Very rarely do we go back into the national archives to excavate information surrounding occurrences of the past, but the events that transpired between February and April 1963 are of such significance that we should not allow those memories and the important lessons they present to fade from national consciousness.
Just last week, we were reminded with the murder-suicide case of Dindsdale Arthurs, 32, and Fania Susan Noel, 23, that domestic disputes sometimes can and do end in tragedy. One case that stands out in our history is that of Mrs. Nora Parham and her common-law husband, P.C. 183 Ketchell Raymond Trapp, ages 36 and 37 respectively, at the time of their deaths in 1963.
The Parham/Trapp story is different from the Arthurs/Noel story in some fundamental respects. During Women’s Month in March, the Nora Parham story was resurrected on the pages of this newspaper with the claim by Trapp’s daughter, Sandra, that Trapp was the real victim, and Nora the aggressor. That account has been rebutted by various other sources, though we find it interesting that this was the exact same claim made during the April 1963 murder trial in the Supreme Court by the then Solicitor General, J. K. Havers.
Nora Parham was married Parham, but her maiden name was Williams. She was originally from Punta Gorda, where she had been living with Trapp. The couple was together for seven years, and had four children, apart from Nora’s four with her husband.
On Tuesday, Eric Williams, 62, a security officer with the US Embassy, told our newspaper that he was a teen living in PG at the time, when he remembers seeing Trapp kick Nora down a flight of stairs, while he was on duty at a night spot – Dream Light – where a dance was in progress. The side of Nora’s face was bleeding when she got up.
Williams later became a police officer and spent a part of his tenure in Orange Walk, where the Nora Parham story continued to be a subject of public discussion.
Williams said that he felt sad when he heard the news about Nora, and he recalls a Belize Billboard article with Nora’s 8 children (including Nora’s two toddlers), which he said generated a lot of public sympathy. (The paper was run by Philip Goldson of the then Opposition, National Independence Party.)
On Wednesday, the day after we spoke with Williams, we visited Orange Walk Town, where we spoke for a second time with Agripina “Pinita” Espejo, M.B.E., J.P., currently a Commissioner of the Supreme Court. Espejo told us that Nora was wrongfully convicted because someone changed Trapp’s dying declaration to say that Nora had set him afire.
Dean Williams tells us that a riot almost broke out over Nora’s execution and British forces were brought in to keep the peace.
Of note is that while Nora was being kept at the prison in the final hours before her execution, a group of Christians, about 200, kept vigil outside. (Nora was reportedly spirited away to the hospital that night for unknown reasons.)
Police invoked crowd control up to the day of the hanging.
“No black flag, no bell, and not even any noise audible to the public was made when eight o’clock came and Nora was hanged,” the Belize Billboard of Thursday, June 6, documents, revealing that M. Becker, Medical Officer, certified her death, along with Acting Superintendent of the Prison, P.S. Campbell, and other officials present at the time.
On Wednesday, April 1, Ethel Burgos pointed us to another survivor of that time, Miss Ivy, another lady in her 80’s. She told us that she remembers Nora and pointed out the place where the house stood that Trapp and Nora stayed – premises now occupied by Chinese and Belizean stores, at the corner of Main Street and Avilez Street.
In a rush to make an appointment, Miss Ivy told us that she had heard Nora was supposed to be hanged but there are those who say that she was never hanged, and authorities sent her away secretly. She expressed surprise to hear that Nora was indeed executed in 1963. So did the elderly Ethel Burgos.
Agripino Espejo, who told us that she was a personal friend of both Nora Parham and Ketchell Trapp, is the first woman mayor of Orange Walk Town, and she was recognized as one of Belize’s patriots at last September’s ceremony.
Espejo continues to insist that Nora was not responsible for Trapp’s death, and she believes that Nora should be pardoned from what she says was a wrongful conviction.
Espejo told us that she was one of thousands who signed the petition calling for Nora’s pardon back in 1963.
According to Espejo, when she and another hospital nurse visited Nora while she was in police detention on the night of the incident, Nora’s face was swollen. However, the medic, Fernando Zetina Rosado, who testified in court, said when he examined Nora the following day, February 7, all he noticed on her was a wound on her left shoulder that would have been 8 days old – nothing inflicted in the prior 36 hours.
Eric Williams opines that Nora had felt the full brunt of the law because Trapp was a cop. In the book, From Colony to a Nation, by Anne S. Macpherson, the author writes that the state dealt with Nora as a “cop slayer.”
“Another woman who committed the identical crime just weeks later received only an eight year sentence….” Macpherson wrote. “But by ignoring allegations and evidence of Trapp’s physical abuse of Parham, by refusing to treat the pair as wife and husband, not just as cop slayer and cop, the government deepened its own political silence about domestic and community gender oppression and violence…”
Nora was the first and only woman in the record books to have suffered death at the gallows in Belize.
While the deaths of Trapp and Parham were tragedies in themselves, what continues to weigh down on the hearts of those who hear the story is the deeper effect the tragedies have had on the lives of Nora’s 8 surviving children, who grew up without one or both of their parents, and some of whose lives remained largely disconnected because they ended up being raised in separate homes. They are still yearning for the full story to be put in its proper and truthful context in a way that will bring closure once and for all.
More than that, there is the broader hope the Nora/Trapp story will inspire positive change in a community still overwhelmed with too many instances - too many fatal instances - of domestic violence, where love between spouses should instead prevail.
(Amandala credits the Belize Billboard for providing thorough accounts of what transpired with the Nora Parham case between February and June 1963. Documents were sourced from the National Archives in Belmopan.)
Espejo told us that she heard Trapp tell the policeman who took the statement of February 6, 1963, that he had gone to the restroom after a scuffle with Nora and he lit a cigarette, which set him ablaze. During the scuffle, Nora threw gasoline on Trapp.
However, the prosecution insisted that it was Nora that intentionally threw gasoline on Trapp and lit the match herself around mid-day on Wednesday, February 6.
Of interest is that Nora had pleaded not guilty to murdering Trapp. The Belize Billboard, which was the main newspaper documenting the trial at the time, reproduced her testimony, saying she spoke “clearly and without hesitation”:
“...he was going outside, saying to me he was going to the toilet. While going to the toilet he used threatening words to me. I then replied to him saying, I will make the Sergeant know about your threatening words. He then returned back in the bedroom. While he came back in the bedroom, I had a gasoline iron [in] my hand with a pan of gasoline.
“He came in the bedroom with a stick in his hand and hit me on my head. When he was going to hit me another hit, I threw the gasoline on him and he grabbed away the pan from me, and I went through the backdoor and he stone me with the said pan.
“After he stoned [me], I ran around the house and he never see where I got to. I went in the house through the front door, then I took the gasoline iron from where I left it and put it in the box.
“While I was inside I heard a noise and I run to see what it was. When I went I saw Ketchell Trapp come out of the latrine under fire. I then run up to help him but I see I could not, then I continued running towards the Hospital back street, running towards the station.”
Nora claimed that she asked the policemen to go help Trapp.
According to Espejo, Trapp told police that he lit the cigarette while he was in the outhouse and that’s when the fire started.
Trapp was reportedly naked when it happened, and medics said that it would have been worse if he was wearing clothes. Still, it was documented in court that he suffered severe third degree burns to about 90 percent of his body, and even his vital organs were badly damaged. Medical evidence from Dr. Dennis Hoy indicated that the burns penetrated his skin and organs. Dr. Fernando Zetina Rosado, who attended to him in OW, said he had been burned on his chest, back, abdomen, genital area, legs and thighs, and only his neck, face and head were free of burns.
Ketchell Trapp was admitted to the Orange Walk Hospital, adjacent to the police station, after 1 on Wednesday, February 6, and transferred to Belize City Hospital about an hour later. Doctors did not expect him to live, and in fact, he died after 7 the following morning, Thursday, February 7. Trapp was buried with full police honors.
Police arrested and charged Nora for the murder of Ketchell Trapp, and in a preliminary inquiry held in Orange Walk, the prosecution, with 23 witnesses led by ASP James Lennan, managed to convince traveling magistrate, A.B. Balderamos, that Nora did have a charge for which to answer. Espejo, who was in her late teens at the time, said that she was inside the courtroom when she heard the police read Trapp’s declaration and she immediately rebutted that the statement had been changed. She said they accused Nora of locking Trapp inside the latrine and lighting him up.
“That’s when I said they changed [the statement]... when he [Trapp] was giving his statement he said I gave her a couple of blows...she was getting her iron ready to iron and she took the gasoline and throw it on him, but she didn’t light the match...he had already gave her some blows, he said, and then he went to the toilet. That’s when he took his cigarette and the matches but he had the gas on him. So when he lit the matches to light the cigarette and that’s when he caught fire... but the story was that she locked him in [the toilet],” said Espejo.
She said that she told people that the statement was wrong, but no one paid her any attention, both in Orange Walk and Belize City. She said that she continues to repeat the account she had heard back in ’63.
Nora was transferred to Belize Central Prison on Saturday, February 16, 1963, where she awaited her trial, which took roughly a week before a guilty verdict was handed down by a jury of 12 men.
The trial was called up in the April session of the Supreme Court, over which then Chief Justice, Sir Clifford de Lisle Innis, presided. J. K. Havers presented the case for the Crown, and Nora was defended by Sidney A. McKinstry. In the Supreme Court, Nora, described by the Belize Billboard as neatly dressed, erect in posture and well spoken, had pleaded “not guilty” to the charge of murder.
The jury of 12 men was comprised of (1) Joseph Dennis Robateau (foreman), (2) Norman Richard Kemp, (3) Theodore Fuller, (4) Basil Vernon, (5) Antonio Aguilar, (6) Claude Moody, (7) Keith Wallace, (8) Norman Saldano, (9) Joseph Adolfo Vasquez, (10) Sydney Swift, (11) Kent Badillo, and (12) Alfred Haylock.
The trial was swift. It took about a week between the time when the Sol Gen laid out his case to the time when the judge passed the death sentence on Nora.
During the course of the trial, the Crown argued that there was no reason why Nora could have lost control, and so the argument of provocation could not stand. It was a case of “cool, calculated” murder, Solicitor General Havers argued.
There was clear evidence, even in Trapp’s dying declaration, that the couple was troubled with serial domestic disputes. Nora had allegedly complained of Trapp beating her and quarrelling with her, and she had reportedly made threats that she had bought a 3-pound tin of Gordito brand lard, and she had a pot in which she would boil the lard and throw it on Trapp while he was asleep. Havers produced witnesses to cite four such threats, as well as threats allegedly made by Nora that she would do the same thing the wife of another policeman had done to him – George Lemoine, who had lye thrown in his face.
P.C. Hugh Donald Sanchez had testified that Nora had complained 8 or 9 times while he was on duty of Trapp’s assaults on her, and the accounts did not suggest that police did anything apart from encouraging Nora to leave him.
In her testimony in the Supreme Court, Nora said that there were times she had left Trapp, but he would find her and plea to her to return, which she did after they made up.
While in Orange Walk on Wednesday, we visited the Main Street residence of octogenarian, Ethel Burgos, the niece of the couple’s landlord at the time, who told us that she remembers Nora, who would have been her peer. She recalls that Nora had talked about leaving Trapp around the time the incident happened.
Sol Gen Havers had Martha Ramirez, the wife of a P.C. George Ramirez, testify in the Supreme Court. Nora had reportedly complained to multiple persons, including Ramirez, that Trapp used to drink a lot and would beat her up.
Mrs. Francis Fuller, the wife of a man with whom Trapp once boarded, gave similar testimony, indicating like Ramirez that Nora had threatened to burn Trapp with hot lard.
Even though anecdotes cited jealousy as the main cause of quarrels between the couple, the witnesses cited more specific sources of conflict, including accusations by Trapp that Nora had given him “shell-eye” babies, because both were “black” and two of their children were “brown-skinned” and so could not be his, as well as claims that they disputed over money. Nora had claimed that on pay day, one Crown witness said, Trapp would put the money in Nora’s hand, then took it away and went to pay the shop bill.
Havers had submitted to the court that Nora quarreled with Trapp because he did not give her enough money for fineries, and that Nora, who had complained about beatings, was determined to get even with Trapp. That day, Trapp was said to be on his day off, and was seen happily “dancing and twisting” very early in the morning on that fateful day.
Notably, Havers had told the Supreme Court that there was no violence that day that could have deprived Nora of her self control and her attack was not done under any provocation, and he went further to argue that there was, based on the medic’s report, no physical evidence that Nora had suffered violence.
For her part, Nora had testified that Trapp had beaten her – Trapp admitted to hitting her in his dying declaration.
In his summation of the case, the Sol Gen did not specifically cite any witness that could say they saw Nora burn Trapp. He said Trapp was not the perfect man, but he clearly cared about his home because he cleaned the yard, washed dirty things and even helped with the laundry.
On Tuesday, April 30, the jury was advised that it could arrive at one of three possible verdicts: guilty of murder, guilty of manslaughter or guilty of nothing at all. It is clear that the jury disbelieved Nora, and the 12 – all men – concluded that she had murdered Trapp.
The justice system allowed for clemency, and even C.J. Innis had assured the jury before they delivered the verdict of guilty of murder that a plea for mercy could be considered. But in the end, no mercy was granted, and Nora was hanged at the gallows at 8:00 a.m. Wednesday, June 5th.
When the death sentence was handed down by the judge, the jury was told that the recommendation for mercy would be sent to the Governor – at the time, Sir Peter H.G. Stallard.
The decision of the court sparked public outcry among those who sympathized with Nora, and over the course of the following four weeks there was a movement to amass signatures via petitions to save her from the gallows.
A particularly emotive article was carried in the Sunday, June 2, edition of Belize Billboard carrying the screaming headline: “Save Nora for her 8 kids’ sake.”
Notably, there was no Court of Appeal, no Privy Council to overturn the Supreme Court verdict and any possible stay of execution was in the hands of the same Crown that had brought the case against the woman.
Nora was leaving behind 8 sons, ages 15 years to 14 months old, four from her marriage and four from her union with Ketchell Trapp.
A total of 2,461 persons had signed the petition: 1,815 from Belize, 310 from Stann Creek, 268 from Punta Gorda, 68 from Salt Creek, the Billboard reported.
A special committee appointed on May 7 by the Governor Stallard decided that the law must take its course. Petitioners had hoped that then First Minister, George Price, and Chief Secretary Michael Porcher could help, but a deputation that included Nora’s 8 children, made pleas that were to no avail. It was reported that the Governor refused the children a personal audience and said he would hear from them only in writing.
Nora’s son, Dean Williams, informed us today that an appeal was also sent to the Queen of England, and she had agreed to a stay of the execution, but the correspondence, sent via mail, came too late to save her from the gallows, Williams recounted.
The Billboard editor called for Nora to be pardoned in the Tuesday, June 4th, edition, pointing out that while murder does attract the sentence of death by hanging, the law nonetheless also provides for persons convicted of murder to be pardoned, and Nora should be pardoned for the sake of her 8 children.
When the darkness of despair eclipsed the movement to save Nora, her sister, Winfred Williams, began to make arrangements to bury her.
Nora was reportedly baptized a Roman Catholic days before her death and burial, and she had a Christian burial at the request of her family.