Deadly Swindle: An 1890 Murder in Backwoods Ontario That Gripped the World

Our first Optional Extra title for 2024 is Ian Radforth, Deadly Swindle: An 1890 Murder in Backwoods Ontario That Gripped the World, published by the University of Toronto Press. Deadly Swindle  is a fascinating journey into life and law in late nineteenth-century Canada.  Its jumping off point is the murder of Frederick Cornwallis Benwell, whose body was discovered in the woods a dozen miles west of Woodstock, Ontario, in February 1890. From there the author takes us back to the history of how Benwell, John Reginald Birchall, and Douglas Raymond Pelly, well-connected young Englishmen from wealthy families, emigrated to Canada in search of fortune. Benwell and Pelly were lured overseas by Birchall, who dangled the prospect of investing in a horse farm. The horse farm did not exist, Birchall was a swindler, and the resulting disputes ended with him killing Benwell. Birchall was convicted and executed, with Pelly the chief witness for the prosecution. The book provides a detailed, vivid and learned analysis of the operation of the criminal justice system in this period. There is also a parallel theme, that of how one localised story was taken up by the press and made into a provincial, then national, then international story. In part the widespread interest in the case was the result of Birchall’s fascinating personality – attractive, charming, charismatic and self-confident. He had many admirers despite the fact that he was also a cold-blooded murderer. Deadly Swindle  is a wonderful illustration of ‘legal archeology,’ using a close study of a particular case to show not just the operation of the criminal justice system but also how the intricacies of many other aspects of law, society and politics affected how the law operated.