A young doctor poisoned his wife in Brighton in 1858 and became the only person ever executed in Northumberland County. Dan Buchanan tells the story of Brighton’s infamous crime through contemporary documents and the personal prism of knowing that the murderer is in his own family tree. Local lore becomes real history in this engaging story of Canada West in the 1850s. The justice system of the time and the public debate about crime and punishment are on display along with the reflection of these events in the needlepoint of the murderer’s mother.
Doctor William Henry King stepped firmly up the wooden steps to the gallows. He held tightly to the arm of Rev. Levi Vanderburg who took the prisoner to the prescribed spot on the platform. The Reverend said goodbye to Dr. King and stepped back to join the others. Sheriff Fortune had preceded the pair onto the platform along with Archdeacon Bethune and Rev. Thomas Bleasdell. There was going to be a hanging in Cobourg. It was just after 8:00 a.m. on Thursday June 9th, 1859. Dr. King looked out over a crowd of ten thousand faces, all staring intently back in his direction. People had come from miles around to witness history. There had never been a hanging in Northumberland County and the next century would maintain that day’s event as the only execution ever to take place in Northumberland County jail in Cobourg. The crowd was quiet but electric with anticipation.
"Dan Buchanan covers a lot of ground in Murder in the Family. This book is at once history, mystery, and family lore, and also reveals much about the middle-class mores prevailing in Victorian Ontario. The author is a descendant of Dr. William Henry King, the protagonist of this tale set in Northumberland County. His interest in the story was ignited by local legend, supported by the details that his own grandfather was able to [reluctantly!] provide regarding the family’s “black sheep,” and followed up with painstaking research and retelling. As if his philandering, his wife’s murder, and his escape attempts were not story enough, Dr. King, a respected member of the small community, was the only man ever executed in the County’s history. At a time when the press sensationalized every trial, one with such disgraceful and shocking elements was particularly well-documented, to the benefit of the author—and his readers. Most fascinating is how Buchanan uncovered several rare and enlightening pieces of evidence, included here in their entirety, from the King Collection that is now housed in Brighton’s Proctor House Museum. The first is the journal of Constable Alexander Stewart, King’s court-appointed warden, who was assigned to be his “gatekeeper and close confidant” between his sentencing and hanging. Stewart was actually obliged to move into the cell next to King. He made thoughtful daily notes during this time, reprinted here in their entirety. When “the fatal 9th of June” arrived, he noted, there were “some ten thousand people” witnessing the event. We also have King’s own verbose written confession, which he actually hoped to have published in the Toronto Globe, although the editor instead attacked it in his own brief article. The document is startling in that King was most insistent that all the “experts” who maintained he drugged his wife with arsenic, or possibly morphine, were simply not well-versed in the physical effects of these drugs, which he discusses in some detail. Ultimately, he reveals, it was chloroform that finished off Mrs. King. Buchanan includes a very helpful cast of characters, a map, photographs, genealogical notes, and a thorough list of the archival materials that he used."