Phoebe Campbell (c. 1847 – 20 June 1872) was
a Canadian woman who was hanged for the murder of her husband.
Campbell had alleged that on the morning of July
15, 1871, in Thorndale, Middlesex County, Ontario, two black-faced men
broke into George and Phoebe's log cabin home and brutally hacked
George to death with an axe because he refused to hand over some
money. They had attempted to use a gun which misfired.
During the investigation, six local men were
arrested, including Thomas Coyle, who was George's farmhand. Doubt
about Phoebe's innocence arose rapidly as she was seen talking with
Coyle, she also seemed to have done nothing to help save her husband
as he was being murdered, also she seemed very unemotional following
the funeral for George. A coroner's autopsy also showed that indeed
George was murdered by Phoebe and Coyle. "I don't care. I'm innocent
and I don't care.", Phoebe stated. She then accused Coyle of the
murder then quickly changed her mind then accused her cousin.
Phoebe's murder trial began on April 1, 1872, with
much public interest. Phoebe accused George of having an affair with
her cousin's wife. During the trial, the crown prosecutor produced a
letter which stated, "I never shall say you done any such thing
again—if I have to die for it." When asked why she changed her
testimony, she claimed the ghost of her late husband visited her and
declared her and Coyle innocent. The crown prosecutor responded, "You
can hardly expect anyone to believe such nonsense!"
After the trial, the jury took just one hour to
reach a guilty verdict. Phoebe then sobbed as the judge sentenced her
to hanging. She later confessed that she and Coyle murdered George so
they could marry. Coyle did go to trial for his crime but was
acquitted. He later moved to England.
She was hanged on June 20 at the age of 25 and was
again said to be emotionless as she was about to be hanged, holding a
lace handkerchief in her hand until after she died.
So much public attention was given to the story
that postcards depicting the crime were made, which were bought by
The Trials of Phoebe Campbell
By Christopher Doty
"I never shall say you done any such thing again
- if I have to die for it."
Early in the morning of July 15, 1871 a Nissouri
farmer named George Campbell was brutally hacked to death.
His wife, Phoebe, claimed that two men with
blackened faces had broken into the family's log cabin near Thorndale
and had threatened to shoot Campbell if he did not hand over a large
sum of money.
When their gun misfired, Campbell allegedly tried
to defend his family. During the scuffle, he was horribly bludgeoned
about the head with an axe. On the basis of Phoebe's testimony, six
local men were arrested, including Thomas Coyle, her father's hired
However, questions began to circulate about
Phoebe's part in the crime. Why did she stand by and do nothing while
two men chopped her husband to pieces? Why was she so unemotional in
the days following the funeral? Why was she seen talking to Thomas
Coyle the day after the murder? A subsequent coroner's inquest laid
the blame for George Campbell's death at the feet of his wife and
"I don't care," said Phoebe. "I'm innocent and I
But she cared enough to save her own skin. She
accused Coyle of the murder but later recanted her testimony and
accused her own cousin. By this time the public had little sympathy
for the widow. It now appeared that Phoebe's story about the two
burglars had been a lie to cover up an affair she had been enjoying
Campbell's murder trial, which began on April
Fool's Day 1872, was sensational in the extreme. Phoebe accused her
late husband of having an affair with her cousin's wife. The
prosecution produced a letter Campbell had written to Coyle. In it,
Phoebe wrote, "I never shall say you done any such thing again - if I
have to die for it."
When questioned on her changed testimony, Phoebe
claimed the ghost of her dead husband had visited her to declare Coyle
and herself innocent of the crime. The crown attorney exploded at
Campbell. "You can hardly expect any one to believe such nonsense!" he
The jury took only one hour to arrive at a guilty
verdict. Phoebe burst into tears as the judged sentenced her to hang
on June 20th. In a confession published after the verdict, Phoebe
claimed she and Coyle conspired to murder George Campbell so the two
could marry. Coyle also faced trial for the crime but was acquitted.
Afterwards, he moved to England.
Campbell was the first woman to be executed in
post-confederation Canada and the only woman in Middlesex County to
pay for a crime with her life. The newspapers, determined to depict
her as a heartless killer, noted that "she went to the gallows without
a trace of emotion, and held a lace handkerchief in her hand for a
minute after the trap had been sprung." Souvenir postcards depicting
the crime were quickly snapped up by onlookers.
In a final open letter, Campbell wrote that "it is
a solemn thing to die if not prepared."
George Campbell must have known how she felt.
The Lone Axe Murderess
Although I don't have any Black Sheep ancestors in
my family, the murder of George Campbell would likely have been a
topic of conversation around the dinner table in the homes of my
Ryckman and Irwin ancestors in the early 1870's.
West Nissouri Township, 1818 - 2000: our
heritage recounts the events of the most notorious crime in
On the night of 14 July 1871, George Campbell of
Thorndale, Middlesex County, Ontario was murdered. His wife, Phoebe
(McWain) Campbell claimed they couple and their two small children had
been sleeping when two black men, dressed in dark clothing, entered
their log cabin and demanded money. When George claimed he did not
have any, the two men tried three times unsuccessfully to fire a
pistol at him. George told Phoebe to get him the axe, which she
did. One of the men wrestled the axe away from George and hit him
over the head with it. George then yelled to Phoebe to get the
carving knife. She retrieved the knife from the bureau but one of the
assailants snatched it away from her, and continued beating George
until he fell to the floor. The men told Phoebe not to alert anyone
until the next morning,. They dashed out the door and over the fence
into the darkness of night. Phoebe immediately ran outside
screaming. Neighbours quickly came to her aid.
What followed was an investigation of these events
reported by Phoebe Campbell regarding George's murder. At first,
people believed Phoebe's story. However, over the course of the
summer, Phoebe's innocence became doubtful. Following George's
funeral, Phoebe seemed unemotional. Her sister -in-law, Annie
Campbell, acknowleged that Phoebe "did cry a little once," but then
claimed, "I think she did not appear to be so much distressed as she
ought to be." Neighbour, Mary Freed claimed she had seen the widow
talking with one of the suspects, Thomas Coyle in the field in front
of the house at dusk the day after the murder. But what seem to
have puzzled people the most was Phoebe's helplessness while her
husband was being attacked.
During July 16-22, 1871 there were a number of
local suspects and arrests, including Thomas Coyle and Phoebe
Campbell. The coroner's inquest deliberated for only 45 minutes on
August 4, 1871 before concluding that "George Campbell had been
murdered by two persons whom we believe to be Thomas Coyle and Phoebe
Campbell." During the coroner's inquest, the jurors had adjourned at
the Campbell cabin where they found George, dead on the floor,
"covered in gore, his head beaten to pieces with both ends of an
axe...". Blood covered every part of the cabin.
Phoebe spent the fall of 1871 and the winter of
1872 incarcerated. Her trial began on April 1, 1872 in London,
Ontario. On April 6, 1872, the jury had reached their verdict:
guilty. Phoebe still insisted she was innocent. The judge pronounced
his sentence. Phoebe was to be hanged by the neck on June 20, 1872.
In May of that year, according to an article in the
London Advertiser, Phoebe had written an eight page
confession that she and Thomas Coyle had murdered her husband. Coyle
and Phoebe had wanted to get married.
On June 21, 1872, in the London gaolyard, Phoebe
Campbell was executed by hanging.
The Ontario Death Registrations for George Campbell
and Phoebe Campbell can be found on Ancestry.com.
I wonder what happened to their children.
Much was written about the trial and execution of
Phoebe Campbell. Articles appeared in newspapers as far away as
Chicago and Los Angeles.