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John Reginald BIRCHALL





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: February 21, 1890
Date of birth: May 25, 1866
Victim profile: Frederick Cornwallis Benwell, 25
Method of murder: Shooting
LocationWoodstock, Ontario, Canada
Status: Executed by hanging at Woodstock on November 14, 1890

John Reginald Birchall, murderer (b at Accrington, Eng 25 May 1866; d at Woodstock, Ont 14 Nov 1890). Birchall, a confidence man, gambler and wastrel, lured 2 young Englishmen, Douglas Pelly and Frederick C. Benwell, into a partnership with him to purchase a farm near Woodstock, Ont.

Under the Farm Pupil scheme, a system much abused by dishonest promoters, they agreed to pay Birchall £500 each. Birchall's plan was to kill them and take their money. On 17 February 1890, he shot Benwell to death in a swamp. Later he tried unsuccessfully to kill Pelly. Birchall was arrested for the murder by John W. Murray, Canada's "Great Detective."

Because he was an English gentleman, the son of a clergyman and educated at Oxford, Birchall's case drew considerable attention in Canada, the US and Europe. He was executed in Woodstock by a hangman whose use of an experimental noose which caused slow death by strangulation, was greatly criticized.

By Edward Butts - The Canadian Encyclopedia


Reginald Birchall was convicted of murdering a young englishman called Frederick Cornwallis Benwell after tricking him into paying £163;500 for a half partnership in a farm.

Benwells frozen body was discovered by two farmers who were out walking on the 21 February 1890. It had two bullets lodged in the brain.

A picture of the dead man was placed in the local Newspaper and identification was made when a man and his wife recognised the photo and came forward. Reginald and Florence Birchall admitted that they had met Benwell when travelling to New York.

Police became suspicious and they were both arrested. Birchall maintained that he had met Benwell on the liner Britannic travelling from Liverpool to New York. He also stated that they had parted company at Niagra Falls.

What in fact happened is that Birchall and Benwell went off together when they were in New York to look at a Farm. Birchall returned later to say that the farm was no good and Benwell had changed his mind and gone off. Witnesses were able to confirm that Birchall had been seen in the vicinity.

He was found guilty and was hanged on the 14 November 1890 at Princeton Ontario prison in Canada.

Had the couple not been in such a hurry to help the police identify the dead man then it is just possible that Birchall might have got away with the murder. His wife returned to England where she later remarried.


Reginald Birchall was born May 25, 1866 and was the son of Rev. Joseph Birchall, late rector of Church-Kirk, near Accrigton, Lancashire, England. As a young man at Oxford College, England, Reginald Birchall was often swindled by money lenders (also known as money sharks) who would prey on students who needed money and lend it to them at a high interest rate.

After his schooling he was swindled by the Farm Pupils Industry, an industry of young Englishmen of education and culture whose fathers paid substantial sums of money to farmers in other countries to have their sons taught the art of farming. He traveled to Ontario to help at a farm and, after observing the poor quality of the farm, he soon realized that he had been swindled.

In the spring of 1889, Birchall and his wife suddenly left Woodstock to return to England. He needed to make money quickly and decided to send his own ad to the Farm Pupil Industry. He received a response from Frederick C. Benwell. He told the Benwells that he had two farms in Canada, one near Niagara Falls and the other near Woodstock. Benwell met with Birchall and they visited the farm near Woodstock. That evening, Birchall returned, alone, claiming that Benwell had decided against the Woodstock farm and to continue on his own. This seemed like a valid story until the newspaper article appeared claiming that a man had been found murdered in the Blenheim Swamp.

Birchall was hung in the Woodstock Jail Yard on November 14, 1890. Although many people believe that Birchall was the murderer, there was never any solid evidence or a guilty plea to accuse him justly.



BIRCHALL, REGINALD (also known as Lord Frederick A. Somerset), convicted murderer; b. 25 May 1866 at Accrington, Lancashire, England, youngest son of the Reverend Joseph Birchall; m. in 1888 Florence Stevenson; d. 14 Nov. 1890 in Woodstock, Ont.

Reginald Birchall, after two years of private tutoring, spent six years in public schools, during which time he found delight in “whatsoever was against the rules and whatsoever was redolent of lawlessness and disorder.” In the early spring of 1885 he entered Lincoln College at Oxford. Birchall had inherited £4,000 in 1878 from his father’s estate to be held in trust until his 25th birthday. Nevertheless, he proceeded to live like a young aristocrat and through licentious activity, highlighted by his founding of the hedonistic Black and Tan Club at Oxford, fell heavily into debt. By 1888 he was forced to sell his future inheritance, at the discounted value of £3,000, to appease creditors and left Oxford without obtaining a degree. Birchall invested £500 in a farm at Woodstock, Ont., and eloped with the daughter of David Stevenson, master of transportation of the London and Northwestern Railroad. In November 1888 they set sail for Canada.

In Woodstock they found not the prosperous estate that had been advertised but a small farm. Undaunted, they took rooms in Woodstock, and, calling themselves Lord and Lady Somerset, established a line of credit and took the social life of the community by storm. Six months later, pressed by the local merchants to pay their bills, Lord and Lady Somerset suddenly disappeared from Woodstock and returned to London.

Birchall received an insider’s tip on a sure thing in the 1890 English Derby. To raise capital he placed an advertisement in London newspapers posing as the owner of a prosperous Canadian horse farm and sales-yard who was looking for a partner to buy into the business for £500. Birchall planned to bet the money on the English Derby, take his partner to Canada, stall until the race was run, and then pay back the £500 with interest out of his winnings. Douglas Raymond Pelly invested £170 with Birchall. Separately, Frederick Cornwallis Benwell and his father Colonel F. Benwell of Cheltenham agreed to supply £500 but only after the son had seen the farm and examined the books.

Reginald and Florence Birchall, Pelly, and Benwell arrived in New York City on 14 Feb. 1890 and went on to Buffalo by train, arriving on the 16th. Early the next day Birchall and Benwell travelled by train to Eastwood, a station just east of Woodstock where Benwell expected to be shown the sales-yard. Instead, Birchall evidently led him into a heavily wooded area called Blenheim Swamp and shot him twice in the back of the head. That evening Birchall returned to Buffalo and told Pelly that Benwell had been unhappy with the farm and planned to return to England. Birchall avoided further questioning and the next day the party moved to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

On 20 February Birchall wrote Colonel Benwell that his son had examined the business, was well pleased, and had signed a deed of partnership. He requested that Colonel Benwell forward the £500 as soon as possible. Unfortunately for Birchall, Ben well’s body was found in Blenheim Swamp four days after the murder. After Pelly noticed a picture of the victim in a newspaper, Birchall, accompanied by his wife, travelled to Princeton, Ont., and calmly identified the body. But, based on information supplied by Pelly and the suspicion of John Wilson Murray*, chief detective for the province of Ontario, Birchall was arrested at Niagara Falls on 2 March by the local police and was transferred to the Woodstock jail.

His trial opened on 22 Sept. 1890 and excited international attention. Since both Benwall and Birchall were members of the English upper class, there was speculation that the murder was part of a larger scheme to swindle and murder young Englishmen from prosperous families. Cable connections led directly from the court-house in Woodstock to London, England, and newspapers in France, Germany, and Italy covered the trial. Birchall steadfastly insisted that he was innocent but did not address the court. He was defended by George Tate Blackstock* and prosecuted by Britton Bath Osler* with Judge Hugh MacMahon* presiding. The circumstantial evidence was overwhelming; Birchall was found guilty and sentenced to hang. On 14 Nov. 1890, in the Woodstock jailyard, Birchall “went to his death ghastly white, but without a tremor.”

James W. Nichol

During his imprisonment Reginald Birchall wrote Birchall, the story of his life, trial and imprisonment as told by himself (Toronto, 1890).

      [J. W. Murray], Memoirs of a great detective, incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray, comp. Victor Speer (Toronto, 1905). Evening Sentinel-Review (Woodstock, Ont.), September–November 1890. W. S. Wallace, Murders and mysteries, a Canadian series (Toronto, 1931), 172–93.


Frederick C. Benwell, the victim.



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