The O’Brien Murders
First of a sensational series of true detective stories drawn from the official records of Canada's North-West Mounted Police
By T. MORRIS LONGSTRETH and HENRY VERNON
IT IS about time that the story of the O’Brien Christmas murders be told from the records.
Of the accounts which have appeared some were only partially informed, others wilfully distorted into romance. All agreed in playing the spotlight upon a single detective while overlooking the organization which brought the extraordinary murderer to the gallows. Without that unpralsed but inspired co-operation George O’Brien would undoubtedly have escaped. The Mounted Police have been extolled for their obvious qualities of persistence and picturesqueness; but it is hardly understood on what these qualities rest. This case shows clearly the Force’s manner of working together and the procedure of clearing up a formidable mystery.
The narrative that follows gives the unfolding of the events in order and without deviating into fiction. The reader is requested to convey himself in imagination to the barracks of the North-West Mounted Police situated near the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers.
Dawson City in the closing weeks of 1899 was a busy place, with 50,000 fortune hunters swarming through the little town and up the outlying creeks. The lucky ones were already withdrawing with their gold, going out by the up-river trail. To protect these travellers, some of whom had fortunes in dust and some only their disappointment, the Mounted Police had established detachments along the 400 miles of river and lake. In August ’99, telegraphic communication had been opened up between the headquarters of “B” Division at Dawson and "H” Division at Tagish, a day’s journey from the Yukon-Alaska boundary.
It was just a wire strung from tree to tree, needing constant attention, and among the repairmen was a Swede, Ole Olsen, who made his headquarters at the Mounted Police detachment at Five Fingers. To understand the geographical layout it is necessary to visualize four places along the winding Yukon. Coming out, that is, mushing south from Dawson, the traveller first reached Selkirk Detachment, Constable Pennycuick in charge; then Minto, eighteen miles south of that, where the Fuasells had a roadhouse; then the detachment of Hutshiku, sixteen miles south of Minto, Corporal Ryan in charge; and then Five Fingers as far south again.
On December 21 Olsen had passed Hutshiku, going north, and Ryan had invited him to stop in for Christmas dinner on his way back from Minto. Olsen accepted gladly. But Christmas Day passed and Ryan ate a delayed dinner without Olsen. He was disappointed, but realized that a linesman’s job almost matched his own for uncertainty, as the line had to be kept open, holiday or no holiday. An unusual thaw had set in with a heavy snow following, giving a plausible reason for Olsen’s continued non-appearance. But when a week had passed Ryan yielded to his fears that Olsen had met with some accident, and on December 31 started north toward Minto along the telegraph line.
Unfortunately three trails complicated the search at
that point. The main route of winter travel south from Selkirk to Minto and Hutshiku followed the river. But to avoid its winding course, the freighters responsible for the food supply of Dawson had opened a short cut across bends and called it the Pork Trail. Close to the Pork Trail ran the telegraph wire. This was the way that Ryan pursued,, keeping his frontier-trained eye open for indications of distrass.
He had accomplished about half of the sixteen miles when he noted a sign, the faintest possible depression in the snow leading away from the Pork Trail. Only experienced eyes would have noted at all that the snow sagged where a well-trodden path had been snowed smoothly over. Because it was part of his general police duty to check up the unusual rather than because he had any suspicions, the corporal followed this depression, walking beside it so as not to obliterate the signs. He was led away from the river through a growth of birch, firs, and cottonwoods for some distance, to be startled by coming upon a tent, or rather a canvas-covered log structure, which had been recently occupied. The bed and equipment showed that two persons had used the tent. Other signs pointed to a temporary or permanent abandonment.
There were some curious aspects to this discovery. The site was seemingly meaningless, being a mile and a half from the river. The occupants had abandoned their stove and even some supplies. Ryan, checking these over, discovered that some of the goods bore marks identifying them as goods taken from an ice-locked scow near Selkirk, thefts from which were under investigation by Constable Pennycuick. This was something to report, but first Ryan went on to Minto.
To the Fussells he told his worry about Olsen’s nonappearance and was told in turn that Olsen had left their house early on Christmas morning with the expressed intention of dining with Ryan. Further, there were two young men with him, Fred Clayson and Linn Reife, successful prospectors who were mushing out from Dawson. They too had been eager to push on.
Ryan turned back to Hutshiku in the hope of finding word that Olsen had reported at Five Fingers, only to learn from Constable Buxton, who had been with Olsen before Christmas and had relieved him of his tools, except a file and pair of pliers, that Olsen had not yet returned. Ryan sent a messenger to Selkirk to tell Pennycuick of the stolen goods in the tent and arranged to meet that constable there.
Pennycuick was startled; he had seen that stove before. It was unmistakable on account of a peculiar arrangement of overlapping draught holes in the form of a figure 8. He had seen it recently in the camp of
two men—who gave their names as Miller and Ross—at Hell’s Gate, where the scow thefts had taken place. So sufficient had been the grounds for suspecting Messrs. Miller and Ross of the thefts that Pennycuick had gone to get warrants for their arrest. On returning he had found the suspects flown. Now they had flown again. Pennycuick and Ryan checked over the camp’s contents once more and collided with another discovery—a file and a pair of pliers. This was Ryan’s second shock. “Could they be Olsen’s?” was the query that roamed his mind. Undoubtedly it was time to notify Dawson of these findings.
It was January 5 when Inspector William Scarth was told of the disappearance of Olsen, Clayson, and Reife, and had the direction of the investigation put in his hands. At first glance it seemed a large order. The police were responsible for law and order in an area of 200,000 square miles, most of it wilderness inhabited mainly by men boiling with a passion for the new gold. But two factors acted in the force’s favor. By means of the new telegraph a cordon at either end of the line of travel could be drawn tight; and in winter, at least, there was no practicable way of avoiding the police posts. Scarth’s first step was to cause descriptions of Miller and Ross to be circulated throughout the region, while in Dawson he set about investigating their pasts as well as those of the lost men. Linn Reife, he discovered, was hardly more than a boy, well liked, and the sole support of his mother. Clayson came from a family influential in Seattle and was of good character. About the same time some news over the wire turned Scarth’s investigations into a fresh channel.
TT HAD been an unobtrusive but unfailing habit of
the police to scrutinize the travellers passing their detachments. In pursuance of this habit, Staff Sergeant Graham, at Tagish, near the border, noticed a strange team of black horses in the barracks stables. They and a dog, it seems, had arrived with a man named O’Brien from Dawson. He had got wet crossing the ice and was drying out. Graham’s attention was caught by the robe in O’Brien’s sleigh. It was a Mounted Police robe. O’Brien, confronted with it, claimed to have received it from the Officer Commanding at Dawson. This sounded fishy to Graham and he detained O’Brien until he could get Dawson to confirm or deny the story. To Graham’s surprise a wire from Dawson exonerated O’Brien of misrepresentation and he was freed from supervision.
His freedom was short-lived, for on the heels of that message came another. At 7 p. m. on January 7 he was arrested at the house of Indian Jennie. He asked why, and the constable told him that he would learn on reaching the barracks. What had happened was this: Graham’s enquiry about the robe had associated O’Brien with the culprit of Pennycuick’s report. His appearance
tallied so exactly with the description of Miller that he was charged with the scow thefts.
O’Brien denied the imputation. When asked about Ross’s whereabouts he disclaimed any knowledge of him. He admitted that he had had a partner, but they had separated some time since. His effects, including a 30-30 rifle, a telescope and a bone-handled knife, seemed to offer no damning evidence, and no single thing could be learned to justify suspicions that he was concerned with the disappearance of the three young men. His sleigh yielded up a dark stain that might be blood, but it would take an analyst to prove that it was human. Scarth knew, however, that this O’Brien had served a sentence in Dawson jail escaping, to be recaptured and finish out his turn, and he found out that Ross’s real name was Graves. He considered that there was sufficient ground for his coming to Selkirk to take personal charge of the case at close range.
Public interest was already high but not very helpful. It held that the police were too hasty in assuming that the missing men had been interfered with. Many were of the opinion that they had been accidentally swept under the river ice, and predicted that their bodies would be found in the spring. Then came the report that Olsen and Clayson had been located prospecting at Big Salmon where a new gold strike was drawing men in feverish crowds. Scarth was not diverted and directed headquarters and detachments to find out everything possible about the movements of O’Brien previous to his arrest and toward locating his partner. Also they were to enquire further about Clayson and Reife and their possessions.
Ryan and Pennycuick, on the ground, had struck a new scent. Blood spots had been discovered on the river ice together with a patch of dog’s yellow hair which might have belonged to the Saint Bernard that had accompanied O’Brien into Tagish. The snow was cleared for a considerable distance and holes were laboriously cut through the ice in order to drag the bottom. After two weeks of bitter effort the examination came to an abrupt end when it was learned that a mail-driver’s dog had injured himself at that spot and that the hair was from the same animal, still belonging to him. Next, a cabin that had been occupied by O’Brien and Graves was offered to the attention of Pennycuick and detective McGuire who had taken Ryan’s place. But it furnished the police nothing in the way of evidence.
A Challenge to the Police
TT WASnowmid*■ February, and O’Brien could not be held forever on suspicion of a crime of which not one fact was proved. The case presented every aspect of an insoluble mystery. The country was an uneven, thickly wooded wilderness, deep with snow, and arctic in climate. Somewhere, it was possible, lay the object of the search, but conjecture had not a single leg to stand on. The situation was, however, more of a challenge than a despair to Scarth and his men. There was
one thing they could do, so Scarth directed Pennycuick and McGuire back to the tent to start at the one known point to work outward again.
The move was rewarded by finding remnants of burnt buttons and moccasin eyelets in the ashes of the stove. That was encouragingly unusual; men rarely bothered to burn their clothes. They looked outside at the taunting snow. What did it hide? Could they afford to waste more time? It was axiomatic that there was always one clue. There was but one way to find it, to proceed from the known to the unknown. Accordingly they returned to where the tent trail left the Pork Trail to see if they could locate other snowed-over tracks.
It was good reasoning. In spite of successive snowfalls and their own old footmarks, the men discovered a snowed-over depression branching off to no obvious end
in spite of successive snow fulls, they discovered a snowed-over depression branching off to no obvious end from the main trail. Inset: Lt.-Col. William Scarth, who as inspector in the NorthWest Mounted Police was the chief directing figure in the O’Brien Murder Case. He now lives in Toronto.
from the main trail. Closer scrutiny revealed still others. One of these seemingly purposeless trails had been enlarged into a clearing 100 feet long and fifty feet wide. It was on higher ground. The tops of the cottonwoods had been hacked off by a dull axe. The chopper was clearly unskilled. Why had this been done? Neither detective could think of a plausible reason for clearing ground more than a mile from the river. Yet they agreed that this mysterious fact might extend the chain of fact. It held them to the vicinity with new hope.
One day as Pennycuick straightened up from examining the snow at his feet, his gaze travelled in a straight line with the cleared space—and beyond. He could dimly make out the river at a point some four miles away, where the Pork Trail on which he was standing branched from the river trail, and suddenly one of those juxtapositions of thought which are called inspirations occurred to him. He remembered the pair of field glasses found on O’Brien at his arrest. A strange article for a ne’er-do-well. The fact had piqued him, had lain in his memory as something incongruous and inexplicable, like this cleared space. But put the two together, the cleared space and the field-glasses—with the river in the distance—and they made sense. With field-glasses a watcher could see whether outcoming prospectors held to the river trail or diverged upon the shorter Pork Trail. If they diverged, what could be more to a highwayman’s taste than to await them in ambush? If they kept along the river trail, it gave sufficient warning to hurry ahead to another prearranged point of ambush. And for hiding-place, the well-secluded tent!
Instantly the tent took on new meaning, and renewed scrutiny revealed a slight mound of snow which produced an axe, dulled and nicked with one larger cleft that fitted marks in the cottonw'oods. A conviction of the reason for the clearing was becoming very plain in the minds of Pennycuick and McGuire. A theory still, but one around which the formerly groping efforts could be grouped. In a court of justice it would be nothing, completely valueless. Justice would demand that this preparation for a hold-up and possibly murder be identified with O’Brien and made unmistakable by the production of the bodies and of witnesses.
The men, nevertheless, were encouraged. They fol-
lowed up other snowed-over trails. One ran parallel to the river before converging with it. Its way was divined more by instinct than sight, so faint were the indications. It brought the men to a point where still another trail branched off from the one they were pursuing and continued downhill to the ice.
This, argued the two, was the river-trail ambush. It was a supposition, if not a discovery, too important to withhold from Scarth. So leaving McGuire to search the ambush thicket, Pennycuick hurried to Selkirk, returning with the inspector and constable Buxton, together with the chief object of the trip, O’Brien’s dog.
McGuire met the party with startling news. He had found unmistakable traces of two pools of blood in the snow now melting under a late March sun, two spots whose fetid smell repelled even the dog as he turned to pass the place. There was no doubting now. The four men were forced to realize that their fears of a ghastly tragedy were confirmed.
Leaving the gloom of what they had come to think of as Murder Trail, they returned to the Pork Trail accompanied by the dog. Before reaching the junction of the tent trail, Pennycuick let the dog precede the party and ordered him to “go home.” The dog cowered but made no move. Pennycuick repeated the command and the dog went on, leaving the well-defined Pork Trail and swinging off along the faint tent trail. They found him at the deserted camp, lying down, looking much at home.
It was a simple fact, but of enormous significance. Here was a witness, mute to be sure, linking O’Brien with the camp. The search for and finding of dog hair similar to the Saint Bernard’s on a mat was a perfunctory act, a concession to the rules of evidence rather than the requirement of their own minds. The refusal of the dog to leave with the party, the necessity of coaxing him, was a supplementary bit of color for the crown prosecutor’s address. Scarth returned to Dawson to direct other aspects of the case, leaving McGuire and Pennycuick to continue their explorations along Murder Trail.
Now began one of the most extraordinary feats of patience in the force’s annals. Day after day, through one of the coldest spells of that winter, on hands and
knees, occasionally with a shovel and broom, but more frequently with their fingers, they removed and carefully sifted the snow covering the area of possible struggle. They located a 40-82 shell the first day. They examined the trees and discovered branches cut by its bullet. By calculating angles and trajectory, they established the position of the shooter when the firing occurred. Another day yielded up splinters of bones, still another a receipt for Olsen's meals. So minute was their search as to bring to light flattened bullets, the top of a tooth with the lead from a bullet adhering to it; two days later a part of another tooth. By such remarkable and indefatigable pains was the structure of evidence built up into a scaffold.
MurderTrail having been exhausted, the two men moved back to the tent and made a similar intensive examination of the undersnow over thousands of square feet. Their finds were painfully conclusive; an electric belt such as linemen used, the ashes of an outside fire with more charred clothing keys, a knife. The next step was to disclose another lookout at a windfall by the
Continued on page 82
The O’Brien Murders
Continued from page 7
river bank. Also a spot on the ice where the river had been opened and since frozen over again.
ASSUMPTION had become fact, a nest of facts, but the most vital discovery remained to be made. Without the bodies no murder could be proven. So Scarth, now returned, directed a special party to clear the ice and grapple in the river. It seemed a laborious, dangerous, and endless operation. Whole stretches were cut out, blown up, examined by means of a water glass, until the growing freshet started the ice to sea, whereupon the search was continued along the *iver bank. For thirty-five miles, every foot of shore, every island, every bar and shingle, was inspected, every slough probed, until on May 21 the infinitely discouraging task came to an end. On a sandbar, near Selkirk, one of the bodies was found. It was identified as Clayson’s. On June 11 they came upon Relfe’s with his visiting cards still in his pocket, and on June 27, Olsen’s. All three showed bullet wounds sufficient to have caused instantaneous death.
The case was complete. All that remained was to present the evidence which they had strengthened, fact by fact, from the flimsy genesis of supposition into a damning and undeniable conclusion. The exhibits were ready, Pennycuick’s carefully drawn sketches of the trails made by the murderers were prepared. Scarth’» final task was to collect the witnesses from the ends of the earth.
Of these there were eighty. It had required a year to locate and bring them to the trial at Dawson City. This feat was a tour de force comparable in patience to the discoveries of Murder Trail, and it revealed the perpetual drama •ƒ human nature in astonishing ways.
The principals had had already rather lurid lives. O’Brien was a native of Birmingham, England. He had served seven years in Dartmoor for wounding a man with intent to kill, and was a matured tough, dark, well-built, with dark grey shifting eyes and something of a swagger. His brute nerve was helped out by considerable cunning, but he was not without his carelessness and stupidities. Graves, curiously enough, was from Birmingham, too, slighter than O’Brien, and only twenty-three, but he boasted of having been employed in the Chinese army to shoot deserters.
These kindred spirits had soon found each other in Dawson Jail, and in intervals of loafing on the woodpile O’Brien had broached his scheme. He had put his proposition to two other men before Graves. It was a simple plan. “When one come along what looked like he had a piece of coin on him, they could throw a gun on him,” O’Brien suggested, “and it was dead easy to get rid of the bodies. Just chuck ’em under the ice.” Sutton, thus approached, declined, saying that he had not been brought up that way, and besides it was too risky.
Kid West “peaches”
' i'HE other man in whom O’Brien saw a good pal was a youth who had apportioned his time between faro and thievery. His cell in Dawson w'as behind O’Brien’s and they talked in the evenings. West, known as the “Clear Kid,” got out of jail first, and in order not to be "vagged,” left for outside by way of Nome. He reached Seattle and was soon again in jail. It did not disturb him. He admitted having been “run in once for every hair on me head.” And when the news of O’Brien’s bloody exploits reached him, West was vain enough to boast of his intimacy with the murderer.
These idle recollections led to an international situation. Kid West’s connection with O’Brien prompted the force to try to obtain him as a witness. He would be invaluable. It would also be an unprecedented thing for a criminal in jail to be extradited in order to appear at a trial in another country. To J. H. Seeley, a secret intelligence officer working for the force, this job was entrusted, and in spite of lack of precedents, in spite of a political campaign in Washington which made everyone from sheriff to governor anxious to do nothing which could be used as a weapon by the opposite party, Seeley got permission to borrow the Clear Kid.
Ottawa was so perturbed by so unusual an act that the government hastened to notify the American government through the British Embassy that Canada took no responsibility for the irregularity. Public opinion in the west was so wrought up over the brutality of the murders that friends of the families brought influence to bear, and everybody was satisfied, including the Kid. “Where do I get off at?” he asked. He was told five dollars a day. Pfine. Pie was even glad to “peach” on O’Brien, he said, because in his opinion unpunished murders were bad for the burglary business.
The trial opened in June, 1901, and the crown prosecutor reviewed the steps of action culminating in the murders, corroborating each detail by a living witness or a mute exhibit. He led his audience up the liver first with O’Brien and Graves, robbing the scow, giving the aliases Miller and Ross, throwing out false leads by declaring their intention of hunting up the Pelly, getting the wind up over Pennycuick’s inquisitiveness, and finally moving south to the wild territory between Minto and Hutshiku. He described their preparations, the erection of the hidden shelter with the tell-tale stove, the cutting of the trails for spying and ambush, and made plain that these murders were the result of cold-blooded premeditation carried out with much cunning and physical labor.
He then recreated that scene of Christmas morning, at 9.5 a. m., when the watch found on Relfe’s body had stopped. For some reason the three young men had decided, at the cut-off, to keep to the river trail. Perhaps the thaw had softened the deeper snow of the Pork Trail. Their decision had been noted from the new clearing, and the murderers hastened toward the river to try out their ambush. O’Brien had the craftier brain or the stronger will. When the three had passed the point, he dispatched Graves into the open to drive them from
the trail into the deeper snow of the thicket where the marks of any struggle could be obliterated.
But the shooting had not been so simple. Olsen and the boys had been surprised to see a short man emerging from the bush with a 40-82 in his hand, but his appearance did not sufficiently conceal his intention. They jumped for cover into the fatal thicket as a second man appeared—with a 30-30—and commenced to fire upon them. O’Brien even ran out on the ice—and forgot to pick up his empty shells. He caught Clayson fourteen feet from the river. Reife leaped once and again, darting to the left of the trail, but a bullet found his brain, knocking out part of his tooth on the . way. Olsen came nearest to escaping. The two murderers were firng excitedly now, hitting trees on every hand, and they got him, forty-one feet from the river. He was only wounded, but no match for two men beating at him as he writhed.
r"THE crown prosecutor made no assumptions: every detail of his story was vouched for by a measurement, a track, a shell, a splinter of bone, the bullet-broken tooth which fitted into the stump in dead Relfe’s jaw. One can imagine the courtroom’s breathless attention to the drama with its lurid illustration by map and implement. Even O’Brien who had admitted nothing but sat stolid, began on the ninth day of relentless revelation to show a changed face. “He looks downcast,” one reporter wrote, “like a man who has a corner on sober reflection. It was noted that the prisoner never looked at Mr. Clayson when the latter was giving his testimony.” Once, when referred to as an old-time thief, O’Brien sprang to his feet and said, “I’ve never been convicted of theft in my life.” But generally he sat immobile but attentive to the patient and brilliant unveiling of his work.
The crown prosecutor went on: the clothing and belongings of the murdered men were now carried to the tent for a closer examination for anything of value, 't hey were probably afraid to take Relfe’s watch. Olsen’s file and pliers and belt were discarded, Clayson’s keys—which fitted their corresponding drawers brought from home: identification piled on identification—the dulled axe which cut the cottonwoods was proved to have been O’Brien’s; an account book: messages given to Reife for outside. Then the bodies were pushed through a hole in the ice —the spot was indicated on Pennycuick’s diagram. “And this,” concluded
the prosecutor, “finished the murderer’s Christmas Day.”
But O’Brien’s movements were still further known. On December 27, a Mrs. Prather had been mushing out from Dawson writh her husband, and they had been confused by the number of trails halfway between Minto and Hutshiku. Mr. Prather cast around to find the right one, and suddenly Mrs. Prather was startled to find a strange man emerging from the dusk. Fortunately Mr. Prather appeared. The man said he was lost, and followed the Prathers with his Saint Bernard. That night the woman observed him counting money in the bunkhouse, and among his valuables was a unique gold nugget. O’Brien saw that he was observed and hastily concealed the nugget. It had been the property of Linn Reife, presented to him by George Noble, of Dawson, and was unmistakable in shape—somewhat like a hand clutching another nugget within. It was not found on O’Brien when he was arrested. Between the soles of his moccasins were sewn two $100 bills.
The trial drew to a close, each witness driving at least one nail in O’Brien’s scaffold. The analyst reported that the stain on his sleigh was left by human blood. Shock testified to receiving $100 for his horses, and that from a man who had had no money previously and who had slept on bunkhouse floors. The bodies were identified several times over. But perhaps the most dramatic testimony came from Kid West imported from Seattle jail. To him O’Brien had wiitten with his own hand asking for aid. His story of his talks with O’Brien, told in the lingo of the underworld, afforded the one light touch.
Donaghy, a rising young lawyer, made a brilliant defense, but no disproof of so overwhelming a sequence of evidence was possible. The jury was out less than two hours and brought in a verdict of guilty with no recommendation for mercy. On August 23, Superintendent Primrose was able to w're headquarters, “O’Brien executed at 8 this a. m. No confession.” Out of respect for the amenities he did not add, “Cursing the police.”
Confession had been made easy for him. Police Matron Dormer’s last visit to the prisoner came a few hours before his execution. She recorded their conversation, but it contained nothing but a hint of rather belated consideration for his family.
Thus closed the case which had lasted twenty months and involved investigations in three countries. Nothing was learned of Graves. The force believed that O’Brien had removed this menace to his security as effectively as he had disposed of his other victims, and later the bones of a man were found back in the bush with a bullet hole in one of them.
Inspector Scarth received his reward in the sincere and universal praise given the police. The judge called the force “the pride of Canada and the envy of the world,” while from the press of the continent came comment approving the masterly fashion in which the crime had been investigated and presented. The trial had cost over $23,000, but public opinion held the expense justifiable, for criminals were to be impressed that they were no safer from retribution for wrongdoing in the wilderness than in the cities and towns.
And the criminal world was impressed. In the language of Kid West: “If dis fing goes on, de next time a little hold-up is done, a fellow is liable to get forty years for it.”
Editor's Note: Other true detective
stories of the North-West Mounted Police will appear in early issues of MacLean’s.