1803 - 1830 (27 years)
||Cornelius Alverson Burley |
||Knowlton, Warren, New Jersey, United States 
|Eby ID Number
||19 Aug 1830
||London, Middlesex, Ontario, Canada 
|Cause: Executed by hanging |
||London Jail Yard Cemetery, London, Middlesex, Ontario, Canada 
||12 Jun 2019 |
||William Burley, b. Abt 1800, Of, New York State , d. Yes, date unknown |
||Abigail Ribbel, b. Abt 1800, Of, New York State , d. Yes, date unknown |
||Group Sheet | Family Chart
- The first execution in London occurred with the hanging of Cornelius Alverson Burley for the shooting death, in Bayham Township, of Constable Timothy Conklin Pomeroy
Beyond the gallows, spectators pressed closer, jockeying to see what would be London's first hanging. By foot, on horseback and in wagons they came, a crowd of 3,000 dwarfing a city that in 1830 had 300 residents.
With all eyes on the doomed man, a trap door opened, Burley dropped down, the rope snapped taut -- and broke. Falling six metres, Burley struck the ground, stunned but alive.
The sheriff left to buy another rope that would soon end Burley's life. The condemned man waited. His final thoughts are a mystery, but this is certain Burley couldn't have known his future as a morbid attraction had just begun.
The first indignity was common to all those executed in the era. After his body stopped twitching, Burley was cut down, taken to an examining table and dissected by doctors and medical students who otherwise had little access to corpses. While the bones of his torso quietly disappeared, his skull served as a lurid draw for much of the next 170 years.
His skull first gained notoriety in the hands of a showman who made a fortune divining people's character by feeling bumps and depressions on their heads. American phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler, according to local folklore, visited Burley on the eve of the execution, felt the young man's head -- and, after the second hanging, took the skull.
A moving tale, no doubt, that Fowler put to good use in his shows. But it was false just the same -- Fowler learned of phrenology two years after Burley's execution and did not begin to tour until after 1834, according to the records of the school he attended at the time, Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Dramatics aside, Fowler did get his hands on Burley's skull after 1834, perhaps from John Harris, who as treasurer of the region would have worked in the courthouse, a likely depository for the skull.
By the 1880s, nearing the end of his life, Fowler apparently returned the skull to London, giving it to the Harris family, the occupants of Eldon House. There it was found in in a box in the attic in 1960, when the family donated the home to the city. Eldon House soon opened its doors as a museum and the skull had a second run as a morbid attraction.
For 40 years, the skull sat in a glass-covered box in a hallway lined with the horns and heads of wild beasts. Its image was reproduced on postcards.
But last spring, the skull was quietly placed back in the attic, away from visitors. The move was made, museum officials acknowledge, to appease the great-great niece of Burley, a Michigan woman who has launched a campaign to end the spectacle that began 170 years ago at the forks of the Thames.
The London Press, by Jonathan Sher. undated
Alverson Burley b. 1803 Sussex Co. NJ and hung Aug. 19, 1830, was s/o William Burley & Abigail Ribble. He was accused of shooting Pomeroy, along with his uncle, Henry Ribble, and cousins Anthony & David Ribble. The Ribbles had a lawyer and were established farmers, Burley was from out of the county (Elgin) living in Wentworth County with his family and had no lawyer. After several hours of brainwashing by "Rev."Jackson, Burley confessed to save his relatives. His crime was taking an oxen from a neighbour who had refused to pay him for his previous winter's work. The evidence on which he was hung was finding his cap at the scene of the crime.
Historians since then conclude it was his cousin Anthony Ribble who shot Pomeroy as he had been heard threatening to "spill his blood", if he didn't stop snooping around his house. Anthony was a crack shot and his rifle was missing after the shooting.
This summer, the descendants of William & Abigail finally persuaded Eldon House to return the skull to the family for decent burial. It had been displayed with wild animals in their museum.
Although executions in Upper Canada were infrequent, those that did occur provided an extraordinary entertainment for pioneer society. From the standpoint of the law, moreover, the spectacle of the gallows produced a salutary impression on the public and, especially important, on the potential criminal. Yet the lesson could be reinforced. Upper Canada being an essentially religious society, it was felt to be necessary that the offender atone for his misdeeds, explain his immoral behaviour, and acknowledge his faith in Jesus Christ. Thus the gallows address usually took the form of a confession whereby all concerned could be assured that justice had been done. One of the best examples is the trial and execution of Cornelius Albertson Burley.
Burley's family settled in Beverley Township in 1827; Burley himself claimed to have been a blacksmith. His story begins in the late summer of 1829, when he killed a yoke of steers belonging to a Mr Lamb, presumably Henry Lamb*, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Burley claimed that Lamb had defrauded him and, unable to get legal redress, he had exacted his own form of vengeance. He was arrested by a Gore District constable, Timothy Conklin Pomeroy, but escaped and fled to the farm of his uncle Henry Ribble ( Ribbel) in Bayham Township. Accompanied by his wife, he arrived there late in August. He worked on the farm until Pomeroy arrived on the scene on 13 September. About 3 o'clock on the morning of 16 September Pomeroy was shot, and he died shortly thereafter.
Murder was not uncommon but the killing of a constable in execution of his duty was sensational and unsettling news. The Gore Emporium claimed that "a more foul, coldblooded murder scarcely ever disgraced the annals of civilization." Residents of both the Gore and the London districts petitioned Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne*, complaining of the magistrates' "gross neglect of duty" in failing to apprehend the constable's murderer( s) . After consulting with judge James Buchanan Macaulay*, who stressed the necessity of "the most prompt and diligent exertions" in order to satisfy the concern for "Public Justice," Colborne on 23 September mildly chided Mahlon Burwell*, a local magistrate, and the sheriff for not making an immediate report. In fact, Burwell was not to blame; the problem was dated information, the natural result of slow communication.
On 19 September a man fitting Burley's description but claiming to be William Ribble had been captured by settlers in Dunwich Township; he was taken to St Thomas. The same day Burwell and two other magistrates examined the prisoner, who then identified himself as Burley. He recounted his flight from justice in Gore, claiming his innocence. He also gave his version of events leading up to Pomeroy's death, saying that when the constable and another man had appeared at Henry Ribble's farm on 14 September he had hidden in a field and then in the barn. Believing Pomeroy had spotted him, he fled the following night, taking with him his wife and a rifle that he obtained from the home of his cousin, Anthony Ribble. Burley stated that he knew nothing of the murder and did not hear a gunshot on the night in question. He had travelled about 50 miles before being arrested.
On 20 September the jps arrived from Bayham with three witnesses in tow: Isaac D. White, Henry Ribble, and his son David. The information of the Ribbles cohered neatly. When Pomeroy's party appeared, Henry Ribble urged Burley to give himself up but he refused, saying that "if they got him they should take him dead." On the morning of Pomeroy's killing, Henry had been wakened by a shot. He claimed that about a half-hour after sunrise, Burley appeared with a rifle and claimed to have shot Pomeroy in the leg. White, a member of Pomeroy's group, followed the same sequence of events sketched by the Ribbles, but put them in a different context. The Ribbles had been uncooperative. Anthony Ribble told Pomeroy to leave his house quickly, "or he would have his blood spilt and that Damned quick." While searching Henry Ribble's house about 45 minutes before his death, Pomeroy had unsheathed his sword to guard himself. He was shot returning from Henry Ribble's and in close proximity to Anthony Ribble's, where White saw a light burning. White did not know who shot Pomeroy. On 21 September the jps committed Burley to jail charged on the oaths of the three witnesses. He was "put in Irons" and sent to London to await trial. The following month an indictment was issued against Anthony Ribble as well and he, too, was held over for trial. In the spring of 1830 a number of prisoners - Ribble among them - escaped. Burley remained behind; he may have been chained to the floor. Ribble was soon recaptured.
The assizes opened on 12 Aug. 1830 with Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson* presiding. His associates from the local magistracy were Burwell and James Mitchell. The grand jury found a true bill against Burley on 16 August and his trial, separate from that of Ribble's, commenced the following day. Only three witnesses were called for the crown by Solicitor General Christopher Alexander Hagerman*. Burley was found guilty and Robinson sentenced him to be executed on the morning of the 19th. In his subsequent report Robinson noted that the "evidence was such as to place the guilt of the convict beyond doubt. . . . He fully confessed his guilt." The confession, however, had come after sentencing and not during the trial. The Reverend James Jackson* noted that it was made "about forty-one hours before his execution." Presumably, then, it had some impact upon Anthony Ribble's trial on the 18th; he was acquitted. Burley's was the only capital conviction on the Western Circuit in which Robinson did not order a respite of execution, probably because of the confession.
Burley had been the object of the attention of local clergy during the assizes. Jackson saw him "every day but one" and claimed, "Never have I witnessed so great an instance of obduracy and insensibility." Eventually, however, the clergy's discussions with the prisoner "wrought a victory over his unfeeling heart; he burst into a flood of tears" and confessed. Prior to going to the scaffold he received the sacrament of baptism and the Eucharist from the local Anglican clergymen. Jackson copied down the confession and read it from the scaffold before a crowd of some 3,000. Another minister addressed the throng and concluded with a prayer, whereupon the trapdoor dropped. But, as often happened, the execution was botched. The rope broke and Burley fell to the ground. It was some time before another attempt could be made because the sheriff had to buy a new rope. Throughout Jackson claimed that Burley was composed and "seemed as if the world was lost from his view, and his whole mind was devotion, prayer, praise, singing, and thanksgiving." When all was again ready he walked to the scaffold "without any appearance of hesitation; but with the utmost composure, submitted to his fate."
Some historians have questioned how much Jackson's efforts influenced the act of confession and several have concluded that Burley was probably innocent and Anthony Ribble guilty of Pomeroy's murder. On the first matter, there was nothing unusual about clergy and magistrates urging a convict to confess for the good of his soul and for the benefit of society. With regard to the confession itself, Jackson says, simply, that he copied down Burley's statement; however, he no doubt added a literate quality that otherwise would have been absent. Whether Burley was guilty must remain, in the absence of further evidence, a moot point. It seems that the evidence was stacked against him. The source of the accusation was Henry Ribble who, Burwell noted, "candidly believes that Cornelius Burley was the man who shot Pomeroy." But as White declared, it was the Ribbles who had threatened Pomeroy. Moreover, the Gore Emporium's report of the magistrates' investigation stated that the Ribbles' evidence "betrayed strong symptoms of guilt." In the end Burley's confession probably saved Anthony Ribble. "I am constrained to say," the confession read, "that he had no hand in the crime whatever, Neither had any other person."
Burley's confession was published in Bartemas Ferguson's Gore Balance; Ferguson also printed 1,000 copies as handbills. As an example of its type, the confession is a model. Burley hoped it would "have a tendency to check the progress of evil, and prevent others from doing as I have done." He had been "wicked and thoughtless from my youth." He was raised without the benefits of education or religion and was unable to read or write. He wandered through the world "under the influence of depravity. . . . I was often found in the merry dance, & lost no opportunity of inducing thoughtless & unguarded females to leave the paths of innocence and virtue." He took upon himself all guilt for the act, noting, "I only suffer the penalty that is justly due to my crimes." He thanked the ministers who saved him and claimed, "In my great extremity I have gained a confidence that through the merits of Christ alone I will be saved, although the chief of sinners. . . . I now leave this world with the fullest confidence that my sins are washed away in the Blood of the Lamb."
But it was not quite the end. As the sentence stipulated, Burley's body was given to surgeons for dissection. According to one account, Orson Squire Fowler, later a noted American phrenologist, had visited Burley in his cell and reported on his phrenological character. After the dissection on 19 August, Fowler received the head and the following day used it for a public lecture. Before leaving London he sawed it in two and took the top part with him. He subsequently used it on his extensive American and European tours. The bottom portion was discovered in London in 1960 and is now on display in Eldon House, a local museum3a
3a Source Unknown