John Maxwell's Notebook

In 2002 the Law Society Archives acquired a fascinating and historically valuable document: a bound volume in which L'Orignal lawyer John Maxwell had written notes in preparation for a murder defence in 1883. Lawyer Ian McKechnie, who found the notebook in his L'Orignal office, generously donated it to the Archives.

The Murders
The trial for which Maxwell was preparing arose from the gruesome murders of four members of the Cooke family of Little Rideau, a small community east of Hawkesbury. On Jan. 2nd, the teen-aged English servant boy who had lived with the Cookes only a few months apparently began the day early, going about his usual chores. But suddenly Frederick Mann attacked and, using a rope, strangled the daughter of the family, Emma Cooke. When Emma's mother came to her aid, Mann strangled her too. In the barnyard, Mann brutally killed Ruggles Cooke, the father, with an axe. Next he went into the house and up the stairs and killed the sleeping son George with an axe blow to the head, after which he went after son Willie, whom he wounded in the thigh. Willie woke up two of his sisters, who managed to get Mann out of the house with the help of a passer-by, after which Mann fled. He was captured the next day at Lachute, not far across the Ottawa River in Quebec.

Maxwell 1

John Maxwell 

 L'Orignal lawyer John Maxwell acted in Frederick Mann's defence. In 1883, Maxwell was young; he had been in practice only six years and was not yet married. He taught at a nearby teacher's college in addition to practicing law. Granddaughter Doreen Hotchkiss recalls him as being exceedingly intelligent and very shy. Perhaps his shyness is why, although not a drinker, he usually had a small tot of peach brandy before he entered the courtroom. Maxwell loved dogs and was never without one at his side except when he was in court. He married in 1888 and he and his wife had four children, in whose education their father was deeply interested. He taught his sons sculling and boxing, hosted family nature field trips, insisted they learn French and Latin and instilled in them a love for the classics. For a time he was county prosecutor in L'Orignal and shortly before the outbreak of the First World War established a private legal practice in the nearby town of Vankleek Hill. Maxwell died in Nov. 1927. 

Maxwell page

The Notebook 
In the notebook Maxwell outlined plans to prepare an insanity defence for Frederick Mann. Whether or not Mann committed the murders was not at issue. If Mann were convicted of murder, he would surely hang for it; attempting to influence the jury to find a verdict of not guilty because of insanity was Maxwell's only hope of saving his client's life.

At that time the insanity defence was based on the McNaughtan rules (from an 1843 English case) which stated: "to establish a defence on the ground of insanity it must be clearly proved that, at the time of committing the act, the accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong." That Mann suffered from such a mental disorder and was therefore not to be held criminally responsible for the murders was what Maxwell was trying to demonstrate.

Maxwell's notes outline points concerning criminal insanity that he intended to make to the jury at Mann's trial. He wished to emphasize to the jury that "murder is the killing of any person with malice … aforethought." A murder, he intended to point out, "must be committed by a person of sound mind and discretion… no man is responsible like a sane person for any act committed by him while in a state of insanity." To further clarify the issue for the jury, Maxwell intended to say, "A lunatic may have the power of distinguishing right from wrong but he has not the power of choosing right from wrong. A criminal is punishable not merely because he has the power of distinguishing right from wrong but because he ultimately does the wrong having the power to choose the right."

Maxwell wanted to urge the jury to consider "not simply the deed itself and whether the prisoner did or did not commit it but to study … both is personal and family history, his motives, his conduct before and after and then his responsibility." Mann did not come from "criminal stock" but from a respectable working class family. However, there was insanity in his family that Mann may have inherited: his grandmother had attempted suicide and two aunts were dying in an English asylum. At that time people believed in hereditary predisposition to insanity. Also, the accused had been severely injured in the head at age 13 when thrown from a cart; it is "the experience of every medical man that blows in the head result in disease of the brain in derangement of the mind or insanity."

The character of the deed itself suggested insanity: Mann had attacked the Cookes with much more violence than was necessary, and appeared to have been possessed of extraordinary strength, characteristics which suggested "acts of a wild infuriated beast not of a man no matter how great his passion." Moreover, there was no discernible motive: neither robbery, "outrage" (rape), or revenge provided an explanation for the murders. Mann had not attempted to conceal his actions and had made no provision for escape, which he surely would have done if the killings had been premeditated. And before the killings, Mann had gone about his usual tasks. Maxwell expressed disbelief that someone who had premeditated multiple murder could coolly go about milking cows beforehand.

Maxwell intended to call as an expert witness Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, superintendent of London's Asylum for the Insane, and a pioneer in the humane treatment of the mentally ill. Dr. Bucke was probably the foremost expert on psychiatry in Canada at that time. Maxwell intended to elicit from Dr. Bucke statements about hereditary insanity, the result of head injuries, and the characteristics of homicidal mania. In the notebook Maxwell drafted questions he intended to put to Dr. Bucke, and the answers he expected to those questions.

The Maxwell notebook is important for its summary of contemporary thinking about mental illness and the insanity defence. It is also important because it sheds light on the activities of a late-nineteenth-century Ontario lawyer, the kind of lawyer about whom and whose legal practices we tend to know very little. The notebook demonstrates that John Maxwell was well-versed in British legal traditions concerning criminal insanity, and on current psychiatric theories about the subject. He appears to have done considerable research in preparing Mann's defence, and the arguments he intended to make would have been as good a defence case as Mann was likely to get.

Maxwell newspaper

The Trial and its Aftermath 
The insanity defence which Maxwell so carefully thought out was not in fact used at Mann's trial, the reason for which we cannot be certain. Ian McKechnie thinks the insanity defence was abandoned because none of Mann's relatives would come to Canada to testify at the trial to the history of insanity in the family, without which the defence was certain to fail. In any case, Frederick Mann pleaded guilty to the charges of murder at his trial in September and was sentenced to death, as was customary for convicted murderers at the time. He was hanged in the L'Orignal prison courtyard on Friday, Oct. 12th, 1883, an event that attracted a large crowd. Some people climbed trees or stood on rooftops to try to get a birds-eye view of the event. Others carried away pieces of the hangman's rope as souvenirs.

 

Credits: The staff of the Law Society's Archives thank L'Orignal lawyer Ian McKechnie for the donation of the notebook and for photocopies of newspaper articles and other information relating to the murders, the trial and Mann's hanging; and Dr. Doreen Hotchkiss for photographic images of and biographical information on her grandfather.