At the age of 24, J. Reginald Birchall was hanged on November 14, 1890, for the murder of fellow Englishman F.C. Benwell. The murder and subsequent trial attracted international attention due to its sensational nature. A year before the murder, Birchall and his wife arrived in Woodstock posing as Lord and Lady Somerset. They soon disappeared with a number of bills unpaid. It was later discovered that Birchall was an actor and notorious gambler.
When Benwell’s body was discovered in the Blenheim Swamp, he had two bullet wounds in the back of his head and his clothing was tampered with in order to remove all identifying markings. The case was left in the hands of Detective John Wilson Murray (the inspiration for TV’s Detective Murdoch), of the Attorney General’s Office who, in order to identify the body, had it photographed. This image was placed in all the major newspapers of the day and witnesses soon emerged who saw the two men together the day of the murder. In fact, Birchall himself came forward to identify the body. It was soon believed that Birchall shot Benwell as part of a fraud scheme that involved the “Farm Pupil Industry” which allowed a son of a wealthy Englishman to invest in a farm in North America.
Since construction of the new County Court House was not yet complete, the trial was held in the Woodstock Town Hall. Although Birchall readily admitted to fraud, he maintained his innocence in regards to the murder.
Following the execution, Birchall’s body was buried within the Gaol yard. When the west wall was removed to accommodate the construction of the Children’s Aid Society building in the 1950s, the body was reburied within the restructured jail yard, though the exact location is not marked.