grave Brigus

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Recent comments

  • Jason King
    March 31, 2012 - 01:14

    It does seem to me that she was probably guilty of conspiring to commit murder. The evidence is there to support her guilt. She and her husband didn't have a good relationship, she wouldn't allow investigators into the house, she fled from the law, she lied, and was having an affair with Maudeville.. That is more than circumstantial evidence! The only reason why we are making this an issue today is because it was a woman who was hanged and not a man. Society is not so quick to execute or punish a woman for the same crime a man would commit. It is a double standard. Look at the cases of Dr. Shirley Turner and Mary Beth Harsbarger. who shot her husband, thinking he was a "bear". She wasn't even found guilty of negligent use of a firearm! The law should treat everyone the same, regardless of the crime or the sex of the person accused.

  • DON II
    March 30, 2012 - 10:01

    What a farce this was! It just shows that Newfoundland "justice" has not improved much since 1833. That is evidenced by the conclusion of those in the audience who, had they formed the jury, would have found Snow not guilty. It is further evidenced by the decades long cover up of the crimes at Mount Cashel, the wrongful convictions of three men who were recently set free for murders they did not commit and the many other abuses of justice that apparently occur in some Newfoundland law offices and Courts every day! Back in 1833 police work was not sophisticated and the police themselves even less so. There are a lot of unanswered questions in this story. Was a search warrant sought or executed for the Snow house or other properties in this case? Why didn't Snow want the "investigators" to enter her house? Could it be that she had not swept up or made the beds yet? Circumstantial evidence? A gunshot was heard by Snow. Snow's husband did not return after the shot was fired. Spring was involved by his own admission and he directly implicated Snow in the murder. What amount of "circumstantial" evidence directly involving someone in a the commission of a crime is required before it becomes compelling? What other rational explanation was considered to be justified on the facts? Under British law you did not have to be the person who squeezed the trigger or wielded the knife to be convicted of murder! In 1834 the hanging Judges in Newfoundland likely wanted the matter dealt with swiftly so they would not be late for supper or that evenings lodge meeting! Conspiracy to commit murder is not impossible to prove. The elements of the offense are straightforward. Who had the Motive, Opportunity and Method to commit the murder. Who gained what from the murder? More than one greedy, abused or bored wife has connived to have her husband dispatched at the hands of some dim witted suitor! Were there any recorded statements from all three suspects? Was the weapon involved recovered? How diligent was the search for the body of the victim? In any event, it appears that anyone who trusts his or her immortal soul or his fortune and property to some lawyers and Judges in Newfoundland have little or no hope of obtaining a competent defense and a fair trial! If Catherine Snow was in fact innocent it is right that her ghost haunts the Supreme Court of Newfoundland! A sign should be erected over the doors of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland that reads: "Abandon all hope those who enter here." Unless of course you represent the Government or the Judge likes you and your well connected lawyer!

  • tally
    March 30, 2012 - 09:01

    It would be interesting to hear comments from the accused decendants that are still living, seeing as she had 8 children, i am sure there are lots out there.

    • Tara Bradbury
      March 30, 2012 - 14:53

      Hi There, See tomorrow's Telegram for that follow-up! One of Catherine's descendants is a prominent television person in the United States.

  • Whaddaya At ?
    March 30, 2012 - 07:12

    The event was held at the L'Ecole des Grands Vents ?. What or where the hell is that ?. With all the regulations requiring signage to be in French instead of English, the event was likely held in Quebec, n'est-ce pas ?. lol.