A “backwoods tragedy”: The Bannister Brothers and Capital Punishment in New Brunswick, 1936

By Michael Boudreau

In September of 1936 Arthur and Daniel Bannister were executed, standing back-to-back, for the “callous” murders of Philip Lake, his wife Bertha, and one of their children (Jackie) in Pacific Junction, Westmorland County. The Halifax Herald called this crime one of the “most brutal mass slayings in [New Brunswick’s] history”.[1]  This was the first double execution in Canada since 1924.  The hangman reported that the Bannisters died “bravely”, thus providing society with some form of closure, if not justification, for the use of capital punishment in this case.[2]

This “backwoods tragedy” raised concerns about executing the young, especially two “half-witted boys” such as the Bannister brothers.  At the time of the murders, Arthur was 17 and Daniel was 20.  An undercurrent of this case was the role that Arthur and Daniel’s mother, May Bannister, played.  It was alleged that May Bannister was the “arch conspirator” behind the crime. She wanted her sons to kidnap the Lake’s “baby-in-arms” (five-month old Betty) so that she could blackmail a prominent businessman in nearby Moncton.  As one reporter asserted, May Bannister had turned her sons into kidnappers and triple murderers. Public opinion in Westmorland County, and throughout much of the province, was decidedly against May Bannister, to the point where some had called for her sons to be spared and for May Bannister to be executed. For her role in the crime, May Bannister was sentenced to three and a half years in the Kingston Prison for Women.[3]

Halifax Herald January 7A glimmer of hope appeared for Daniel Bannister when he was awarded a new trial after it was determined by the New Brunswick Court of Appeal that the trial judge had erred in his address to the jury.  In essence, rather than letting the jury decide if Daniel Bannister “knew or ought to have known that murder was a possible consequence of any design which may have existed…with reference to the Lake baby”, the judge had inferred to the jury that Daniel did in fact know that murder would be the likely outcome of his actions that fateful night.[4]

The most common ground for an appeal was a judge’s charge to the jury.  And a new trial was considered to be a remedy for an error of law. But for many of the residents of Westmorland County, the only acceptable outcome in this case was a guilty verdict.  Their feelings about executing the Bannisters brothers, however, were decidedly mixed. This was due in part to shifting attitudes in New Brunswick, and Canada generally, about the morality of capital punishment and the humanity of hanging as the means of executing a condemned prisoner.

At Daniel Bannister’s second trial, defence counsel H. M. Lambert called Daniel as his only witness.  On the stand, Daniel claimed that he did not know the real purpose of the brothers’ visit to the Lake’s home and that he only went along to keep his younger sister company.  After eleven days of testimony and three hours of deliberation, the jury found Daniel Bannister guilty of murder, with no recommendation for mercy.  When asked by the judge if he had anything to say, a grim-faced Daniel Bannister replied “No Sir”.[5]

Halifax Herald January 10

During the mandatory review of their case to determine if the death sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment, it was argued that the Bannister brothers should not be executed because they were raised in immoral surroundings, which may have included incest, and that they possessed the intellect of a twelve-year old.  And it was claimed that some of the witnesses at their trials, who were described as “Forrest Folk”, could not be relied upon to provide credible evidence.[6]  For these reasons, it was felt that society must take some responsibility for these grisly deaths since no one had intervened years earlier to rescue Arthur and Daniel Bannister from a life of misery and depravity.

This theme of a poverty stricken and immoral childhood as an excuse for an accused’s actions emerged in several of the twenty-six capital cases that I have examined in New Brunswick in the 1869 to 1957 period.  It was believed that their “feeblemindedness” was due primarily to inbreeding, along with an absence of formal education and squalid living conditions. As a result, some legal officials posited that these types of men were more prone to commit violent acts, especially murder, often in a fit of uncontrollable rage.

The Bannister brothers were housed at Dorchester Penitentiary while they awaited their executions.   Apparently the sound of the carpenters building the gallows did not ruin their appetites nor disrupt their sleep. But on the night of their execution it was reported that Daniel was cool and contemptuous and Arthur was angry and bitter. Daniel offered a silent prayer and then uttered that he was innocent just before the trap door was sprung and they fell to their deaths. Since the family did not claim the bodies, they were placed in a single coffin and buried in the Penitentiary’s graveyard.[7]

What this case reveals more broadly is that despite articulating a series of cogent arguments against the efficacy of hanging as a “painless” form of execution, and the ineffectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent to crime, many New Brunswickers showed little remorse over the fate of Arthur and Daniel Bannister.  In part because the criminal justice system had given them every opportunity to prove their innocence and their mother had been duly punished for her role in the Lake’s deaths.  And no doubt because one of the victims was a child. To have offered sympathy for the Bannister brothers would have been a tacit admittance on the part of the local community of a sense of responsibility for the deaths of three members of the Lake family and of Arthur and Daniel Bannister.


Michael Boudreau is the author of City of Order: Crime and Society in Halifax, 1918-35 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012). He teaches at St. Thomas University.


Notes:

[1] Halifax Herald, 7 January 1936.

[2] Capital Case File, Arthur William Bannister, RG 13, Volume1602, CC448, Volume II, Part III, Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

[3] The Globe, 7 April 1936.

[4] Maritime Provinces Reports: Cases Decided in the Supreme Courts of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, Volume 10 (Toronto: The Carswell Company, 1936), 422-428.

[5] Capital Case File, Arthur William Bannister, RG 13, Volume1605, CC457, Volume II, Parts I, II, and III, LAC.

[6] Halifax Herald, 5 March 1936.

[7] Ottawa Evening Journal, 23 September 1936.

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