Toronto Globe and Mail, 15 March 1927, report of the judgement of the Court of Appeal of Ontario that set aside the death sentence imposed on William McCathern for rape.
The ‘sex criminal’, with the possible exception of ‘the terrorist’, is the most feared and reviled offender of our time, and murders involving sexual violence frequently lead to calls in abolitionist countries for the return of capital punishment. Rarely do such demands interrogate the history of the death penalty or the fate of individuals found guilty of capital sex crimes when such convictions carried the promise of execution and the prospect of executive clemency.
Canada, a country in which the federal government formulates criminal justice policy and managed the death penalty, is an ideal jurisdiction for the exploration of this history, thanks to its remarkably complete collection of capital case files. From Confederation in 1867 to 1976, when Parliament substituted life imprisonment for the penalty of death for murder and treason, the Cabinet reviewed 1,553 cases. By blending quantitative analysis of patterns in the disposition of the 73 capital sex cases in this collection with close readings of the files (in concert with reported cases, commissions into sex offending, Parliamentary debates and popular accounts) I counter the proclivity of sociological and criminological accounts of capital punishment to emphasise socio-economic categories of offenders and victims over the peculiarities of individual cases. By analysing the case of the last man sentenced to death for rape I also challenge studies that highlight the growing authority of sexual psychopathy expertise in the mid-twentieth century at the expense of studying broader shifts in the politics of capital justice.
Carolyn Strange is a specialist in criminal justice history and the history of gender and sexuality. She has published numerous articles and books on these issues in modern North American, British and Australian history. Her most recent books are Discretionary Justice: Pardon and Parole in New York, from the Revolution to the Depression (NYU Press, 2016) and Honour, Violence and Emotions in History, co-edited with Robert Cribb and Christopher Forth (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).