META NAME="Keywords" CONTENT="Woodstock NB, The Local history of Benny Swim of Rockland and Benton New Brunswick"> Hanged Twice_Benny Swim

Benny Swim

Picture of Benny Swim He didn't look like a killer. Looking at this little man, as he was that morning, it was hard to imagine this meek, unprepossessing being was a cold-blooded killer of two. He was calm, this Benny Swim of Benton, New Brunswick, accused and found guilty of a heinous crime, the nature of which ripped apart this quiet rural community 20 kilometre's (12 miles) below Woodstock. Swim faced the gallows in handcuffs, standing stoically as the black hood was placed over his head, and the noose arranged about his neck. The trap was sprung and Benny swung...about a foot off the ground, as was later measured by the deputy sheriff. The body was cut down, carried back to his gaol cell whereupon it was discovered that the body still contained life. Swim was alive, he was breathing and his neck had not been broken by the fall. One can only imagine the predicament the examining doctors, the gaoler, the deputy sheriff and the hangman found themselves in as Dr. Thomas Griffin, the attending physicians, reported this new circumstance. Whispered conversations took place above the rapidly improving body of the condemned man as someone was sent to fetch the High Sheriff. How could this fiasco happen? It should have been a regulation hanging unhampered by incompetence. It should have been carried out professionally and thoroughly to the grisly end. How, then, did an incomplete, unsuccessful hanging occur?

Picture of the country Side Benny Swim young and unfortunate life began Benny Swim's young and unfortunate life began in the New Brunswick "badlands," the poor, borderline farmland of forest on the east side of the St. John River north of Woodstock. Unable to get along with his family, he went to live with his Uncle John in the woods near Rockland. Attending school presented the same problems Benny had encountered with family. Benny grew accustomed to settling disputes in a violent manner. One day, a school argument broke out between Benny, 12 years old at the time, and a group of students. He went home that night, brooding and mulling on the confrontation, planning a fitting rebuttal. The next day at school, when the jeering and taunting started all over again, Benny pulled a knife and ran at the gathering crowd, swiping, gouging and slashing at the kids who were plaguing him. That was Benny's last day at school.

Benny's Uncle John was a wilderness guide, leading sportsmen into the vast, lush, pristine forests of New Brunswick in search of game. In the fall of 1921, three sportsmen arrived to do some hunting and spend a night at Uncle John's cabin. On the first morning, the fragrant aroma of buckwheat pancakes and the singular beauty of a young woman at the skillet greeted them. The young woman "was dressed in a plain gingham dress beneath which her legs shows white as snow," wrote Frank Jones in the Toronto Star in Feb. 7, 1981. "Her jet-black hair hung loose and accentuated the whiteness of her beautifully moulded neck. There was plenty of fire in her dark brown eyes and her mouth was well shaped and her somewhat thick lips, full and luscious as slightly over-ripe berries." This was Olive Swim, Uncle John's daughter.

Olive, accustomed as she was to men's stares, returned one of the hunter's bold stares even as she wolfed down breakfast with the others. When a foray into the woods was suggested after breakfast, Roy, the hunter who had been making eyes at Olive, volunteered to hold back and enter the woods near the farm to drive out the game. Neither of them apparently caught the mutinous, hard looks delivered by Benny, Olive's first cousin. A short time later, a single clear shot cut the autumn stillness. When the hunting party came on the run, they found the shivering, shaken third member of their hunting party sitting in his car about a mile up the road. The windshield of his car had been shattered by the shell of a .22, spraying glass fragments into the interior. Roy had taken Olive for a drive and had parked the car. As they sat within the vehicle "a bullet had passed between their heads." Roy, smart man that he was, threw himself down onto the front seat but Olive opened the door, stepped one foot out and hollered, "Benny!" In case he was of a mind not to listen, she called out again, "Benny!" and admonished, "Don't shoot again!" Fueled by Benny's strong passion and consuming jealousy, Benny and Olive's raging love affair had been an on-again off-again thing. They lived together in various places both before - and after - this shooting incident. By the end of February, 1922, Olive, possibly tired of Benny's tirades, moved in with her father in Benton. It was here that she met her new love interest - a soldier. Harvey Trenholm was a big, broad shouldered, good-looking, war hero, recently returned from The Front, decorated. In short he was everything that Benny wasn't and he began to take an interest in the beautiful 17-year-old Olive.

Picture of Olive SwimConfused, hurt, angry, Benny arrived in Benton on March 13 in an attempt to see Olive. He was turned away. Two days later Olive became Mrs. Harvey Trenholm in a ceremony solemnized by the Reverend H. D. Worden of the Baptist Church, Meductic, a nearby community on the St. John River. The Trenholms began married life on a leased farm owned by Mr. Sharp of Benton Ridge. Harvey, with wages from military service overseas, planned to purchase the farm within a few weeks.Picture of The House Olive and Harvey Trenholm was Murdered Benny was living in Hartland at the time and suffering under the delusion that Olive had been stolen from him. Benny made plans. Benny knew he needed a gun, a better one than his existing rifle. He sold two items of his clothing: a coat and vest. With the money and an additional trade of his rifle, he secured a revolver with a broken spring. The use of this gun could be likened to a game of Russian roulette; sometimes it fired, sometimes it didn't. Benny took the train to Woodstock, perhaps as far as his money paid fare, and then set out on foot for Benton. In the gathering gloom of the late afternoon of March 27, 1922, Benny waited in the shadows, planning the deaths of his two unsuspecting victims. The first to move into his field of vision was the war hero, survivor of four years of European warfare. Benny shot him full in the face. Harvey Trenholm died instantly.Picture of Harrvey Trenholm The reverberation of the shot brought Olive to the door. Benny didn't hesitate. He backed her through the door, tore open her dress and plunging the barrel of the gun between her breasts he fired. Miraculously, she continued to live and staggered backward out of reach. He caught up with her, fired again and this time the faulty revolver pierced a clean hole through her back and Olive Swim Trenholm, the only woman he had ever loved, fell dead on the kitchen floor.
Devastated, overwhelmed by the foul evil deed he had just committed, Benny looked for paper and pencil. In his confused and tormented state of mind, he scrawled, "Goodbye, Olive Swim. And sleep."
He made his way, scrambling, half-falling, and sobbing to the sheep pen. Deciding to end his own misery, he turned the gun to his head and fired. The shock knocked him over but was not a fatal blow. He lived. The bullet had struck his skull, deflected, and run under his skin, ending as a lump above his eye. Realizing his failure he raised the gun a second time, bringing it to his already bleeding head. But with a cry of shame and humiliation, he threw the gun from him. In his weakened condition, with a cloth tied about his head, he successfully covered 11 kilometres (6 Miles) to a neighbouring farm where he asked for and received shelter. It's awful what a woman can bring a man down to.

A plea of insanity was entered by the defense, citing several testimonies as evidence that Benny had come from an unstable family. It was presented that Benny's grandfather had been subject to "fits." The defense did not delve into the nature of these "fits", the likely reason being that everyone knew the nature of fits at that time. It was brought into the debate that one of Benny's brothers stoned his own horse to death and that Benny's mother had chewed the face of her four-year-old son, Benny. Benny's trial was an open-and-shut case. The judge delivered the death sentence. His execution was set for July 15. When Benny was returned to his cell, he took to ranting and raving and carrying on, badly enough that he had to be sedated and the execution was put on hold to allow time for a psychiatric examination. The decision that Benny was faking madness stepped up the execution to September 15. Picture of The High Sheriff serving in and for the County of Carleton, in 1922, Albion R. Foster The High Sheriff, serving in and for the County of Carleton, in 1922 was Albion R. Foster. It was his duty to find a reputable and competent hangman. It would seem this was not to be an easy task.

The first man, the most obvious choice, Arthur Ellis, carried the dubious distinction and title, Official Hangman of Canada. Foster was unable to secure the services of Ellis who recommended a man named Holmes, who had also been an official hangman at many executions in Canada. The sheriff endeavored to secure the services of Holmes but without success. Next, he appeared to the Sheriff of Montreal. On the recommendations of the Sheriff of Montreal and the Governor of the Gaol at Montreal he contacted and secured the services of a man, M.A. Doyle, to carry out the execution. Having had this much difficulty, Sheriff Foster also arranged to have a back-up man, F.G. Gill, as a substitute. Sheriff Foster, a capable man, must have felt he had covered all the bases. Several days before the execution, the hangmen arrived in Woodstock. Official Hangman Gill stayed at the gaol and Official Hangman Doyle stayed at a Woodstock hotel. On the eve of the execution, Doyle went to the gaol to spend the night.

On Oct. 6, 1922 at 5 a.m., Sheriff Foster notified the persons who were assembled at the gaol that the time had come for carrying out the execution. In all there were 23 persons present to serve in some capacity or to witness, for purposes of reporting. Besides the hangmen and high sheriff, there were three attending physicians, two clergymen, the bridge superintendent, an alderman, the warden of Carleton County, a county councillor, the liquor inspector, the editor of the Carleton Sentinel, two merchants, two salesmen, a farmer, an undertaker and the chief of police.

Events followed in quick succession. Handcuffs and leg restraints were placed on Benny's small unresisting frame and together with the hangmen and the deputy sheriff; he was led to the gallows. The trap was sprung as the ministers conducted two Protestant hymns, What A Friend We Have In Jesus and Sin Has Left A Crimson Stain. After two or three minutes, the doctors entered the pit area. In a few minutes the confines would have become most crowded as others flocked into the area: the two hangmen, the high sheriff and others. In the investigation into the bungled hanging, which would be conducted in November of that year, the next few minutes played out in the pit were crucial to the decision filed with the Provincial Secretary Treasurer. Swim's body was hanging suspended by the roper with the feet about a foot from the ground. Swim was then unconscious. The doctors proceeded to examine the body. After they had made an examination, hangman Gill cut the rope by which the body was suspended. Deputy sheriff Hedley V. Mooer supported the body in his arms as the rope was cut. This would be about two or three minutes after doctors had entered the pit and between five and eight minutes after the trap had been sprung. The body was then carried to the corridor of the gaol and placed on a cot. It was there examined again by the doctors. One can only imagine the shock and dawning horror of the three doctors present when they found Swim's neck had not been broken by the fall and that he was breathing. The three doctors hovered as 20 minutes became 30. Subsequent examinations indicated that the pulse was beating stronger and breathing was greatly improving. The doctors arrived at the opinion that Benny Swim would live.

One can only suspect the high sheriff, the deputy sheriff and the two hangmen wished they were anywhere on the planet except conducting this business on a cold, grey October morning in the County seat of a province that prided itself on its progressive development. Assessing the situation, Dr. Thomas Griffin declared he was not dead and that he could bring him back to consciousness. This offer was immediately vetoed in view of the existing law, which stated, "The sentence of the court was that he will hanged by the neck until dead." The consensus of the four lawmen was to haul the unconscious body back out to the scaffold. As time elapsed between the two hangings, the crowd in the yard became restless and somewhat agitated. One fraction grew increasingly irritated with Doyle whose wages room and board were a matter of public funding. The High Sheriff, sensing that Doyle's security was at stake, told the hangman to get upstairs to a safe part of the gaol. At this point in proceedings, the reports of the times are conflicting.

One report states that the two men of the cloth found themselves with the reprehensible task of carrying the body up the steps of the gallows and held him up while a noose was attached around his neck. The other report declares that, "Swim's body was carried to the scaffold again by deputy sheriff Mooers and the back-up hangman, Gill." Again the noose was placed about his neck, and the trap was sprung. The neck was badly broken by this second fall. Within 20 minutes the lifeless body was cut down and delivered to relatives for burial. Between 45 minutes to an hour had elapsed between the first and second hangings. A second discrepancy results from the simple closing official statement, "Swim never regained consciousness from the time the trap was first sprung until his death." And yet the written source at the Carleton County Gaol reports that the prisoner "began making gasping noises in his throat as if he might come around at any moment." By way of explanation, it was waved away as, "the death rattle."

The investigation into the botched hanging was primarily focused on who cut the rope. As the document of testimony states the head count of those surrounding Swim in the pit numbered about nine or ten people, and "In close confines and the anxiety of the moment, it would be easy to confuse the voice that commanded, 'Cut him down.' " The doctors' voices would have been most familiar to each other but the hangmen's voices would have been unfamiliar unless one or both carried a distinct tone, quality or impediment. The sheriff's voices would be most familiar to each other. All the people in the pit had only known the group collectively for, at the most, a couple of days, at the least, an hour. How, then, would it be easy to discern the voice that issued the command? When Dr. Griffin, in his position of chief attending physician, undertook this duty, he had been given the authority to make the official declaration of death and pass it on to the coroner's jury waiting outside. Dr. Griffin stated that he gave no order to the cut the body down and none of the persons present heard such an order given by Dr. Griffin. Hangman Doyle, on the other hand, was implicated in giving the order to cut the rope. Several reported hearing him say the words to back-up hangman Gill. Bacon Dickson cited in his report that the mistake would have been easy to make in the uproar of the moment but that Doyle should have waited until Dr. Griffin gave definite instructions. Another doubt inserted into Dickson's report was whether Doyle was drunk.

To establish Doyle's drunkenness or sobriety, 18 witnesses of the event were interviewed. Only one witness was certain that Doyle had been drinking; three said that under the circumstances, it was possible that Doyle was drinking; the remainder could definitely respond in the negative as to Doyle's drunkenness. The investigating officer came to the conclusion that if Doyle had been drinking, "he did not show signs of it to a marked degree and he had not been affected to such an extent as to interfere with this carrying out the execution." As it came out in the investigation, two aspects hampered the sheriff's responsibilities. The High Sheriff had a vast responsibility with little training. When a court sentence is pronounced, it becomes the duty of the sheriff to carry out the order. It is assumed that the sheriff, somewhere along the line, has been trained for this duty, when in fact, he has not. The sheriff received no instructions on the details of this gruesome task. He had no prior knowledge from other hangings and there was no official information available, no directive from policing services, to give him guidance. Therefore, the sheriff was obliged to call in a professional hangman. In 1922 there was no local official of this description. The High Sheriff had no recourse other than to rely on word-of-mouth. He had to hire a hangman based solely on the recommendations of people whom he, largely, had not met. A second deterrent to carrying out the court order was the location of the hanging. The Criminal Code of Canada directed that the hanging must take place within the walls of the prison. In most of the penal institutions of the times, little of no provision was made for the execution of prisoners.

This presented a problem of the highest order in Woodstock. As in other towns and cities across Canada, the Woodstock Gaol was in close proximity to the residential section of the town. No provisions were put in place to obstruct the view of the public from what took place at the gaol in Woodstock on October 6, 1922. A description written at that time reads:

The yard is small, bordering on the street and there is nothing to obstruct the view of the public from what takes place therein. The Swim hanging would have been hardly more public if the scaffold had been erected on the street.

The man whose job was most difficult that morning was that of Albion R. Foster, High Sheriff of Carleton County. For those watching a veteran lawman wrestle with his conscience, his obligation to duty, and the oath he had taken years before to uphold the law, they must have realized no amount of money was enough for them to trade shoes with Sheriff Foster. And Sheriff Foster must have been thinking the same. In answer to the doctor's question - should they revive the prisoner - the High Sheriff, according to one of the witnesses standing there, "with tears streaming down his face," boomed "No! The sentence of the court was that he will be hanged by the neck until dead and he will be hanged by the neck until dead." It must have elicited no small amount of gratitude in the heart of Sheriff Foster when Dickson submitted his report outlining and recommending the following resolutions to a penal system badly in need of reform: "This state of affairs might well be remedied by providing that executions take place at some central prison under the supervision of a competent and experienced man and where proper equipment has been provided." With his signature, J. Bacon Dickson did with his pen as much as he could for Albion Foster, a man called upon to carry out his duty, in the face of the most unusual and horrendous odds.


© 2006 Alton Morrell - Most recent revision May 27, 2006

-Contributed by Ann Marie Beattie. Also, Many thanks to Julie Byram who help with the construction of this page.