One hundred and seven years ago this month, lawyers were in discussion to try to save the life of Bruno Cutri.
The Cranbrook Herald reported during the first week of November, 1913, that efforts to secure a reprieve for Cutri were being made by his legal counsel, one P.F. Wilson, with steps being taken to bring the matter to the attention of the Federal Minister of Justice, “with the intention of saving Cutri from the gallows.”
Cutri was arrested in September of 1913 for shooting Felice Zappi. Zappi, according to the Herald, was trying to prevent Cutri from running off — “eloping” — with Zappi’s brother’s wife. A jury at the Fernie Assizes found Cutri guilty of first degree murder in October, and Cutri was sentenced to be hanged in Nelson in January of 1914.
Cutri, an Italian immigrant, was scheduled to be the the fourth person ever hanged in Nelson. The first, in 1897, was James Woods, for the murder of Samuel Woods in Nelson. The second was John Doyle, 30, who was hanged in 1898 for the murder of Dennis Connors at the International hotel at Kuskanook. Henry Rose was executed in 1902, for the murder of John Cole on the Arrow Lakes.
From Confederation until 1919, hangings in British Columbia took place in Victoria, Quesnel, New Westminster, Richfield, Protection Island, Lytton, Kamloops, and Nanaimo. Nelson was where offenders sentenced to death in southeast B.C. were sent. The Nelson jail had been built in 1897, and the first prisoner was hanged there shortly afterwards, that same year.
In Canada after 1867, murder, rape and treason were the only capital crimes. By the late 19th century, the majority of offenders were executed by the “long drop” technique of hanging. This method — a drop of at least five feet — ensured that the prisoner’s neck was broken instantly at the end of the drop, resulting in the prisoner dying of aphysxia while unconscious, which was considered more humane than the slow death by strangulation, which often resulted from the previous “short drop” method. The short drop sometimes gave a period of suffering before death finally took place.
While a few Canadian jails had permanent execution facilities, most jails, such as Nelson’s, put up a scaffold for each occasion.
On January 8, 1914, the Cranbrook Herald reported that Bruno Cutri’s sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment at the New Westminster penitentiary.
“All arrangements had been made for the hanging,” the newspaper reported. “Although during the past week, when the warrant for the execution had not arrived, officials become almost certain that it had been decided to commute the sentence.”
That meant that the third person to be executed in Nelson — Henry Rose — was also the last.
The Cranbrook Herald was there on November 26, 1902.
“Henry Rose was hanged at Nelson yesterday, in the gaol yard at 8 o’clock, protesting his innocence to the last … Just before the black cap was drawn over his face, the condemned man smiled and said, ‘Good bye, all.’ The priest began reciting the prayer for those in extremis, and whilst in the act Executioner Radcliffe drew the bolt and the body shot through the trap, falling a distance of seven and a half feet before checked by the rope. The neck was broken and death was instantaneous.
“Radcliffe seemed to be very nervous about the execution, and directly after the last act approached one of the witnesses and asked if he thought the man was really guilty, adding: ‘I hope he was, but that last speech was pretty strong.’”
There is a memorial plaque on the site of the remains of Henry Rose’s cabin on Gray Creek. It reads: “Henry Rose – the last man hanged in Nelson. Henry Rose was tried and found guilty of the brutal murder of his business partner John Cole near Nakusp. In November of 1902 he was hanged on the gallows. Shortly after his death, public hangings were outlawed. He is reputed to have run a floating red light district in Pilot Bay.”
As for Bruno Cutri, 11 years later, the Herald recorded his reaction at his reprieve.
“For some time after he was told, through the interpreter, that the clemency of the crown had been exercised and he would not be hanged on Thursday morning, the date set for the execution, Cutri appeared to be dazed and did not seem to realize what he was told. Later he became jubilant and seems entirely satisified with the idea of being taken to New Westminster to serve a life sentence.
After 1919, executions in British Columbia all took place in the Oakalla penitentiary, near Burnaby. The last hanging in B.C. took place there in 1957, when Leo Mantha, a sailor aged 33, was hanged there.
From 1867 to the elimination of the death penalty for murder on July 14, 1976, 1,481 people had been sentenced to death in Canada, and 710 had been executed. Of those executed, 697 were men and 13 were women.
There is a sad coda to the story of Bruno Cutri. That is the woman known now only as Mrs. Zappi. In December, 1913, the Herald reported: “Bruno Cutri, condemned to be hanged at Nelson on January 8th, no longer lies under the same roof as the woman with whom he eloped, the alleged wife of the brother of Felice Zappi, the man for whose murder Cutri is to go to the gallows. On Saturday night Mrs. Zappi was transferred to the provincial jail at Kamloops, where she will complete the balance of the sentence of two months on a charge of vagrancy on which she was convicted at Cranbrook. It is stated that the woman was moved from the Nelson jail because the idea of having the condemned man and the woman in the case under the same roof was not looked upon with favor.”
With files from David Humphrey, Cranbrook History Centre and Archives