Benjamin Russell

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Benjamin Russell

Birthplace: dartmouth, Canada
Death: September 20, 1935 (86)
bedford, Canada
Immediate Family:

Son of Nathaniel Russell, Jr and Agnes Russell
Husband of Louise E Russell
Father of Frank Weldon Russell; Harold Allison Russell; Anna Louise Russell; Grace Marguerite Russell; Benjamin Russell, Jr. and 3 others
Brother of John Russell; Agnes Russell; Alma Russell; Mary Russell and Howard Russell

Occupation: Judge, MP
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Benjamin Russell

Benjamin Russell (January 10, 1849 – September 20, 1935) was a Canadian lawyer, professor of law, judge, and politician in the province Nova Scotia.

Born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, the son of N. Russell, Russell was educated at the Halifax Grammar School and at Mount Allison College. A lawyer, he was also a Professor of the Law of Contracts in Dalhousie University. He was also a Reporter to the Supreme Court and a legal adviser of the Legislative Council of Nova Scotia. He was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons for the electoral district of Halifax in the 1896 general election. A Liberal, he was re-elected in the 1900 election for the electoral district of Hants.

In 1904 he was appointed a puisne judge of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. He served until his death in 1935. In 1932, his autobiography was published called Autobiography of Benjamin Russell (Halifax: Royal Print and Litho Ltd.).

Halifax Explosion Manslaughter Cases, 1918

Benjamin Russell, a 68-year-old Supreme Court judge, was getting dressed on the morning of December 6, 1917 when a massive explosion shook the Halifax home where he rented a room. His fellow tenants, convinced they were being bombed by German airplanes, fled to the basement but Russell went to the door and watched as “a gently curving column of fire, of all the colors that fire can assume,” rose over the city’s north end. Russell spent the following days helping to care for homeless children and arranged for clothing and other relief supplies to be stored in the hallways of the Spring Garden Road courthouse. But Russell’s biggest contribution in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion would be made in the courtroom.

The explosion, triggered when the freighter Imo and the munitions ship Mont Blanc collided in the harbour, was the world’s largest pre-atomic blast, leaving almost 2,000 dead, another 9,000 maimed or injured, and flattening huge swaths of the city. An inquiry convened with days and its commissioner, Justice Arthur Drysdale of the Supreme Court, ruled the Mont Blanc had caused the collision. In response to Drysdale’s criticisms and the local newspapers’ demands for vengeance, manslaughter charged were filed against three men – Aime Le Medec, the Mont Blanc’s captain; Frank Mackey, a local pilot who guided the ship into the harbour; and Commander Frederick Evans Wyatt, the official responsible for overseeing harbour traffic.

The defence applied to the supreme Court to release Mackey and Le Medec, and Russell ruled there was no evidence to support criminal charges, despite the findings of his colleague Drysdale. In his view, the Imo was at fault and Mackey had taken “every possible care to prevent the collision.” Russell later wrote in his memoirs that a person should not be convicted of manslaughter for doing “what was best in his judgment to prevent an impending accident even if, in spite of his best efforts, the struggle was unsuccessful.”

When Wyatt’s case came before a grand jury for review in March 1918, Russell again appealed for Haligonians to stop looking for scapegoats. “When a great calamity such as that which has visited this city occurs,” he declared, “there is a very natural and pardonable disposition ... to demand vengeance and seek to hold somebody criminally responsible.” Despite his instructions that the evidence “fell short of the requirements for an indictment for manslaughter,” Wyatt was ordered to stand trial. Russell presided over the trial and repeated his assertion that “nothing in the eyes of the law” justified a manslaughter charge. This time a jury listened and acquitted Wyatt.

The owners of the two vessels sued each other for damages but fought to a draw. Drysdale, despite his obvious bias, was on the bench for the civil trial and again found the Mont Blanc to blame. He awarded $2 million to the Imo’s owners, but the Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Committee of Britain’s Privy Council – then Canada’s final court of appeal – overturned the award and found the ships equally liable for the collision.

For more information on this case, see Dean Jobb, “Assigning the Blame,” in Crime Wave: Con-Men, Rogues and Scoundrels from Nova Scotia’s Past (Lawrencetown Beach, N.S.: Pottersfield Press, 1991), pp. 57-66; Benjamin Russell, Autobiography (Halifax: Royal Print and Litho, 1932), pp. 264-73.

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Benjamin Russell's Timeline

January 9, 1849
dartmouth, Canada
October 16, 1873
dartmouth, Canada
December 18, 1874
Dartmouth, NS, Canada
May 1, 1878
Dartmouth, NS, Canada
December 3, 1881
Dartmouth, NS, Canada
April 14, 1884
dartmouth, Canada
May 27, 1886
dartmouth, Canada
February 7, 1889
dartmouth, Canada
April 30, 1892
dartmouth, Canada