The Hangman Is Never Late


229 pages
ISBN 1-894294-02-5
DDC 364.1'09718




Christopher English is a professor of history at Memorial University of
Newfoundland and the author of A Cautious Beginning: The Emergence of
Newfoundland’s Supreme Court of Judicature in 1791–92.


Over the years, Jack Fitzgerald has correctly gauged the public’s
appetite for “true crime” stories, and here he presents another 68.
These often brief and factual accounts are supplemented by some short
definitional and antiquarian entries on lawyers, magistrates, and the
prison system.

The case best known to Canadians will be that of Alfred Valdmanis, the
influential economic adviser to the Smallwood government in the early
1950s who was accused of accepting bribes and/or kickbacks from foreign
entrepreneurs who received government contracts. This, of course, was a
civil action, so there was never any prospect that the hangman would
make an appearance. Moreover, Valdmanis, who had seen whatever money
passed through his hands disappear into others’ pockets, pleaded
guilty, so the facts have never come out. He muttered darkly about
blackmailers, while local speculation has persisted that the premier’s
office may not have been as surprised and shocked by the developments as
Smallwood professed. But Fitzgerald, who held a public relations
appointment with the government, uncritically accepts the Smallwood
version. In any case, the author’s four-and-a-half-page account adds
nothing new to what is already known. The same is true for most of the
other cases reconstructed here.

When Fitzgerald does venture beyond a bland recitation of the known
facts, he does not always get things right, and he sometimes exaggerates
them. The claim that a fisherman named O’Driscoll in Bay Bulls was
“the only poor man to recover money through our court system from a
merchant, in the eighteenth century” is nonsense. It ignores many
similar employment cases from the same period in the single district of
Ferryland. The statement that most magistrates appointed after 1729
“were illiterate and knew little about law” is wrong on both counts.
To argue that a fine of $750 was levied during the same period on a
defendant for drunkenness and swearing in public is surely to misread
the court record; fines were not levied in dollars, and the figure is
impossibly high.

Perhaps such details will not matter to some readers, but this is a
superficial offering and hardly qualifies as legal history.


Fitzgerald, Jack., “The Hangman Is Never Late,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 16, 2024,