Rock of Ages: Grave Concerns

graveyards, gravestones, photography and family

Alberta’s Wild Frontiers

Originally written for the Graveyard Rabbits Online Journal, 16FEB2012

It was quite the sight, adorned in white, a picket fence – modest and sweet;
Found during a walk, as my wife and I talk, on a footpath not far from the street.
Inside by row, and pure like snow, nineteen white crosses stand;
Each simple and plain, and all without name, on this snow-covered blanket of land.

But, it looked very strange, to so neatly arrange, this group all alone and apart;
When all others graved, were collectively saved, in the south quarter of the town’s heart.
Curious, I, asked my wife “Why?” as she smirked and looked back in frustration;
“It started,” said she, “before I came to be, before Alberta joined Confederation1!”

I then tried to spot, a gate but could not, there just was no way inside;
Where the gate should’ve been, a bronze marker I’d seen, and this story it had supplied:


Told; these crosses were, eighteen men and a her, from the gaol in its pioneer day;
Each for murder were tried, hanged and when died, were buried some distance away.

Now, the townsfolk did not, originally want, too close these “unrefined”;
But when building a bridge, they were moved to this ridge, in peace and to remind…

Swift Runner was first, and perhaps the worst, of the Alberta murders to date;
His six children, a brother, his wife and his mother, he killed … and allegedly ate!

By 1923, Lassandro was “She,” awaiting the hangman’s rope;
But, this unpopular motion, stirred up quite the commotion, giving the young woman some Hope.
For common practice it was, to commute the cause, of death sentences charged against women;
Yet, with gun in hand2, she killed a man, of the Law – to get Life in prison?

From the public outcry, to not let her die, a letter campaign then commenced;
And the Prime Minister heard, some strong written words, not only for but against!
Like the female judge, (giving more than a nudge), that the Scales of Law must equate;
Murphy3 wrote with such flair, that the Courts must be fair, and Lassandro face her penalties’ weight!

But from the years before then, in-between and again, we lost eighty-six innocent lives;
Add: from assaults (two reported), Cop-killers4 (nine retorted), and three husbands shot by frustrated wives!
Forgetting not, twenty-two more, shot during robberies of home and store, and the woman, who killed her young, two-timing lover;
Or the twenty-one men who murdered their wives, for Peace and Quiet of their soon-shortened lives — makes me wonder how they lived with one another.
One hundred and twenty-five verdicts were given, and sixty-two were not forgiven, during this span of some eighty-one years;
But, spared from swinging were sixty-three, and “Life in Prison” they would see, on these lands of Alberta’s wild frontiers.

Nineteen of the 62 Alberta hangings took place in Fort Saskatchewan, 27.09km (16.83miles) north-east of Edmonton. The first hanging was 20DEC1879 and the last 25JUN1959; but this little cemetery was not perpetuated until 1914 – 35years late, so the first five hangings were buried just outside the log walls of the NWMP fortress.  In 1957, the cemetery was transferred to its current location.  Of the occupants contained therein, 14 were hanged and the remaining five died of illness.  After a convict’s death, next of kin were contacted to claim the body for burial.  Many refused to accept “the stain upon their family honour,” while others could not afford to transport their family member home, so the cemetery was constructed.

NOTES: [1] The Province of Alberta joined Confederation in 1905. In the 1880s, Alberta did not exist; it was divided in two halves: the Northern half was the District of Athabasca and the Southern half, the District of Alberta, until 1905.

[2] As her death sentence drew nearer, Lassandro recanted; she claimed not to have touched the gun used to kill Cst. Lawson.  She had made a false statement, to save her employer/ husband from a death sentence, but he was hanged too.

[3] Emily Murphy (1868-1933), from the Famous Five (“Women are Persons” Case), feminist and judge http://www.famous5.ca had written to Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950) in favour of the capital punishment verdict given to Lassandro.

[4] The killed law enforcement officers were all from the North-West Mounted Police (predecessors to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police of 1920).  Also known by their nickname, “Mounties”.

Historical facts verified by the Fort Saskatchewan Historical Society, Ft. Saskatchewan, AB

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