Poetic Justice

There was a bit of poetic justice in how Gordon Stewart Northcott died on the gallows at San Quentin in 1930. It was certainly not the end he would have chosen, but it was the one that best fit his true persona.
A swaggering, pompous ass with delusions of grandeur and an over-inflated ego, the 24-year-old Canadian immigrant had been convicted of the torture-murders of three young boys on his Riverside, California, farm.
Like many killers, Northcott used the criminal justice process as a chance to relive his crimes and enjoyed being the center of attention during his 15 minutes of fame. He considered himself smarter than most people and was not shy with the press.
“The whole case is simply that of a dissatisfied husband seeking divorce grounds, a movie publicity-mad girl from whose mind all of these ideas came, and a lazy, stupid boy half cracked from reading too many wild west stories,” was how he dismissed his accusers.
When Northcott realized that he would not be the star of his capital murder trial, he fired his attorneys so that he could take center stage to defend himself.
“I told him that he might hang himself,” his attorney told the press after he was fired. “‘Well, it will be worth it. My name will become known all over the world,’” the man said Northcott replied.
Serving as his own attorney, he led one of his surviving victims through a blow-by-blow account of one murder and questioned whether the boy knew the difference between a groan and a death rattle.
“You made me put some mud over his head to stop the noise,” testified Sanford Clark, Northcott’s nephew and foil.
“What kind of noise?” Northcott asked the 16-year-old.
“A groaning noise,” was the response.
“I wonder if you know the difference between a groaning and a gasping noise,” Northcott countered. “What kind of noise was it?”
“It was an awful noise.”
At trial, he repeatedly referred to a large blow-up photograph of the headless remains of one of his victims, forcing courtroom observers to acknowledge his gruesome handiwork.
Northcott laughed as he led investigators on wild goose chases for the graves of his victims and shrugged when the suggestion was made that there were many more undiscovered victims of his cruelty.
The killer called his own father to the stand simply to belittle and badger the man who, by his own admission, could not control his son. Then, just for fun, he convinced his mother — who confessed to participating in at least one of Northcott’s murders — to perjure herself by claiming that she was not his mother but his grandmother. Her daughter, living in British Columbia, strongly denied that this was the case.
Northcott might have avoided detection if not for a visit from an 18-year-old cousin, Jessie Clark, who came from Kamloops, British Columbia, to visit her younger brother Sanford who was working for Northcott on his Southern California chicken ranch.
There she found Sanford living in decrepit conditions on the farm occupied by Northcott, his mother, Sarah Louisa, and his father, Cyrus.
Sanford told Jessie stories of abuse at the hands of Northcott, who was overindulged by his mother and feared by his father. Part of the abuse consisted of helping Northcott dispose of the bodies of boys he killed.
Jessie returned to Canada and told authorities about her brother’s plight, and they contacted Riverside County investigators, who took Sanford Clark into protective custody. That gave Northcott and his mother time to flee north. They escaped over the border and eluded capture for two months.
While the Canadians were looking for the mother and son fugitives, Riverside authorities were excavating the farm based on information provided by Sanford and Cyrus.
Sanford claimed Northcott killed three young boys and a Mexican teenager, and buried their remains in graves about three feet deep. Sifting through the dirt, investigators found a few bones that still contained flesh and hair. They also located a “toenail believed from the foot of a 10-year-old boy,” according to contemporary media reports. It appeared that the bodies had been moved before Northcott fled north, for no complete skeletons were found.
“I knew of the killings but never saw them,” Cyrus told police. “My wife would go to any extreme, not excepting murder, to please her son.”
Sanford told police that Northcott’s first victim was 9-year-old Walter Collins, who had been kidnapped in April 1928. After Walter was dead, Nelson and Louis Winslow were kidnapped, held captive, and then slain. He said Northcott killed the boys with an axe as his mother helped. Under threat of death, Sanford was forced to help dispose of their remains.
The last victim was the Mexican youth, whose decapitated corpse was found dumped along side a rural Riverside County road. His head was never found.
When Northcott was arrested in Canada, he denied his identity, but positive identification was a simple matter. During his trip back to Southern California, a bit of the old “third degree” helped secure a confession that Northcott was not successful in repudiating.
Shortly before Northcott and his mother were to stand trial, Sarah Louisa pleaded guilty to one count of murder in return for a promise by the state not to seek the death penalty. When Northcott learned of his mother’s deal, he threw a temper tantrum, jail guards told the press.
The trial was a perfunctory affair except for Northcott’s grandstanding and he was convicted of three counts of murder for the deaths of the Winslow boys and the unidentified Mexican youth. He was slated to stand trial later for Walter Collins’s murder.
Northcott squeezed every bit of notoriety out of his crimes as he could. He remained confident that the conviction would be overturned on appeal, and when that failed, he hinted that he could lead authorities to the final graves of his victims. The searches proved fruitless.
“Well, I just had to send you on another wild goose chase before I was through,” Northcott said to police, a smirk on his face.
On the day before he was to be hanged, Northcott agreed to see the mother of Walter Collins, who wanted to know if he killed her little boy. Northcott kept Christine Collins waiting for several hours before he denied murdering Walter.
In the end, Northcott’s bravado failed him. On October 2, 1930, he was led to the gibbet, whimpering and blindfolded because he said he could not stand to view the gallows. He collapsed as he was taken from the death cell and had to be supported by two guards.
His final words as the black hood and noose were put over his head were “don’t, don’t.”
The last bit of poetic justice came right before the executioner pulled the trap lever. Northcott’s legs gave way and he began to collapse just as the trap sprang. His collapse took the slack out of the rope, and as a result his fall was too short to snap his neck.
It took him 11 minutes to strangle to death.