Few violent crimes on the front pages in Cowichan’s early years. A ‘shooting affray’ in 1924 was an exception. (submitted)

Few violent crimes on the front pages in Cowichan’s early years. A ‘shooting affray’ in 1924 was an exception. (submitted)

Column T.W. Paterson: ‘Shooting affray’ at Sahtlam

Without saying a word, McPhail went into the bedroom and returned with a rifle

Without saying a word, McPhail went into the bedroom and returned with a rifle which he pointed at both of them—neighbour Emily Smith.

If you spent as much time researching in old newspapers as I do, you’d likely come to the same realization as eventually came to me. Namely, that, for all its rough edges, even in the frontier days, the Cowichan Valley has had few violent crimes.

There have been exceptions, few and far between as they are, but it’s rare to see front-page headlines such as that of Aug. 21, 1924, when the Cowichan Leader reported a “shooting affray” at Sahtlam. But not even attempted murder and suicide were the main news story that day, it being reported, with bolder and blacker headlines, that the historic copper mines on Mount Sicker were about to be reopened after more than a decade of inactivity.

Nevertheless, there was no getting around the fact that William Edward McPhail (not his real name) was in the Duncan hospital suffering a self-inflicted wound after trying to shoot his wife. His attempt to cut his own throat was no better, it being reported that he was already “recovered without complications”. This sounds optimistic considering that he’d inflicted a two and a-half-inch long stab wound between his jugular vein and windpipe. Although no charges had as yet been laid, B.C. Provincial Police Const. William Kier had him under police guard in the hospital.

Formerly of Saltspring Island and Duncan, McPhail was said to be 34 years old and of a well-known family.

He and Mrs. McPhail, who was nine years his junior, had been living at Sahtlam with their four children for about nine months. But they were having marital problems. Most recently, she’d taken a job in Victoria after placing the three oldest children with family members on Saltspring, the baby with a Sahtlam neighbour.

A week before, William had gone to Victoria and induced her to return, along with their eldest son, aged nine. On Aug. 14, with them re-settled at Sahtlam, he said he was going to Saltspring by bus to fetch the other children; instead, he returned by car with his father, Joe Sylvia, Joe Watson and Arthur Crocker. He appeared to have been drinking and police later found liquor in the vehicle.

McPhail immediately became enraged with his wife even though a neighbour and two of her children were visiting. Grabbing his rifle from the bedroom, he advanced towards her; she screamed and began to struggle with him, their wrestling match taking them from the house, down the steps and along the sidewalk to the gate.

There, according to the report, “a chance blow” caused her to release her hold on the rifle and she began to run. As she entered some bush on the opposite side of the road, she heard a shot.

At that point, Mrs. W.S. Robinson, another neighbour who’d been attracted by Mrs. McPhail’s screams, approached the house and there was a second shot. This one, it came out in court, was aimed not at his wife but at his father when he and the others struggled to disarm him. This allowed Mrs. McPhail and the baby to flee with Mrs. Robinson to the latter’s home. McPhail, disarmed, ran into the house, reappeared with a knife and set out in pursuit.

At the Robinsons’, he ordered guest Dextor Taylor of Nanaimo to leave or he’d stab him in the heart. When another provincial police constable and Duncan Const. G.F. Elliott reached the scene and entered the Robinson house they found McPhail bleeding heavily from a throat wound. Rushed to hospital, he was charged with attempted murder and attempted suicide.

At his hearing it came out that when he’d returned to their Sahtlam house, Mrs. McPhail and neighbour Emily Smith were there with the McPhail baby; that without saying a word he’d gone into the bedroom and returned with the rifle which he pointed at them, “both of them being in line”.

When Mrs. McPhail sprang forward and grabbed the gun, Mrs. Smith ran for help. Under cross-examination, she gave it as her opinion that he’d intended to shoot his wife, that only her grappling with him had saved her. Minutes after Mrs. Smith fled, she heard a shot.

Mrs. McPhail confirmed Smith’s testimony then described their having fought over the gun as far as the gate where he’d managed to strike her on the left side of the face and reach for her throat. As he swung her around she released her own hold and ran down the road.

She heard two shots but she managed to thwart his aim by dodging and she wasn’t hit although she’d received minor cuts and bruises during their struggle. He’d threatened to kill her before, she tearfully testified, and he had a bad temper. Under questioning by McPhail’s lawyer, she said they’d been on good terms for some time and he hadn’t been drinking that day.

With obvious reluctance and much prompting by both Crown (Const. Kier) and defence, her son corroborated her account. There was further testimony and cross-examination of witnesses.

In mid-September, McPhail was convicted of attempted suicide and given the maximum sentence of two years with hard labour. And a scathing lecture by Judge McIntosh who rejected his defence of temporary insanity and termed him a menace to society without extenuating circumstances.

On the charge of attempting to kill his wife (but not his father), he elected a jury trial and at the autumn assizes was acquitted after only 21 minutes’ deliberation. It was thought that his sudden and unprovoked attempts on both his wife and father were those of a man temporarily deranged, and that his sentence for attempted suicide was punishment enough.

www.twpaterson.com

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