Stepping off a railway trestle could be fatal. (Victoriatrails.com photo)

Stepping off a railway trestle could be fatal. (Victoriatrails.com photo)

T.W. Paterson: ‘Dickey’ Thomas died without spilling a drop

At Roberts’ insistence that they check again, it was confirmed that his buckskin wallet was missing.

But, at Roberts’s insistence that they check again, it was confirmed that his buckskin wallet was missing.

It seemed an open and shut case: Richard ‘Dickey’ Thomas of Wellington died accidentally after falling from a railway trestle.

But where was his wallet? And did the opened bottle in his pocket really defy physics by surviving intact — without spilling a drop?

George Merritt, bartender at the Wellington Hotel, was the first to testify before the coroner’s inquest. He saw the deceased miner at 4:30 p.m., Jan. 18, 1887, when Thomas left the hotel with an uncorked bottle of Jamieson whiskey for which he’d paid $1 in coin. He seemed to be in good health, cheerful and “perfectly sober” as he headed in the direction of the No. 4 Mine. Merritt hadn’t noticed anyone else about as Thomas trudged off down the railway track.

Wellington Collieries overman James Haggart was with his Chinese workers when another Chinese rushed up with the news that he’d found the body of a white man. Haggart followed him to where Thomas, whom he recognized, lay on his back, under a trestle. After sending for Thomas’s cabin mate, W. Roberts, Haggart had the body examined where it lay by several other miners who then carried the corpse to Thomas’s cabin.

Haggart, who’d acted with almost professional dispatch, noted a large wound on the left side of the head, another on the face, and that rigour mortis had already set in.

He judged the trestle to be about 30 feet high, stated that, to his knowledge, few people took that route on foot, that Thomas lay on his back with his umbrella under his right arm.

The nearly full bottle of Jamieson’s finest was still in his pocket, uncorked, unbroken — and almost full.

At this, one of the jurymen interjected that he’d seen the body before it was removed, that he thought the bottle to be missing no more than a single draught.

Hop Lee, who’d found Thomas lying dead beneath the railway tracks, deposed that he’d been on his way to pack some coal for his fire, about 11:30 a.m. Frightened, he’d reported his discovery to storekeeper Hop Chung then returned to the corpse with Haggart and others. Thomas appeared to be in the same position and he’d seen no other Chinese about. (He obviously was being questioned as to whether the body had been tampered with.)

Hop Lee emphatically declared, “There were no other Chinese with me. A lot of Chinamen went to see the body when Mr. Haggart went. Hop Chung did not go to the body before Mr. Haggart, Mr. Haggart went first.”

In answer to William Roberts, Thomas’s cabin mate, he again defended his countrymen: “When Mr. Haggart went away all the Chinamen went home; he speak, all the men go; no Chinaman touched the dead man or his clothes.”

Then it was Roberts’s turn on the stand. He’d last seen Thomas about 1 o’clock that afternoon. Thomas was dressing to go to a funeral. Thomas should have had about $15 on him when he died, all that was left of $120 he’d received from Mrs. E. Jones after he’d deposited $100 into his Nanaimo bank account and paid his Chinese assistant $5.

Money seems to have been an issue with Roberts. Upon being informed that Thomas had been found dead, he’d rushed to the scene and asked if anyone had searched the deceased’s pockets. Only a watch and a silk handkerchief were found. At Roberts’s insistence that they check again, it was confirmed that Thomas’s buckskin wallet was missing. Roberts then scouted the immediate area without turning it up.

Asked his opinion as to the cause of death, he said he thought it to have been accidental as there were signs of someone having slipped on the trestle, and a chip in the woodwork where Thomas was thought to have hit his head.

John Bryden, manager of the Wellington Collieries, confirmed that the trestle bore evidence of Thomas having slipped, and that there appeared to be a fresh chip in the timber. He also gave it as his opinion that Thomas hadn’t been walking in the centre of the bridge but along the very edge and had literally stepped off; boot marks in the soil showed that he’d landed feet first.

Dr. W. McNaughton Jones, who’d examined the body, stated that death had been immediate. The head and facial wounds, he said, were “very rough and ragged, not as though inflicted with any instrument, and were sufficient to have caused death”. The state of rigour mortis indicated that Thomas had been dead for about 10 hours when he was discovered.

Without comment on the unspilled whiskey or the missing wallet, the jury ruled that Richard Thomas came to his death by accidentally falling off the old South Wellington trestle and that no blame be attached to anyone.

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