Murder most foul! in Nanaimo

Legend has it that a cashbox filled with cash, coin and jewels is still in the murky waters of Nanaimo Harbour.

Such was the intriguing headline for April 9, 1887. Well over a century later, this case is every bit as fascinating. And, if legend has it right, some tempting mementos are yet buried in the muddy bottom of Nanaimo Harbour.

It all began in Victoria when 19-year-old Lee Guay tired of her arranged marriage to an elderly, wealthy Chinese merchant. With a determination uncharacteristic of her cultural upbringing, she resolved to return to China and, aided and abetted (likely encouraged) by two countrymen of dubious intent, she slipped out of the house.

Ah Fat and Ah Sam were to bring her to Nanaimo where she would board a steamer for China. Such, at least, is what they told her. Whether they ever intended to see her safely on her way remains a matter of conjecture as, per plan, Lee Guay was carrying the expensive jewelry given to her by her husband.

No sooner had she disappeared than he raised the alarm that she’d been spirited away by Sam and Fat. At first police had difficulty in picking up their scent, but turned up a report of two Chinese males and a woman seen on a boat near Kuper (Penelakut) Island. By this time, as would be learned later, Lee Guay was already dead. As Ah Sam later confessed, while they were camped in separate tents in a secluded bay near Wallace Island, just north of Saltspring, Ah Fat had decided to destroy the evidence of their complicity, so to speak, by getting rid of her.

This, he did with a hatchet, as she slept. Next morning he told Sam (so the latter assured arresting officers, thus disowning any active role in her murder) what he’d done and they rifled her body and effects of almost $1,000 in money and jewelry. Poor Lee Guay, they wrapped up in the tent, weighted it with stones, and sank it in the bay in 30 feet of water.

They then carried on to Nanaimo. But, the nearer they approached, the more nervous they became. They were prime suspects in her disappearance. What if police found her body? Not willing to take chances, Ah Fat wrapped the money and jewels in a blue handkerchief and, as they tied up at the Vancouver Coal Co. dock, dropped them over the side.

They – and the hatchet – were apprehended in New Chinatown. Both maintained that they’d smuggled Lee Guay aboard an outbound collier. If Ah Sam hadn’t blabbed to an interpreter – by trying to put all the blame on his partner – it’s unlikely that a case for murder could ever have been made against them. But, armed with his detailed description of the fatal campsite in Trincomali Channel, police went to work with grappling irons. When this means initially failed because of the bay’s rocky bottom, they considered calling in the services of a diver.

However, thanks to Sam’s

detailed description of the murder site, Consts. Drake and Stephenson were able to recover Lee Guay’s battered body during a second attempt after enlisting several Indian prisoners and a length of rope barbed with large hooks. After hours of dragging the seabed, within 100 feet of where Sam had indicated, they snagged the waterlogged tent. It was held underwater by a strong manilla rope tied round the victim’s waist and attached to a flat stone weighing almost 100 pounds.

Although the body was decomposed and had been attacked by dogfish, the skull showed definite injuries such as would have been delivered by a hatchet. When Lee Guay’s husband formally identified her remains by her clothing, the Free Press congratulated Nanaimo and Provincial Police officers for the “energy and sagacity with which they have prosecuted this investigation”. No doubt this was in answer to cynical rumours that the officers’ industry had been motivated by suggestions that the victim, unbeknownst to her killers, had had as much as $1,500 in jewelry sewn into her clothing! While efforts were being made to find a body, police had continued questioning Indians from Saanich north. Again, they learned of a boat with three

Chinese who’d anchored off Kuper Island for five days while they camped ashore. A description

of their boat had led to police’s locating it at the VCC wharf and its owners in Chinatown. All of which resulted in Ah Fat and Ah Sam standing in

the prisoners’ dock in a Victoria courtroom. And, shortly thereafter, thanks to Ah Fat’s confession, their exit from the provincial stage via the gallows.

A legend has grown over the years that Lee Guay stole her husband’s cashbox and that, filled with cash, coin and jewels, it’s still in the murky waters of

Nanaimo Harbour. City divers who scrounge for old bottles, take note!

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