Sunday, 1 April 2012

On This Day in Murder... April 1st, 1935

Tyrell Tilford is Poisoned by his Wife, Who Went on to Become the First Woman Executed in Canada in 62 Years

Mrs. Elizabeth Ann Tilford


When 35 year old Tyrell Tilford passed away in his home on April 1st, 1935, his death was initially attributed to 'myocarditis', which is the inflammation of heart muscle, which he had been suffering from for some time. His death registration also noted that contributory causes were the flu, and catarrhal jaundice, which is more commonly known as hepatitis A.

Death Registration Record for Tyrell Tilford

Tyrell Tilford was born November 10th, 1899 in Shardlow, Derbyshire, England, the 2nd youngest of 15 children born to James William Tilford & Mary Butcher. He first came to Canada in 1919, arriving in New Brunswick at the age of 20, with his sixteen year old sister Alice. In 1926, some of their family would come to join them in Canada; siblings, nieces and nephews, and also their parents.

At the time of his death Tyrell, a teamster, was living at 37 Cronyn St. in Woodstock, Ontario with his wife of five years, Elizabeth Ann, who was almost 20 years older than he. After he passed away, it wasn't long before the rumours about his death started, and it would seem for good reason; this was not the first time that Elizabeth Tilford, mother of nine children, had been married, or for that matter had become a widow - it was, in fact, the third time.

Grave of Tyrell Tilford, buried with his parents, in Woodstock (rootsweb)

Though three dead husband's does not a murderer make; it could not have helped her case any, especially coupled with the rumours that started before he was even dead; mostly stories that she was a bit too 'friendly' with other men. Other rumours that swirled around were of strange comments made by Elizabeth prior to his death; she had been complaining that she no longer received the widow's allowance from her previous husband's demise, and that she had inquired about the amount of insurance on her husband about six weeks before his death. She was also accused of making comments to another woman about how she could get "rid of" her husband - with poison.  The rumours came from somewhat unreliable sources (the woman who testified that she made that comment was a notorious gossip and busybody, and in fact the conversation had taken place before Elizabeth and Tyrell were married), yet they seemed hard to just ignore.

Three dead husbands by the time she was 55 years old; was it just bad luck, or was there something more sinister behind Elizabeth's tragic life story? Despite not much more than rumours and circumstantial evidence, the police believed the later. It was reportedly a phone call to police by a neighbour, who said that Elizabeth has called her after Tyrell's death, and asked her not to mention to anyone that she purchased arsenic, that convinced police to take another look at the circumstances of her husband's death. Tyrell Tilford's body was exhumed secretively during the night on April 25th, less than a month after his death. Analysis of the contents of his stomach revealed trace amounts of arsenic. On June 6th, 1935, police officially announced that there was an inquest into his death, and by June 11th, they had officially charged Elizabeth Tilford with the murder of her husband.

Another photo of Elizabeth Tilford
Though I have been unable to confirm all of these facts, her story was reported as follows:
Elizabeth Tilford was born Elizabeth Ann Kaye in 1879 in Yorkshire, England, and married her first husband, Fred Yaxley, at the age of fifteen, in approximately 1894. She said she married him after "a challenge from an older woman"; he left her for another woman 6 months later. She admits that she did not get a divorce prior to marrying her cousin, William Walker in 1911. Fred passed away sometime after she had remarried. It is with her second husband that she first came to Canada in 1928. Unfortunately, shortly they arrived, William went blind, and was unable to work. He passed away in 1929. She then met Tyrell Tilford, who was to become her 3rd and final husband, in Woodstock, where they both sang in the same choir. Tyrell came from an honourable and well respected family, though some sources mentioned that he was not a very ambitious or bright man.

The more police learned about Elizabeth, the more suspicious they became.  On June 14th, 1935, the body of William Walker, Elizabeth's 2nd husband, was exhumed from the Baptist Cemetery in Woodstock, on special order by the Ontario Attorney General's Department. When he had passed in away in 1929, his cause of death was certified as a brain tumor. Police were now suspicious of his death as well, so his organs were removed and taken to Toronto for analysis, and he was re-interred. No poison was found in his system, though that didn't convince many people in town that he wasn't indeed murdered.

Death Registration record for William Walker, Elizabeth's 2nd husband.

When she went on trial that all, Elizabeth did not have a lot to say in her own defense; in fact, not one witness was called to testify on her behalf. Instead, the entirety of her defense relied on convincing the jury that Tyrell Tilford had poisoned himself, possibly unintentionally, as he was apparently taking a medicine, for his already ill health, that contained some arsenic. The defense claimed that the arsenic that was found in his body was not enough to have killed him, and that it might only have contributed to his delusional state of mind before he passed from natural causes. A delusional state in which he was said to have made some damning claims against his wife to members of his family, including that she was trying to poison him.

Eleven witnesses were called to testify against her, including those members of Tyrell's family who claimed he had made comments about his wife wanting him dead, and expressed worry over being poisoned. The prosecution attempted to paint a picture of Elizabeth as a cold-hearted, manipulative, gold-digging murderess. They were seemingly successful; on October 2nd, after six hours of deliberation, Elizabeth Ann Tilford was convicted of capital murder in the poisoning death of her husband Tyrell Tilford. The conviction came with an automatic sentence of death; the jury did not recommend mercy.

Still proclaiming her innocence, Elizabeth Tilford appealed her conviction to no avail, seeking a new trial, or better yet, clemency. When informed that her final appeal had been denied, Tilford reportedly said in a message to her lawyer, "It's better to go innocent than to stay here guilty". While she waited for her death sentence to be carried out, Tilford was said to able to hear the scaffold to be used for the hanging being erected outside in the courtyard of the jail below her cell.

Elizabeth Ann Kaye-Yaxley-Walker-Tilford was judicially hanged at 1am on December 17th, 1935 in the Woodstock County jailyard. She was the first woman to be hanged in Canada in 62 years, and she maintained her innocence until the very end. None of her family were present at the hanging. She was said to have appeared very weak, was noticeably trembling, and was close to collapse as she walked up the scaffold in the falling snow to meet her fate. A small funeral and burial at Woodstock's Baptist Cemetery, with 13 people in attendance including some members of the press and a prison matron, followed her hanging.

Death Registration Record for Elizabeth Ann Tilford
Grave of Elizabeth Ann Tilford, Baptist Cemetery, Woodstock (rootsweb)

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