Book Review: A Christmas Murder

If no two murders are alike, all wrongful convictions seem strikingly similar: a shocking crime, an excitable crowd, a round-up of the usual inarticulate suspects.

Author Robert Sharpe, a justice of Ontario’s Court of Appeal, documents such an outrage: the 1884 hanging of two men in Prince Edward County, Ont. for a crime they almost certainly did not commit. Sharpe does not call it judicial murder – after all he’s a judge – but the signs are there.

Peter Lazier, a farm equipment salesman, was shot to death in a county farmhouse on Friday, Dec. 21, 1883 at 10 pm. Two armed robbers scuffled and opened fire with a .32 pistol before fleeing the scene. Lazier’s killing was the first murder in the county in years.

Within hours, two neighbours were named as suspects. A coroner’s inquest convened the next day. Then came the public outrage, the speedy trial, the gallows.

“While the speed and efficiency of the criminal process in the late nineteenth century was in some respects admirable when compared to the sometimes glacial pace of modern criminal trials and appeals, one is left with a lingering feeling that there was something of a rush to judgment that simply did not allow for careful reflection and deliberation,” writes Justice Sharpe.

The suspects were Joseph Thomset, fisherman; and David Lowder, farmer. Both were “rural working people with limited means and little education,” the author notes.

No murder weapon was found. No confession was made. No physical evidence linked Thomset or Lowder to the crime, nor did they look anything like the burglars; trial witnesses testified both were far too short.

They even had alibis. Lowder spent the evening with his family, and Thomset was seen to visit a neighbour far away, appearing calm and well-mannered.

Police claimed the suspects’ boots matched footprints in fresh snow outside the crime scene, a “highly dubious” supposition, writes Justice Sharpe. Evidence showed about half the county wore boots like Lowder’s and Thomset’s, and the footprint “evidence” was contaminated by excitable neighbours who tramped through the snow within hours of the shooting. “Believing that hot pursuit of the killers was imperative, they did not think it necessary to wait for the local constabulary to arrive.”

The fix was in. Murder was rare and would be avenged.

Leading the investigation was Belleville’s police chief, an ambitious town cop with no professional training whatsoever, “a man anxious to build his reputation as a relentless and clever crime-buster.” Managing the trial was a hanging judge so outraged by the crime, “few in the courtroom doubted that the judge had essentially invited them to convict the prisoners.” Covering the trial was the panting Picton Gazette, which reported trial evidence was “breathless,” “a great sensation.”

Justice Sharpe captures the tragedy in a crisp, carefully-researched account of the tightening of a noose.  He writes, “Even the most stalwart supporter of the death penalty must be horrified by the execution of an innocent person.”

Prince Edward County never saw a murder quite like the 1883 shooting. The rest of it – the excitement, the crowds, the round-up of the usual inarticulate suspects – is disturbingly familiar.

By Holly Doan

The Lazier Murder: Prince Edward County 1884 by Robert J. Sharpe; University of Toronto Press; 192 pages; ISBN 9781-44261-5267; $24.95

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