Matthew Begbie: British Columbia’s “Hanging Judge”
Matthew Begbie was born to a British military family stationed on the island of Mauritius in 1819. He returned to Britain with his family where he was educated, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cambridge University.
He then practiced law in London. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography notes, “In August 1858 Sir Hugh McCalmont Cairns, the solicitor general. . . who knew Begbie’s character and favourable standing at the bar, put forward his name for the position of judge of the new colony of British Columbia.”
Promotion to the Colonial Bench
At the age of 39, and unmarried, Begbie arrived in Victoria in November 1858. It was a rough and tumble place with the Fraser River Gold Rush drawing thousands of prospectors and hangers-on of dubious character.
Judge Begbie went to work to establish some law and order. It was a tough job. He enjoyed none of the trappings judges have today; sometimes a tree stump in a clearing had to serve as his bench and courthouse. Despite the lowly facilities, the judge cut an imposing figure standing six feet five inches tall with a bushy mane of white hair, a black moustache, and greying beard. He always wore his black judicial robes to add gravitas to the proceedings.
Writing in the North Shore News, Rev. Ed Hird records that, “Begbie showed unusual strength and stamina in his work, often travelling by foot and sleeping in a tent so damp that his books mildewed.”
For 12 years, he was the only judge in the colony.
Harsh Frontier Justice
If Judge Begbie was a tough man so was the justice system of the day.
David Ricardo Williams points out that, “Undoubtedly he was stern, but the criminal law of the time was also stern and Begbie could do little to soften its rigours.” At the time, a conviction for murder carried the automatic death penalty; judges had no discretion in the matter.
And, biographer Sydney G. Pettit describes him as, “Fearless and incorruptible, he made his name a terror to evil-doers who, rather than face his stern and impartial justice in the Queen’s court, abstained from violence or fled the country, never to return.”
Judge Begbie’s Unfortunate Title
It was sometime after his death that someone stuck the title “Hanging Judge” on Begbie. But, most sources claim this is unfair to the man who is described as fair-minded and compassionate, noting he did plead successfully with the government for the life to be spared of some of those convicted of capital crimes.
However, some of his quotations belie the description of a caring person.
He told one ill-fated wretch standing in the prisoner’s box and seeking to appeal his death sentence that such was his right, however, “It will take six months or more for the colonial secretary to deal with the matter and months more before we learn of his decision. But you will not be interested in what he decides, for you are to be hanged Monday morning.”
Another convicted murderer complained he had not received a fair trial to which Judge Begbie responded “I shall send up your case for a new trial - by your Maker.”
He could be sharp-tongued with juries too. One such group that didn’t suit him he called a “pack of Dallas horse thieves,” and added “permit me to say, it would give me the great pleasure to see you hanged, each and every one of you, for declaring a murderer guilty only of manslaughter.”
So, there is some justification for the The Barkerville Gazette once referring to his honour as the “Haranguing Judge.” It may be a corruption of this title that led to his being known as the “Hanging Judge.”
Fairness on the Bench
At a time when it was not popular, Judge Begbie defended the rights of native people and Chinese migrants. Both groups suffered discrimination and nobody had ever stood up for them before.
The city of Victoria passed an ordinance banning Chinese laundries as an affront to the senses. Judge Begbie gave the city officials a talking to about the offensive smells coming from livery stables, the likelihood of fires starting in blacksmith forges, and “the greasy and bleeding carcasses lumbering the sidewalks and infecting the air with the odour of meat-curing” around butcher’s shops. He struck down the ordinance.
He also worked to protect the land and fishing rights of Aboriginal peoples.
Honours for the Judge
Rev. Hird writes that “Begbie was known as ‘the salvation of the Cariboo and the terror of rowdies.’ ” And adds that in the late 1870s he became British Columbia’s most notable citizen. By now, he had received a knighthood from Queen Victoria.
When he died in 1894 a massive funeral procession with soldiers and marching bands was put on in his honour, but all he wanted engraved on his tombstone was “Lord be Merciful to Me a Sinner.”
The most prominent mountain visible from Revelstoke, British Columbia was named Mount Begbie (below) in honour of the redoubtable justice. There are a couple of other Mount Begbies in the province but they are little more than hills. His name also graces two lakes, a creek, and an elementary school in Vancouver.
There’s a story that a group of ruffians was planning to murder Judge Begbie. They had the misfortune or stupidity to discuss their plot in the street, right outside the judge’s hotel room. Overhearing the men, Begbie went out onto his balcony and emptied the contents of his chamber pot on them.
- “Begbie, Sir Matthew Baillie.” David Ricardo Williams, The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, undated.
- “B.C. ‘Hanging Judge’ Begbie.” Rev. Ed Hird, North Shore News, undated.
- “Penguin Dictionary of Popular Canadian Quotations.” John Robert Columbo, Editor, Penguin Canada, April 2006.
- “Dear Sir Matthew: A Glimpse of Judge Begbie.” Sydney G. Pettit, The British Columbia Historical Quarterly, January 1947.
- “The Haranguing Judge - The Tale of Matthew Baillie Begbie.” Norman K Archer, Senior Living Magazine, undated.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor