The terrible case of the tight-fisted carpenter

It was said, at the time, that James H. Gilchrist committed suicide while grief-stricken by his wife’s death.

“Husband gets jail for ‘callous’ neglect of wife” —Times-Colonist, December 2015.

It was said, at the time, that James H. Gilchrist committed suicide while grief-stricken by his wife’s death.

Police, in fact, were convinced of it, druggist C.H. Bowen having reported that a man of Gilchrist’s description had purchased 10 grams of strychnine to, he said, rid himself of a cat. When last seen, the missing carpenter was walking rapidly towards Macaulay Point, and officers concluded that Gilchrist either took the poison, drowned himself, or both. Despite intensive efforts, however, they’d been unable to find a body.

Making matters worse, the Gilchrists’ Victoria West neighbours found themselves in charge of the couple’s three children. Apparently the Gilchrists were an odd couple. English, they’d “lived in Victoria for many years, being notable for their mutual devotion in their married life, carried to an extreme that had won for them a reputation of mild eccentricity. They were inseparable, and each found complete happiness in the society of the other. When the children came — for there are three in the little family so suddenly bereft of both father and mother — they were the constant companions of both parents whenever they appeared in public, Mr. Gilchrist invariably carrying the youngest…”

Curiously, when police examined their Craigflower cottage, they were astonished to find not a comfortable home but one “fitted with a scantiness common only to the living places of the very poor” — this, despite Gilchrist’s having enjoyed steady employment at high wages. Apparently the carpenter had been “economical even to penuriousness in his daily life,” often walking several miles to work in the worst of weather rather than pay a few cents carfare.

A search of the house turned up few cooking utensils or articles of furniture; even the children slept on mattresses on the floor for want of bedsteads, and the few blankets were thin. “What disposition Gilchrist could have made of his money is accordingly puzzling the western suburb almost as much as the mystery of his fate,” it was reported.

Described as being 35 years of age, six feet tall, with sandy hair and mutton-chop whiskers, Gilchrist undoubtedly was the man seen walking toward Macaulay Point. Sgt. Hawton, Special Officer Johnston and Constables Redgrave and Walker concentrated their efforts in that area.

The following day they revealed a new — and shocking — theory for Gilchrist’s disappearance. Rather than being grief-stricken, it was now thought that “fear of prosecution for neglect of [his wife] during the serious illness that caused her death led the husband and father to either make away with himself or secrete himself. As the facts come to light, it is apparent that Gilchrist had cause to fear, for from the information he has received Chief Sheppard has about made up his mind that if the man turns up alive, he will place him under arrest.”

It had been learned that Gilchrist had refused to allow his wife a doctor during her last, fatal birth as she lay hemorrhaging. Only when a neighbour noticed the Gilchrist children carrying bloodied bedding from the house had a doctor been called; too late for Mrs. Gilchrist.

Whatever the case, Gilchrist was gone, although it had been learned that he wasn’t the man who purchased the strychnine, that individual having notified the authorities.

Days passed without sign of the missing carpenter and police remained undecided as to whether he’d fled to escape prosecution or had done away with himself. The mystery was solved when his body was recovered from Juan de Fuca Strait and a coroner’s jury ruled suicide “while temporarily insane”.

And with James Gilchrist’s death the mystery of his money went unanswered. Fortunately for his children, relatives in England were said to be in comfortable circumstances.