He had “insanity in his veins”: The Execution of George Gee in New Brunswick

By Michael Boudreau

On 22 July 1904 George Gee was executed in Woodstock, New Brunswick for the murder of his cousin Millie Gee.  The question of Gee’s guilt was not necessarily in question since he confessed to the crime. During Gee’s trial and the automatic review that was conducted by the federal Department of Justice to decide if his death sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment, the question of Gee’s sanity was raised.  In particular, Gee had apparently been driven to insanity by jealousy, after Millie Gee, whom George Gee had hoped to marry, had spurned him.  Moreover, it was alleged that the social, economic, and familial milieu in which Gee had lived – notably generational insanity, incest, and a generally “primitive” lifestyle – were contributing factors to his insanity at the time of the murder.

George Gee Sentenced to Death

Nineteen-year-old George Gee and eighteen-year-old Millie Gee had been “keeping company” and George had become “much attached” to Millie, so much so that he believed that they were husband and wife.  But when Millie left George to live with her brother-in-law, Benny Gee, George Gee was “much aggrieved” by her desertion. Gee obtained a rifle and two bottles of rum and paid a visit to Benny Gee’s home.  Over the course of the evening, they drank and played cards.  In the early hours of 13 March 1904, in Homesville, Carleton County, shots were heard echoing throughout the Gee residence.  It was soon discovered that Millie Gee had been shot in the stomach and she later died after doctors had operated on her in a desperate attempt to save her life. When George Gee was taken into custody by Deputy-Sheriff Albion Foster, he expressed little remorse for his actions and announced that the only thing he regretted was not shooting Millie Gee through the heart.[1] 

 George Gee’s defence counsel, J.C. Hartley, stressed that if Gee was to be convicted, he should only be found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, since on the night in question everyone had been drinking heavily and thus Millie’s death was an accident.  Moreover, Hartley informed the court that Gee had “insanity in his veins,” thereby rendering him incapable of understanding the gravity of his actions.[2]  Hartley asserted that since Gee’s parents were cousins their progeny were insane.  Similarly, Hartley stated that four of Gee’s relatives had spent time in asylums.  Gee’s father testified that over the course of the last few years his son had acted “odd” and “queerly” and he was “restless.”  Even Gee’s mother, who one newspaper described as “delicate and of refined appearance” on the witness stand, told the court that her son was “crazy.”[3]

Hartley also invoked Gee’s social class in his address to the jury to garner empathy for his client.  Hartley argued that since Gee was uncouth and poorly educated and lacked the financial resources to mount a fulsome defence, he deserved the jury’s sympathy.  But someone who was refined and educated, Hartley claimed, did not.  And in a subtle critique of the death penalty, and perhaps of the fallibility of the jury system, Hartley proclaimed that Millie Gee could not be brought back to life by the death of his client.  Indeed, Hartley admonished the jury to remember that a mistake on their part, finding George Gee guilty of first-degree murder and thus condemning him to death, could never be undone.[4]

Attorney General William Pugsley, for the Crown, countered that the jury should not allow sympathy to influence their decision.  According to Pugsley, the defence had failed to prove that Gee was insane when he murdered Millie Gee.  Rather, Pugsley stressed that the murder was premeditated, and that Gee knew precisely what he was doing when he brought a gun to Benny Gee’s house.  Insanity, Pugsley concluded, cannot be inferred from conjecture.  The jury concurred; they took a mere forty-five minutes to return with a guilty verdict.  Upon hearing the jury’s decision, George Gee smiled and quipped that it was “all he could expect.”[5]  In passing sentence on Gee, the presiding judge, Chief Justice Tuck, stated that the jury’s finding of guilt for this “fearful crime” was correct in light of the evidence that the Crown had presented during the trial.  Tuck did acknowledge that George Gee’s “situation [was] a terrible one at…best [with] indiscriminate communication between men and women, living in the same room without regard to marriage relations at all,” but he believed that this was not enough to establish that Gee was legally insane.  And if Gee, or his defence counsel, clung to any hope that his death sentence would be commuted, Tuck quickly dashed their hope: “I can hold out no hope to you of pardon [for] this foul deed.”[6]

Prior to George Gee’s execution, several local residents petitioned the Governor General to commute his death sentence.  One such petitioner, Jennie Bull, felt that “if you only knew all the circumstances of his life, and awful conditions, I am sure you would pardon him.”  The death of Millie Gee, she noted, while a “terrible tragedy” that “shocked” the community, was “only a natural consequence of his terrible bringing up.”  Gee was illiterate (he signed documents with an x), he held a poorly paid job as a woodsman, he was “never…taught a prayer and was never inside a church; and [he] knew not right from wrong;” in essence, he was not a man, but an imbecile.   Life in prison, she concluded, is “[s]urely severe enough” for Gee.  F.B. Carvell, a barrister in Woodstock, wrote to the federal government imploring them not to execute Gee.  The fact that George’s and Millie’s families had intermarried for generations and that they had lived in the “most primitive style imaginable,” had to be taken into consideration.  So too should Carvell’s opinion that when Millie left Gee for her brother-in-law, Gee had been “goaded…practically into insanity” and so he should not be held responsible for her death.[7] 

The case of George Gee underscores a general belief that an accused’s “helplessness,” specifically their poverty, lack of formal education, and their working-class status, could be equated with legal insanity.  However, this link, while debated by the lawyers and possibly contemplated by some members of the jury, was not accepted by the law.  But this did not prevent public opinion in Carleton County, and elsewhere in New Brunswick, from feeling that some form of mercy should be shown to George Gee.  Despite the fact that an innocent young woman had been killed, it may be argued that some New Brunswick residents wanted the criminal justice system to take into consideration the harsh socio-economic realities of life that many in the province endured.  In this regard, execution, or even the prospect of life imprisonment, was not necessarily considered to be a palatable, or just, outcome to this case.

[1] Capital Case File – George Gee, 1904, RG 13, Volume 1446, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and Carleton Sentinel (Woodstock), 29 April 1904.

[2] Carleton Sentinel, 29 April 1904.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Capital Case File – George Gee, 1904, RG 13, Volume 1446, (LAC).

[7] Ibid.

Michael Boudreau is Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice at St. Thomas University.  Effective July 1st, 2020, he will be Editor of the Journal of New Brunswick Studies/Revue d’études sur le Nouveau-Brunswick.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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