The Hanging of Dr. William King

A story from a scrapbook of Mrs. Fred Ford (1878-1975) entitled “When Boy of Seven Saw Crowds Here For Hanging” written by Mrs. Ford’s uncle W.R. Riddell. William Renwick Riddell (1852-1945) was a Canadian lawyer, judge and historian. Born in Hamilton Township, he was appointed as a judge to the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1906. Mr. Riddell was at one time President of the Crossen Car Manufacturing Co. of Cobourg, Ont. and was married to Anna Crossen, daughter of the company founder. Excerpts from the seven year old’s story are as follows:

“A reminiscence which often recurs to my mind – that of a man of over ninety years of age – is that of a farmer lad of some seven years of age, on a summer morning in 1859 standing on his father’s doorstep on Lot No. 27 of the first Concession of the Township of Hamilton, a quarter of a mile north from “the Cobourg and Port Hope Gravel Road”. (Now Elgin St. East) He was looking to the east, where about a mile away, he saw men and women climbing up on the trees which overlooked the Gaol Yard of the United Counties of Northumberland and Durham. Looking down “Riddell’s Lane” which led to the Gravel Road, he saw a “double wagon” approaching his father’s house – this he found out later, had left the Township of Clarke, thirty miles west, at four o’clock. All the occupants of this wagon and all men and women, yes, women, that he had seen climbing the gaol yard trees were anxious to see a murderer hanged – the first and only criminal there executed”.

“That day in 1859 seems to me to be as of yesterday, though more than 84 years have passed. Dr. King was to be hanged in Cobourg Gaol Yard, in the village we called “The Court House”, though a few years earlier it retained its original name of Amherst. (Now the location of The Golden Plough Lodge). Dr. Wm. King was a physician of considerable repute and had practiced in the village of Brighton for some years: he had married a daughter of a farmer of high standing named Symington. (Correction- Lawson). Dr. King and his wife had unpleasant disagreements, she fell sick and died after a short and painful illness. King, almost at once, went to California. Her family were not satisfied with the alleged details of her illness – a post-mortem disclosed that she had died of arsenic poisoning. Her brother, whom I remember well as Bob Symington (Correction-Clinton Lawson), went to California, had the doctor arrested and sent back to Canada to meet a charge of murder. On March 31st, 1859, the Grand Jury found a True Bill for murder against Dr. King on a charge preferred against him by Thomas Galt, the Crown Officer – the accused, of course, had no counsel in those days. There were 21 witnesses called for the Crown and 5 for the defense”. Dr. King was convicted.

The missing details that may have been updated by the Hon. W.R. Riddell many years later.

June 9, 1859, stores and even schools were closed so thousands of men, women and children from all over Northumberland and Durham Counties, Toronto and Montreal could attend the public execution of Doctor William Henry King. The execution would take place at a newly constructed gallows on the hill behind the Court House.

A farmer’s son from Cramahe Township, William King married Sarah Ann Lawson his land-owner’s daughter on New Year’s Day in 1854. The newlyweds received a dowry of ten-thousand dollars (a large sum of money at that time) from Sarah’s father the highly respected John Lawson. Dr. King, favoring the highlife and the money soon running out, the King’s moved to Hamilton, Ontario. After only a few months the marriage was in trouble, and Sarah left William in Hamilton and returned to her parent’s home in Brighton. It seems that she was pregnant and soon after gave birth to a son, George Henry King.  Their only child died a few months later. Eventually reconciling with Sarah in Brighton, William by now was a teacher, a qualified doctor and well respected in the town.

After a failed tryst with a young lady by the name of Dorcas Garrett, the womanizer William soon after met a beautiful, twenty year old woman named Melinda Vandervoort. The two secretly carried on an affair for some time. (The many love letters they shared would eventually help to seal Dr. King’s fate). Shortly after the affair started, Mrs. King became very ill. William would claim “he was treating her for a fall from her carriage”. Soon after, Mrs. King slipped into a coma, died and was hastily buried on her father’s farm. Suspicious, Mrs. King’s parents demanded an inquest into her untimely death. At the time the body was exhumed, it was discovered Sarah had been pregnant and that her stomach contained enough arsenic to kill her. King, while the autopsy was being performed, secreted Melinda across the U.S. border to an aunts’ home. At this time, Dr. King was about to be charged for the arsenic poisoning death of his wife Sarah.

After much legal wrangling by lawyers, a second exhumation was ordered by the court. This time the liver and the kidneys were examined by several prominent doctors. The doctors wanted to know if arsenic could possibly have been absorbed naturally…for example through wallpaper, which at this time period emitted very high levels of the poison. The latest tests showed small traces of arsenic, but much less than would have killed Sarah. During this autopsy, King again fled on horseback to be with Melinda. Mrs. King’s brother, Clinton Lawson soon tracked down Dr. King near near Cape Vincent, New York and after a short chase, brought him back to a jail in Cobourg to await trial.

In his prison cell, the doctor claimed that “he had never drank a glass of liquor in his life and never went to a house of ill-fame and only went to a theater once in his life”. It was also said that he confided that “now there was a temptation I could not resist, no one was around and she would not survive anyway”. Found guilty of arsenic poisoning, he was sentenced to hang.

At the time of the hanging, he finally confessed to his wife’s murder revealing that he had not used arsenic…but chloroform to kill her! Doctor William King was denied a burial in a public cemetery and was laid to rest on his family’s farm by now located in the village of Codrington, Ontario. The once beautiful MeLinda returned to Brighton where was shunned by the townspeople. She took refuge “in the bottle” and died penniless many years later in an asylum in Toronto, a lonely, forgotten old woman.

Regards, Ranger.


  1. He’s my ancestor …


    1. Jaclyn, thanks for your comment, William was an interesting character indeed.


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