WILBERT COFFIN'S LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT - HOW THE TORONTO DAILY STAR KNEW ABOUT IT
PART VII, VOL. III
ON CERTAIN MAJOR INCIDENTS OF THE COFFIN AFFAIR
Chapter13 : WILBERT COFFIN’S LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT – HOW THE TORONTO STAR KNEW ABOUT IT
In the last chapter of his book titled « Last Will and Testament », the author Belliveau writes what follows :
« On the last day of his life, Wilbert Coffin wrote his will in the Bordeaux death cell in the presence of François Gravel, Rev. Sam Pollard and three police witnesses. He asked that this and a sworn statement he had made to lawyers in jail some months earlier be published by the Toronto Star because of its sympathetic and accurate coverage of his long case.
This was the will:”
Follows the text that might have been that « Last Will and Testament » and the text of a “codicil » according to which Coffin bequeathed « everything I have or may have to my dear son James ». At the end of the second text so reproduced, one reads the following words: « Copyright, Toronto Daily Star 1956 ». This document could not obviously constitute a legal testamentary disposition nor be the object of a Copyright under the conditions it were sent to the Toronto Star and in the circumstances that we shall examine.
At the very beginning of this enquiry, Mr. Belliveau, examined on the circumstances he and his employer, the Toronto Daily Star, might have obtained possession of this document and the authorization to reproduce it, but could not do so because an objection to the legality of this proof, at this stage of this enquiry, was granted by the chairman of this Commission.
When Mr. Belliveau came back to the stand, in the course of one of the last sittings of this Commission, the proof of these circumstances were permitted for the reason that they were likely to allow the Commission to judge the doings of monsieur Gravel before Coffin’s execution..
It was not without difficulty that the Commission succeeded in obtaining from Mtre Gravel the filing of an original document, the reproduction of which was supposed to have been given to the Toronto Daily Star on the 10th of February, after Coffin’s execution, as well as to Mr. Belliveau for his book.
The document filed by Mtre Gravel, except for Wilbert Coffin’s signature and his initials at the bottom of each page, was entirely hand written by Mtre Gravel ; there were many words crossed out and a certain number of words were perfectly unreadable.
A comparison of this document with what was supposed to be a reproduction in Mr. Belliveau’s book, has revealed, between the original document and the reproduction, the following differences :
In the paragraph concerning the refusal Coffin received to his petition to marry his “ common law wife » Marion Petrie, the words « due to Québec Authorities » were replaced by « due to a Government order ».
In the paragraph concerning the injustices Coffin was complaining of, the words « I never had a fair deal » were replaced by the words « I was not fairly treated. »
The following paragraph of the original : « It is my express and firm wish that a statement I made to Mr. Gravel and Maloney in October 1955, be divulged to the public by my attorney François de B. Gravel, the whole at his own discretion” was replaced by what follows: “It is my express and firm wish and desire that a statement which I made to my attorneys, Arthur E. M. Maloney of Toronto and François de B. Gravel of Québec City, when visiting me last October at the Bordeaux jail, be divulged to the public”.
An unreadable paragraph of the original in which a word only may be difficult to read seems to have been reproduced by what follows : « I greatly thank all those who worked in my defence ».
The original paragraph read as follows : « I will like express my thanks Maloney and Gravel and it is hard for me to tell them all my gratitude » was replaced by what follows : « I would like to express my most sincere thanks to my counsels, François Gravel and Arthur Maloney, for all the work they have given my case… I am sorry to say that it is very hard for me to express all my gratitude”.
The following three paragraphs which appear in the original text do not appear in the reproduction of the text:
« I would like an allowance to son as victim of an unjust trial »
“Ask Marion to look after the child I would”
“Allow François to write for public a true story of my case”.
Before this Commission, Mr. John Edward Belliveau has given the following explanations of the circumstances in which this document, signed by Coffin, was obtained for reproduction purpose in the Toronto Daily Star.
Because of rivalry that existed between the Toronto Daily Star and the Toronto Telegram, these two newspapers became eagerly interested in the last events and developments in the Coffin affair. Belliveau was in Montréal with a man of the name John Gail, a reporter photographer, the morning of the 9th of February 1956 ; they were to go to the Bordeaux jail, both of them, to inquire about, among other things, the matter of commutation of the sentence and of the possible marriage between Coffin and Marion Petrie.
They met Mtre Gravel the same morning ; he too was supposed to go to the Bordeaux jail, to pay a last and painful visit to his client. Mtre Gravel, Mr. Belliveau and Mr. Gail went together. Mr. Belliveau believes that in the course of this trip in an automobile, he might have said to Mtre Gravel « that if coffin made any statement, any dying statement, or any statement before his death, of that character, that we would want it ».
When Mtre Gravel came out of the jail, he appeared to them much depressed.
Belliveau saw Mtre Gravel the same night and believes that « they were together alone for a good deal of that time, a good deal of the evening », he believes that it is at that moment “that the question of the Last Will and Testament came up for discussion”.
For more accuracy, I shall quote certain statements made by Mr. Belliveau or summarized them in the English language :
“I may have asked Gravel to specifically see if there was anything that the accused man would say for publication, such discussions would have taken place, I imagine, some time on the 9th.
He supposed he would have learned about the Last Will and Testament during the evening from Gravel; he then asked him for the content of the document.
He thinks it was then that he also learned about the long affidavit of October; it was during that same evening that Gravel agreed to give him the content of these two documents.
He recalls that he made some conditions which would give the Toronto Daily Star the exclusive rights to the first use of this information.
There was a discussion of financial considerations along the line that the family had been put to a very great deal of expenses during the original trial and the various appeals and that Gravel had, in his association, gotten little or nothing from the family or any other source and that we might be assisting the family in some way, if we could make some financial consideration…
It would be during the night that followed Coffin’s execution, however, that dealings between him and Mtre Gravel, but above all between Mtre Gravel and the representatives of the Toronto Star in Toronto, by telephone, about Mtre Gravel’s remuneration, were made and that the transmission of the texts, from Montréal to Toronto were made.
Mr. Belliveau does not believe having seen the original testament or, at any event, having been able to read it in whole, because: « He has a feeling that, for some reason or other, Gravel did not let him see the entire document ». Mr. Belliveau adds : « I am quite certain that Mr. Gravel, in a room in the Mount Royal Hotel, in Montréal, read this to me or read from a document that he had in his possession ».
Mr. Belliveau believes that, when he transmitted to his newspaper, by teletype or by telephone, the text of the testament that Mtre Gravel had dictated to him, he knew that an agreement had been concluded between Mtre Gravel and his employers.
As to the differences between the original and the reproduction, Mr. Belliveau explains : « It seems possible that an attempt was made to provide a readable document. The changes basically are changes in a language which make this into common English ».
As to the omissions that we have underlined sooner, Mr. Belliveau attributes them to the fact that Mtre Gravel has not dictated them to him. He does not believe that there are imputable to the « Editorial Staff » of the Toronto Daily Star, although it is always possible.
Mr. Belliveau has not verified the original to find out if the testament comprised truly an authorization to publish either the last testament or a prior affidavit, the one of the 9th of October 1955 ; he supposes that a discussion had taken place between himself and Mtre Gravel, previously, as to the possibility for Mtre Gravel of obtaining an authorization from his client to publish his affidavit or his testament and that this discussion might have taken place the day before the execution, most probably, in the morning, during the trip to the jail.
As to the affidavit of the 9th October 1955, which was also reproduced the next morning by the Toronto Star, the explanations of Mr. Belliveau that he must have obtained a copy of this affidavit from Mtre Gravel at the same time he obtained knowledge of the last testament, are less clear and conclusive. From this part of Mr. Belliveau’s testimony, one may ask if, in fact, this affidavit was not already in the possession of the Toronto Daily Star even before Coffin’s execution and in this case, who might have remitted it to it. We may, on the other hand, observe with a certain astonishment the speed with which it was made, during the night that followed Coffin’s execution, the transcription of the testament in a readable language, its transmission to the Toronto Daily Star in Toronto, the transmission of a photocopy of the schedule « A » joined to the testament, the transmission of the long affidavit of the 9th October 1955 that Mtre Gravel might have had in his possession, in Montréal, the day of the execution, every thing arriving on time to be reproduced in the first edition of the Toronto Star the next day before noon; this must have been done at great speed a little time after Coffin’s execution.
In Mr. Belliveau’s cross-examination as well as in his own testimony subsequent to the one of Mr. Belliveau, Mtre Gravel has attempted, without success with regard to us, to establish that everything concerning the communication by him to Mr. Belliveau of Coffin’s testament, to the agreements pertaining to the reproduction of this testament in the Toronto Star, with would-be right to « Copyright », occurred exclusively during the night that followed the execution.
Having regard to Mr. Belliveau’s formal statements, to the desires expressed by him before his visit to the jail, the morning of the 9th, having regard, above all, to the dispositions that have been included in Coffin’s testament, drafted, as we have seen, by Mtre Gravel and written with his own hand, in order to give Mtre Gravel, and to him alone, the absolute and discretionary power to publish his affidavit of the 9th October 1955 and to write « A true story of my case » and to the care taken by Mtre Gravel to include in the « testament » a clause saying that it was much difficult for Coffin to express to his two lawyers all his gratitude, there is no doubt in my mind that on the morning of the 9th February, when that “last testament” was drafted and executed, Mtre Gravel was thinking already of the possible use of that testament that would allow him to be compensated with a sum of money received from the Toronto Daily Star the professional fees to which he was no doubt entitled, but that neither Wilbert Coffin nor his family could afford to pay him.
I add, that according to the proof, Mtre Gravel has received a few days following the Coffin’s execution from the Toronto Daily Star a sum of $3,000.00
All this is but little edifying.
I must underline that not only no proof was offered us showing that this testament had been signed in the presence of Rev. Sam Pollard, the chaplain of the Bordeaux jail, and of three police officers, as affirms Mr. Belliveau in his book, but on the contrary, it appears from the testimony given to us by Mtre Gravel and from the document that he has filed with us that he was alone with his client Wilbert Coffin when this testament was drafted. I must also underline the inaccuracy of Mr. Belliveau’s statement that Coffin had asked that his testament and his affidavit of October be published in the Toronto Star « because of its sympathetic and accurate coverage of his long case ». It is a way, little elegant to say the least, to erase pages of the Toronto Star’s « indelicacies » that were committed, at least, the day following Coffin’s execution.
Is connected to what precedes the following passage from Mr. Belliveau’s book :
« In the afternoon and evening before his execution, Wilbert Coffin busied himself preparing his will and writing two letters. One was for his family, and it bore a secret, something which they alone may know; the other was to his chaplain. What the letters contain is, of course, known to the recipients.
It is believed that the family letter contained information concerning Coffin’s mining claims, about which he talked much on the last day. He wanted his brother to look after his maps and his ore samples to that one day his son might profit by what they would bring, for he had willed them to the boy.”
On this matter, we have examined all the members of the Coffin family who appeared before us; neither Mrs. Albert Coffin, nor his daughter Mrs. Stanley, neither his sons, Leslie and Donald, neither his son-in-law Weston Eagle, nor Mrs. Marion Petrie, nor the brother of the latter have received letters written by Wilbert Coffin a little time before his execution or obtained knowledge of these letters.
Examined on this matter, Mr. Belliveau has stated that his sole source of information was from Mtre François Gravel ; the latter has declared to us, for his part, having never had knowledge of such letters written and transmitted by his client, and he does not remember having made such declarations to Mr. Belliveau.
To make mention of these letters was probably moving, but it was not for sure a striking example of objectivity and intellectual honesty which newspapermen must show. (The end of this chapter)