February 19 – 25 marks BC Heritage Week, “an annual event that celebrates and showcases local heritage across the province.” While there are many events worthy of such recognition, BC Heritage Week also affords an opportunity to expose some darker episodes of our shared history.
From the introduction of capital punishment in 1859 until its civilian abolition in 1976, Canadians struggled to reconcile their need for justice (or vengeance) with their reluctance to take a human life. The solution was to structure the event as a morality play: the condemned prisoner, Everyman (or Everywoman), was tempted by one of the Seven Deadly Sins (lust and greed figure prominently) and consequently fell from grace. At least, that was the explanation offered for white offenders; there was no need to establish a motive for criminals of other races. Two roughly contemporary BC crimes, both of which resulted in hangings, make this distinction clear.
On October 2, 1896, James Woods (or Wood, sources vary) arrived at the blacksmith’s shop in Nelson, BC where he shot the owner, Paddy Wood (or Woods) in the chest without saying a word. Paddy Woods identified his assailant but neither he nor James ever provided any explanation of the crime. On April 15, 1899, “the Indian known as Casimir” shot local rancher Philip Walker, also without saying a word. Both victims survived their wounds for several hours and were able to give an account of events to authorities.
The lack of motive in the Woods case so unsettled the citizenry that the rumour mill was put to work constructing an appropriate narrative. It was with some relief that The Los Angeles Times (August 27, 1897, pg. 2) reported that “those who claim to know” maintained that Paddy was James’ father who had abandoned the family, resulting in his wife’s premature death. Not something society should condone, but certainly understandable.
The same concerns did not trouble the Walker case. After all, Casimir was Indigenous and therefore assumed to be inherently violent and amoral. As with every other racialized accused during this period, his crime was “unprovoked.” The Province (April 17, 1899, pg. 3) explained that Casimir was “a very hard case” who had served three years in the provincial penitentiary for the attempted murder of Constable Smith and was “a frequenter of Kamloops jail [who] only two months since was released for a short term in the chain-gang for being drunk.” As he lay dying, Walker allowed that “he knew the Indian but had never had any trouble with him.” Still, there was no need to look for a motive: “Walker was a very quiet inoffensive man. The Indian can have had no possible motive for the crime, save thirst for a white man’s blood.” The headline read “Shot by an Indian: A Cold-Blooded Murder Committed at Kamloops.”
Every morality play concludes with a virtue – in this case, Justice – redeeming the protagonist and restoring the natural order. In the case of execution, it was important to establish that the soul was saved, even though the prisoner’s life was forfeit. At every hanging, when all was in readiness, the Lord’s Prayer was recited; the executioner pulled the lever at “deliver us from evil.”
In this regard, James Woods proved quite unsatisfactory—not only did he fail to make a final statement, he showed no remorse. The Vancouver Semi-Weekly World (August 27, 1897, pg. 1) reported that he “showed no concern” and “went to his death with a smile on his face.” Nonetheless, the headline read “Avenged His Mother.”
Unlike Woods, Casimir obligingly confessed to his crime. The Kingston Whig Standard (June 2, 1899, pg. 1) reported that “he attributed his position to whiskey and advised his comrades on the reservation to stay away from liquor . . . The only motive given for the deed was he was possessed by the idea that he had to kill someone, but was sorry for what he had done.” Even better, “The Indian met his death with stolid courage. He shook hands with the executioner, wished those present a farewell, and exhorted his tribesmen to lead good lives.” (Vancouver Daily World, June 1, 1899, pg. 1).
Who could possibly doubt that Justice had prevailed?
Lynn Duncan, February 2023