60 years after Canada’s last hangings, families find hidden past
Below a cinderblock wall near a maintenance shed in an unkempt corner of an otherwise immaculate Toronto cemetery are the unmarked graves of two notorious criminals: a hitman and a cop killer.
A groundskeeper on break sits on a broken lawn chair nearby, scrolling on his device. Asked if he knows the significance of the place of the two deceased men in Canadian criminal history, he shrugs, indifferent to the question, the device holding his attention.
The graves belong to Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin.
From Confederation in 1867 until Parliament abolished the death penalty in 1976, 710 convicted murderers were executed by the state, including 13 women. Hanging was the chosen method. The last execution in Canada was the double hanging of Lucas and Turpin on Dec. 11, 1962, at Toronto’s Don Jail.
Capital punishment was a hot-button topic in generations past. Today there remains scanned memory of the issue. The Star tracked down two individuals with personal ties to Canada’s last execution. For one, it’s a search for a father she never knew; for the other, a coming to grips with a beginning discovery.
Karen Davis has a passion for genealogy. An older sister sparked her interest in the subject five years ago. Since then, she compiled a detailed family tree. People on her late father’s side were Welsh, and Karen is particularly interested in this branch. A valuable source of information would be her mother, Dorothy, but she died in 2020 at 93. Her mother seldom discussed her late first husband, Frederick Nash.
Simple details like how her parents met remain unknown to Karen. She suspects it was at a dance at Palais Royale in Toronto but adds, “If I asked her anything, she’d just say, ‘It doesn’t matter now. Hey’s gone.’ ”
There has been a void in Karen’s existence for 60 years as she searches for links to her late father, a man she never knew: Frederick Nash was the Toronto police officer cut down in the line of duty by petty criminal Ronald Turpin when Karen was two months old.
After her mother’s death two years ago, Karen announced to family members organizing their mother’s estate, “Any pictures, diaries, address books, anything, please let me have them. Don’t throw them out.”
Her father’s murder happened on a frigid February night in 1962. Const. Nash, an 11-year veteran, left his north Etobicoke home for the last time to start an overnight shift patrolling east-end Toronto alone in a scout car. Meanwhile, at around the same time across town, Ronald Turpin, 29, was slinking out of a Kingston Road motel, desperate to avoid interaction with the manager demanding payment for his room.
Robert J. Hoshowsky’s comprehensive 2007 book, “The Last to Die,” describes what happened next.
Nash and Turpin’s deadly encounter occurred on Danforth Avenue near Dawes Road, just after 2 am The streets were deserted. Turpin, driving westbound in a jalopy with a busted headlight, had just burglarized a local eatery, the loot — about $600 — stuffed in a paper bag under the driver’s seat, along with a loaded, semiautomatic pistol.
Pulling up beside Turpin, Const. Nash signaled him to the curb. Turpin complied. The constable approached the driver’s side door. It was snowing. Turpin rolled down the window. Nash shined his flashlight into the vehicle and requested identification. Turpin had an outstanding warrant for his arrest and produced a forged driver’s license. Nash, recognizing Turpin from a police bulletin, instructed the fugitive to exit the vehicle.
As Nash escorted Turpin back to his police car, a struggle broke out. Weapons were drawn, and shots exchanged. Turpin took bullets in both arms and one to the face but survived. Nash was less fortunate. Wounded in the chest and left thigh, he collapsed to the slick pavement and struggled to get back on his feet. A streetcar operator and a cab driver came to the wounded officer’s aid.
At the same time Turpin attempted to flee, first in his dilapidated panel truck and then Nash’s patrol car. Injuries prevented escape, and Turpin was arrested at the scene when backup arrived.
The wounded constable clung to life. Taken to Toronto East General Hospital, he pleaded with fellow officers, “My girls, take care of my girls.”
The 31-year-old father of four daughters succumbed on the operating table before his wife Dorothy was whisked to his bedside. She never got to say goodbye.
Justice was swift. Within months Ronald Turpin was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang for capital murder.
On Dec 11, 1962, the country was divided on the issue of capital punishment. Supporters and protesters faced off outside the Don Jail the night of the double execution. Turpin went to the gallows along with Arthur Lucas. Lucas, 54, was a hired killer from Detroit who had been convicted in the brutal murder of Therland Crater in a Kendal Avenue rooming house. He and Turpin were hanged, backs to each other, in the Toronto jail, the last to die by the noose.
After the death of Karen Nash’s father, life in the household changed irrevocably. Karen has no memory of this period. Soon her mother remarried another police officer, John Kryskow, who adopted Karen and her three sisters. Dorothy and John would add two more to the brood.
Karen said her adopted father “was a fantastic man. He would give you the shirt off his back.” Still, she believes her mom was in shock years after the tragedy. “It all happened so quickly. I don’t think (she) had time to think.”
Over the years, Karen has done a lot of thinking.
“Sometimes the imagination runs away with the what-ifs.” She wishes the family had maintained closer ties to her grandparents on her father’s side — Grandmother Nash clipped every newspaper article relating to her son’s slaying — but ended up seeing them only on special occasions over the years.
Karen grew up despising the man who took her father’s life and would tell friends, “He’s lucky he hung because I’d have killed him.” Today, she wonders about Turpin’s bringing up and the negative influence of those who raised him.
Life goes on, but the loss remains. Her genealogical quest continues. At the top of her wish list is an elusive discovery that has thus far eluded her. “I really wish I could find (a photograph) of him holding me. I haven’t yet.”
When her time comes, Karen hopes to be interred with her father at Sanctuary Park Cemetery, “He’s been lying there alone all these years, and I just want to be with him.”
Until recently, Denise Turpin, who lives in eastern Ontario, would have assumed the only thing she shared with Ronald Turpin was a surname. She knew nothing about him, his criminal life and his eventual punishment. A search on an online genealogical site resulted in the shocking discovery that they may share more than just a family name.
In “The Last to Die,” Robert J. Hoshowsky explores the cop killer’s childhood. Ronald Turpin’s mother went by various names, including Ethel Kinch. She was married at 16 to Alvin Neumann in 1931, and nine months later, a son, Harold, arrived. Alvin and Ethel’s relationship was tumultuous from the beginning, resulting from alcohol abuse and claims of infidelity. In under two years, Ethel was pregnant again, delivering Donald Arthur Neumann in October 1933.
The marriage spiraled when Alvin questioned his paternity of Donald. Divorced in September of 1935, Ethel tied the knot a second time three months later, to 21-year-old Emile Turpin, the alleged father of Donald. This marriage was violent. According to Hoshowsky’s book, in one incident during the dinner hour, Ethel reached across the table and plunged a fork into her husband’s arm. Emile retaliated with a knife, severely cutting her face, almost causing permanent blindness.
Emile and Ethel separated and soon divorced. The boys remained with their mother, wholly unfit to care for them. As he grew up, Donald Neumann began answering to the name Ronald Turpin. Ethel’s negligence led to her sons being shipped off to extended family, where Ronald was sexually abused. Next, they entered foster care and then reformatories, and they were eventually in and out of jail.
The night Ronald Turpin murdered Const. Nash, his half-brother Harold was serving time in penitentiary.
Neither Denise Turpin nor her siblings had knowledge that their father Emile, who died in 1987, had been wed and likely fathered a son years before marrying their mother in 1946. There is suspicion even she remained in the dark about her husband’s previous marriage. Denise said, “I was (initially) surprised my dad had someone in his life before my mom. Then you go back and say he was like, 35 when he married my mother, so of course he would have had a life before.”
Comparing a photograph of Ronald Turpin to her father, Denise sees a strong resemblance. Still, the violent man described in Hoshowsky’s book bears no resemblance to the father she and her siblings knew. Denise remembers her father for his passiveness. He seldom consumed alcohol, adding, “Mom’s word was the rule.”
What were her feelings when she realized she likely had a half-sibling who committed such a violent crime? “That to me is just bad. I was having a hard time with it. Taking a life is wrong, in any sense.”
Not everyone in Denise’s family is as accepting of the connection as she is. “Some of my siblings want me to leave this alone,” Denise said. After much discussion, her eldest sibling now sides with Denise. “Me and my older sister are just assuming he’s our half-sibling. Whether he is our brother or not, it doesn’t change anything, but you have to look at things a little differently.”
Although Denise has no doubts she is related to the cop killer, she wishes there was a way to confirm or refute a familial link to Ronald Turpin. Records indicate he has no surviving family, although Hoshowsky, in “The Last to Die,” writes that the killer fathered at least two children. Denise wonders if they are alive today and said, “I wish we could do a DNA test to find out once and for all if he was a sibling.”
The unsettling discovery piqued Denise’s interest in genealogy. She wants to delve into her father’s family history. Denise said, “None of this is pretty. For me, I want to know the truth.”
Although bound by historical events six decades ago that shaped criminal law in this country and caused tremendous strife, Karen Davis and Denise Turpin have never spoken. Really, what would they have to say to each other? It will be up to each to continue their research into their respective family’s past in searching for answers.
When informed that her father’s killer may have half-siblings with no previous knowledge of his heinous act, Karen Davis was gracious, “They didn’t even know he existed.”
The last word goes to Ronald Turpin. On the final night of his life, the winds of change were blowing across the country as many citizens and politicians openly discussed abolishing capital punishment. After the evening’s double execution, a moratorium on future death sentences would be enacted until Parliament passed Bill C-48 14 years later and abolished the practice.
A telegram from the Department of Justice arrived at the death cell. In the hours before going to the gallows, the condemned held out faint hope for a last-minute reprieve. When that didn’t come, a lawyer present consoled them with the knowledge they’d likely be the last men to hang in Canada.
“Some consolation!” Turpin crowed.
Edward Brown is a Toronto-based writer. Visit his website at edbrownwriter.com
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