The Man They Could Not Hang

N. de BERTRAND LUGRIN May 1 1936

The Man They Could Not Hang

N. de BERTRAND LUGRIN May 1 1936

The Man They Could Not Hang


No. 6


IN 1898 the theatre of British Columbia Police activities expanded to include far, new scenes. That was the first year of the epic trek to the Klondike-the most tragic, romantic and picturesque gold rush the world has ever

seen; more so than those which preceded it, dramatic and important as they were. It may be said that the gold thus brought to the light of day gave British Columbia its chief significance as a unit in the Dominion.

At that time most of the prospectors were trying to reach their El Dorado via the White Pass; travelling by steamer to Skagway and thence hundreds of miles over mountain barriers, stormy lake and murderous white water to the fabulously rich creek beds around Dawson. But such a journey was fraught with manifold and terrible risks, and hundreds of adventurers fell by the wayside. It was recognized that a safer and speedier method of travel must be devised.

Hence the White Pass and Yukon Railway, built largely by American interests—the beginning of what was expected to be an all-Canadian route via the Stikine River and Teslin Lake to the meandering Hootalinqua River which joins the storied Yukon.

Those who knew the country realized that such a line would be an impossibility as it must pass through United States territory and thus defeat its own ends. Nevertheless preparations for building it went merrily on. Equipment was rushed in by pack train over the ice or up the Stikine by steamer, and to demonstrate to the world that an army could be transported if necessary, a battalion of 1,000 troops, under Colonel Evans, was dispatched to the Yukon by the Stikine-Teslin trail.

The Yukon territory was policed in those days, and has been ever since, by the force then known as The Northwest Mounted Police. But to preserve law and order in the northern latitude of British Columbia a company of Provincial Police, under Chief Constable Bullock-Webster, was established with headquarters at Telegraph Creek, just above Glenora, the little town at the head of navigation on the Stikine.

The catch-phrase “all-Canadian route” drew thousands of adventurers, some of them lusty fellows inured to the out-of-door life and the hardship of back-packing for endless miles. But many ventured who had no business in the country at all, and these spelled the tragedy of the trail; they dropped out from exhaustion, fell ill of scurvy or went completely mad. They became the special charge of the Police, and in nearly all cases except when they had wandered off and become lost or frozen to death, they were rounded up, brought down to Glenora and sent home where they belonged. Bad as the route over the White Pass was, the Stikine-Teslin trail was worse; and to the Police Post at Telegraph Creek, the last place for outfitting, came also the unhappy individuals who had survived the' heartbreaking trail from Edmonton. Many a pathetic Police story could be written around these poor fellows.

Finding the Bodies

OF REAL crime there was not much, considering everything. Most of the more ghastly episodes took place at Skagway or elsewhere in United States territory, where little or no attempt was made to curb lawlessness.

But the case of Joseph Claus, a French-Canadian who became known as “the man they could not hang,” has its place among the outstanding cases in the whole of the Yukon.

He stalked into the picture in the early spring of 1898—a big fellow, broad-shouldered, with long arms and legs and a thick neck. Good-looking in a bold way, with a swashbuckling manner, loud voice and a roar of a laugh, he was easily the most conspicuous member of a party of six prospectors who started up the frozen river from Wrangell with sleds, dogs and excellent equipment, ready for the long hike to Teslin Lake, a distance of 200 miles. Besides Claus there were the Vipond Brothers, French-Canadians, a man named Jess, Hendrickson, a Norwegian, and Bums, a Scotsman.

As things turned out, it is probable that Claus had a deep-laid plan in his mind from the first. They had not journeyed many miles up the ice when he suggested that, as a party of six seemed rather unwieldy, they should split, divide the provisions and the Viponds and Jess go on ahead, while he and Hendrickson and Bums hurry or not as they pleased. Hendrickson and Burns had more money than any of the rest in the party. They were easy-going chaps and quite ready to follow any suggestion of their aggressive companion.

Then Claus made another play. He declared he was tired of the whole venture and wanted to go home. To other travellers he offered his outfit, which had cost $300, for just enough to get back to Nanaimo. He could not sell it, however, and lagged along, holding his companions back, while others passed them every hour. The weather was moderating, too, and the ice beginning to get soft, making the going hazardous.

Then one day a constable came hurrying into Police headquarters at Telegraph Creek.

“Those three in the Claus party have dropped off the face of the earth,” he said. “Nothing has been seen of them for days. Chances are they’ve gone through the ice.”

Two men were sent down the Stikine with a dog-sled to search for them. At length their tent was discerned in the bushes at the side of the river, but there was no life about it. No wonder.

Within it lay the dead bodies of Hendrickson and Bums, the latter with his head literally chopped to pieces and the former shot to death through the mouth. No sign of their outfits. Their pockets had been rifled. Of Claus there was not a trace. Had he, too, been murdered and his body disposed of, perhaps poked through the ice? In only a few days more the tent itself would have collapsed in the thawing river and all traces of the tragedy been carried out to sea.

The Police continued to look for him, and one morning, seeing a mackinaw rising and filling on the black breath of an air-hole, they thought they had found his remains. They had not. Investigation brought only the effects of the murdered men to light, and a gun with both chambers empty. All had been weighted with stones.

The two bodies were taken to Glenora for the inquest, and the procedure gives an idea of the difficulties attendant upon the administration of the law in those northern latitudes.

Lashed on a sled, the dead men were hauled by dogs, accompanied by the chief constable and a subordinate, over the soft ice of the river. Again and again the water and slush buried the sled, ice hummocks toppled it over, the Police were wading at times almost to their waists, while air-holes were a constant menace.

Arrived at Glenora, the chief constable had to act the part of doctor and perform the post-mortem. It was found that the bullets in the brain of Hendrickson corresponded to those which would fit the gun retrieved from the river. Following the post-mortem the chief constable officiated as coroner and conducted the inquest, and later on as parson he held services over the graves of the young men.

Claus’s Strange Boast

T TP TOWARD Teslin Lake the Police now made their way. They must find Claus if he were still alive, or get in touch with somebody who could give them information regarding when he had last been seen. There were the sled and two dogs to be accounted for, though whoever had murdered and robbed the Norwegian and Scotsman had probably taken them. It was also possible that Claus had turned tail and gone back down the river, meaning to start for home. Another party of Police followed that possibility.

Then he was found, journeying along thirty miles or more beyond Telegraph Creek and making excellent time with his dogs. He feigned wide-eyed innocence when halted by the constables.

Bilingual, he passionately asserted in eloquent English that he was not guilty. He told a lurid story about Hendrickson going berserker and killing Burns with an axe, and then trying to shoot Claus.

“Naturally I protected myself,” shouted the big FrenchCanadian, “and naturally I proceed on my way.”

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A search of the prisoner, however, disclosed the purses of the two men, containing more than $1,000. By this time the procession of prospectors was held up to await questioning by the constables. When some of them were told they must return with the Police party to Telegraph Creek, they protested angrily.

“Lynch the murderer here and now,” they chorused. They had brought a stout rope and advanced threateningly. Claus stepped behind the constables and shouted at them:

“I tell you I’m not guilty. No power on earth can lynch or hang me. You’ll


The aroused prospectors and the prisoner were marched back to where the chief constable, now in his rôle of stipendiary magistrate, awaited them. A preliminary hearing took place, with more witnesses called who knew something of Claus and his companions. The prisoner continued to assert his innocence, and his altitude was defiant.

“You daren’t hang me,” he said. “Heaven itself will interfere first.”

So confident he seemed that, in spite of the evidence against him. the witnesses began to doubt and the constables became uneasy. Claus was a dangerous fellow. Big and powerful, he was quite outspoken in his threats to obtain freedom. A stout log house was strengthened into a jail for him and they put leg irons on him, but even this curbing of his liberty did not daunt him. “Manacle me, too, if you like,” said he, “but that’s the most you can do.”

“Pure bravado,” said the chief constable. “That’s the French of him.”

Carefully guarded, Claus remained a prisoner at Telegraph Creek from May to June, while arrangements for his trial went forward. Now, in order to reach the nearest assize court, it was necessary to cross the twenty-mile strip of Alaskan territory near the mouth of the Stikine. This would cause a hitch in proceedings, for the Canadian officers would be detained at Fort Wrangell on a charge of kidnapping. It was therefore decided to hold the assizes at Glenora, which was then considered to be part of the far-flung county of Nanaimo.

The sheriff of that city sent a pi ecept for a jury and appointed one of the constables as a bailiff. A panel of grand and petit jurors was collected from more of the outraged gold-seekers, and a date set for the trial. It was arranged for Justice Walkern, of Victoria, to preside, Mr. James Bland of the Supreme Court to attend, and Harry Barnard to act as Crown prosecutor.

As there was no courtroom, the lower floor of a roadhouse was requisitioned for a week. So certain was the chief constable of the result, that a gallows was erected and an executioner engaged. The latter was no other than the last remaining brother of the “murdering McLeans,” who was not only willing but anxious to act.

While the Hangman Waited

T>Y THIS time the witnesses and jurors were in a towering rage. They packed up their things and defied the Police by going back to the trail. They were assured the Canadian Government would reimburse them for time lost, but they would not listen. Would the Canadian Government or anybody else be responsible for the fortunes they would lose by not being on hand to stake their claims on the gold creeks? At his wit’s end, Mr. BullockWtbster made out forms from memory on large sheets of official paper, and to them affixed the biggest red seals he could find. They were entirely illegal, but when the Police served them on the mutinous prospectors the latter took them for bona-

fide subpoenas and were afraid to ignore them.

These things all leaked to the ears of the prisoner.

“You will see,” he said. “These Police, they can do nothing. I am not in their hands, me.”

“Ain’t you?” his warden remarked sarcastically. “Well, the rope’s fixed for you and the hangman waiting.”

“He’ll wait in vain,” was the unperturbed response.

Down at the dock at Glenora a little crowd of Police watched for the arrival of the long-looked-for steamer with the legal gentlemen on board. It puffed up and was tied to the wharf, but instead of judge and prosecutor a letter was delivered to the chief constable from the Attorney-General. It stated that the trial was off, as it was illegal to draw a panel of jurors not selected from the roll at Nanaimo.

Another delay; another reprieve for Claus.

Now the problem was to get the prisoner to the assizes. If United States territory were touched upon, the whole proceedings would end. A special steamer was chartered for the conveyance of Claus down the river. While American officers of the law watched from the land, the boat, keeping carefully to midstream, which is not so easy in a turbulent, swollen river, finally pushed through disputed territory and came to the open sea. Here a coastal steamer awaited them, and by it the police and their prisoner and the still fuming witnesses were taken to Nanaimo.

At length it seemed that all difficulties had been met and overcome. The chief constable, who had felt the weight of his heavy responsibility, now cheerfully conducted the prosecution.

Claus was tried for the murder of his comrades, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on August 2. He heard the verdict unmoved. His wife, who was in the courtroom, shouted to him: “Save

yourself, Joe. You’re not guilty.”

He put up a hand to silence her, and followed his guards unprotestingly.

For a few days following he was a model prisoner, quiet, reading the Bible and his French papers, chatting with Bishop Perrin and other parsons who visited him. He maintained that Heaven would see justice done; he would never hang. Fearing suicide, a more than usually close watch was kept upon him. No gifts were permitted him. Even his wife could only speak to him at eight feet distance from his wicket, with a guard beside her and one beside the prisoner.He was given a new suit of clothes and, at his request, a bowler hat. In these, on the eve of his execution, he had his photograph taken.

Toward midnight he called the guard. He was ill and in pain, and a doctor was hastily summoned. When Claus was asked what he thought was the matter, he replied: “My heart is broken. There is nothing you can do.”

He died within a few hours.

In his cell there was discovered a small twist of paper with a few grains of strychnine still adhering to it. It had been secreted in the bowler hat.

Trap for Cracksmen

ANOVEL "burglar trap," which not only prevents robbery of a safe but

also catches the thief, has recently been invented by a Budapest policeman. A special gas compressed in a container is fitted inside the safe in such a manner that a burglar’s tool piercing the safe releases the gas also. A few breaths of the escaping fumes lull the burglar to sleep for several hours and make his arrest easy.—New York Times.