Monday, June 29, 2009

Toronto Crime Story Part 4: Secrets and Good Byes

Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Late spring 1919: Frank McCullough was returned to the Don Jail for killing Detective Frank Williams and Vera de Lavelle was also in the prison awaiting sentencing for aiding McCullough.

Frank McCullough was to be hanged on June 13th, his original execution date having passed when he was in hiding. Not surprisingly, Frank's pre-escape high spirits had come crashing down. He was said to be deeply despondent and spent his time reading the Bible and conversing with Reverend Nelles of the Church of the Stranger. Even though Frank and Vera were in the same building, they had no contact with each other and were only able to communicate via letters they passed to the press which were printed in the newspapers. These very public letters only boosted the interest and sympathy for the couple around Toronto.

People were still amazed that McCullough had managed to escape from the death row cell, but it turned out that Ms. Vera's nimbleness was not to be underestimated either. On May 29th, 1919, Vera and another female prisoner were working at hanging out laundry within the jail yard. The pair made use of a small ladder to hang up the wet laundry. This one ladder was not high enough to reach the top of the walls, however, they found another taller ladder somewhere. When nobody was watching, the ladies stood one ladder on top of the other, they pulled themselves over the 18 foot barrier and then they were free in Riverdale Park.

Now it was Vera's turn to go into hiding, although she was still able to send letters to Frank via the papers. She wrote,

When I was told that I would be kept in the jail till after the 13th, my life was unbearable, and I had to do something, so I could see what was going on about you. I never cease reading the papers, and I get all of them. Even the thought frightens me so much that I would to God it were never to happen, but you will always be to me my own. You know, dear, I could never breathe a word or tell our secret.

The 13th drew closer. Despite the efforts of the defence lawyers, notable citizens and the petitioned request of 20,000 people, no reprieve was granted. On the night of June 12th, thousands gathered below the jail walls. The mob cheered for Frank, sang songs and scuffled with police (35 were arrested). Frank spent much of his last night at his window in view of the crowd - he waved, sang, and gave signals to those below.

When the sun rose on June 13th, Frank ate a big breakfast of ham and eggs, toast and tea, then he began prayers with Reverend Nelles. Just before 8 am, it was time. Frank gave the crowd one final farewell wave from the window before he walked the 40 paces from the death cell to the gallows.

walk to gallows
shadow of the gallows

Frank McCullough's last words, as the hood was being pulled over his head, were to Reverend Nelles: "This is going to be harder on you than on me." The trap door was sprung, McCullough fell through the floor and after 15 minutes, his pulse stopped. He was buried in the jail yard without a funeral. That was 90 years ago this month.

A week after the execution, Reverend Nelles gave a sermon called "If I Were A Boy Again", based on his conversations with McCullough. The message of the sermon was clear: young boys, stay out of trouble.

Ms. Vera de Lavelle was at large for seven weeks before she turned herself in to police. Apparently everyone including detectives knew that she'd been staying near the corner of College and Beverly Streets. They declined to find and re-arrest her since they felt she had been through enough. For assisting in McCullough's escape and for her own prison break, she was sentenced to two months at a jail farm north of Toronto. She would not return to the Don Jail.

When she had finished her time, Vera sought to have her fiance's remains moved to a proper cemetery, but it doesn't appear that this ever happened.

In an interview given to the Toronto Star in July, 1919, Vera told a reporter that she intended to make a new start for herself, "turn over a new leaf". She admitted that she had been in the mob outside the jail on Frank's final night and that he had seen her and signaled a message to her. When asked if she and Frank had been officially married, Vera answered, "That is for you to find out. That is our secret."

Frank and Vera had their secrets, but the question is, did she know his big secret? Frank McCullough was not Frank McCullough at all. His real name was Leroy Swart. He was, in truth, a U.S. Army deserter who was heavily involved in burglary and robbery from Missouri to New York. Nobody, not his lawyers or the detectives or his supporters, knew that good old Frank was Leroy, who came to Toronto to evade punishment for desertion and repeated crime (I'm unsure who first discovered his true identity or when, but it was many years after the events of 1919). It seems as if "Frank" got away with one last trick at the expense of the law.

(desertion notice published in Mark Johnson's No Tears to the Gallows)

This is the end of the tale, or at least as much as anyone knows. There is no more record of Vera de Lavelle - she did turn over her new leaf and the secrets she shared with "Frank" were never known. As the Evening Telegram published on June 13th, 1919, "Frank McCullough will live forever in the calendar of crime as one of the most romantic figures in its history. From his murder of Williams, to his escape from the Don Castle, to the similar flight of his sweetheart, to the moment when for the last time he waved his hands in a brave farewell to the thousands who cheered from below, he has been a gallant blackguard."

huge props to "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

1 comment :

Rob Chant said...

Excellent story, and well written. I've really enjoyed reading your instalments.

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