CANNING, FRANCIS, ship’s purser, tavern owner, and convicted murderer; b. 1851 in St Helier, Jersey; m. 4 June 1879 Hannah Donnelly of St John’s, and they had five children; d. 29 July 1899 in St John’s.
In 1877 Francis Canning emigrated to Newfoundland, where he obtained employment as a ship’s purser. Seventeen years later he ended his seagoing career and purchased a tavern on New Gower Street in St John’s.
In 1899 he had in his employ a barmaid, Mary Nugent of Kelligrews, who was about 21 years old and had recently become engaged to a ship’s mate. On the afternoon of 12 May her close friend Mary Tracey, who was nursing a sick child in her flat on nearby Pleasant Street, came to Canning’s for a little brandy to relieve the small one’s discomfort. As she was entering the tavern by the back door she heard three shots from upstairs and a woman cry out, “Oh my! Oh my! Oh my!” Francis Canning seemed to stagger from one of the rooms and lean over the banister. Seeing Tracey he angrily demanded to know what she wanted. After serving her ten cents’ worth of brandy he ordered her out.
Returning to her tenement house, Tracey told the landlord, William Brazil, that she feared trouble at the tavern. He went to investigate and met Canning hurrying away. The barmaid was lying face down on the floor of an upstairs room, her head covered in blood. Inspector General John Roche McCowen*, Superintendent John Sullivan, and Dr Frederick Bunting were soon on the scene. When asked to name who had shot her, Mary Nugent could only reply, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, pray for me.” She was conveyed immediately to the General Hospital for emergency surgery to remove the bullet from a wound an inch above her left ear. The attempt had to be abandoned when her life seemed in danger. After lying unconscious for several days she recovered and asked to see Canning, but the courts refused.
Canning had been arrested in his home the day of the shooting. As the police were examining the contents of his pockets, he had been observed tearing up a note. In it he complained that Nugent was troublesome and that his jealous wife was making his life miserable. The wording of the note suggested that he had intended to kill Nugent and himself. Although cautioned that his words might be produced in evidence, he insisted on stating that there had been an argument between the girl and himself when she came to work after dinner. She had gone downstairs and returned with a revolver. As he struggled to take it from her, it had discharged three times and one of the shots hit her. Canning handed over the blood-stained weapon to the police officers and was then taken into custody. On 17 May he was brought to the General Hospital to face Nugent. The meeting was cordial, and the accused wept as the woman gave her version of the shooting. She claimed she was taking off her coat after returning from her meal when a quarrel with Canning had started. She could not recall what it was about. She said Canning had shot her from behind without warning. After she finished her story, they shook hands and parted. Nugent died five days later and Canning was charged with murder.
The trial commenced on 3 July before Chief Justice Joseph Ignatius Little*. Canning’s lawyer, Frank J. Morris, based the defence on a plea of insanity. He claimed that as a result of sunstroke during a voyage to Brazil in 1879 Canning suffered violent headaches, which he attempted to relieve with liquor. He had become a heavy drinker prone to violence and had been drinking on the day of the shooting. Several defence witnesses, including his son, testified to his irrational behaviour. Dr James Sinclair Tait, who had been in charge of the lunatic asylum in St John’s, gave evidence that in his opinion Canning was insane at the time of the murder. Dr Herbert Rendell, a witness for the prosecution, disputed this view, claiming Canning’s temper resulted from his intemperance, although he admitted that the abuse of alcohol could cause brain damage.
Ordered by Judge Little to make a statement, Canning said that Mary Nugent had been like a daughter to him, and he expressed deep remorse for his actions. The jury did not take long to return a guilty verdict. Canning was sentenced to be hanged. The execution was carried out on the morning of 29 July during the worst thunder and lightning storm in St John’s in 50 years. Throughout the preceding 24 hours Roman Catholic priests, nuns, and laity had conducted a prayer vigil for the condemned man. It ended as he dropped through the scaffold.
Francis Canning was buried 30 feet from the gallows. In 1983 workmen erecting a new wall at the penitentiary unearthed his skeletal remains, along with those of two other men. The body was reburied in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
Daily News (St John’s), 13 May–30 July 1899. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 13 May–30 July 1899. Jack Fitzgerald, Ten steps to the gallows (St John’s, 1981), 71–82. Paul O’Neill, The story of St John’s, Newfoundland (2v., Erin, Ont., 1975–76), 2: 590–91. Evening Telegram, 18 June 1983.