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The Short Unlucky Life of Cyrus Pickard

The Pickard family home

It was a cold morning in London, Ontario on December 28, 1871. Cyrus Pickard, just 21, stood on the gallows that had been built for him in the yard of the old London Jail. His last words, through the tears, were, “Lord Jesus, receive my soul.” The nervous executioner, disguised in a long black gown, placed the white hood over his head and tightened the noose. The trap door swung open and Cyrus was gone.

Well, not exactly. Nothing ever worked out quite right for poor Cyrus. The executioner had placed the knot under the chin rather than at the side of the neck and the drop did not produce the quick unconsciousness of a broken neck. The horrified spectators had to watch and listen as the young man slowly, convulsively, strangled to death over the next ten to fifteen minutes. Everyone was shaken by the experience; perhaps that is why they couldn’t even get his name right on some of the documentation. He is still listed as Angus Pickard on some of the jail records.

How did this young man from rural Ontario end up this way, and why is some guy from Texas, like me, interested, anyway?

I’ll take the second question first. I’m related to Cyrus. Not a direct descendant, of course, since he probably died a virgin. My great-great-grandfather, James A. Pickard, was Cyrus’ uncle. Lewis Pickard was the brother of my James A. Pickard and the father of Cyrus. James A. Pickard was an early settler in the St. Marys area and a well-respected citizen who built one of the first roads into St. Marys. My 88 year old mom spent many happy summers on the family homestead south of St. Marys on Elginfield Road, and I have been trying to put together some family history for her from the sources that are easily available over the Internet. My first tentative search on the Oxford County Library website, http://www.ocl.net, produced a detailed 2 page description of my grandmother’s wedding in Ingersoll in 1910, including presents, guests, gowns, and flower types. My mom was thrilled and I was hooked on genealogy.

Our ancestors left footprints all over their world and it is fascinating to find and try to understand them.

I ran into the story about Cyrus while using a site called Paper of Record, http://www.paperofrecord.com. This interesting little company in Ottawa has digitized old newspapers from microfilm and they have a search engine that lets you search on the content of the articles. I searched on the family name, Pickard, and found a story in the April 28, 1871 issue of the Woodstock Sentinel titled “Shocking Tragedy in Nissouri.” The article told the story of the murder of Duncan McVannel, a local farmer, by his hired hand, Cyrus. I immediately called my mom to see if she had ever heard any family stories about a murder. After all, Cyrus would have been about the same age as my great grandfather, Jeremiah Pickard, and the murder took place about ½ a mile from the Pickard family home, so it would be reasonable to expect my family to have been aware of it. My mom had never heard about it, so I decided to investigate. It was quite easy because there are so many good resources for genealogy in Ontario, and so many friendly people eager to help.

Now back to the main question of how Cyrus ended up on the gallows. Like a lot of murder cases, it involved money and romance, although, unfortunately for Cyrus, quite small amounts of both.

Cyrus was born on his family’s farm south of St. Marys. He was the fourth of seven children. It appears that his parents settled in the area around 1840. His father, Lewis, and his brother, James, lived near each other. James also had a large family of 8 children. James and Lewis were both born in Ontario, so their roots go farther back in Canada, although their national origin is listed in the census variously as either Dutch or German.

The murder site

At some time in the late 1860s, Lewis Pickard moved his family to Macomb County, Michigan. When Cyrus was 18, he returned to Ontario. His 17-year-old brother Thomas seems to have come over later. They may have lived with their uncle James, or they may have lived on the farms where they worked. At the start of 1871, Cyrus agreed to work on the farm of Duncan McVannel in Nissouri, just about half a mile south of his uncle’s farm. McVannel, age 33, was born in Scotland, had a wife named Jane and 3 children.

Cyrus was slim, of average height and had short dark hair. There was nothing about his appearance that anyone found remarkable. Even on his way to the gallows, observers noted that he was neatly dressed.

Cyrus had a girlfriend. Her name was never revealed in any of the accounts, but she was the daughter of a local farmer. Perhaps she was the reason he came back from Michigan. They were engaged to be married and a date was set. This would have been a very public event in a rural farming community where everyone knew everyone else.

Then something happened. One account says that the girl’s friends did not like Cyrus and convinced her to call off the wedding. Another account says that her father did not like Cyrus and asked his employer, Duncan McVannel, whether Cyrus seemed to be a fit prospect for a husband. According to this account, McVannel did not have a high opinion of Cyrus and the father called off the wedding while temporarily removing his daughter from the county. In either case, Cyrus had to be hurt and embarrassed to be so publicly rejected. Plus, his prospects for any future marriage in this small community had to seem dim to him, as they probably were.

He quit his job on the McVannel farm and decided to return to his family in Macomb County, Michigan. It is easy to understand why he wanted to leave such a painful situation and start his life over again. Unfortunately, McVannel refused to pay him. Cyrus had agreed to work for a year, and he had only worked 3 months, or possibly 5 months by another account. McVannel seemed to be saying that he would pay him at the end of the one year term, but not now. The amount in dispute was $25, an amount that would cost 2 lives.

For three weeks, Cyrus tried unsuccessfully to collect his pay. He was morose and depressed. Friends said he talked of suicide. His brother Thomas quoted Cyrus as saying, “There is a way to make him pay.”

Duncan McVannel’s tomb stone

On April 21, 1871, Cyrus showed up at the McVannel farm. He sat on the fence on the southern boundary of the McVannel property and spoke with Duncan McVannel again. McVannel allegedly said, “Out you damned rascal. If you come here much more I will put you in close keeping.” He then turned his back on Cyrus to continue harrowing his field. Cyrus pulled an old single shot percussion cap and ball pistol from his long black coat and fired at McVannel from behind. An old pistol like that had been obsolete for 30 years with the invention of the revolver, and it was probably only accurate across a card table. Hitting anything beyond 15 feet had to be considered a lucky shot. Or an unlucky shot for Cyrus. Duncan McVannel died almost instantly as the bullet hit him squarely in the back, went through his lungs and lodged under the skin of his chest. His wife Jane heard the shot and saw the smoke from the black powder. By the time she reached his side, he was unconscious, bleeding from the mouth and almost dead. He died faster than Cyrus.

Cyrus was seen running to the south with several neighbors pursuing him. He ran to the Haynes farm where his younger brother Thomas was working. When John Haynes came upon the scene, Thomas was crying “Cyrus, you did not, did you?” Mr. Haynes told Cyrus he was under arrest, and Cyrus threw the gun and percussion caps on the ground in disgust. That was his last free act.

Duncan McVannel had the largest funeral ever seen in St. Marys up to that time. The downtown stores were closed in sympathy and it was estimated that 400 people attended the service at the St. Marys Protestant Cemetery.

Tiny jail cells

Cyrus was held in the old London Jail. The trial was brief. The original trial records no longer exist, but most of the testimony can be reconstructed from the newspaper accounts. The defense was constrained by the fact that Cyrus openly confessed and various witnesses easily placed him at or near the scene. There was an attempt at what we would now call an insanity defense. There was a medical examination of Cyrus. However, the prosecution was quoted as saying that the only insanity Cyrus had was “…the insanity of a wicked heart.” Cyrus was described as listless and uninterested during the trial. He knew his guilt and knew his fate. After the verdict, there was an appeal for clemency by several of his friends, but that was quickly turned down. At sentencing, he was given an opportunity to speak, but he had nothing to say. Observers said he had a “dogged and passive” expression.

There had not been a hanging in London for 3 years. This was to be the first hanging in London since passage of a law making hanging a private rather than public event. There were 50 to 60 tickets issued by the sheriff to witnesses, but the public at large was not welcome to witness the event as they had in the past. The public did not exactly cooperate. Several hundred spectators watched from nearby buildings and walls. The gallows had been constructed with prison labor. It was probably a welcome relief from the boredom of a tiny cell. One of the invited guests decided to pull the cord to the trap door just to see how it worked. It worked fine, but would not easily go back in place. Nervous officials worked to fix it under the gaze of the spectators.

Cyrus got to spend his last night is the debtors’ ward, a large and airy space compared to his tiny cell where the only amenities were a cot and a pail. Local ministers and several friends stayed up singing hymns with him most of his last night. There is no mention of his last meal; perhaps that is a more recent fixation. His father, sister, and brother visited, but it is not clear if they were present at the execution.

Site of hanging and buriel

His friend, J. M. Denton stood with him on the gallows and delivered a message for Cyrus. They apparently anticipated that Cyrus would not be able to speak clearly. The message acknowledged his guilt and asked that he not be made a spectacle of in the newspapers. He also wished to deny that the rumors about Cyrus were true. The exact rumors were not mentioned at the time, but the local newspaper reported that the rumor was that Cyrus had prepared 3 bullets; one for Duncan McVannel, one for the girl, and one for himself.

The body was left hanging for half an hour and was then cut down and turned over to the jail physician for examination. It was confirmed that he died of strangulation. A black flag was raised on the courthouse flagstaff and the cathedral bell tolled to inform the public that the execution had been carried out. He was later buried in an unmarked grave in the jail yard.

The courtroom

Life went on without Cyrus.

In 1877, a horse thief named Pickard was captured in Nissouri after breaking out of the Macomb County Jail in Michigan. No first name was given in the brief newspaper article. Could this have been Cyrus’ younger brother Thomas? I guess there are some more footprints for me to follow.

On October 11, 1893, James Pickard and his wife Susan were lucky enough to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at their old homestead. There was a big party. People came from London, Salford, Ingersoll, Detroit and Westminster. Cyrus should have been there. He would have been 43.

I wanted to go to St. Marys after starting my research. I had not been there in about 15 years, and there was really no reason for me to be there because my only relatives are in the cemetery. But I wanted to see what the various sites in this sad story looked like now. I found that the murder site looking probably much as it did in 1871, rural farm land. The jail yard where he was hanged and buried is still there, as are the tiny jail cells. The courtroom has been expanded since 1871, but it still retains much of the look it probably had in 1871. In the St. Marys Protestant Cemetery, not far from the Pickard plot that contains several of my ancestors was the grave of Duncan McVannel. His tomb stone features prayerful clasped hands and a dedication from his wife. At the very bottom are four lines of eroded text that I could not read on that cold, rainy morning. Did the McVannel family manage to include a little prayer for Cyrus, too?

Copyright ® 2003 by Dave Dyer

Acknowledgments: Oxford County Library, St. Marys Museum, Alastair Neely, The Weldon Library at the University of Western Ontario, Mary Liley at the Oxford County Branch, Ontario Genealogical Society and Paper of Record. All quotations were taken verbatim from contempary newspaper accounts.