KAIN, WILLIAM, labourer and convicted murderer; b. 24 Nov. 1809 on the island of St Vincent; d. 6 Sept. 1830 in Kingston, Upper Canada.
The details of William Kain’s life can be found in a short biography published just after his execution for murder. When he was three years old, he emigrated from St Vincent to Kingston with his hard-drinking father, who was serving in the 70th Foot; his mother, reportedly either French or West Indian, did not accompany them. In Kingston, William was educated at the regimental school until the age of 14, when his father was discharged. Of necessity, he went to work and was soon in constant demand for his great strength and skill at hunting, fishing, farming, and lumbering; he performed “miraculous feats, in chopping and clearing.” Intelligent and articulate, he was also an ardent reader of the Bible and was instrumental in the building and running of his neighbourhood’s Sunday school. Yet he sparked fear and dislike as well as respect in his community, for he suffered a fundamental ambivalence of character. He had unsteady work habits, moving restlessly from job to job. An excessive drinker, he formed the anti-temperance Buck Skin Society. He also earned a reputation for “unbridled passion” and for his close association with Kingston’s criminals.
Towards the end of his adolescence Kain seemed to stabilize, labouring two years in Camden Township for John Rodolph Couche, a 40-year-old army pensioner. He even encouraged Couche to marry so as to free both men from domestic chores. Couche complied and wed 19-year-old Rebecca Smith of Richmond Township. Trouble began; Couche discovered that Rebecca had seduced Kain and he threatened to end the marriage. But Rebecca persisted in her adultery until June 1830 when Kain voluntarily left, returning briefly in August only to depart again after Couche refused to pay his wages and vowed to “take out his guts.” On 15 August, infuriated by Couche’s attitude and warning that he should never “enjoy the crop, or reap one sheaf,” Kain returned and shot Couche five times.
Alerted by Rebecca, neighbours John and Samuel Foster apprehended Kain. His celebrated quarrel with Couche made him the obvious suspect. He was made to sit beside the corpse for several hours before being taken to the coroner in Kingston, William J. McKay. Kain freely confessed to the murder but pleaded self-defence, even castigating his neighbours for not having forced Couche to pay his wages.
At his trial on 3 September, Kain, defending himself, pleaded not guilty. The crown, represented by Attorney General Henry John Boulton*, called six witnesses, the defendant none. The jury required only five minutes to condemn Kain, despite his claims of being goaded by Couche’s threats and refusal to pay him. He was then sentenced to hang three days later with his body to be given over to medical dissection. “The laws ought to punish and will punish,” declared Judge James Buchanan Macaulay*, “as long as necessary, until the arm of violence shall be restrained.” He characterized Kain’s action as “heedless, malicious, vindictive, and blood thirsty,” and referred sarcastically to Kain’s renowned strength: “One would almost suppose that some people believed their strength given to them, for no other purpose than to abuse it.”
Kain heard Macaulay’s address with outward indifference, even the admonition that he devote his final earthly days to achieving “a joyful immortality” by “weeping, by fasting and by prayer, by penitence and contrition.” Yet the judge’s advice or personal revelation revived Kain’s latent religiosity, for he remained sleepless, praying, reading the Bible, and performing spiritual exercises with two ministers and his former Sunday school teachers. The evening before his death he was visited by Archdeacon George Okill Stuart*, and that same night he composed a scaffold address blaming alcohol, neglect of the Sabbath, and bad company for ruining his life “just in the prime.” He died reciting the Lord’s Prayer, apparently reconciled to his fate, repentant for the murder, confident of salvation. He was unswerving in his right to the wages he was owed by Couche, earmarking the money “to establish or support any school that may require it.” Any other funds were to be used to erect a fence around his father’s grave.
William Kain’s life was brief, beginning and ending in bitterness. He died in profound disgrace, in front of “a large concourse” of curious spectators. Kain was equal to this occasion as to most others, couching his personal tragedy in terms of sin and erroneous judgment. Yet even his contemporaries sensed the hollowness of these explanations, and today it is difficult to penetrate the essence of the young man who was special and disturbing even to his obituary writers, and whose life embodies the age-old mysteries of the roots of criminality and violence.
AO, RG 22, ser.134, vol.5, 7 [i.e. 3] Sept. 1830. The life of William Kain, who was executed at Kingston, Upper Canada, on the 6th day of September, 1830, for the murder of John Rodolph Couche (Kingston, [Ont.], 1830). U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1831–32, app.: 150, 228. Kingston Chronicle, 4, 11 Sept. 1830. Upper Canada Herald, 8 Sept. 1830.