VENEY, ANDERSON, barber, ship steward, and convicted murderer; b. c. 1845 in Kentucky; d. 17 March 1894 in the federal penitentiary at Kingston, Ont.
Born a slave in Kentucky, Anderson Veney was five years old when his family, headed by his stepfather, Levi Veney, came as fugitives to Canada. They settled in Amherstburg, Upper Canada, among numerous other escaped slaves. Veney took up the trade of barber, married, and had two children. He did not prosper as a barber, and became instead a steward on a Great Lakes freighter. His first wife died around 1885, and he later moved in with another woman, who adopted the name of Mattie Veney.
During the summer of 1892 he became ill in Cleveland, Ohio, and began to complain of severe headaches. A fellow steward noted that Veney frequently forgot his duties, and suffered from insomnia and melancholy. As well, he had developed a belief, not substantiated later, that Mattie was being unfaithful to him. When he returned to Amherstburg in September 1892, many people remarked that he had become morose and unpredictable. On a Sunday afternoon, 11 Sept. 1892, Veney suddenly, and without any apparent reason, attacked and killed his wife. He was attempting to take his own life when he was arrested.
Unable to afford counsel, he was defended by Delos Rogest Davis*, a black lawyer from Amherstburg, and Mahlon K. Cowan of Windsor. At his trial in April 1893, before justice William Purvis Rochfort Street, the homicide was not in dispute; the only question lay in Veney’s mental state. His defence brought forward numerous witnesses to testify about his recent strange behaviour. Even his jailer was called to prove that for the last few months he had sat listlessly in his cell in a kind of stupor. To give a medical basis for the defence plea of insanity, a Windsor doctor, James Samson, was called. He stated that Veney was suffering from a congestion of the brain which would probably cause a disorder of the mind. However, in cross-examination, Samson was forced to admit that it was almost impossible to characterize Veney’s illness.
In rebuttal, the crown produced Dr Richard Maurice Bucke*, the superintendent of the London lunatic asylum. He testified that Veney was suffering from a simple melancholia, which would not cause a violent homicide. Moreover, his odour was not consistent with acute melancholia, which generally produced “a morbid smell from the skin and breath.” Bucke also noted that Veney’s temperature was normal, and that in cases of severe melancholy it was usual to detect a slight rise in temperature. Asked by the defence if cerebral congestion could be a direct cause of insanity, Bucke denied it, even though Mahlon Cowan pointed out case studies confirming a connection. According to Bucke, all the symptoms indicated sanity.
The trial lasted nine hours. Mr Justice Street charged the jury and after a short deliberation they returned a verdict of guilty with a recommendation to mercy. Street sentenced Veney to hang on 18 May. Later in the evening he wrote to the federal Department of Justice that there was little doubt Veney was sane when he killed Mattie.
The deputy attorney general of Ontario, John Robison Cartwright, asked Dr Theodore F. Chamberlain*, the provincial inspector of prisons and public charities, to examine Veney and report back. Chamberlain was somewhat shocked to find that the person who had recently been condemned to death was “subject to some organic brain trouble which is rendering him both mentally and physically a debilitated wreck.” This report was sent to the acting minister of justice, Joseph-Aldéric Ouimet*, and it spurred his department into seeking additional information from justice Street and from medical authorities. Dr Samson issued a further report in which he warned that the execution of an insane man would be “as ghastly a spectacle as was ever witnessed” and cautioned that it could become a scandal. The federal cabinet considered Veney’s case on 13 May, and his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Veney displayed no emotion when told of the reprieve.
On 18 May 1893 Veney was taken into Kingston Penitentiary. The prison surgeon, Orlando Sampson Strange, immediately transferred him to the prison hospital. He died of phthisis before a year had passed.
It is apparent from the medical evidence given at Veney’s trial that the understanding of mental disease was at a rudimentary stage. Evidence by experts such as Dr Bucke could lead to a conviction, even though most observers felt that Veney was clearly insane. It required the unusual intervention of the provincial attorney general’s office in a federal criminal matter to prod the Department of Justice into reviewing the case.
NA, RG 13, B1, 1428, file 259A, transcript of trial, April 1893; Chamberlain to Cartwright, 4 May 1893; Power to Casgrain and Street, 8 May 1893; report of the council, 13 May 1893. Ont., Office of the Registrar General (Toronto), Deaths, registration no.1894-05-005180. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1894, no.18: 13, 29; 1895, no.18: 9, 11. Evening Record (Windsor, Ont.), 16 May 1893.