On, Sept. 6, 1958, Aaron “Bud” Jenkins was stabbed to death as he slept in the barracks at Esquimalt’s naval base.
Leo Mantha confessed to the crime. The tugboat operator had been romantically involved with Jenkins and the fatal stabbing came after the two had gotten into a violent argument.
Jenkins’ death was a textbook definition of a “crime of passion,” says Neil Boyd, criminology professor at Simon Fraser University.
“By today’s standards, it probably would’ve been a manslaughter conviction,” he said.
Instead, the 30-year-old Mantha received the death penalty and was hanged in 1959, making him the last person to be executed in British Columbia.
Mantha’s death came at a time when the federal cabinet commuted most death sentences, but Boyd said Mantha was an exception due to “anti-gay sentiments.”
Originally from Quebec, Mantha had been in the navy before working on a tugboat. In the summer of 1958, a bartender at Victoria’s Empress Hotel introduced him to Jenkins.
The two had an affair, with Mantha writing love letters to Jenkins that were eventually read aloud in court.
“It was all, ‘I love you, Budzie-Wudzie,’” Stan Piontek, a friend of both Mantha and Jenkins, said of the letters read at the trial.
Piontek, 88, said the two got into an argument the night of Jenkins’ death, with Jenkins saying he planned to marry a female friend.
“I saw Jenkins in front of the Empress Hotel and somebody had beaten him up or something,” he said.
Piontek said he accompanied Jenkins to Mantha’s apartment on Superior Street so he could retrieve his uniform before returning to the barracks.
While in the apartment, Piontek says he spoke with Jenkins about what happened.
“Meanwhile, Leo Mantha was in the next room and heard all of this stuff,” he said.
Jenkins got a ride back to the barracks where he was later murdered.
Following Jenkins’ death, Piontek said there was a “witch hunt” in the military.
“I don’t know how many people they hauled out of the navy,” said Piontek, who had served in the navy for much of the 1950s. “I got railroaded out of there.”
The story of Mantha, a former military man who dated a gay man in the navy, had a chilling effect, according to Gary Kinsman, a sociology professor at Laurentian University and co-author of the book The Canadian War on Queers.
The case played a key role in a purge spearheaded by the Canadian government’s Security Panel, which led to the firing of thousands of Canadians in the military, RCMP and public service because of their sexual orientation.
Kinsman said following Jenkins’ death, investigators uncovered his “little black books,” which contained the names of other gay men in the military.
“They found a list of lots of people in the merchant marines and in the navy and this initiates the purge campaign on the west coast,” he said.
“It feeds into the RCMP and the Security Panel’s feeling that this homosexual threat is actually much bigger than they would have previously thought.”
Kinsman notes that Mantha’s case occurred at a time when gay sex was criminalized and homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder. There were also concerns that gays in the military posed a national security threat, since they could be prone to blackmail by foreign agents, although there was never any evidence that anyone was actually compromised.
Mantha’s story fit all of those narratives and was used to justify expelling people from public service due to their sexual orientation.
“We interviewed lots of people who were involved in the Victoria gay scene who said that prior to this murder things were pretty open,” Kinsman said. “But after that, people had to go underground and people were purged and people had to leave.”
In 2017, the Canadian government issued a formal apology to the LGBTQ community, one that Kinsman characterizes as “remarkably limited.”
Full speech: Justin Trudeau gives formal apology to people affected by gay purge
Mantha’s case came to the attention of the federal cabinet. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, a former defence lawyer, opposed capital punishment and his cabinet commuted around 75 per cent of death sentences, according to Boyd.
The justice who presided over Mantha’s trial wrote to the federal justice minister asking for leniency.
Boyd said memos to cabinet, which referred to Mantha as “the homosexual,” indicate that his sexual orientation was a factor in the decision to deny clemency.
“Most of the death sentences were being commuted, but sexual orientation was something of a motivation for cabinet in deciding this was an especially heinous crime,” he said.
“Today, two people who are intimately involved who get involved in a very serious argument that leads to the death of the other without any evidence of planning — that would normally be a manslaughter charge, maybe second-degree murder. It says something about the culture of that time and the anti-gay sentiments of that era and the pre-eminence of those sentiments in government.”
Mantha was scheduled to hang at Burnaby’s Oakalla Prison along with 19-year-old Robert Chapman.
Chapman, who was convicted of killing his brother, had his sentence commuted at the 11th hour.
Mantha wasn’t so fortunate.
On April 27, 1959, Mantha ate a T-bone steak for his last meal, wrote a letter to his sister, and prayed. He was led to the gallows at Burnaby’s Oakalla Prison, where 43 other executions had taken place.
With several witnesses, including two newspaper reporters, looking on, Mantha was hanged shortly after midnight.
He was the last person to be hanged in B.C.
Two more men — Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas — were executed after Mantha in 1962. The federal government then commuted all death sentences until capital punishment was abolished in 1976.
In addition to highlighting the homophobia of the era, Boyd says Mantha’s case highlights how life-and-death legal decisions could be “extraordinarily capricious.”
“The decisions about who should live and who should die, there were a lot of politics that went into those decisions,” he said.
— With files from the Canadian Press
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