Retrial finds last woman hanged not guilty

Tara Bradbury tbradbury@thetelegram.com
Published on March 30, 2012
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 telegram@thetelegram.com. — 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.”

tbradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury