Matthew Baillie Begbie

It’s murder most foul!

String up the miscreant! …Shit.

Judge is weeks away.

It’s the third day of BC Week, so let our topic be the saddle sore legs of the law: Matthew Baillie Begbie, the so-called ‘Hanging Judge.’

Begbie was born an army brat on the high seas in 1819. His family arrived in Mauritius soon thereafter and stayed there for seven years before returning to Britain. Begbie became a lawyer and when the post for Chief Justice of soon-to-exist BC opened up, he got the job. When he arrived, he was sworn in during the same ceremony that officially created the colony.

The job was done back then by riding circuit around the whole damned colony and stopping at pre-determined points. People would bring the cases to him and he passed judgement, wearing the sweet wig and robe combo. Considering the sheer size of the colony, the limited resources and manpower at his disposal, and all the cranky, drunken, goldmining Yankees (a lot of whom were counting the days until their government just annexed the place already) on his beat, this must have taken a fair amount of endurance.

His treatment towards indigenous folk was a mixed bag. On one hand, he learned several local languages so he could conduct trials without an interpreter, thought not accepting non-Christian witnesses was dumb, and was the first judge EVER to convict a white man of assaulting a First Nations man based solely on First Nations testimony.

On the other hand, there’s the matter of Chilcotin War of 1864. Tsilhqot’in raiders put paid to several troublemaking road workers in what they saw as an act of war. The chiefs then wanted to discuss a truce and Gold Commissioner William Cox promised them immunity with his fingers crossed behind his back. They were arrested, convicted by Begbie for murder, and hanged. The chiefs were exonerated in 2014.

He’s notable in that he was an early BCian who wasn’t horrifically racist towards Asians. There was a nasty law that passed slapping huge licensing fees on (largely Chinese-owned) laundries because they were a ‘nuisance’. He struck that shit down on the grounds that smithies and butchers were way worse, yet still allowed to operate anywhere they pleased, and we all know what this is really about, come on. His unhelpful attitude on the Yellow Peril was noted in the press.

Does he deserve the soubriquet of ‘Hanging Judge’? Eh, not so much, compared to other judges of the era and considering that hanging was obligatory in murder convictions. Regardless, they only started calling him that after he died.

Begbie died in 1894, still Chief Justice.

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