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
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
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.
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.
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
He was found guilty and was hanged on the 14 November 1890 at
Princeton Ontario prison in Canada.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
imprisonment Reginald Birchall wrote Birchall, the
story of his life, trial and
imprisonment as told by himself
[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