Local history: Halifax’s last hanging

Photo: Nova Scotia Archives

Halifax’s last execution happened on March 7, 1935, behind the court on Spring Garden Road, in the space that is now an unremarkable parking lot.

Officials hung Daniel Perry Sampson, an unemployed Black man who police arrested in 1933, accusing him of the murder of two young brothers.

Today, many believe the courts killed an innocent man.

The sad story begins in 1933, when 10-year-old Edwin and 12-year-old Bramwell Heffernan didn’t return from berry picking. Their father found them dead on the train tracks near Chain Lake. At first, investigators thought a train hit them, but a coroner found stab wounds on their body, prompting police to look for an attacker.

In the course of their investigation, police put Sampson in a lineup with other suspects. He was the only Black man in the group, and soon became the investigation’s focus.

Through two trials and appeals, he faced juries comprised entirely of white men. Documents on file at the Nova Scotia Archives also reveal that when his lawyer asked potential jurors directly if they were prejudiced against Black people, some answered yes, which didn’t seem to disqualify them from duty.

His case went the whole way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which sentenced him to death.

A few hours before the execution, he signed a confession, saying he killed the boys for taunting him. Significantly, he signed with an “X,” not his name, likely indicating he couldn’t read or write, and probably didn’t know what he was signing. Or he may have acquiesced because he knew there was an angry mob outside, keen to see him climb the gallows.

Photo: FindAGrave.com

We don’t know a lot about his early life, except that during the First World War, he served with the all-Black No. 2 Construction Battalion. Family believe the experience traumatized him. “When he returned home, he would do weird stuff, just like he was still in the war,” one relative recalled, adding that they believed he wasn’t guilty of the murders, but “but a Black man was the perfect one to blame.”

In 2017, a Dalhousie University law student named David Steeves talked with CTV about his research into how the courts meted out justice.

“He may have done the murders or, he may not have, but what I was really focusing on were the significant concerns about how African Nova Scotians were treated in the courts, regardless of their guilt or innocence.”

In December 2019, Sampson’s descendants—long haunted by the doubts that still hang over the case—got a small measure of comfort. The Last Post Fund, an organization that aims to ensure that all veterans get a proper funeral and memorial, arranged for Sampson to finally get a military gravestone in Camp Hill Cemetery, marking his service to his country.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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