‘Burnt to death in chains’: a Nanaimo tragedy unequalled

“Let me go for mercy’s sake!” cried prisoner Thomas Pollden.

It’s a headline like no other that appeared in the Nanaimo Free Press during its 141-year-long publishing history. It’s a tragedy like no other in Nanaimo’s even longer history.

On Saturday afternoon, July 3, 1880, several sailors enjoying their leave in Wellington became overly boisterous and the police were called. Const. S. Drake took Thomas Pollden, boatswain of the British ship MaggieS. Seed, then loading coal at Departure Bay, into custody.

Because it was a holiday weekend, and because Wellington lacked its own lock-up, Drake, rather than transport Pollden to jail in downtown Nanaimo, leg-ironed the bos’un to a post in Hall’s stable, adjoining the Wellington Hotel; after making him as comfortable as possible, he locked the door and resumed his duties.

Shortly afterwards, young Elisha Davis and Charley Fiddick, attending to two Fiddick horses in an open shed attached to the stable, heard the crackling of fire and, looking through a crack in the door, saw that the stable was ablaze. Shouting the alarm, they ran for an axe with which to break in.

Men answering the alarm could hear Pollden crying, “Fire!” but it took the “most strenuous effort” before they could reach him. By this time his clothes were alight. While trying to beat back the flames, several men pulled frantically on the seaman’s leg, trying to free him of the leg-iron. Then they tried to pull down the post but it held firm. “Not until the seething flames drove them away did they desist in their brave efforts to save a fellow being from a fearful death,” reported the Free Press.

Thirty-six years old and single, Pollden, a native of Poplar, London, England, left an aged mother and infirm sister, both of whom were dependent upon him for their support.

Emotions ran high at the thought of a man in irons being burned alive and “some very harsh language was used toward Constable Drake for placing the man in that position”. Some thought it likely that Pollden lit the fire himself in hopes of escaping in the ensuing excitement. Whatever the case, “It is fair to presume that in all human probability, if a proper jail or lock-up existed in Wellington, this unfortunate catastrophe would not have happened,” declared the Free Press in an editorial.

At the coroner’s inquest, Const. Drake testified that he’d arranged with R. Hall to use his stable as a temporary gaol. When called upon to quell a disturbance at the picnic grounds, he and Const. James Pargeter arrested Pollden and escorted him to the stable. While Pargeter went for the key, Special Officer Brown fetched the irons. Concerned that he might “wander among the horses,” they placed him in a stall with a single horse, shackled him to a post and “drew some of the hay and placed it under him to make it comfortable to lie down upon”. They allowed Pollden a near-empty bottle of cognac (provided by one of his friends who’d accompanied them) but refused him a smoke. A search of his clothing having yielded neither knife nor matches, he was left alone, the door locked.

Drake told his shipmates that Pollden “could be got off on paying a $5 bail if they would take him off the picnic grounds”. They didn’t reply and he was worried that they might free him. But Officer Brown wanted his dinner so, after allowing the horses to be fed, and being assured by the prisoner that he was all right, Drake again locked up.

When Pargeter told him that Pollden’s shipmates wanted to pay his bail, Drake offered to take them to the magistrate but they said they were waiting for their captain. Drake was returning to the stable after just seven or eight minutes’ absence when he saw that it was ablaze.

“Pargeter was close to the fire…and was red and flushed,” he said, Brown having gone to supper with the key to the leg-iron.

Alex Pirrie, Pollden’s first mate and drinking companion, denied that Drake had searched the prisoner and had refused his offer to pay Pollden’s bail without a written order from Magistrate Bate. Pollden, he added, was normally “very good natured and economical” and hadn’t been in the habit of getting drunk.

Another crewman deposed that Pollden had initially resisted arrest because the constables weren’t in uniform, that they’d roughly applied the handcuffs which caused large red welts, that Pollden was shackled hand and foot.

Const. Pargeter, absent when Pollden was locked up, said he was beaten back by flames which “seemed to be coiling around” the prisoner who was screaming and trying to crawl towards the door. Contrary to Mate Pirrie’s testimony, Pargeter said that his hands were free and he later found just the set of leg-irons in the ashes. Isaac Brown corroborated Drake’s story that he’d placed straw under the prisoner, removed the cuffs and searched Pollden for smoking materials. Drake then produced the handcuffs used on Pollden; they showed no signs of being burned.

Young Elisha testified: “[I] ran into the stable and got one horse out. Went and tried to pull out the man but could not move him. A horse dropped on top of [Pollden]. Before I left the stable the horse’s neck was on top of [him]. I was the last to leave. [Pollden] showed no signs of life when I left. [I] did not hear [him] cry out for several seconds before the horse fell on him. His hands were at liberty; [he] said several times, ‘Let me go for mercy’s sake!’”

After an hour’s deliberation the jury ruled that Thomas Pollden was “accidentally burnt to death while under arrest,” that he, accidentally or otherwise, set fire to the hay on which he was lying, and “we do not think that the Constables are in any way to blame, the evidence having shown them to have executed their duty in a most humane manner”.

They recommended that Wellington have its own lockup.


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