Probably the most famous — or infamous — headstone in the Cowichan Valley is that of William Henry Dring and Charles Miller in St. Peter’s, Quamichan cemetery. (submitted)

T.W. Paterson column: Accused murderer had to answer to a higher court

It must have occurred to each and every one of them that Quomlet might well have cheated the hangman

Surely, as the jurors filed out of the courtroom, it must have occurred to each and every one of them that Quomlet might well have cheated the hangman.

I’ve written about coroner’s inquests before. They can be a wealth of information and — heaven forbid that I should admit to milking them of their dramatic values — great stories.

That which opened in Nanaimo, with Dr. W.W. Walkem, coroner, W. Hunter, foreman, and E. Cook, D. Hoggan, George House, A.J. Morrison and James Caldwell, jurors, is about as fascinating as they get.

If ever you wanted proof that truth is stranger than fiction, this is it!

First to take the stand was William Stewart, city constable and jailer, who identified the deceased in the open coffin before them as an Indigenous man known as “Qumlet” (Quomlet), who, he said, had died between 11 and 12 o’clock on the morning of July 9, 1888. Quomlet had been in his custody for seven months, having previously been imprisoned in Victoria, while awaiting trial for the murders of two men. Ironically, he was to go before Justice H.P.P. Crease that very day; instead, the court had been informed that Quomlet had “gone to the Superior Court where all hearts are open and all secrets known,” and His Lordship had expressed his regrets that the accused hadn’t lived long enough for his guilt or innocence to be established.

Dr. I.T. Davis, the jail’s physician and surgeon, then told the inquest that Quomlet’s health had begun to fail soon after his arrival in Nanaimo. Whether he’d contacted tuberculosis through his incarceration or he was hereditarily disposed, Davis couldn’t say. But he assured the jury that the prisoner had received “every attention, medically, and from the authorities that it was possible to give him”.

When the jury rendered its verdict of death by consumption and commended the tender ministrations of prison staff, that was that for them. It hadn’t been their duty to consider the circumstances leading up to Quomlet’s being in the Nanaimo jail. But, surely, as they filed out of the courtroom, it must have occurred to each and every one of them that Quomlet might well have cheated the hangman.

They couldn’t have known that it was, of all things, a hangman who’d set Quomlet on his path of destruction that ended so dismally in a Nanaimo jail cell. This and much more would come out at the trial of his alleged accomplice, Johnny Kla-quot-sie, which began two weeks later.

Here, we must go back two years, to February 1886, and to what’s now Crofton. It was mostly bush, then, with just a few scraggly stump farms, before a copper mine put it on the map. Two of these homesteaders were William Henry Dring and Charles Miller. It was a neighbour, George Lilley, who set the province on a massive manhunt when he found his bachelor neighbours’ bodies in Miller’s cabin while delivering their mail. Dring was slumped at his table, Miller flat on his back on the floor before the fireplace.

Although both men were known to be hard drinkers, there was no mistaking that either of them was in a drunken stupor. Blood was spattered everywhere. Both, it turned out, had been shot and, for good measure, their throats slashed.

The nearest provincial policeman was Const. Dan Mainguy at Chemainus, so off to Chemainus galloped the horrified Lilley. With Dr. Walkem, Mainguy hurried to Crofton. As the Nanaimo coroner examined the bodies, Mainguy surveyed the murder scene. Both victims had been eating supper at the table when they were attacked, as indicated by their partially eaten meals and the fact that the kerosene lantern had burned itself out.

The throat-slashing appeared to have been an afterthought, Walkem having quickly determined that both had been shot first. Dring had been struck in the head and a load of buckshot in the stomach had knocked Miller to the floor. This seemed to indicate that he’d stood up to meet someone at the door. He’d also been shot in the chest with a rifle and stabbed in the heart. His throat-cutting, obviously superfluous, seems to have been done as a symbolic coup de grace.

Mainguy and Walkem concluded that two murderers were involved. Miller’s horrific wounds indicated that he’d not been killed outright and his slayers panicked, or that they bore him more animosity than they did Dring. Making their murders all the more extraordinary was the fact that the cabin didn’t appear to have been ransacked and Miller’s small stash remained intact in a metal box under his bed. His old rifle hung, un-fired, from its peg by the fireplace.

Outside, Mainguy discounted his own, Walkem’s and Lilley’s hoof prints. Finding no signs that the murderers had come on horseback, he descended to the beach, several hundred feet distant. On the tidal mudflats he found the remains of a fire and three distinct sets of footprints. Two sets, he surmised, were made by adult males, the third set, smaller and barefoot, indicated a woman or a child. Demonstrating modern forensics, he made casts of the prints with molten wax.

If, Mainguy pondered, robbery wasn’t the motive — what? To answer that question, he checked into the victims’ backgrounds, to learn that Charles Miller was a Scotsman who’d taken part in the California gold rush of 1849 and the Fraser River excitement nine years later. He’d homesteaded in Osborne Bay in 1866 and had, over 20 years, accumulated 136 acres.

Less was known about his neighbour other than that William Henry Dring was an Irishman who owned 200-plus acres. The third and last Crofton settler, George Lilley, who’d found their bodies, wasn’t aware that either man had had any enemies.

That, and the footprints, were all that Mainguy had to go on. The Provincial Police did what they could, asking all and sundry, white and native, up and down the Island’s east coast, if they knew anything or if they’d heard anything about who killed them or why. The case might well have remained unsolved had not the investigation of two seemingly unrelated murders near Campbell River yielded information on the Miller and Dring case.

(To Be Continued)

www.twpaterson.com

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