BENNETT, GEORGE, convicted of the murder of George Brown; hanged in Toronto, Ont., 23 July 1880.
George Bennett’s early life is obscure. By his own account, written on the eve of execution, he was born of good Roman Catholic parents, but they died while he was young, leaving him prey to evil companions, infidelity, and alcohol. His is a fairly typical statement, though it accords with his later dissolute behaviour; however, it throws no light on the literate, if not literary, quality of the letters and verse he had written which were found on him at his arrest.
What is clear is that he had worked for the Toronto Globe between 1875 and 1880, and by the latter date was night engineer in the boiler room. By this time, moreover, he was in recurrent domestic – and police – trouble. He drank heavily; he was arrested for wife-beating and non-support. He felt himself friendless, except for “Dear Annie” McGovern to whom he wrote letters asserting that he had dragged her name “into the dirt” through his association with her. Several times he had been reprimanded by the chief engineer of the Globe, James Banks, for neglecting his work. Then on the night of 4 Feb. 1880 he was drunk on duty. Banks had to be called in to avert a dangerous accident to the boiler; on his report, Bennett was dismissed the next day. Bennett made attempts to gain reinstatement from Brown, proprietor of the influential Globe and leading Liberal party figure, who had authorized his dismissal. But the facts of drink and danger told too strongly against him. Over the next few weeks he drank and brooded on his wrongs, writing letters to himself projecting suicide or swearing vengeance and death to his enemies. On 25 March Bennett went to the Globe office again, this time with a fully loaded revolver in his pocket – telling his hotel-keeper he was “going to Leadville” from which there was no easy return. He had been drinking, but was apparently more agitated and obsessive than drunk.
He seemed to have no clear intent, but roamed the press and boiler rooms, at one time talking amicably to employees, at another threatening them. “You are an enemy of mine,” he told Banks. About four-thirty in the afternoon he went to Brown’s editorial office, to ask him to sign a statement that he had worked five years at the Globe; evidently he wanted a reference in the police courts for he was still out on bail. Brown refused to sign, telling him to see Banks or the Globe treasurer, who would have the facts. An argument ensued, then Bennett suddenly drew and cocked his gun. Brown grabbed for it, trying to deflect it. It fired in the brief scuffle. Hearing the noise, members of the editorial staff rushed down and easily secured the under-sized, and dazed, Bennett. Brown had suffered a flesh wound in the thigh. Bennett was taken into custody and on 27 March charged with shooting with intent to kill. He pleaded not guilty.
There was general expectation of Brown’s recovery, but, as the weeks passed, the wound became inflamed and his condition gradually grew worse. Business problems, along with his worries and exertions over them, undoubtedly severely taxed Brown’s strength; and medical knowledge then could not cope with the “blood poisoning” that set in. By late April he was weak and feverish, and gangrene was spreading. He lapsed into a coma, and died on 9 May. An inquest was immediately held. On 11 May it reached the verdict that Bennett had been responsible for Brown’s death, “with malice aforethought.”
In the shocked state of public feeling at the time, little other verdict might be expected. George Bennett was charged with murder. His trial opened on 23 June, and concluded in one day. His counsel, the able and eloquent Nicholas Flood Davin*, stressed that Brown’s own exertions had rendered his wound fatal; that Bennett had been unbalanced by drinking and had never premeditated killing or even shooting him. But the weight of medical evidence was given on the other side, in testimony that the wound, inflicted by Bennett, had actually killed Brown, and the damning letters found on the prisoner at his arrest were taken as demonstrating premeditation (although one might wonder whether they had not pointed more at Banks than Brown). Bennett was swiftly found guilty and sentenced to death. At his execution one month later, Bennett said, as he had throughout, that he had never meant to shoot George Brown: “I was in liquor or I would not have done it.”
[The best source for this article was found to be the Globe (Toronto) of 1880. Quotations are taken from its full reports of the police examination, inquest, trial, and execution of Bennett. The Globe’s record of these transactions has been checked with the Mail (Toronto) and the Evening Telegram (Toronto); that check shows it to be factually presented as well as providing the fullest account. The judge’s notes on Bennett’s trial are at the SAB. See also Careless, Brown, II, 368–73. j.m.s.c.]