In the past six or seven years I’ve written [two] columns on the history of Kentville’s Gallows Hill and how it obtained its name. For the most part, the columns are based on folklore, on stories passed down from family to family, and on a few “facts” that couldn’t be verified.
It’s fairly certain, a “given” you could say, that a gallows was constructed on the hill and a public execution took place. The hanging that gave the hill its name took place early in the 19th century. Every bit of folklore I’ve collected on the hill points to this period of time; folklore also says the man hanged there committed murder, but there are conflicting stories on who was hanged and who was killed.
If folklore can be believed, Gallows Hill was once called Joe Bell Hill, named it is said after a man of that name who either lived in the vicinity or was hanged there. However, the late historian, Ernest Eaton, believes that a man named Powell was hanged on Gallows Hill. In a letter Eaton wrote to me, he quoted a Kentville historian, Burpee Bishop, who found that Powell was the name of the man executed on Gallows Hill.
The year the hanging took place, according to Burpee Bishop, was 1826. It isn’t known how Bishop determined this but another source indicates he has the right year. Robie Lewis Reid, who was born in Steam Mill in 1866, and became a noted lawyer and writer in British Columbia, kept a series of scrapbooks that are now in Dalhousie University. For the most part, the scrapbooks contain clippings of historical interest from local newspapers.
Kings County Museum curator Bria Stokesbury recently obtained photocopies of the clippings pertaining to Kings County. A letter found there indicates Burpee Bishop was right about 1826 being the year the execution took place on Gallows Hill and about Powell being the name of the man executed. Printed in the Western Chronicle on 9 August, 1884, the letter writer (Henry Starr) says he “noticed an article speaking of William Woodworth …. that he was in Kentville 58 years ago when ‘Old Black Powell’ was hanged as we used to call him. I well remember the time myself although but seven years of age at the time.”
In the letter, Henry Starr places the gallows where folklore says it was. “I remember where the gallows stood on the hill – on the Cornwallis side of the river and bridge at Kentville,” he wrote. The Cornwallis River is the boundary between Cornwallis (north of the river) and Horton Townships, so the “Cornwallis side” Starr refers to is across the river where Gallows Hill looms over north Kentville.