The Tucker Peach Round-Up

VERNON LACHANCE April 1 1934

The Tucker Peach Round-Up

VERNON LACHANCE April 1 1934

The Tucker Peach Round-Up

VERNON LACHANCE

THIS IS the story of an investigation where there was always more than met the eye. Some murder cases announce themselves by screams and the firing of guns. Some begin with the finding of the body still dripping blood. A third type, more difficult, begins long after the murder, as a plant grows from a long-sown seed. To this category the Tucker Peach murder mystery belongs, and but for the Mounted Police habit of seeing a mystery through, that lonely rancher would have vanished unavenged. The curious filament of fact by which the police felt their way to the root of the matter is here presented, for the first time, from the records.

At first there was not even a mystery.

One June afternoon in 1910, two ranchers were repairing a fence near the Bow River some twenty miles south of Calgary,

Alberta. The work was monotonous, the sun warm, and one of them proposed that they take a rest for a while and go examine a beaver colony in the river.

They never reached the colony.

Another object caught their attention first the body of a man, detained by the arm over a submerged log, floating out on the water. Some poor soul had fallen into the Bow, and even the log had not enabled him to keep his head above water. In fact, the body had no head and was in a stage beyond identification.

The men reported their discovery to the nearest mounted policeman as the whole West, when in trouble, had long ago learned to do and the coroner examined the Ixxly.

This examination disclosed nothing of interest beyond the fact that the head had been detached as was evident from the wrenched vertebrae of the neck by the action of logs or trees ramming against it, the river being in an impetuous state of flood. The Ixxly w’as naked, except for shirt and undershirt which told nothing, and the flesh was too far gone to suggest identity. Furthermore, nobody had been missed in the neighborhood. So, with no evidence to the contrary, the coroner decided that death had been due to accidental drowning and ordered the Ixxly buried at the nearest cemetery. This fact, reported to the district headquarters of the Force at Calgary, was noted, recorded, and allowed to sink into the jxilice subconciousness along with deaths of a similar nature that were not infrequently occurring.

The nameless body had been moldering in its grave for some four months when a Mr. and Mrs. Jones were taking a Sunday stroll along the Bow River. Their attention was caught by a curiously shaped object on the sloping ground close to the receding water. It was a skull, a battered human head, with only a patch of greyish hair left on the scalp and a bit of beard of the same color.

Once again the Mounted Police were notified, and Sergeant Murison was sent down to learn what he could about the skull. In studying the salient points of this object, Murison noted a jagged hole in the man’s forehead. It kxjked suspiciously like a bullet hole, although there was a chance that a sharp object had started the aperture and it had been enlarged by the action of the water. If a bullet had entered the skull, Murison was forced to suppose it had come out through the man’s eye. There was nothing for him to do but to enquire locally as to identification.

With a skull in his bag, Murison was forced to ride hither and yon about the country exhibiting the object, pointing out the solitary blackened tooth, the wisp of cotton which had been found in one ear, the patches of grey hair and beard. Near where the skull had been found. Murison pulled a grey blanket and a cowhide from the river bottom. They had been tied up with a halter rope.

Yet even with these articles to supplement the skull, none in the country around could suggest a name, and Murison was forced to widen the scope of his enquiries little by little. The sergeant began to suppose that a stranger, murdered at a distance, had been hauled to the river and disposed of. The only grey-haired bearded, toothless man who had lived in the vicinity was a Tucker Peach, and everyone agreed that this skull could not be his as he was now living in England. Meanwhile, at Calgary, an order was forwarded from the Attorney-General's department ordering an inquest over the exhumed body.

Finding a Motive

TT WAS a relief to Murison to have even an impossible name like Tucker Peach mentioned; the skull had been anonymous so long. And as the name now fell from a second rancher’s lips and a third, Murison asked the obvious questions: When had Tucker left for England? What sort of a man was he? Who were his intimates?

He had no intimates, everybody said. He was almost a recluse; a man past middle age who had lived on his ranch alone for the past twenty-five years, who had sold out during the winter and left for the more salubrious climate of Southern England, where he had come from. He had lived so withdrawm from the rough cordiality of that range country that few even knew his name was Peach; he was universally known as Tucker. His hermit life had not made him unpleasant. He was scrupulously honest but rather

close with his money, of which he had a good deal. He had been prosperous, not only as a rancher but in a mining venture at Nelson, B. C., this last having paid him $1,200, as somebody remembered.

When Murison asked where Tucker had banked his money, he was surprised to hear that the old bachelor had been highly distrustful of banks, using them only to cash other people’s cheques. He was secretive about his wealth, either hoarding it or burying it or carrying it on his person, nobody knew which. Once, in a fit of geniality, he had flashed a roll before one of the neighbors,'saying. “How would you like to have that?” Another neighbor from whom Tucker occasionally bought bread recalled seeing a thousand-dollar bill. One neighbor told him that he was foolish to carry so much cash about with him, but Tucker laughed at this advice.

The more Murison heard, the more he pondered the fact that if it had only been Tucker who was murdered, there would be no difficulty finding the motive. Superintendent Deane, on reading Murison’s report, went further and instructed the sergeant to add these questions to his list:

When and by whom was Tucker last seen?

Is it known how he left the neighborhood?

Did he take any kit with him?

Would he be likely to go away carrying the blanket found with the head? F'rom what town did he get supplies? How far is his ranch from the river? So far as apparent sense was concerned, they were rhetorical questions.

Tucker Peach, by every advice obtainable, was in England. He had sold his ranch, he had intimated that he was going, he had left.

At this stage the case was exasperating; it looked hopeless. And yet it challenged Murison to further effort for the reason that the skull ought to be Tucker’s even if it wasn’t. For the dozenth time, Murison took it out of his bag and scrutinized it. The bullet hole he could understand, but not that wisp of cotton in the ear. Had Tucker earache? No one had mentioned ear trouble. But had he asked pointedly enough?

It was here that Murison encountered good fortune. He located a man in Calgary who had known Tucker in the past, and this man remembered Tucker’s ear. It had bothered him for sixteen years, ever since he had been kicked by a horse and suffered a fracture of the forehead.

A fracture? Out came the skull, out came a magnifying glass, and Murison traced the mark of an old healed fracture, all but invisible but still there. Murison felt a thrill. He was holding in his hands the skull of Tucker Peach!

Incidentally he learned about that solitary tooth. Tucker, either from parsimony or a constitutional dread of dentists, had extracted his teeth himself, one by one, until there was but a sole survivor.

Superintendent Deane had been laboring all this while to discover Tucker Peach’s address in England. It was known that he had a sister; that he would go to her was likely. Finally she was located. Deane received no answer. The mystery appeared to deepen.

Murison had, of course, visited Tucker’s former ranch. It was a miserfy sort of place, possessing a small one-windowed, sod-roofed shack, distant from the river by several fields. A boy named Emest Davis was in charge. He was not very helpful. He had been brought from British Columbia by his cousin, Mitchell Robertson, to look after the place during Robertson’s absences as a brakeman on the Canadian Pacific Railway. The lad knew nothing of Tucker

except that he thought he had gone to England.

Robertson was on Murison's books for a questioning, but the man was in good standing with the railway and. rather than take him from his job at the busy season, interviewing him was postponed until the inquest, now two days off. Meanwhile. Murison attempted to glean the answers to Deane’s questions: “When and by whom was Tucker last seen?” “Is it known how he left the neighborhood?”

Nobody could actually put their finger on the moment of Tucker’s departure. He had sold his place, and then he was no longer seen. It was like the old crank to depart in that fashion. Murison sighed.

The First Clue

THE SCENE now shifts to Macleod, divisional headquarters of Southern Alberta and commanded by Superintendent Primrose, a forceful man. He was not onlyforceful but caustic, not only analytical but irascible, and for some time he had been very much annoyed. A wave of crime had spread about his district, which he had usually managed to keep as clean as a Dutch wife’s stoop. A murder, a robbery, a hold-up were recent blots on the record, and Primrose regarded this state of affairs as a personal affront. Drastic action became the order of the day.

A frightened female, mistress of a dubious establishment, appeared before Primrose during the afternoon of November 24 and was told with no mincing of words that if any intimation of crime or its perpetrators came to the attention of herself or the inmates of her doubtful residence, she would be well advised to notify him immediately. The alternative was unvoiced but understood. The female, relieved to escape so easily from Primrose’s hawk-nosed presence, gladly made her promises.

Four days later she kept her word. She sent her Chinese cook runningtothe Macleod barracks with a message to the effect that a young Englishman was hiding from the Mounted Police at her number. He was a fugitive from Alaska. He had stolen $75,000. He was on his way to Spokane, but she would try to hold him through the night.

Primrose must have smiled. In the excess of her zeal, the lady had overdone. $75,000! This preposterous amount could not be reconciled with any crime then current. The Alaskan in question was doubtless drunk. But, if only to encourage future confidences, the affair was worth investigating. So Primrose sent Corporal Hall and Constable Bates to have the remarkable suspect checked up.

They arrived to find him hopelessly intoxicated. A search of his person revealed that he was Mitchell Robertson, a C. P. R. brakeman, since it produced a subpoena calling upon him to appear at the Okotoks inquest the following day. Apparently he had been celebrating before the event, and in his cups had taken to babbling of theft in large round numbers, Alaska, and other senseless egotisms.

Robertson was obviously the last sort of person to essay a big rôle, even as a thief. He was slight of build, with a fair complexion, a dimple in his chin, and the general air of a ruffled dandy. They arrested him on a charge of vagrancy and lodged him in a cell. While he was sleeping off his jag, they investigated his brief career in Macleod. He was. they found, rather popular with his fellow trainmen. Yet three kegs of beer had been stolen from railway property and Brakeman Robertson was suspected of being the thief, although nothing had been proved. His gallant inclinations had induced him to hire a rig from the local liveryman in order to take a girl for a joy-ride. He had lost a robe but had paid up for it, and had engaged the liveryman to drive him south across the United States border on the following day.

Confession !

HPHIS ENGAGEMENT was cancelled, A and Robertson, restored to sobriety, was escorted to Okotoks by Constable Bates. Bates’s instructions were to bring him back

as soon as he was released from the inquest, to stand trial for the beer theft.

Robertson, sober, was less imaginative than Robertson, drunk, but in no way depressed. The train conductor, noticing him in the company of the sta riet-coated constable asked sympathetically:

“What sort of a jackpot are you in, Robertson?”

“They think they’ve got something against me, but I’m darned if I know what,” he replied easily.

“It can’t be very' serious,” said the conductor, moving on.

Sergeant Murison was waiting for the train, and he took Robertson to the undertaking establishment where the body and skull of Tucker Peach lay on a table.

“Can you identify them?” he asked. Robertson gazed at the exhibits.

“Lord, no! Who is it?”

“Look closely,” and Murison pointed to the bullet hole in the skull. “Have you any idea who made that?”

“How could I, when I don’t know who it is?”

“It’s the skull of Tucker Peach, and it was found near your property. Now have you any idea who made it?”

“Tucker Peach?” Robertson showed his amazement. “But it can’t be. Tucker’s in England.”

“He can’t be in England with his skull here,” said Murison dryly, “and that’s Tucker Peach’s skull.” He explained the proofs. “Now do you know who made that hole?”

Robertson was angry.

“I told you ‘No’ once. I don’t know a thing about Tucker since I paid him for the ranch. I paid him up in Calgary'. Five thousand good dollars. I got his receipt and the papers and—” He stopped short. "I got to go back, I got to go back!” he said excitedly. “I left them down there in Macleod, in my grip.”

Murison was about to explain that everything would be taken care of when he was summoned to the inquest by Inspector Duffus. Robertson, still excited about the grip, was led off to the detachment by G)nstable Bates. It had turned very cold, and Robertson was shivering.

“Too much spree, I guess,” he said, and Bates made him some tea.

“You’re treating me pretty good,” said Robertson.

“I don’t know about that,” said the goodhearted Bates.

“Do you think this inquest will be finished today?”

“All the witnesses are through except you. I’m just waiting for a call for you. I don’t suppose you’ll take long.”

A pause. Robertson finished his tea and said suddenly:

"Is it true that if you pay the penalty, there is hope?”

Bates looked up at the man. astonished. He had misunderstood. Robertson had not changed his expression.

“You were thinking of the murderer?” Bates asked.

“Yes. If he pays the penalty, has he hope?”

“I believe that’s true.”

“Have you seen that in the Bible?”

“I believe I have.”

"Between you and me," said Robertson, lowering his voice, “I killed him.”

Robertson’s Accomplice

T) ATES WAS the one affected.

Y* “What do you say?”

“I killed Tucker.”

Instantly across Bates’s memory' flashed the scene of yesterday, with Robertson babbling about Alaska and magnificent thefts. The constable believed he had a man of not too finely balanced reason on his hands. Yet he had just heard an amazing confession and reached for a note book.

"You needn’t bother writing it down.” said Robertson, “I’ll be able to tell it again.” “You must understand that I’m going to take note of what you say to me,” said Bates curtly, “and it’ll be used against you at the trial.”

"I know. Don’t think I'm trying to save my own neck. I want Fisk to face it, too.”

In all the barrack-room gossip about the case, no word of a Fisk had ever been mentioned.

“Who’s Fisk?” asked Bates.

The torrent was now un pent, and Bates tried to make his pencil keep up with the grotesque admissions. The constable knew enough law to be certain of the jury’s being recommended not to act upon the uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice; but before he could satisfy himself on any point, Robertson was summoned.

The young man who had been a Jekyll in one room was now' a Hyde in another. In the witness chair he was the quiet, suave, confident young brakeman, and from his mouth issued none of those extraordinary statements which he had just been making to Bates. He answered rationally and with composure the searching questions of the lawyer. He admitted knowing Tucker Peach, said that he had offered to buy his ranch and horses, and had made a first payment of $5,000 in cash, the balance, an equal amount, to be paid in one year. Pressed for confirmation, Robertson said that the transaction had been made without lawyers, and that the documents, together with a letter received from Tucker in England, were in his grip, left somewhere in Macleod during his spree. Tucker’s mail had been redirected to Carstairs, Alberta, where Tucker had asked him to send it.

The lawyer finished his questioning. Bates spoke a word to Inspector Duffus, who asked for half an hour’s adjournment. Bates hurried through a phone call to Carstairs; the postmaster was positive that no mail for l ucker had ever arrived there. The constable joined Duffus and the prisoner in an upstairs room of the detachment. Bates said:

“Mr. Robertson, don’t you think you had better tell the inspector what you’ve just told me?”

And then it all poured forth. John Fisk now kept a livery stable at Carbon, Alberta. Formerly he had been Tucker Peach’s neighbor. Robertson had been employed on a near-by ranch. One evening Fisk had approached Robertson, calling the youth’s attention to Tucker’s lack of family ties and his vulnerable solitude. If anything should happen to him, Fisk intimated, Robertson could have the ranch, and he would take the livestock. Why not have something happen, asked Fisk? Robertson was horrified at the suggestion. Fisk threatened him and, between fear of Fisk and a desire to secure the ranch, Robertson at last assented to Fisk ’s plan and started negotiations kx)king toward the purchase of Tucker’s property.

The time for the execution of the plan— and of Tucker—arrived. Early on the

morning of May 21—a date which Robertson said he remembered because of King Edward’s funeral—the two conspirators wrent over to Tucker’s shack. Tucker, still in the underwear he had slept in, opened the door and invited the callers in. Without further preliminaries Fisk had fired a bullet into the old man’s forehead, and then gave Robertson the revolver, ordering him to fire the second shot into the slumping body. Robertson obeyed, They then tied the body in a blanket and cowhide, loaded it on a wagon and, taking it to the Bow River, threw it into that swift-flowing stream.

Duffus saw at once that the brakeman was relating fact. As soon as the confession was signed and witnessed, the inquest was resumed. Robertson’s story produced a sensation in court and brought an immediate verdict of murder against Robertson and Fisk. Duffus hastened to the telephone. By ill luck the line to the Mounted Police detachment at Carbon, seventy miles out of Calgary, was not working. Duffus rang up Calgary to send a patrol to arrest Fisk, and the inspector occupied the telephone office at Okotoks to prevent any calls to Carbon before the police reached there.

Convincing the Jury

"DISK WAS a notorious character, a hard and powerful man, much feared by his neighborhood. Calgary took no risk of his escaping. In a day when automobiles were a luxury, the highest-powered car available was commandeered and Carbon was reached before sunrise. John Fisk was arrested in his bam.

One glance showed the policemen that here was a man of different mettle from Robertson. In physique, in temperament, he was the antithesis of the vacillating youth who had given him away. His reply to the warrant was “Who in the h. . .is Robertson? I don’t know him or Tucker Peach neither.” And he maintained this attitude through the following days.

Robertson's confession, in the face of such a denial, left much to be desired. It had by no means settled the case. It had, however, implicated Fisk, whom no one had thought of suspecting, and it explained, if true, the anomaly of a person like Robertson perpetrating the crime of murder against a comparative stranger in cold blood. If Fisk was to be convicted an entirely fresh line of evidence w'ould have to be unearthed; the Force set to work substantiating the dismal details.

They were helped by the power of seemingly unimportant details when arranged in their true pattern. Contradictions cropped

up. Fisk had denied knowing Tucker. Witnesses were found to whom he had mentioned that Tucker w'as in England “and having a good time,” to others that Tucker had gone North. Until the time of Tucker’s disappearance, Fisk was in debt and notoriously hard up; shortly afterward he was unaccountably able to buy a large livery stable at Carbon. Horse deals with Tucker’s stock were traced. The mark of a ricochet bullet was found in Tucker’s shack. The revolver, Robertson said, had been thrown into the Bow River.

Even yet the Police were not satisfied that the jury would be absolutely convinced. The clincher w'as missing. Had no one heard the shot? Or seen that strange funeral procession down to the river? Sergeant Murison questioned everyone within seeing distance of Tucker’s shack; everyone who might have been abroad on the morning of the murder. No results. But Murison was indefatigable. Once again he went back to the place and by observation found one homesteader’s place from which, if anyone had been up and looking toward Tucker's ranch, the procession could have been seen. He went indoors and put the question flatly to the ranch owner.

The result was a triumph for Murison’s reasoning. The procession had been seen. Both the rancher and his chore-boy had noticed Fisk driving the wagon. What is more, they had recognized the horses, which they had seen hundreds of times, as Tucker’s. A man resembling Robertson was standing in the rear. They recalled expressing surprise that Tucker should be taking that unused road at so early an hour.

“But why have you kept this information from us?” asked Murison sternly.

“Because of my mother. She has a mortal fear of Fisk and dreaded his revenge.” “How can you be sure of the date?” asked Nolan, Fisk’s lawyer at the trial.

The ranch owner remembered it in connection with King Edward’s funeral— which seems to have made a great impression in that region—and the boy by a picnic date.

At the trial Fisk rested on a blanket denial, saying that he had first met Robertson in June and that he scarcely knew Tucker. He had staked everything on his hope that the police would be unable to substantiate the confession of his weakkneed accomplice. But the multiplicity of little things loaded with significance defeated Fisk’s gamble. And the testimony of the two witnesses to the last ride of the unfortunate victim made Fisk’s hanging a foregone conclusion.

Nolan, balked in disproving one incriminating detail after another, made a final effort to discredit Robertson’s confession.

“Are you promised nothing for this evidence?” he asked.

“No, sir.”

“Not even your life?”

“No, sir.”

“You are quite prepared to meet anything?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You have no interest in life?”

“No, sir.”

“Rather be dead?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You don’t care how you die?”

“No, sir.”

“So you have no interest in anything else.” “No, sir.”

“You are prepared to meet your God any day?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But you still have the horses?”

“No, sir.”

“Don’t you want to be helped out?”

“I know I am guilty,” replied Robertson in despair.

The judge demurred, saying that the affair was being too long drawn out. It had gone on for eleven days. No one doubted that the verdict was wrong. Murison and the others had knit the net too fine. Fisk was hanged. Robertson also was found guilty. But it was so apparent to everyone that he had been a tool in stronger hands that his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.