"I will hang for this": The murder of Olive and Harvey Trenholm
Credit: Dr. Michael Boudreau, St. Thomas University, March 2010
Not for citation without permission of the author
On 27 March 1922, twenty-year old Bennie Swim murdered Olive Swim Trenholm, his cousin and "sweetheart", and her husband Harvey Trenholm. The murders were committed at Benton Ridge, Carleton County, near Woodstock. Harvey Trenholm was a veteran of the First World War and he and Olive Swim had only been married for less than two weeks before they had been "sent into eternity with tragic suddenness."1
The question of Swim’s guilt was not necessarily in question since he confessed to the murders. As Swim had allegedly said upon his arrest, "Its awful what a woman will bring a man down to...I will hang for this."2
During Swim's trial the prosecution cast the murder of Olive and Harvey Trenholm as premeditated and Bennie Swim as a cold-blooded murderer. Swim had grown quite fond of Olive while he had been living with Olive and her father. According to Olive's father she and Bennie had essentially lived as man and wife for over a year. But while Bennie had hoped to formalize this conjugal arrangement through marriage, he had even given Olive a wedding ring, she spurred his offer of matrimony and instead became betrothed to Harvey Trenholm.
When Bennie learned of their marriage, he traveled to their home in an effort to convince Olive to leave Harvey. Prior to departing, however, Bennie purchased a "five shooter" revolver. When he arrived at Harvey and Olive’s home, Swim shot Harvey following a brief confrontation. When Olive heard the gun shot she came to the front door.
Bennie begged her to come with him, and when she refused Swim shot her in the breast. Olive then staggered back into the house, Swim followed and shot her through the heart. One newspaper 3 attributed the murder to pure jealously and claimed that Bennie Swim had said "I am willing to die for this girl...It was all over ten minutes after my arrival at the house."
After Swim had shot Harvey and Olive Trenholm, he fled and hid in the surrounding woods where he tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. He, of course, did not succeed, but a bullet was lodged in his right temple and was later removed. The police were able to capture Swim by following the trail of blood that had formed from his wound.4 In many ways Swim was a "typical" murderer.
In a study of 440 capital cases between 1926 and 1957, Kenneth L. Avio compiled a list of statistically representative characteristics of those individuals who had been condemned to die. The "representative offender" was male, thirty-three years of age, an Anglo-Canadian, held a "low status occupation", and had no dependents.
Swim generally fit this profile, including the fact that prior to killing Harvey and Olive Trenholm, Swim worked for a local company peeling pulp.5 His trial lasted three days in April of 1922 and the jury took less than an hour to find Bennie Swim guilty of the "wilful" murder of Olive Trenholm.
The jury did not, however, recommend to the court that mercy be shown to Bennie Swim. Thus he was sentenced to be "hanged by the neck until...dead." Chief Justice McKeown told Swim that in the time that he had left on this earth, he should "call in the services of the clergymen of your faith and throw yourself unreservedly in [his] hands in order that you may to some degree prepare for the ordeal which awaits you and for the passage to that higher tribunal before which all of us must ultimately stand." 6
A "terrible affair": The Execution of Bennie Swim
Bennie Swim was executed on 6 October 1922; Twice! By most accounts Swim's hanging was a "terrible affair" and "horrendous".7 One newspaper set the stage for this grim event. While Swim's parents visited him in his jail cell to say their last good-byes, there could be heard "in the yard below the screeching song of saws and the ringing of steel against steel, as workmen bus[ied] themselves with...building...the scaffold that will swing [their] son...into eternity."8
After a last meal of grapefruit and a few sips of tea, Swim "walked to his doom, leaning on the arm of the executioner, and mounted the gallow steps with bowed head and tottering footsteps." Swim's final words before the hangman placed a black cap over his head, were a plea to God to have mercy on his soul.
At six minutes past 5:00am, the trap door was sprung and "all that was mortal of the unhappy man dangled at the end of the eight foot drop."9 The drop, however, did not kill Bennie Swim because he was cut down too soon.
Normally, a body would be allowed to hang for fifteen to twenty minutes (and in some case up to an hour), to ensure that the neck had been completely broken. But for some reason Swim's body was cut down within a few minutes after his fall. When examined by the prison doctor it was discovered that Swim's neck had not been snapped and he still had a pulse. So, almost an hour later, while still unconscious, Swim was hanged again, this time successfully.10
When the news of the fate that had befallen Bennie Swim had reached the community of Woodstock and the surrounding area, rumours began to swirl about what had actually happened. Some alleged that the hangman was drunk during the proceedings and that he had treated Swim disrespectfully.11 Apparently the hangman, W. A. Doyle from Montreal, had swore at Swim and pulled the trapdoor before Bennie had finished praying.
As well, before Swim was cut down the first time, Doyle looked at his limp body and declared: "Splendid job ain't it? The man is as dead as a door-nail."12 These innuendos further inflamed the anger of local residents who "became greatly wrought up over the details [of the hanging] and even threatened hanging the man from Montreal."13
As a result, Bennie Swim was no longer a murderer, but the recipient of empathy. As the Woodstock newspaper "The Press" noted in its coverage of Swim's funeral: "It was very largely attended. There were 150 teams in the procession. The large number of people attending...testified to the disgust of the community against hanging, a relict of the dark ages."14
- The Observer (Hartland), 30 March 1922.
- Carleton Sentinel (Woodstock), 31 March 1922.
- The Observer, 30 March 1922.
- Kenneth L. Avio, "The Quality of Mercy: Exercise of the Royal Prerogative in Canada", Canadian Public Policy 13, 3 (1987), 368 and Carleton Sentinel, 31 March 1922.
- Swim was initially tried for the murder of Olive Trenholm.Since he was sentenced to death for this capital crime, the Crown decided not to proceed with a second trial for the killing of Harvey Trenholm. Swim B. Supreme Court Transcript, April 25-28, 1922. The King vs. Bennie Swim, RG13, Volume 1519, cc183, part 1, 250-251, Library and Archives Canada (LAC).
- Daily Telegraph (Saint John), 7 October 1922.
- Daily Gleaner, 12 September 1922.
- Ibid. There was some fear that Bennie Swim might regain consciousness, which would have added to the tragedy, and the drama, of his execution. His second execution was conducted by F. G. Gill, also from Montreal, who Sheriff Foster had hired as a "back-up" to Doyle.
- Daily Telegraph, 7 October 1922.
- Ibid, 3 November 1922 and New Brunswick, Commission to Inquire into the Execution of Benny Swim (1923), 5.
- Daily Telegraph, 2 November 1922.
- The Press, 17 October 1922.