Wednesday, 11 April 2012

On This Day in Murder... April 11th, 1921

Russell Campbell is Shot to Death Trying to Stop Bank Robbers

James Russell Campbell was born March 2nd, 1887 to John Donald Campbell and Elizabeth Markle in Ekfrid, near London, Ontario. He served in the army, and worked as an electrician. He was 34 at the time of his death, unmarried and without children.

Sidney Ernest Murrell, and his brother William George Murrell were both born in England in 1900 and 1898 respectively, to William & Mabel Murrell. The family moved to Canada in 1906. Both of the brothers and their father served in the army. Their father would claim afterward that it changed them; that you can't expect to tell a man it is okay to kill one day, and then expect him to come back home and tell him it isn't okay. Sidney & William made some sketchy friends when they came back; it is with two of those friends, Jack Henry "Slim" Williams and Pat Norton, that their world would collide with Russell Campbell, and his life would tragically end.

On April 11th, 1921, in Melbourne, Ontario, Sidney, William Slim & Pat set out to rob the Home bank. Sidney the purportedly ring leaders of this pack of bandits. While inside, the alarm is sounded, and a number of villagers arrive in an attempt to intercept the bank robbers before they can escape. A number of bullets are fired in the bank at the ceiling, and then the bandits try to make a getaway.  Amongst the villagers trying to capture the villains were Stuart, Robert & Russell Campbell.  More shots were fired; some by the villagers, some by the bandits. There is a scuffle, the men fight, but the villagers prevail, and three of the four men are caught, and tied to telephone poles with rope to await the arrival of police. Sidney, William & Slim were in a lot of trouble, and not only for the bank robbery. The fourth man, Pat Norton, got away. He would never again be seen, or apprehended by police to face punishment, though they searched for him for years.

Photo of the captured Sidney Murrell, awaiting arrival of police
Although most of the bandits didn't escape and the bank robbery was foiled, the villagers victory was bittersweet; laying in the alleyway by the bank, lay the body of Russell Campbell, who had been shot and killed during the melee of the robbery and apprehension. His death registration records lists his cause of death as "internal hemorrhage caused by being shot by a burglar", and notes it was an "instant death".

Death Registration Record for Russell Campbell
It didn't take long after they were put in jail before they started causing trouble. Sidney and William apparently tried to burn the jail they were being held with in May. After that, they apparently displayed excellent behaviour; undoubtedly trying not to raise suspicion, and it seemed to work. On September 2nd, 1921, Sidney and William Murrell, using a handsaw that was somehow smuggled into the jail, sawed the bars off their cell, vaulted over a wall, and escaped. Their bank robber accomplice, Slim Williams, remained behind, left alone to be punished for the robbery and murder.

It was almost 2 years later, in May 1923, when the news broke that Sidney Murrell had been apprehended in California. It turns out that he had been picked up on an auto theft charge, using the alias "Robert W. Brooks". The police in California had distributed his fingerprints to other law enforcement agencies in an attempt to find out if he had a criminal record; that was how the Canadian authorities identified him as Sidney Ernest Murrell, wanted for bank robbery and murder.

Sidney and Slim were finally put on trial, and 33 witnesses were called to testify. They reported seeing the men with guns, trying to escape, and 3 women said that the two men they saw running out of the alley where Russell Campbell was found dead were Sidney Murrell and Slim Williams. No one actually saw either man shoot Russell. It was on this piece of the evidence the defense focused, arguing that any of the shots that the villagers themselves had fired at the bandits could very well have been the fatal shot that hit Campbell. The verdict was not what either man wanted to hear; guilty of murder, and both sentenced to hang on April 10th, 1924, nearly 3 years to the day of Russell Campbell's death.  

When that day came, two executions would take place, but only man would pay with his life for the death of Campbell. The day before the execution Jack Henry "Slim" Williams would receive word that his execution was commuted to life inprisonment. On April 10th, Sidney Ernest Murrell would walk instead with Clarence Topping to the scaffold to face their deaths. Topping was sentenced to hang for the shooting death of his sweetheart Geraldine Durston in November of 1923. Sidney's last words reportedly were, "My time has come to part with this world. Good luck and God bless you". The cord was pulled, and Murrell and Topping were together hanged at 5:30am. It was reported they spent the night beforehand signing hymns and offering prayers of repose for their souls with Rev. Mr. Warner, and Slim Williams. Sidney said he had no confession to make, that he did feel remorseful, but only for the worry and anxiety he caused his family.

Death Registration Record for Sidney Ernest Murrell

After Sidney was hanged, the Murrell family was struck with even more tragedy; in 1926, their 16 year old son Thomas was killed in an automobile accident, and another son drowned around the same time.

What happened to William? Well, a story similar to that of Sidney would play out for him, with one big difference. In January of 1928, he was also caught in California, picked up for an auto theft charge using the alias "Cecil Chester Miller" and identified in the same manner. He had absolutely no idea that his brother had been caught and executed nearly 4 years earlier, and was apparently very upset at the news. He also faced trial for Russell Campbell's murder, and his father expressed his anger at the fact that one son had already been found guilty and hanged, it wasn't fair to also charge his namesake for the same murder. His father said, "Isn't one life enough to take? A cannibal kills only what he can eat, we kill what we cannot even use".  William was also found guilty and sentenced to hang for his crime. Unlike his brother Sidney however, he was granted a commutation to life in prison, and would not see the gallows. He was eventually let out of prison, and lived a quiet life in London, Ontario after he was released. He died February 8th, 1958. He was found slumped over the wheel of his vehicle after a grocery shopping trip by a police officer; he had died of a heart attack.

1 comment:

  1. have often wondered how Bill was found in California. Any idea where in California he was arrested? His sister thought Oija
    Syd had bought a car unbeknowing to him it was stolen. He was stopped because one of his headlight was not working. He did not steal the car. He also was not the ring leader it would have been his brother Bill.
    The paper reported a lot of untruths about what mother Mabel and father William said. Bertie was the 7 year old son who drowned in the Thames River London on Labor Day weekend.

    Patricia Murrell neice of Sydney and Bill and granddaughter of Mable and William Murrell