Friday, June 12, 2009

Toronto Crime Story Part 2: Escape from Death Watch

Read Part 1 here.

In the death watch cell of the Don Jail, Frank McCullough should have been under strict regulations. No gaming, diversions, outside food or cooking tools. However, because young Frank was so likable and charming, and because of the poor management of the jail, the condemned man was treated to very special privileges.

The prisoner's friends and well wishers were getting letters and uninspected packages through to McCullough. He had many books, a deck of cards, cigars and cigarettes, even art supplies (one of the Toronto papers published his sketches). A ladies' bible group sent cookies and fresh eggs. In the death row cell, he dined on fish and chips, roast chicken, fresh fruits and bread and chocolates. He also had a coffee pot and a kettle. All of these goods were contraband within the jail, but it seems that nobody was worried about breaking the rules for Frank. The prisoner was reprimanded just once, when he was found standing on a chair, pressed against the bars of a window. McCullough explained that he was only looking at his future resting place in the prison burial ground, "murderers' row", which could be clearly seen from the cell.

McCullough was a popular and sympathetic figure in Toronto from the days of his trial onwards, as this was a time when there was a strong anti-police sentiment in the city. Petitions were circulated around the province and 20,000 people signed in the hope that the lawmakers in Ottawa would overturn McCullough's death sentence. His acquaintances and curious strangers gathered in Riverdale Park, behind the jail, to wave at Frank in his cell. Blown kisses were exchanged between the prisoner and a stylish young lady who often came the park below the prison wall. This was Miss Vera de Lavelle, Frank's fiancee. She had tried to visit him in jail but she was denied. She sent in some boxed chocolates for Frank instead.

Early on the morning of April 16th, 1919, barely a fortnight from his execution, Frank McCullough escaped from the Don Jail.

When the relief guard arrived at 5:00, the night guard was found alone in the death watch cell, stripped to his underwear and clutching a letter. Currell, the guard, claimed to have been drugged. Two neatly sawn-off bars were left on the windowsill. Frank McCullough was long gone: he had made the first death row escape in the history of the Dominion of Canada.

Above is a sketch of the death row cell which was published by the Toronto Daily Star. Below is how the northeast wing of the Don Jail looks today. The window where McCullough cut the bars is circled. He leaped across to the retaining wall (only the scar of the wall is visible now). He must have crawled along this smaller wall until he reached the main prison wall, from which he jumped 18 feet to freedom. Investigations revealed that the saws to cut the bars had been hidden in the boxes of chocolates sent by Miss Vera de Lavelle. Currell, the night guard, was accused of aiding the prisoner's escape, despite the rather pointed letter left behind.

Text of the letter left by Frank McCullough on the morning of his escape, as published in The Globe:

Currell, old man,
I am sorry, but it had to be done. Now do not you be scared for it isn't your fault, for I doped your coffee with a sleeping powder of Veronal and so you see kid they cannot blame you. I am leaving the paper wrapper in which I had the stuff so that you can have the evidence if necessary. If you do not want this note shown to them, why lay the paper on the floor and some where where you will be able to accidentally find it. You understand, I got the stuff I am using from a friend who came here as a prisoner on purpose and managed to slip it to me.
Wish me luck. I am sorry but you know life is sweet, old man.
So long,
The powder is harmless and is called Veronal and I will send your clothes back or the money for them at the very earliest opportunity. May be the authorities will let you have the ones I have downstairs. So sorry, friend Currell. Good luck to you and forgive me.

Part 3 continues here.

"No Tears to the Gallows: The Strange Case of Frank McCullough" by Mark Johnson
The Globe, archives available via the Toronto Public Library
Toronto Daily Star, archives available via the Toronto Public Library


J-dawg said...

l would've gone out the window around the corner and jumped to the discarded mattresses below ;)

e-n said...

Oh man! I'm totally "tuning next time" for part 3!

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