Barney West: the last man executed in the Yukon

Mary Clark-Hendra was expecting a visit from 70 year-old Michael Essanza at her home on May 4, 1932, but he didn’t show up. She hadn’t seen him since April 30, and after his missed appointment, she became worried and contacted the RCMP.

Mary Clark-Hendra was expecting a visit from 70 year-old Michael Essanza at her home on May 4, 1932, but he didn’t show up. She hadn’t seen him since April 30, and after his missed appointment, she became worried and contacted the RCMP.

On May 10, Sergeant Cronkhite investigated and when he entered Essanza’s cabin between Third and Fourth Avenues in Dawson City, he found a grisly scene. Essanza lay dead across his bed, his forehead crushed in by a blow from a blunt object. There were two terrible gashes down the left side of his face, one of which laid the face open from the temple down to the chin.

Essanza was known to keep large sums of money with him because he didn’t trust the banks, so robbery was suspected as the motivation for the brutal slaying. A coroner’s jury was hastily assembled, including prominent citizens Arthur Coldrick, Harry Gleaves, Sam McCormick, Thomas Firth, and John Spence. They determined rather quickly that “the deceased had been willfully murdered by person or persons unknown.”

Sergeants Cronkhite and Purdie worked day and night on the case, but found nothing that would identify the perpetrator. A week after the victim’s body was identified, they got a break. Barney West, who had been arrested the day that Essanza’s body was found, was given 60 days for vagrancy. This wasn’t the first time West had been thrown in jail — he had spent a previous term cooking for the police. But this time, he made a shocking confession.

West said that on April 30, at 11 p.m., he killed Essanza using a bag filled with lead shot and a piece of pipe. He had been planning for months to rob Essanza, who was known to keep a significant sum of money on hand in a money belt. On April 17, West was before magistrate Superintendent A.B. Allard for a preliminary hearing. Sergeant Cronkhite revealed additional information. West first tried to strangle Essanza, and when that failed, he applied the improvised blackjack. He then fell asleep, and remained in the cabin with the corpse until he left in broad daylight five hours later.

West was again in court on June 16, where under advice from his lawyer, A.E. Lamb, he pleaded not guilty and the trial was set for June 21. Mr. Justice C.D. Macaulay presided the fastest murder trial the Yukon had ever seen. It began at 11 a.m. and wrapped up by 5 p.m., including the 20 minutes it took the jury to come back with a guilty verdict. In between, 29 witnesses were paraded before the court, followed by Justice Macaulay’s instructions to the six-man jury.

Upon hearing the verdict, the judge imposed the sentence. West, who had endured the proceedings calmly, showed signs of breaking down. Finally, he interrupted the judge’s comments with instructions of his own. “Make it snappy,” he said to the judge, who then sentenced him to hang on September 27.

The execution went off without a hitch. West seemed to have accepted his fate, and hurried to the scaffold without delay. The executioner placed a hood over his head, and West was launched into eternity, with only a few officials to witness the affair.

Originally from North Carolina, Barney West, arrived in the Yukon with his wife aboard the steamer Whitehorse in early June of 1921. He was a capable chef hailing from New York, but had a drinking problem and was plagued by a shortage of cash. His wife left him before the end of the summer and never returned.

West was apparently popular in the community. He led a bowling team, the Roamers in victory over the opposing Rangers in a three game match in September of 1922. By 1925, he was operating the Central Café, but it appears to have been more than he could handle On October 13, he went missing, first emptying the cash register and buying a bottle of scotch at the government liquor store, before disappearing with his shotgun.

West left some jewelry and a diamond stick pin sealed in an envelope addressed to Elmer Gondreau, who worked for him, and mailed a letter to the postmaster instructing him to look for his body at the bottom of the river. Instead of killing himself, he took to the hills where he bivouacked alone on Thomas Gulch. A week later, he reappeared in Dawson City,

He had erected a simple brush shelter and lived in comfortable solitude with plenty of fresh air and freedom. When he returned to the city, the worries and despondency had been lifted from his shoulders. His name shows up in passenger lists traveling between Dawson City and Mayo in the following years, and he was pall-bearer at the funeral of a friend in Dawson in December of 1931, but no major articles appeared about him in the newspaper.

In the early 1990s, a retired visiting Mountie who started his career in Dawson City in 1932, told me about his first assignment when he arrived in the gold rush town — death watch over the condemned West.

The Mountie, whose name was Jack “Tich” Watson, said they drained a slough using the fire department pumper truck to find the murder weapon at the bottom. Watson watched over the condemned prisoner, who appeared to have accepted his fate. Dr. Nunn, the police surgeon, examined West a few days before his hanging. The kindly physician offered West a cigar, which the convict nursed for two days.

On the day of West’s hanging, as described in his book, Yukon Memories: A Mountie’s Story, “Tich” Watson witnessed the doctor make one more visit:

“’Barney, would you like a drink?’ he asked.

‘Yes I would, Doc. More than anything.’

Doctor Nunn produced a very large glass and a full bottle of Johnnie Walker. Barney held it to the light with reverence, almost filled the tumbler with scotch and held it out as a toast.

‘Johnnie Walker, you son-of-a-bitch. You got me into this. Now see me through to the end.’”

With that, he downed the amber liquid without wincing, like the professional drinker he was, then he stepped from the cell and marched to his fate.

His last words before the executioner released the trap door? “Make it snappy!”

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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