BURLEY (Burleigh), CORNELIUS ALBERTSON, blacksmith; b. c. 1804 in Upper Canada, son of William Burley; m. c. 1825 Sally King; m. secondly June 1829, while his first wife was still alive, Margaret Beamer (Beemer) of Dumfries Township; hanged 19 Aug. 1830 in London, Upper Canada.
Although executions in Upper Canada were infrequent, those that did occur provided an extraordinary entertainment for pioneer society. From the standpoint of the law, moreover, the spectacle of the gallows produced a salutary impression on the public and, especially important, on the potential criminal. Yet the lesson could be reinforced. Upper Canada being an essentially religious society, it was felt to be necessary that the offender atone for his misdeeds, explain his immoral behaviour, and acknowledge his faith in Jesus Christ. Thus the gallows address usually took the form of a confession whereby all concerned could be assured that justice had been done. One of the best examples is the trial and execution of Cornelius Albertson Burley.
Burley’s family settled in Beverley Township in 1827; Burley himself claimed to have been a blacksmith. His story begins in the late summer of 1829, when he killed a yoke of steers belonging to a Mr Lamb, presumably Henry Lamb*, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Burley claimed that Lamb had defrauded him and, unable to get legal redress, he had exacted his own form of vengeance. He was arrested by a Gore District constable, Timothy Conklin Pomeroy, but escaped and fled to the farm of his uncle Henry Ribble (Ribbel) in Bayham Township. Accompanied by his wife, he arrived there late in August. He worked on the farm until Pomeroy arrived on the scene on 13 September. About 3 o’clock on the morning of 16 September Pomeroy was shot, and he died shortly thereafter.
Murder was not uncommon but the killing of a constable in execution of his duty was sensational and unsettling news. The Gore Emporium claimed that “a more foul, cold-blooded murder scarcely ever disgraced the annals of civilization.” Residents of both the Gore and the London districts petitioned Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne*, complaining of the magistrates’ “gross neglect of duty” in failing to apprehend the constable’s murderer(s). After consulting with judge James Buchanan Macaulay*, who stressed the necessity of “the most prompt and diligent exertions” in order to satisfy the concern for “Public Justice,” Colborne on 23 September mildly chided Mahlon Burwell*, a local magistrate, and the sheriff for not making an immediate report. In fact, Burwell was not to blame; the problem was dated information, the natural result of slow communication.
On 19 September a man fitting Burley’s description but claiming to be William Ribble had been captured by settlers in Dunwich Township; he was taken to St Thomas. The same day Burwell and two other magistrates examined the prisoner, who then identified himself as Burley. He recounted his flight from justice in Gore, claiming his innocence. He also gave his version of events leading up to Pomeroy’s death, saying that when the constable and another man had appeared at Henry Ribble’s farm on 14 September he had hidden in a field and then in the barn. Believing Pomeroy had spotted him, he fled the following night, taking with him his wife and a rifle that he obtained from the home of his cousin, Anthony Ribble. Burley stated that he knew nothing of the murder and did not hear a gunshot on the night in question. He had travelled about 50 miles before being arrested.
On 20 September the jps arrived from Bayham with three witnesses in tow: Isaac D. White, Henry Ribble, and his son David. The information of the Ribbles cohered neatly. When Pomeroy’s party appeared, Henry Ribble urged Burley to give himself up but he refused, saying that “if they got him they should take him dead.” On the morning of Pomeroy’s killing, Henry had been wakened by a shot. He claimed that about a half-hour after sunrise, Burley appeared with a rifle and claimed to have shot Pomeroy in the leg. White, a member of Pomeroy’s group, followed the same sequence of events sketched by the Ribbles, but put them in a different context. The Ribbles had been uncooperative. Anthony Ribble told Pomeroy to leave his house quickly, “or he would have his blood spilt and that Damned quick.” While searching Henry Ribble’s house about 45 minutes before his death, Pomeroy had unsheathed his sword to guard himself. He was shot returning from Henry Ribble’s and in close proximity to Anthony Ribble’s, where White saw a light burning. White did not know who shot Pomeroy. On 21 September the jps committed Burley to jail charged on the oaths of the three witnesses. He was “put in Irons” and sent to London to await trial. The following month an indictment was issued against Anthony Ribble as well and he, too, was held over for trial. In the spring of 1830 a number of prisoners – Ribble among them – escaped. Burley remained behind; he may have been chained to the floor. Ribble was soon recaptured.
The assizes opened on 12 Aug. 1830 with Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson* presiding. His associates from the local magistracy were Burwell and James Mitchell. The grand jury found a true bill against Burley on 16 August and his trial, separate from that of Ribble’s, commenced the following day. Only three witnesses were called for the crown by Solicitor General Christopher Alexander Hagerman*. Burley was found guilty and Robinson sentenced him to be executed on the morning of the 19th. In his subsequent report Robinson noted that the “evidence was such as to place the guilt of the convict beyond doubt. . . . He fully confessed his guilt.” The confession, however, had come after sentencing and not during the trial. The Reverend James Jackson* noted that it was made “about forty-one hours before his execution.” Presumably, then, it had some impact upon Anthony Ribble’s trial on the 18th; he was acquitted. Burley’s was the only capital conviction on the Western Circuit in which Robinson did not order a respite of execution, probably because of the confession.
Burley had been the object of the attention of local clergy during the assizes. Jackson saw him “every day but one” and claimed, “Never have I witnessed so great an instance of obduracy and insensibility.” Eventually, however, the clergy’s discussions with the prisoner “wrought a victory over his unfeeling heart; he burst into a flood of tears” and confessed. Prior to going to the scaffold he received the sacrament of baptism and the Eucharist from the local Anglican clergymen. Jackson copied down the confession and read it from the scaffold before a crowd of some 3,000. Another minister addressed the throng and concluded with a prayer, whereupon the trapdoor dropped. But, as often happened, the execution was botched. The rope broke and Burley fell to the ground. It was some time before another attempt could be made because the sheriff had to buy a new rope. Throughout Jackson claimed that Burley was composed and “seemed as if the world was lost from his view, and his whole mind was devotion, prayer, praise, singing, and thanksgiving.” When all was again ready he walked to the scaffold “without any appearance of hesitation; but with the utmost composure, submitted to his fate.”
Some historians have questioned how much Jackson’s efforts influenced the act of confession and several have concluded that Burley was probably innocent and Anthony Ribble guilty of Pomeroy’s murder. On the first matter, there was nothing unusual about clergy and magistrates urging a convict to confess for the good of his soul and for the benefit of society. With regard to the confession itself, Jackson says, simply, that he copied down Burley’s statement; however, he no doubt added a literate quality that otherwise would have been absent. Whether Burley was guilty must remain, in the absence of further evidence, a moot point. It seems that the evidence was stacked against him. The source of the accusation was Henry Ribble who, Burwell noted, “candidly believes that Cornelius Burley was the man who shot Pomeroy.” But as White declared, it was the Ribbles who had threatened Pomeroy. Moreover, the Gore Emporium’s report of the magistrates’ investigation stated that the Ribbles’ evidence “betrayed strong symptoms of guilt.” In the end Burley’s confession probably saved Anthony Ribble. “I am constrained to say,” the confession read, “that he had no hand in the crime whatever, Neither had any other person.”
Burley’s confession was published in Bartemas Ferguson’s Gore Balance; Ferguson also printed 1,000 copies as handbills. As an example of its type, the confession is a model. Burley hoped it would “have a tendency to check the progress of evil, and prevent others from doing as I have done.” He had been “wicked and thoughtless from my youth.” He was raised without the benefits of education or religion and was unable to read or write. He wandered through the world “under the influence of depravity. . . . I was often found in the merry dance, & lost no opportunity of inducing thoughtless & unguarded females to leave the paths of innocence and virtue.” He took upon himself all guilt for the act, noting, “I only suffer the penalty that is justly due to my crimes.” He thanked the ministers who saved him and claimed, “In my great extremity I have gained a confidence that through the merits of Christ alone I will be saved, although the chief of sinners. . . . I now leave this world with the fullest confidence that my sins are washed away in the Blood of the Lamb.”
But it was not quite the end. As the sentence stipulated, Burley’s body was given to surgeons for dissection. According to one account, Orson Squire Fowler, later a noted American phrenologist, had visited Burley in his cell and reported on his phrenological character. After the dissection on 19 August, Fowler received the head and the following day used it for a public lecture. Before leaving London he sawed it in two and took the top part with him. He subsequently used it on his extensive American and European tours. The bottom portion was discovered in London in 1960 and is now on display in Eldon House, a local museum.
AO, RG 21, Wentworth County, Beverly Township, assessment rolls, 1826–30; RG 22, ser.61, vol.5, 17 April 1830; ser. 134, 5, London District, 1830. PAC, RG 1, L3, 148: Canada Company, 1829–44/12; RG 5, A1: 53500–96, 53728–51, 53876–78, 53902–4, 57699–700, 63038–39. Wentworth Land Registry Office (Hamilton, Ont.), Beverly Township, abstract index to deeds, concession 7, lot 6 (mfm. at AO). U. C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1831, app.: 29, 52–53; 1831–32, app.: 152, 161. Canadian Freeman, 16 Sept. 1830. Gore Balance (Hamilton), 3, 10 Sept. 1830. Kingston Chronicle, 3 Oct. 1829. Upper Canada Gazette, 1 Oct. 1829–14 Jan. 1830. History of the county of Middlesex . . . (Toronto and London, Ont., 1889; repr. with intro. D. [J.] Brock, Belleville, Ont., 1972), 120–21. [H.] O. Miller, Gargoyles & gentlemen: a history of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, Ontario, 1834–1964 (Toronto, 1966), 16–20; Twenty mortal murders: bizarre murder cases from Canada’s past (Toronto, 1978), 35–44. M. B. Stern, Heads & headlines: the phrenological Fowlers (Norman, Okla., 1971), 15. D. J. Brock, “The confession: Burleigh’s prehanging ‘statement’ mystery” and “That confession again: error leads to further probe, suggestion of Burley’s innocence,” London Free Press, 10 April 1971: 8M, and 24 April 1971: 8M. London Advertiser, 31 March 1886: 4. London Free Press, 26 Nov. 1885: 2.