Don't do Matthew Baillie Begbie the injustice of inflicting on him the common but ill-deserved title of "Hanging Judge." That epithet was only applied after his death. The Barkerville Gazette,
however, did once carry a report, referring to him as the "Haranging Judge" due to his habit of giving every convicted felon a scolding before passing sentence.
So, poor Begbie inherited a name he did not merit, no doubt, due to perhaps both the misspelling of the word by the reporter, and the misreading by the public. To his credit, Begbie disliked the taking of life by any means, even judicially. Statistically, of the 52 murder cases he tried over his long career, he sentenced only 27 to hang. Given the coarse, rough and uncouth nature of the pioneer days, that number was far lower than most of his contemporary jurists, facing similar situations in the "Wild West." Furthermore, in contrast with other judges of the West, he never personally hanged anyone.
A veil of uncertainty hangs over the circumstances of Begbie's birth. His parents were Scottish, but he was not born in the land of the heather, although some biographies name Edinburgh as his birthplace. His father, Captain John Stirling Begbie of the British Imperial Army, sailed for Mauritius with his pregnant wife, Mary. The young Begbie was born either en route via the Cape of Good Hope, or at their destination on May 9, 1819. But it was in Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of France, where Begbie received his high school education. He was a good student, a natural linguist and a talented musician. He loved athletics, amateur dramatics and he loved to be on stage, all of which served him well in his future career. In 1836, he entered Cambridge University to study mathematics and the classics. After graduation, he went to Lincoln's Inn in London to take up law. On November 22, 1844, he was called to the Bar, beginning a long and illustrious legal career.
It seems that in London, however, he was not particularly illustrious. But when Governor James Douglas of Victoria asked the Colonial Office in London for a judge who would mete out British justice without fear or favour, the position was offered immediately to Magistrate Begbie.
The situation in the Fraser Canyon was precarious. The influx of some 20,000-30,000 gold seekers had strained the administrative resources to the limit. So when a striking, six-foot-four, 39-year-old swashbuckling bachelor, looking like Sir Walter Raleigh, stepped off the ship in Esquimalt, Governor Douglas breathed an audible sigh of relief. The two men were cut from the same cloth and immediately saw eye-to-eye in what needed to be done on the goldfields.
Begbie lost no time in flexing his muscles at a crisis known as "Ned McGowan's War." There was more farce than fact in the case, but the foolhardy activities of the parties concerned in the legal wrangling had precipitated a riot among the miners. Begbie walked in with characteristic flourish and determination, settled the case fairly, and assured the disgruntled American miners that they would always get fair treatment from him.
The area needed not only a judge, but also a presence. That presence had to be outstandingly muscular and of a constitution well above average. Begbie lost no time making his presence felt. With grim determination and incredible physical stamina, he walked from Fort Langley to the goldfields at Lillooet and back again, holding court wherever he went. He covered the most impossible terrain and survived the worst of winter storms, trekking hundreds of miles to do his job. During his 36 years in office, the judge visited almost every area of the Province of British Columbia at least once. Sometimes he held court on horseback, on a tree stump, in shacks or barrooms, meting out his own concepts of justice, for many of his decisions were without precedent. Yet no one could accuse him of being anything but absolutely fair, honest and impartial. At a time when such opinions were foreign, Begbie championed the cause of civil rights. The white settlers held the native people in contempt, but on many occasions, he gave a native the benefit of a fair hearing and rendered judgment against his dumbfounded white accuser.
Begbie was equally ardent in defending the causes of minority groups. Victoria had passed a number of racially oriented bylaws, directed mainly against the Chinese. One introduced during Begbie's time, declared Chinese laundries to be a public nuisance and attempted to put them out of business. Begbie's response:
"Blacksmith's forges are probably more liable to take fire from sparks; butcher's shops are far more offensive to the eyes, clothes and olfactories of foot-passengers, with greasy and bleeding carcasses lumbering the sidewalks and infecting the air with the odour of meat-curing; stables with their muck-heaps several yards high are more pregnant with pungent and misalubrious gases; large packing cases are more obstructive to the thoroughfare, than anything that can be alleged against these wash-houses. Yet all these other matters, each of which might be termed a nuisance of no common degree, are allowed to exist, clustered together in the very busiest part of the centre of the city without a word of rebuke."
And with that he promptly declared the bylaw invalid.
As expected, there were threats on his life, but he was not easily intimidated. One night, he overheard a group of men outside the hotel where he was staying, planning his murder. He stepped out on to his balcony immediately above where they stood and calmly emptied the contents of his chamber pot over their heads. There was no more talk of murder.
One delightful story, which may be apocryphal, conveys the spirit of the man. Begbie condemned an American to death for murder. The convicted man's American lawyer informed the Judge that he would appeal. "You are fully within your rights to do so," replied Begbie, "and I will outline for you the procedures. First, you will make your appeal in writing and submit it to me for approval. Then I will forward it to the Supreme Court in Ottawa for review. They will then communicate their findings to me and you will then be informed of their position. But all of this is purely academic, because your client will be hanged tomorrow morning at 9 a.m."
Begbie's interests went far beyond the law. As the most eligible bachelor in town, he was a frequent guest at all the best homes in Victoria. He was an avid tennis player and had two excellent courts on his own property. His tennis parties were legendary. He was an ardent fisherman and hunter and he took every opportunity during his professional journeys through the province, to avail himself of the sporting facilities of the area. He was a cartographer, a mathematician and an engineer. He redesigned railway bridges to make them more stable. He taught school - mathematics and classics. He founded the Union Club, performed in amateur dramatics, sponsored the theatres, supported musical concerts and, with his clear, high-pitched voice, was an asset to the tenor section of the Cathedral Choir.
Begbie died of cancer on June 11, 1894 at the age of 75. His memorial stone in Ross Bay Cemetery is large, which would not have pleased him since he asked for only the simplest cross. But the words he requested are engraved on the stone, portraying his deep religious convictions. "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner."