“Shoot! you son of a ——-, shoot! I’m not afraid of an ounce of lead.”—condemned murderer Allen McLean.
For those who are familiar with provincial criminal history, this summer’s murderous but, happily, brief rampage by two Island teenagers was an eerie echo of a similar outrage that dates back all of 140 years.
That’s when the three McLean brothers, Allen, Charlie and Archie, and their friend Alex Hare, sought for stealing a prized stallion, cold bloodedly murdered Provincial Police Constable John Tannatt Ussher and an inoffensive shepherd then terrorized local ranchers before being captured after a dramatic shootout with a posse.
It’s a story so oft-told I won’t go into further detail here; rather, I want to explore their final days in the B.C. Penitentiary, the tragic conclusion of their almost senseless crimes that could have had only one conclusion in that age of capital punishment.
To do so I must introduce the anti-heroes of our tale: 25-year-old Allen McLean, leader, younger brothers Charlie, 17, Archie, 15, and friend Alex Hare, 17. All were the products of mixed-race marriages, the McLeans’ father having been a notorious firebrand who committed a murder of his own, and who, deadly with rifle, revolver and hunting knife, were said to be “the true product of a wild frontier existence”. They also have been described as being “of a wild, reckless disposition, and being good horsemen and capital shots [who] preferred enjoying a roving life to any settled employment.”
But their roving life of horse and cattle rustling came to an abrupt end with their murders of Constable Ussher and shepherd Kelly, subsequent arrest, trial, conviction and sentence of death. The fact that Archie was only 15 cut no ice with the judicial system which, no doubt, was influenced by eyewitness testimony that it was he who’d delivered the coup de grace to the wounded Ussher.
An appeal, based not on evidence of their guilt but on a legalistic and egotistical administrative joust between Attorney-General George Walkem and Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Begbie (who hadn’t presided at their trial) caused a second trial and a year-long delay.
Again, the verdict was guilty and, while awaiting their fate in the penitentiary beside the Fraser River, in New Westminster, they were anything but model prisoners. Their behaviour, until a month before execution, was described as “bad — characterized by one continued resistance to authority and defiance of discipline interspersed with small plots to escape, and exhibitions of a disposition to gratify a splenetic vein”.
When Warden Moresby detected a knife up Allan’s sleeve, he had to disarm him at gunpoint. On another occasion when Moresby drew his revolver, Allan snarled, “Shoot! you son of a ——-, shoot! I’m not afraid of an ounce of lead.” The gang constantly upset prison quiet and routine with their whistling, cursing, shouting and dancing, behaviour that was dismissed by one journalist as an unseemly exhibition of bravado — “like that of little boys whistling in the dark to scare away the rats”.
Further searches of their cells turned up knives, nails sharpened to fine points and the handle of a tin cup which had been flattened and ground to a sharp edge. These had been stowed away in rat holes. The possession of these weapons and Archie’s threatening to strike a guard with a bucket led to Moresby seeking special permission to chain them to the walls which finally succeeded in “cooling them down”.
Why they didn’t just break out quietly is a mystery considering the pathetic state of the prison where, the Colonist complained, “Safety forms no prominent feature of [the] cells. The walls for seven inches from their bases are rotten — in fact they are nothing more or less than ‘plank’ and can be pulled to pieces with the fingers. Had the prisoners desired it they could have emerged from their confinement within a few hours by simply using the heels of their boots. One of the doors, it is said, fell off its hinges, the wood being too much decayed to sustain the strain[!]”
Perhaps they were relying upon a plot they’d hatched to make their escape at almost the last minute — while being led to the scaffold. John Henry Makai, a “half breed” [sic] Kanaka serving two months for selling liquor to Indians, had volunteered to serve as executioner, a duty often performed by non-professionals. Makai’s “frequent importunities” for the unpleasant job made Moresby suspicious.
Through an inmate informant he learned that Makai had arranged with the McLeans and Hare that, should he act as executioner, he’d “by some means secure possession of a knife and while pinioning [them] prior to their taking their position on the scaffold [he’d] cut the ropes almost through, leaving a few threads sufficient to maintain the ropes in their place and thus avoid suspicion until the proper time for attempting escape had arrived. Once in the yard, the ropes were to be burst and a desperate dash made for liberty…”
Had the bizarre plan succeeded Makai was to have been rewarded with 100 head of cattle and 40 horses from a McLean relative. Upon being interrogated, Makai divulged the whole mad plot and a search of his cell turned up two knives thought to have been acquired while Makai was working in the chain-gang.
When they were ultimately informed that the day of execution had been fixed for 11 days hence, they took it well. Allen was the first to be told by Sheriff Morrison; asked if he had any word he wanted sent to his friends, he replied, “No, I have been expecting this every day. I knew it must come sometime. You will write to Hector [McLean] and tell him not to take any revenge…for our death. It can’t be helped now.” He was returned to his cell, but subsequently sent for the gaoler and asked him to write to his wife in the upper country and tell her that it was his dying wish that she should take good care of the children.
Defiant to the end, young Archie, who’d fatally shot a wounded Constable Ussher in the face, asked whether he had any word to send to his friends he replied, “No, I have nothing to say or send to any friends. They have done nothing for me and I wouldn’t care if all my friends got hung. “
Charlie McLean and Alex Hare maintained a stolid silence. Of the four Allen appeared downcast but resigned. Archie’s chest “heaved a little,” and Charlie’s face turned pale. Hare was indifferent.
From that day forth they ate and slept well and accepted the ministrations of the Rev. Father Horris who’d been “unremitting in his efforts to bring them to a proper state of mind as well as a proper sense of their position”.
On the cold grey morning of Jan. 31, 1881, Allen, Charlie, Archie McLean and Alex Hare shuffled out into the prison yard for the last time.
Under the stark headline OUTLAWS, a special correspondent of The Colonist gave what the editor termed an “absorbingly interesting” account of the multiple execution: “This morning at 8:30 o’clock Allan, Charlie and Archie McLean and Alex. Hare suffered the extreme penalty of the law for the murders of Ussher and Kelly in Dec. 1879.
“The prisoners were well disposed and very cool and collected, submitting to everything required of them with patience. At 7.30 a.m. the hangman [not John Makai!] fixed the ropes on the beam and proceeded at 7:50 o’clock to the cells to pinion the prisoners. After they were pinioned they were taken out to the scaffold, which was erected in the north-east end of the yard. They mounted the steps firmly, accompanied by the Reverend Fathers Horris and Cheruse, their spiritual advisers, and took their places quietly.
“They said, ‘For the honour and glory of God I acknowledge my guilt. I forgive every one from my heart, even my executioner, and I most humbly beg Almighty God to forgive me.’ The ropes were then put on their necks and the caps drawn down, and at exactly 8:30 o’clock the hangman pulled the lever and dropped the unfortunates into Eternity. They all died instantly, Charley being the only one who struggled. They were taken down at 9:30. A jury was empanelled and an inquest held, when the usual verdict was returned. The bodies were taken to Douglas street cemetery for interment…”
In an editorial the Colonist declared, “In the execution of the culprits the majesty of the law has been vindicated. The wretched men who are now beyond the reach of earthly censure have atoned with their lives for the commission of the most cruel and dastardly acts that stains the criminal records of the province.
“The spectacle presented of four criminals — one a boy, and three of the number brothers — suspended from one beam in the gray of a winter’s morning, was a shocking scene for the few who were admitted to witness it, and the lesson conveyed by their sad end will not be thrown away upon their late companions, who may have felt disposed to follow in their guilty footsteps…”
Even in death the murderous McLeans made Canadian criminal history. Fifteen-year-old Archie is among the youngest ever executed, and it’s believed the only time three brothers have been hanged together.
As recently as August, the McLeans and Hare made ‘honourable mention’ in a series of articles on gang violence in the Vancouver Sun.