“bad characters”: The Execution of George & Rufus Hamilton in Fredericton, 1949

by Michael Boudreau

The execution of George and Rufus Hamilton in Fredericton at 2:00am on 26 July 1949, the last execution in New Brunswick’s capital, underscores Constance Backhouse’s assertion that the legal system “played a principal and dominant role in creating and preserving racial discrimination.”[1] These men lived on the margins of society due to their poverty and lack of formal education.  Moreover, their “negro racial extraction” further compounded their marginalization in a predominately white community.  Similarly, being “colored” meant that in the eyes of many residents of Fredericton, the leap from committing petty crimes to murder was, while shocking, also understandable, if not inevitable.  Indeed, many Canadians believed that Blacks, especially Black men, were prone to violence and as George Elliott Clarke has noted, racialized murderers were seen to represent inferior cultures.[2]

TJ Headline

The Telegraph-Journal Headline on the Hamilton Brothers Hanging

The double-hanging of the Hamilton brothers at the York County Jail (now home to Science East, adjacent to the popular Boyce Farmers’ Market) for the murder of a white taxi-driver, Norman Burgoyne, was considered by many to be a just conclusion to what the police had characterized as “one of the most brutal murders in the province’s history.”[3]  The press depicted thirty-four year old Burgoyne as a model of respectability.  He was a life-long resident of Fredericton, a veteran, a devoted husband, a father of three young children, and a successful businessman.  Burgoyne’s “battered” body was discovered locked in the truck of his taxi on a “lonely woods road” outside of Fredericton on Monday, 10 January 1949, two days after he had gone missing.  Following a brief investigation and a tip from a witness who had informed the police that George and Rufus were driving a car that resembled Burgoyne’s taxi, the Hamilton brothers were arrested on 16 January and held in custody until Rufus’s trial began in May.[4]

George and Rufus Hamilton lived precarious lives.  George, age twenty-three, lived with his wife and two children in a two-room house, with no running water, in the “Negro settlement” at Barker’s Point, on the city’s north side. According to the 1941 census, York County, which included Fredericton, had 294 “Negro” residents and Fredericton’s population was 10,062.[5]  George, who had a grade-three education, did not have stable employment and by his own admission he survived at times by stealing and gambling.  Rufus, age twenty-two, held a series of menial jobs and before he came to live with his brother he had been incarcerated in Dorchester Penitentiary. The trial judge, J. E. Michaud, in his charge to the jury, described George and Rufus as “bad characters…to put it in common parlance, I would say…bad eggs.”[6] Both men desperately needed money and devised a scheme to “bump” someone, drag them into an alley, and rob them.  But George surmised that this was a risky proposition, especially in broad day-light. So instead he suggested that they call a cab, have the driver take them to a “lonely place,” and then knock him unconscious and take his money.

On Friday, 7 January 1949, the Hamilton brothers called a taxi from a pay phone and requested that they be picked up at the Legion on Queen Street.  When Burgoyne arrived, however, George, who recognized Burgoyne, apparently had second thoughts about their plan.  George later admitted that “I had the intention in my own heart to get some money… because I was squeezed.”  But George insisted that “when I seen it was Norman Burgoyne I was scared and never did it.”[7] Despite George’s trepidation, he and Rufus climbed into Burgoyne’s taxi and asked him to take them to a bootlegger. After driving to various places, Rufus was growing impatient with George’s reluctance to carry out their plan.  So when they stopped at a home and George went to inquire about purchasing some “home brew,” Rufus took the hammer that George had brought with him and hit Burgoyne twice on the head.  When George returned to the cab, he found Burgoyne’s body slouched over in the front passenger’s seat and when he asked Rufus what had happened, Rufus allegedly said “You lost your nerve so I hit the son of a bitch…I didn’t want to go home without some cash.”[8]  The provincial pathologist concluded that Burgoyne had died as a result of the blows that he had suffered to his head.[9]

George and Rufus had divided Burgoyne’s cash evenly between them. Over the course of the weekend they used the money to purchase alcohol, food, and clothes. This, coupled with the fact that the Hamilton brothers drove Burgoyne’s taxi (labeled as the “death car”) to Minto and then to Saint John, with his body still in the trunk, did not endear them in the eyes of many Fredericton residents.  As the Daily Gleaner proclaimed, this was the “most deliberately planned and brutally executed capital crime in the history of this provincial capital.”  The racial overtones in this case were at times blatant.  George and Rufus were usually described in the press as the “colored brothers” or the “Barker’s Point negroes”, while Justice Michaud noted that Rufus had purchased a large quantity of liquor on Saturday, which led to a “good drinking party…and apparently the whole of the negro settlement had a merry afternoon.”[10] In addition to infantilizing the members of Fredericton’s Black community, Michaud’s statement implied that they were indifferent to the murder of a white resident of the city. There were also subtle signs of the racism that Blacks in Fredericton encountered.  When asked why he had abandoned the taxi just outside of Fredericton, George replied that he knew that he could not return to the city in Burgoyne’s taxi: “I was scared to death to come up to…Fredericton,” because he was known by many people who would have been suspicious if they had seen him driving a “big car.”[11]  George believed that as a Black man his every move would garner a degree of suspicion and surveillance; in essence, George was keenly aware of his place as the “other” in New Brunswick’s capital.

The jury, which was comprised of men of “superior intelligence,” took fifty minutes to deliver a guilty verdict, with no recommendation for mercy (although juries usually recommended mercy), thus bringing this “tragic drama” to a close.[12] As a headline in the Telegraph-Journal declared: “Negro Brothers Pay for Murder of N. P. Burgoyne.”[13] George and Rufus’s execution attracted hundreds of curious members of the local and surrounding communities. “Every adjacent rooftop, line fence, window, and woodpile were at a premium”, as the crowd, “which ranged from babes-in-arms to grey beards, choked the entrance to the gaol yard and vantage points for a glimpse of the condemned negroes.” And as George and Rufus were led to the gallows, the crowd cheered and their execution was “Heralded by the tolling of St. Dunston’s Church bell.”[14] The belief that their execution was a fitting end to this case was echoed in an editorial that appeared within days of their hanging.  Noting that Norman Burgoyne’s murder was “planned and carried out with extraordinary callousness,” the Telegraph-Journal hoped that the Hamilton brothers’ “fate [would] act as a warning to any of like mind.”[15]  The execution of George and Rufus Hamilton is another example of the Canadian justice system’s desire to punish what was understood to be Black peoples’ inherently criminal behaviour.


Michael Boudreau is a Professor in the Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice at St. Thomas University.


Notes:

[1] Constance Backhouse, Colour-Coded: A History of Legal Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 17.

[2] RG 13, Volume 1680, cc676, Volume 1, Part 1, Capital Case File, Rufus Hamilton  – Report of the Trial Judge, J. E. Michaud, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Brunswick, 30 May 1949, Library and Archives Canada (LAC); Graham Reynolds (with Wanda Robson), Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land (Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2016); and George Elliott Clarke, “White Judges, Black Hoods: Hanging-as-Lynching in Three Canadian True-Crime Texts”, Canadian Law Library Review 41, 2 (2016), 12.

[3] Telegraph-Journal, 11 January 1949.  George Elliott Clarke has written an awarded-winning fictionalized account of this case, George & Rue (Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2005).

[4] Daily Gleaner, 1 February 1949 and Telegraph-Journal, 11 January 1949.

[5] Eighth Census of Canada, 1941, Volume II (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1944), 274-275, 281, and 283.

[6] George and Rufus Hamilton were originally from Windsor, Nova Scotia.  RG 13, Volume 1680, cc676, Capital Case File – Trial Transcript, 5 May 1949, 192-193, 523, and 565, LAC.

[7] RG 13, Volume 1680, cc676, Capital Case File, Rufus Hamilton – Trial Transcript, 128, LAC.

[8] Ibid, 101 and Report of the Trial Judge, 30 May 1949.

[9] Report of the Trial Judge, 30 May 1949.

[10] Telegraph-Journal, 18 January 1949; Daily Gleaner, 9 May 1949; and Report of the Trial Judge, 30 May 1949.

[11] Trial Transcript, 5 May 1949, 152.

[12] Ibid, 7 May 1949, 553.

[13] Telegraph-Journal, 27 July 1949. George MacBeath and Emelie Hubert, The York County Jail: A Brief Illustrated History (Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2008), 44.

[14] Daily Gleaner, 27 July 1949.

[15] Telegraph-Journal, 28 July 1949.

 

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One Response to “bad characters”: The Execution of George & Rufus Hamilton in Fredericton, 1949

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of November 4, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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