Sunday, April 26, 2009

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 township history.

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 

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.


West Nissouri Township, 1818-2000: our history.  The West Nissouri Historical Society, 2003, pp. 341-359.

Wikipedia, Phoebe Campbell,, accessed 26 April 2009.


This post has been written for the 4th Edition of the Canadian Genealogy Carnival.