The Horror of Burlington Heights
By Ryan Moran
Depending on your experience with Ti-Cat games and City Council meetings, it may not be hard to imagine Hamiltonians frothing at the mouth, clamoring for blood.
Yet, the public demand for it on the morning of July 20th, 1814, on what would one day be my childhood home, Inchbury Street in Hamilton’s Strathcona neighbourhood, was visceral. This would be, and remains, the largest mass-hanging in Canada’s history.
And who knows what restless spirits remain, as the gore didn’t end with the noose.
Emotions on the summer day ranged from morbid curiosity to outright remorse. The eight condemned men were tried and convicted of treason, of colluding with the Americans. And it would be hard to blame them.
Despite the romantic belief that Ontarians were loyal to the British Empire, picking a side had more to do with picking your own side. Who was offering you property yesterday, leaving you be today, and not setting your village ablaze tomorrow.
Some of the men were defiantly silent, some visibly distraught, and some wailing in desperation, like the mob surrounding them, screaming into history.
The kettle on the stove was screaming.
Michael and I stared at each other, from the couch of his mother’s second storey apartment at the bottom of Locke and Tecumseh streets. The grounds of which, located across the street from Castle Doune, were once used as the MacNab family burial.
“Why did you put the kettle on?” He asked, startled.
“I didn’t.” I shakily answered.
It was 3:00 AM, the witching hour, alone in the apartment we were in the midst of a typical early-teenage boy sleepover, eating junk and watching ‘80s horror movies. And the kettle was screaming.
We cautiously crept into the kitchen, mere metres away from the living room couch, and there it was, steam shooting from the top with the stove ringer glowing red, temperature cranked to its highest level.
“You didn’t turn it on?” I stammered, already knowing the answer as we hadn’t left the couch in over an hour.
“No.” Michael replied with eyes wide.
The kettle kept up its shrill, solitary scream.
A lone man out of the eight screamed in protest as the gallows were prepared. Loose knotted nooses were placed around the men’s necks to ensure maximum pain and a slow death, drawing out the spectacle. The makeshift site was hastily prepared following the Ancaster trials. The examples needed to be made quickly.
The wagon on which the eight men stood was moved away, and their bodies dropped, writhing madly in the otherwise calm summer breeze. Swinging violently through the air.
The shelf was now swinging through the air.
Moments earlier it was early Christmas morning, I was 14, in bed, half-roused from sleep by the light sound of something falling from one of my shelves mounted by four, metal wall brackets.
Now, however, I was staring in disbelief as the five-foot-long particle board shelf swung down and through air, spraying its contents across my room and crashing into the wall opposite my bed.
I sat upright, frozen, dumb-founded, speechless, breathless. It could have been a minute, it could have been 10, it didn’t matter, there was no time, just adrenaline coursing through my veins and my heart pounding in my ears.
My parents ran down from their attic bedroom, and past my room to continue downstairs to the living room. They thought the tree had fallen over.
“In here!” I squeaked.
They stopped and came into my room, turning on the lights to find pop-cans, toys and other trinkets spread over my floor. The shelf board was half leaning on my desk, and three out of four brackets, inexplicably, still mounted in the wall.
Only one metal bracket had fallen.
One of the men, thrashing violently, managed to break the apparatus he was hanging from. He fell to the ground and caused a single, large metal bracket to also fall from the apparatus. The bracket crashed down on him, killing him instantly.
Life left the other men’s bodies soon afterwards, but their punishment was not yet over. The presiding Justice had originally ordered that the men were to be first drawn and quartered while still alive, with their entrails to be shown to their still living eyes. Having instead been hung first, mercifully, the men were now to be posthumously gutted and decapitated. Blood was spilling in Burlington Heights.
“Blood was spilling down!” The two early 20-something girls were telling us.
Our crew of teenage neighbourhood hooligans had been playing “Chase” in the Hamilton Cemetery on York Boulevard. “Chase” was what teenagers called “Hide-and-Seek” because it sounds cooler than “Hide-and-Seek.”
We had been ducking in and around tombs, trees and stones when we encountered these two young women, gingerly wandering a graveyard on the night before Good Friday, 1997. Whether we found them or they found us I can’t say, they seemed harmless enough, but they did want to show us something.
A pig, gutted, and hanging from a tree near a tomb in the end of the cemetery.
Scott, Joel, Michael, David, Nick, Chris, Johnny, Jared, and I all looked to each other for consent to go investigate. As kids raised on X-Files, Unsolved Mysteries, Indiana Jones, and the Goonies, we couldn’t say yes fast enough.
We followed the girls back to the spot where they said it was. There was no pig, but there was a large pool of blood.
Pools of blood had formed where the men were gutted and decapitated. Their heads were impaled on pikes and paraded around before being put on display where they had been hung.
Eventually, their remains were collected and buried in unmarked graves near the spot where the dark ordeal had all taken place, the east side of Burlington Heights, what is now Inchbury Street.
To this day the exact whereabouts of the gallows and graves remain unknown. Perhaps near where the kettle was screaming, or beneath my childhood home, or up near what would become one of Canada’s largest municipal cemeteries.
What’s undeniable was the thrill of the supernatural that always pervaded our Dundurn Park area homes. The tale of the mass hanging of Canada’s Bloody Assizes being one of many that never left us at a loss for scary stories or things that went bump in our nights.
The horrors of Burlington Heights, the potential bodies buried in our backyards, all dark parts of Hamilton’s history that, at this spookier time of year, should be retold with unnerving enjoyment.