Reginald Birchall (aka Lord Frederick A. Somerset) (25 May 1866 – 14 November 1890) was a British conman who was convicted of killing one of his victims in Canada. He was hanged at Woodstock, Ontario.
Born into a wealthy family in Lancashire, England, Birchall entered the Lincoln College, Oxford in 1885. While at Lincoln, Birchall spend his time partying and incurring debt. , where he founded the Black and Tan Club. In 1888 Birchall was forced to leave college and sell off his is inheritance to pay his debts. That same year he paid 600 pounds for an estate in Woodstock. After eloping with his fiancee, the couple traveled to Canada.
When they arrived in Woodstock, they discovered that the property was a small farm, not an estate. After six months of creating more debt in Woodstock, the couple returned to England.
Once in England, Birchall concocted a scheme to defraud several wealthy people. He took out an ad in a London newspaper claiming to be the owner of a prosperous horse farm in Canada who was looking for investors. His plan was to take the money, place bets in the Derby horse race, and pay back the investors with his winnings. However the British investors wanted to inspect the Canadian farm and its financial records before investing.
In February 1890, the Birchalls and the investors arrived in New York City and then traveled to Buffalo, New York. At this point, Birchall took Frederick Benwell, the son of the biggest potential investor, to Ontario to view the farm. After arriving near Woodstock, Birch led Benwell into the woods, then shot him twice in the back of the head. Birchall then returned to Buffalo, telling the other investors that Benway had decided to return to England separately. However, on February 20th, Birchall telegraphed Benwell's father in England, saying that his son had agreed to the investment and he should immediately wire over 500 pounds.
On February 23, 1890, hunters found a body in a swamp in Princeton, Ontario. Clothing tags had been removed, and a watch was found close to the body. Still in Buffalo, one of Birchall's investors saw a picture of the body in a newspaper and recognized him as Benwell. He traveled to Ontario to identify the body and speak with police.
Birchall was arrested in Niagara Falls, Ontario on March 3 and transported back to Princeton, Ontario. Birchall denied murdering Benwell.
On September 22, Birchall's trial started at Woodstock's Town Hall. Given that both the suspect and the victim were members of the British aristocracy, the trial garnered substantial attention. News organizations from England, France, Germany and Italy covered the trial. Birchall was convicted of murder based on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to death on September 30. Birchall professed his innocence to the end. He wrote a long account of the affair while in prison. This memoir was published in an attempt to create an income for his wife after his death.
Birchall was hanged on November 14th, 1890. He was buried in the court yard of the Woodstock City Gaol, where he still remains. The swamp in Princeton was called "Benwell Swamp" by the locals.
- "Reginald Birchall". Dictionary of Canadian Biography (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. 1979–2016.
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