GALLOWS HILL – REMEMBERED ONLY IN FOLKLORE (July 18/06)

“Kentville is not the only place to possess this grisly memorial of a more brutal past,” Ernest Eaton wrote in a letter to me in 1982.

Eaton was referring to Gallows Hill, a prominent rise on the town’s northern edge where folklore has it a public execution took place. The historian added that other places in the Maritimes have their gallows hill as well. What he left unsaid was that while these grisly memorials exist, few if any are historically acknowledged and remain preserved only as folklore.

Kentville’s Gallows Hill is a prime example. Most area residents know where the hill is located and are familiar with the folklore about it. However, as if it was a blot on the town, historians have never acknowledged the hill’s connection with a hanging; you may find some brief reference to the hill, a line here and there perhaps, and that’s it. Otherwise, the history of Gallows Hill exist only in the stories passed on from one generation to the other.

Some [8] years ago I wrote about Gallows Hill in this column. The column consisted of odd bits and pieces of information I had collected and contained no hard – that is, provable – facts. What I had collected was confusing and contradictory. I have two names for the man hanged on Gallows Hill, for example, and no way to determine which one is correct.

What I do know for sure – the “for sure” based on oral history – is that in the 19th century a murder took place in or near Kentville and the victim may have been a county constable. The killer was caught, tried, found guilty and executed, fingered according to folklore by a son who revealed where the victim’s body had been hidden.

An oral account of this affair exists in a Kentville family. This account was passed on by an eyewitness to the hanging, who was a young boy at the time. The boy was Rufus, the ancestor of the man who told me this tale.

As the story goes, Rufus was brought to Kentville by his father who came to witness the hanging. Rufus was supposed to remain in the wagon with his siblings while his father went to the site of the gallows. Instead, Rufus followed his father and watched the execution from a hiding place in nearby grass.

Rufus is the great grandfather of the person who told me this story. Later, Rufus told his son about witnessing the hanging; he in turn told the story to his children and it became part of the family’s history. It may be the only existing account of how Gallows Hill got its name.

Based on the family story, the gallows was located at the top of the hill, along Blair Street, which connects with Exhibition Street and runs a short distance south across the hill. Also based on the family story, it’s possible to determine roughly when the execution took place. According to the relative who told me this story, Rufus was born in 1840 and no later than 1845. If accurate – other birth dates confirm that it’s fairly accurate – then the hanging likely took place after 1840 and no later than 1850.

According to the story passed on by Rufus, the man hanged on the hill – last name Bell – killed a friend in an argument and tried to hide the body. Rufus remembered seeing a man on horseback and in a military uniform at the gallows. Riding back and forth with sabre in hand, this man asked Bell if he had any last words before springing the gallows.

 

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