Monday, July 18, 2016

Robbery, Murder & Hanging! (Convicts Interred at Boot Hill Cemetery)

Hello Friends,

Here is the story of two convicts who gained fame for an ambitious escape attempt that went oh so wrong. These lads are now interred at the B.C. Penitentiary's Cemetery, a small plot of land which lays west across a ravine from where the prison once stood in New Westminster.

Herman and Joseph, both young men in their early 20's, met while serving 10 years each in "the Pen" (opened 1878 & closed 1980) for robbery attempts.

In 1911 Vancouver was going through an expansion boom, and the number of prisoners in "the Pen" grew to 331 the following year. Browsing through historical Vancouver newspapers, I noticed a large number of articles describing robberies in the city and surrounding areas. Some of violent nature, some simply theft of handbags or socks and even a loaf of bread. One of North America's biggest bank vault robberies took place in September of 1911, the thieves (was it 3 or 5 men? Reports show confusion with the number) getting away with more than a quarter million dollars.

Construction was booming in the city with the openings of new business buildings, theatres, streetcar expansions, and a company of small ferry boats began operating on the Fraser River. The population of Vancouver had increased to over 120,000 by 1913, of which a study indicated 34% were British.

What was to come was the first and only hanging at the B.C. Penitentiary, and this was met with controversy and confusion of who actually shot the fatal bullet which killed Prison Guard Joynson.

Meet prisoners #1628 - Herman Wilson and #Unknown - Joseph Smith.

While Herman was born in the Toronto area and his occupation was listed as "waiter", Joseph's death certificate indicates he was a "sailor" from England.

On March 1st, 1911 Joseph Smith walked into a jewellery store in Vancouver's busy section with the intent to steal.
The first account appeared in two newspapers, the Daily Colonist and the Vancouver Daily World.
Courtesy - Daily Colonist (Mar.02, 1911) article in 2 parts

This was the first time reported, of any thief using "ammonia" in a squirt gun to stun the shop owner in an attempt to make off with the loot. Gold jewellery. Unfortunately for Joseph, the shop keep clung to him and would not let go. Police arrived swiftly.
Courtesy - Vancouver Daily World (Mar.02, 1911)
In the Colonist it indicates the shop was on Westminster Ave, yet in the Vancouver Daily World it states Main Street. They are the same street, which had been renamed Main Street in 1910. (See Street Names of Vancouver - Elizabeth Walker.)

In short, Joseph Smith walked into the shop around 5:20 pm and asked to be shown some jewellery. As the shop keep leaned over to show one of the pieces, he lifted his squirt gun and shot him in the eyes with the ammonia liquid. Instantly the shop keep grabbed for Joseph's neck and shouted for help. The two men wrestled and ended up on the shop floor in a struggle. The butcher, from next door, came running in and helped restrain Joseph until the police arrived. Once in the police station, Joseph provided little information, but it is noted that he stated he was a Canadian and a sailor.
Courtesy - Vancouver Daily World (Mar.08, 1911)
Joseph appeared in court a few days later, and accounts show that the trial was quick and Judge Shaw made determination that any further attempts by Smith may become fatal; therefore, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The interesting note about the above article indicates that Smith is described as a "stupid looking youth".

Warden Brown,1907 - NW Archives
In the book "Four Walls in the West" by Jack David Scott, it is noted (page 50) that Joseph Smith made an attempt to escape "the Pen" in 1911. He was caught, and on September 22nd Warden John Brown wrote to Ottawa asking if Smith (and another inmate also caught the same night) should be prosecuted, suggesting "the loss of remission and the wearing of irons would be a more effective penalty than addition of a few months to their sentences." At this time it is noted that a 30 foot brick wall was being built to surround 5 acres of wooded reserve land next to the penitentiary buildings. The brush of the area was so thick that it would be a haven for prisoners attempting to flee while working in a labour gang outside of the prison fence, thus making it difficult for the prison guards to chase after them.

How Herman Wilson ended in the prison is a bit of a mystery; although it is noted in the articles and documents found that he had committed a violent highway robbery near Fernie, B.C. which landed him with a 10 year sentence. His death certificate indicates he had been labelled as a "convict" since May 23, 1912. Searching historical newspapers for the period provided several robbery accounts but none in his full name. As such, the account of when the Fernie Assizes was next scheduled is shown below; yet it confirms the struggle of identifying which "Wilson" is being referred to:
Courtesy - The Daily Colonist (Apr.18, 1912)
A search for this (above) court session met with the article below. It is helpful in determining if my suspicions that this may be referring to Herman Wilson are correct.
Courtesy - The Daily Colonist (May 26, 1912)
The article confirms a man named "Wilson" was guilty of a violent robbery and sentenced to "the Pen" for 10 years. In addition to his sentence he was to receive (along with his accomplice) 20 lashes within one year's time.

Above - Convict Deaths in B.C. Penitentiary (website listed in document)
The above documentation indeed provides us with information which led to one of the most famous cases of the time which reached all corners of the continent. It also refers to Wilson's stay in the Penitentiary being 2 months; however, as mentioned previously, Herman's death certificate (below) indicates he had been in the prison since May 23, 1912. This may confirm the articles found about the robbery case. The date may be off by a few days, but this was a common error in documentation during the times.
Courtesy BC Archives Genealogy - Death Certificate of Herman Wilson
As the death certificate also indicates Herman died at the end of October 2012, I had to work backwards to find out what had happened. "Bullet wound of lung" was the cause of Herman's death, and it indicates "24 days". So working backwards for the year of 1912, I finally found newspaper articles which brought to light what had happened. Find below 4 photos which make up one article found in the Vancouver Daily World:
Courtesy of - Vancouver Daily World (Oct.07, 1912)
As in my previous blogs, you can click on each one for a larger view. In short, the article explains that on October 5th, 1912 Wilson and Smith made an escape attempt in which a prison guard (J. H. Joynson) was shot to death. A memorial is posted in the Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc website:

In "Four Walls in the West" by Jack David Scott, a description of the incident is noted (pages 52-53), although it incorrectly names Wilson as "Norman" instead of "Herman". The account of the attempt tells us that both inmates were working with others crushing rock in a yard near the east wall of the prison grounds as punishment; Smith for his previous escape attempt, and Wilson for trying to smuggle an iron bar out of the workshop. The guard on duty of the detail was Craig. He witnessed Smith walk up to Wilson and say something, then walk back to his place in the line. Talking with one another is not permitted, therefore Craig stepped up to Smith and reprimanded him. Upon turning away, Smith hit the guard with his mallet. Craig recovered and began fighting with Smith until Wilson joined in. The two inmates grabbed Craig's gun and ran off towards a shop building entrance, while another convict went to Craig's aid. Tower guards witnessed the entire thing but did not shoot; instead, they sounded the alarm bell. Guard Round was locking up the shop door as Wilson and Smith ran up and pointed the revolver at him. No one knew the revolver was empty of bullets. The two took Round's revolver and forced him to unlock the door to a tunnel which led under the wall dividing the shops from the brickyard. They then escorted the guard through the tunnel and into another yard. Walking behind Round, they approached Guard Morrison, who was forced to surrender his gun and join the trio in walking towards a post guarded by Elson. He was instructed to throw down his rifle and keys. Elson did so but kept his revolver. When Wilson bent down to pick up the keys, he was shot in the neck by Elson. Then Joynson ran onto the scene and opened up fire. Smith fired in rapid succession at Joynson, while Round threw himself at Smith, thus pinning him down until the Deputy Warden and an Instructor reached them. Both were armed with Winchester rifles. Smith surrendered. Joynson was lying in great pain and Wilson had been shot by Elson. Guard Joynson died within the hour, while Wilson was taken to the Royal Columbian Hospital.

An inquest to Joynson's death began, and the volley of newspaper reports continued.

Courtesy of - Daily Colonist (Oct.08, 1912)
The above article gives us an idea of why the Guards in the towers had not taken a shot. They only carried 3 rounds each. However, it still wasn't clear as to whom shot Joynson. In "Four Walls in the West" it suspects that perhaps Guard Elson's bullets may have hit Joynson, as it writes "Elson admitted he had fired somewhat wildly but was firm that when he fired at Smith, as he had after hitting convict Wilson, Smith had been 'quite apart up in a corner of the fence'."
Courtesy - Vancouver Daily World (Oct.08, 1912)
The above article charges both convicts for the murder, and the following day the Vancouver Daily World confirmed it's report:
Courtesy - Vancouver Daily World (Oct.09, 1912)
Courtesy - Vancouver Daily World (Oct.11, 1912)
It did not end there, as this was only the inquest. The trial was yet to come later in the month. What interested me were the questions asked by Wilson and Smith, and the description and state of the convicts' appearances.

On October 13th the Daily Colonist indicates in their report that Wilson and Smith had actually wounded another officer.
Courtesy - The Daily Colonist (Oct.13, 1912)
With the convicts back in prison and Canada catching up on this crazy incident via news reports, we think the saga is nearly done. But things take a turn, for Wilson that is.
Courtesy of - Vancouver Daily World (Oct.30, 1912)
Herman Wilson is reported dead. The wound in his neck became infected and along with septic pneumonia (see his death certificate), within 24 days he is gasping his last breaths, the Warden at his side. The report rang out up and down the Pacific Northwest and across the continent. Here are a few of the many reports we found:
Courtesy - Daily Colonist (Oct.31, 1912)
Courtesy - Morning Register, Eugene Oregon (Oct.31, 1912)
Courtesy - Seattle Star, Seattle Washington (Oct31. 1912)
Courtesy Peel Library, University of Alberta - Edmonton Bulletin (Oct.31, 1912)
Courtesy UBC: BC Historical Newspapers - Delta Times (Nov.02, 1912)
Up next was Smith facing the murder charge on his own. He was represented by W. F. Hansford. I located William's death certificate to see what type of man he had been. A barrister born in Prescott, Ontario on September 15, 1875. In the 1921 Canadian Census, William is living in Revelstoke B.C., which is near the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, practising law. In 1945 he appears to be living on Pendrell St. at Bute St. in Vancouver's West End. He died in a "Home for the Aged" on July 09, 1951 in Coquitlam, B.C. due to senile dementia; and, because he was "single" with no family to claim his body, was buried in the "Institutional Cemetery" (now called "Woodlands Memorial Garden") in New Westminster. It is only a stones throw from Boot Hill Cemetery. How coincidental is that?

It took some searching, but I finally found a newspaper report about Wilson's murder trial.
Courtesy UBC: BC Historical Newspapers - Delta Times (Nov.23, 1912)
The article tell us that Smith kept his composure during the sentencing. I don't know about you, but if I was told I am sentenced to death, I'd feel an enormous amount of anxiety. The next bit of information came in December 1912.
Courtesy - Vancouver Daily World (Dec.14, 1912)
The Vancouver Daily World article (above) describes that Smith's barrister appealed the case due to misdirection of the jury. It would be interesting to hear what the Justice said during the trial. Alas, we could only find minimal information about the trial.
Courtesy - Daily Colonist (Dec.17, 1912)
So now it is clear, the trial was held in November 1912 and placing Joseph Smith on "death row". I looked into the National Archives of Canada and found this item:
Courtesy National Archives of Canada - 1994
Next would come the appeal in January 1913.
Courtesy - Daily Colonist (Jan.19, 1913)
The above article confirms a reprieve was declined due to costs, yet below, it is reported by the Vancouver Daily World that Hansford was not to give up.
Courtesy - Vancouver Daily World (Jan.23, 1913)
Courtesy - Vancouver Daily World (Jan.28, 1913)
We have now learned that although Hansford made attempts to get an appeal, the word came from Ottawa, the nation's capital, that the execution of Joseph Smith was to proceed on January 31, 1913 in the morning hours.
Courtesy - Vancouver Daily World (Jan.31, 1913)
And so it all came to an end. In the morning hours of January 31, 1913 Joseph Smith was hung in the prison yard, near the place where Guard Joynson had been shot. Prisoners were locked up and unable to witness the hanging, but one can only imagine the silence that may have swept through the prison at the precise time of the hanging. The news spread quickly and newspapers across the country reported the event in the following days. This was the one and only hanging at the B.C. Penitentiary. Yes, there were other executions in New Westminster, but these were held in the New Westminster Jail, which was situated not far from the prison. The building became a school years later. You can read about the jail here.
Courtesy Peel Library, University of Alberta - Edmonton Bulletin (Feb.01, 1913)
Courtesy - Vancouver Daily World (Feb.01, 1913)
The article that followed Smith's demise tells us of his first escape attempt in September 1911. If we go back to the beginning of this blog, I mention another inmate was caught the same evening attempting to escape. Was this newspaper report incorrect by saying he was still at large? Or was there more than one escape attempt on the same day? I searched for an article to confirm this, but could not locate one.
The article from Edmonton indicates Smith's mother had written a "farewell letter" but they did not give it to the convict for fear it would "unnerve" him. Was this the right decision to make? Would you do the same if you were the Warden?

And now we come to the end of our story. Below you'll find Joseph Smith's death certificate confirming the date, time and nature of his demise. A young man on an adventure, making big mistakes that define his life and ends up hanging for a murder that had become controversial and is still talked about today.
Courtesy BC Archives Genealogy - Death Certificate of Joseph Smith
 We thank you for taking this journey into the past with us. If you have any comments, feelings about this that you would like to share, or questions you are pondering.. please post a comment to this blog, at our Facebook Page, or email us via our Website's Contact Page. We'd love to hear from you!

If you have not read any of our previous accounts, please check them out. Each convicts' story is filled with interesting facts, incredible adventures and emotional effect.
01) Meet Convict 1548 - Thompson
02) Meet Convict 2370 - Walsh
03) Meet Convict 2304 - Chinley
04) Meet Convict 1774 - Hinds
05) Meet Convicts 1628 - Herman Wilson + Unknown# - Joseph Smith
06) Meet Convict 1659 - Y. Yoshie
07) Meet Convict 1884 - Moses Paul
08) Meet Convict 2516 - Daniel Henrick Urick
09) Meet Convict 1948 - Unknown Gim
10) Meet Convict 2938 - Reginald John Colpitts
11) Meet Convict 5603 - Stephen Poole
12) Meet Convict 3130 - Harry Davis
13) Meet Convict 2312 - Albert Hill
14) Meet Convict Unknown# - Phillip Hopkins
15) Meet Convict #9720 - Norman Donald Bottineau
16) Meet Convict #2225 - Louie Num
17) Meet Convict #3237 - Harold Gordon McMaster
18) Meet Convict #4234 - Herbert Ross

Thank you,
Talk soon..

Sources: "The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver" - Chuck Davis; "Four Walls in the West" - Jack David Scott; Vancouver Public Library -;; The British Colonist; "Vancouver, the Romance of Canadian Cities Series" - Eric Nicol; "Vancouver, Milltown to Metropolis" - Alan Morley; B.C. Archives-Geneology; B.C. City Directories;;; Canada Archives; "Death Sentence: the New Westminster Penitentiary" - Robert C. Belyk, BC History Vol.39 No.1; New Westminster Archives; Peel library, University of Alberta; UBC-BC Historical Newspapers Open Collections; - The British Columbian. 

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