After his captivating presentation on the talented Horace Wrinch last January, author and fellow Probus Club member,
Geoff Mynett, joined us once again, this time to share some stories from his new books, Murders on the Skeena: True Crime
in the Old Canadian West 1884-1914 and Pinkertons Hunt for Simon Gunanoot.
In particular, Geoff shared the stories of Charley Youmans, William Adam Gordon, Simon Gunanoot, and John May gathered from historian sources and presented from a historian’s perspective.
Geoff qualified as a Barrister in England, immigrated to British Columbia in 1973, requalified as a Barrister and Solicitor,
and worked as house counsel and corporate secretary or MacMillan Bloedel for his whole legal career. He also is an artist.
His first book was the best-selling biography of the pioneering doctor Horace Wrinch— Service on the Skeena: Horace Wrinch,
Frontier Physician, published by Ronsdale Press in 2020. It won the orge Ryga Award For Social Awareness in Literature for 2021
Charley Youmans and his Fatal Procrastination
Charley Youmans was a trader with a small store in Hazleton. In May of 1884, he was bringing up some cargo in a canoe on the Skeena River. The mighty Skeena River was one of the few ways in and out of roadless Hazleton at the time. As they passed through the Kitselas Canyon, a large swell in the beastly river took out Bill Evans, a young Gitxsan man and one of Charley’s crewmen. Under Gitxsan law, Charley was required to go to Bill’s family at once to inform them of the accident and provide compensation for their loss. Charley failed to report the accident to the family in a timely manner, and he was assumed to have played a role in Charley’s death, which under Gitxsan law, meant that the boy’s family could take action. On June 6th, Charley was standing on his porch when a man named Hartq stabbed him in the neck with a knife that he was hiding in his jacket as payback for Bill’s death. Charley staggered home, where he died from his injuries.
The people of Hazelton didn’t know whether to follow Gitxsan law in this instance or the Law of the Land. Upon the town’s request, the provincial government sent up two police officers and a magistrate. Hartq was arrested in the middle of a huge crowd of Indigenous people and taken downriver for a trial. At the trial, the jury didn’t accept the Gitxsan law and convicted Hartq of murder. Given the verdict, the judge was forced to sentence Hartq to death by hanging. Unhappy about the jury’s decision, the judge wrote the Governor-General to consider commuting Hartq’s sentence as he had no knowledge of the Law of the Land. His letter worked, and the Governor-General altered Hartq’s punishment to imprisonment.
William Adam Gordon and the Missing Corpse
Isaac Jones, a Welshman and William Gordon, a Scot, met working as miners in Nanaimo. In 1887, they decided to head off to the Omineca Mountains to search for gold. Jones had about $1,200. While Gordon had no money, he brought knowledge. However, Gordon was a bit unbalanced, and over the course of the three-month journey, the relationship between the two men became strained. They eventually reached the Omineca Mountains. One day, the two men set out on a prospect, but when Gordon returned, Jones wasn’t with him.
Gordon claimed that Jones had gone back south and asked him to sell his things for him, including his tent and coat. Rumours quickly began to spread about Gordon’s involvement with Jones’ disappearance. Unfortunately, no one was able to find Jones’ body. Due to an error in sentencing in Chipping Campden years earlier, a decision was made that prevented anyone from being put on trial for a murder trial without a body. So, Gordon was instead charged and tried for the theft of Jones’ possessions. He served seven months and disappeared upon his release, likely getting away with murder.
James Kirby, Simon Gunanoot and Six Days in June
Simon Gunanoot is perhaps one of the most famous outlaws in the province’s history. He was a well-respected and talented Gitxsan man who ran at least one store in the area. One night he went to a bar for a drink where he got into a fight with Alex Macintosh, a man with a nasty reputation. Gunanoot escaped the fight, swearing that he’d be back to kill Macintosh. When Macintosh’s body was found the following morning, the police assumed that Gunanoot was the murderer. On their search for Gunanoot, they came upon another body. James Kirby, the town’s only police officer, assembled a posse to search for Gunanoot. However, their efforts were futile as many people in the town, including some who were part of the search party, were friends with Gunanoot. Gunanoot was able to escape to the hills, where he lived as an outlaw for 13 years before surrendering himself in 1919. Many people helped keep his secret, and he became a symbol of resistance for the Gitxsan people. Gunanoot was acquitted and was able to return to Hazelton, where he continued his life until his death in the 1930s.
John May and the Blood-Stained Shirt
In September 1914, Bert Taylor was living in New Hazleton. He was a guard for one of the bridges along the Skeena River. One morning, Bert took the cable ferry into Hazelton, where he hit up the bar, had a meal, a haircut, and bought some bottles of booze. He returned to the ferry where he was seen drinking with some people, one of whom crossed over with him on a boat, John May. The following day, Bert was found dead with cuts all over his body. Police found several of John May’s items near Bert’s body including a blood-stained shirt. With Mays as their main suspect, they went over to his home. Upon seeing the police, John May, in his hungover state, blurted out, “Who squealed on me?”. John was tried and convicted for murder; however, his case went to the Court of Appeal for a technical error on the rules around cross-examination. A split decision earned him a new trial. Despite all of the circumstantial evidence against him, John May was acquitted in this second trial.
Q & A transcription
Comment: I’d like to say that this has been a very interesting performance and we’re very lucky that the speaker is a fellow member of our group. It is amazing to me how few storytellers there are that bring so much background to the story. It’s not just a few names. It’s the legal background and those important issues that allow us to understand the outcomes.
Answer: Thank you so much for that. I spent four summers as an anthropological linguist writing down the Gitxsan language and became fascinated by Simon Gunanoot. I asked questions of people in the community and I’m absolutely amazed how much more I learned from you than through all of that face-to-face question-asking. Thank you for that. And I’d also like to mention that thank Bill Hooker, who appropriately to his name, is able to hook in the most interesting storytellers. We need more storytellers and you are one. And Bill, of course, knows how important this is for our session every month.
Question from Rick Brenner: What have been your best sources for your material?
Answer: I’m very much an original sources type of historian. I like to go back to the contemporaneous documents. So, the facts in the Charley Youmans’ story came mainly from the judge’s notes that he took during the course of the trial. He recorded the actual words used by the witnesses. The Gunanoot stories came from a whole range of areas but very much in the sworn statements given for the trial in 1919. Again, sworn statements are fascinating. Newspapers give you a good story of the time too.
Can I tell you another story, which involves a body but not a murder? This was in 1992, on the telegraph lines. A Christmas where a young man, a telegraph operator, went to celebrate Christmas at the next-door cabin and got blindly drunk. His body was found the next morning, spread-eagled out in the snow and ice, on his way back to his cabin. Now, this is about 60 miles from Hazleton, and an inquest had to be performed. So, the coroner sent a man called Klein to bring back the body. Not a pleasant task, but there we are. So, he set out and he got up there and found the body which was between the two cabins. The cabins were 30 miles apart so it was way out in the bushes. He put the spread-eagle frozen body on the sled and tried to bring it out. Now, I don’t know how many of you have tried to bring a frozen body out to the forest on the sled, but he found it impossible because with the arms and legs going in all directions, you can’t pull it through the undergrowth, through the branches, through the trees, to the water. But he had to bring the body back. So, what to do? Well, what he did was the only thing he could do. He had another chap, a friend, with him. They threw a rope over a pine tree branch and hoisted the body up and lit a fire underneath to thaw it out. It took about 12 hours. They figured, “if anyone comes upon us, then we got a lot of explaining to do.” So anyway, after about 12 hours, they thawed it out and put it into a nice position and they took it back to Hazleton where the doctor and the coroner looked at it. Might have wondered why the body was placed like this, but oh, well. Because the doctor, on Doctor Wrinch’s farm, found a lot of alcohol in the young man’s, he was 18 or 19, body the coroner held an inquest. And they swore in six old-timers who needed a bit more money as a jury. Now to the coroner, it was quite clear that guy died from drinking. He was drinking, he was drunk, what’s the problem? Just on with it. But the jury took a long time in a hotel room in town to decide what to say the cause of death was. They came back in and the coroner asked them, “well, how did this guy die?” And they said, “natural causes!” The coroner was furious because clearly, the guy was drunk. So, he said, “how on earth can you find it to be because of natural causes?” And they said, “well, we think it’s natural to get drunk at Christmas and so, natural causes!”
Question: I’m interested to know with your knowledge of the history of Hazelton and the past there, have you got any comments on if you could compare and contrast the relationship between the white people of the time and the First Nations, the Gitxsan people, up in Hazleton? How can you compare the relationship then with the relationship now?
Answer: Well, as you will well be aware, that is a huge topic and a very sensitive topic. I can’t speak for the Gitxsan then or now, which sounds like a lawyer’s disclaimer I know, but there we are. On a macro scale, there was a huge racial gulf there. This was universal throughout the world. The white people thought they were superior and they looked down on the Indigenous people. The cultures were so different. On a micro-scale, which is far more interesting, you almost have to look at people one-by-one, because they weren’t monolithic blocks of people all thinking the same thing. You had very progressive First Nations, you had First Nations who wouldn’t have anything to do with white people, ones who wanted to work together, and the same on the white side. They had to get on! I mean, for six months of the year, they were isolated. I mean, there were no ferries. No one could come from October to May. They had to get on and many of them worked very well together. But there was that racial divide. I think it got worse after 1900 partly because more and more white people flowed into the area. The problems grew. Government with capital G came along with the police. A hospital came along, which although did have benefits, was a major cultural shift and challenge to the spiritual ways of the Gitxsan people, and then there were little isolated incidents like the Gunanoot case, the interference of the fishing laws… So, after 1900, I think relations got worse, and the conflict grew. It’s hard to compare it with these days. They were very insistent on their rights in those days. As though they suddenly woke up to their rights. The Gunanoot case of course, and the famous Delgamuukw case established rights they started fighting for before the First World War. So, it’s been 100 years of difference. Before 1900 the Gitxsan people were in a vast majority. After 1900, they started becoming less so, and then they were completely overwhelmed. So, I’m not sure that’s a good comparison between then and now. But there were a few comments. I hope that addresses your question. I’m always learning. History is a journey, not a destination. It’s always looking to find out new things, new facts. I’m always slightly suspicious of people who tell me what history is because, you know, it isn’t to be told and taught, is to be discovered and found, in my view, anyway.
Question from Hugh Lindsay: It sounds that the lawyers and judges in the cases you described applied the law quite fairly when dealing with Indigenous peoples. Was that generally the situation?
Answer: I haven’t done the extensive sort of research into the courts at the time. My suspicion is that the higher the court, the fairer it was. But that’s just my suspicion. I think that the judge in the Youmans’ case, and the judge in the Burt Taylor case we’re very fair. But I don’t like to comment generally on judges, I think there’s at least one judge attending, maybe they can give me a better perspective on that.
Question from Tim Sehmer: Any idea why Gunanoot eventually gave himself up?
Answer: I think he was tired. Yes, he’d been living in the wilderness for 13 years. Yes, he’d been coming into town, but I think he was tired. He wanted his children getting an education. He also thought that the witnesses wouldn’t be around anymore. In fact, there were. I think some people think the trial was an open-and-shut case and that he was going to be acquitted anyway. I think if the judge, the court, and the jury had wanted to find him guilty, the witnesses were there. I think the jury just didn’t want to find him guilty. The surrender was carefully arranged by the policeman in town. So, I think was a mixture of things.
Question from Bill Hooker: What are you now pursuing?
Answer: Well yeah, I’m still working on things. I’ve got a couple more books in the pipeline. I think one may be coming out in the fall. So, I’m still working away. It’s a good thing to do during COVID.
Question from Zoobkoff: What I found particularly interesting in reading the first couple of chapters in the Murders book was the way Geoff captured the tension between the small non-Indigenous community and the much larger Indigenous communities. Good reading!
Answer: Yes, there always was a strain and tension there. There were always forces pulling the two communities apart, and forces pushing them together. So, you always had that tension between the two and that hasn’t gone away. Now, I was up there a few years ago in Hazleton, and there was a Church picnic of the United Church arranged with the various communities. There were about 40 people there, about half-and-half Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and as the pastor noted halfway through, all the Indigenous people were in one group and all the non-Indigenous were in another. The tension is still there and it’s a constant challenge to bring two cultures together so that they can mix together. So, it’s a work in progress and this is a part of the reconciliation process that has been going on and it’s not over yet. We see evidence every day of that.
Question from Paul E: Geoff, have you encountered any stories involving cannibalism in the region?
Answer: No. I’ve not seen any evidence whatsoever and not heard any assertion made that Gitxsan or Wet’suwet’en people were at any time at all involved in cannibalism. I’m not aware of any on the coast, although there are a few rumours and gossip, but I’m very skeptical about that. So, the short answer is no.
Question from Bill Hooker: Did Dr. Wrinch comment on those questions?
Answer: If we’re talking about the Gunanoot case, he was of course a witness in the case. He was the first on the scene. He did the post-mortems and he gave medical evidence at the trial. I’m not sure that he commented, although there is one story… Gunanoot was a shareholder in the sawmill at Kispiox and there was a distribution of profits one year back in 1911 or 1912, thereabouts. The manager of the sawmill was a missionary in Kispioux called Reverend Lee. One day a person appeared saying, “I heard Simon Gunanoot’s in town and he’s asking you for his share of the profits.” And Lee said, “well, come back this evening. I’ll give it to give to Gunanoot then.” He suspected, quite rightly, that the man was Gunanoot himself. Lee then got on his horse and rode away to his fellow missionary and Dr. Wrinch who was a Methodist clergyman as well as being a doctor. This gave Wrinch a problem, because should he go and tell the police? Then they could go and surround the house in the evening? And he decided not to, partly because that could lead to bloodshed, partly because it could destroy his, Wrinch’s, reputation in the area and his work as a doctor and a missionary depended on maintaining his reputation. And if he betrayed Gunanoot, that would destroy it. So, he told Lee to give the man his money, but tell him that he should give himself up. And the man came along later, with a revolver in each belt and a friend with him who also had a revolver. And he took the money and he was almost going to give himself up but his friend persuaded him not to. So, that’s all the comment I can really say about what Dr. Wrinch thought at the time.
Question from Paul E: Where can we buy your books?
Answer: Well, I think Hager’s in Kerrisdale stocks them. You can also get them from Amazon or from Caitlyn Press through their webpage, but any bookstore should order them for you.