Just up the beach from where the public wharf is today at Crofton, a terrible double murder took place in the 1880s. (file photo)

Just up the beach from where the public wharf is today at Crofton, a terrible double murder took place in the 1880s. (file photo)

T.W. Paterson column: With murder in their hearts, Part 2

Torn between grief and guilt, Quomlet recoiled before Sally’s fury.

Part 2

Torn between grief and guilt, Quomlet recoiled before Sally’s fury. What could he do to placate his niece and set things right?

Today, it’s a busy ferry terminal, marina and pedestrian causeway. As you look eastward, Saltspring Island takes up much of your view and, to your right, homes and an RV park occupy the site where, a century-plus ago, stood the smelter that put Crofton on the map.

Prior to Henry Croft’s ill-fated plan to make this his shipping port for Mount Sicker copper, Osborne Bay was just another lonely pocket on the fringes of civilization. Perhaps it was this very isolation that had attracted its three permanent settlers, Jim Miller, Bill Dring and George Lilley in the mid 1880s.

Today, Miller and Dring take the peace that was denied them in life in the shade of St. Peter, Quamichan cemetery. They’ve become the subject of legend since their interment beneath a headstone that bears about as intriguing an inscription as you can get: “Sacred to the memory of Wm. Henry Dring and Charles Miller who were massacred Feb. 14Th, 1886, aged 59 and 60.”

Last week, I told you of the seemingly unrelated death from tuberculosis in a Nanaimo jail cell of a man named Quomlet, how Miller’s and Dring’s neighbour George Lilley found their bodies, and how B.C. Provincial Police Const. Dan Mainguy and Nanaimo coroner Dr. W.W. Walkem deduced that at least two killers shot them as they had dinner in Miller’s cabin on the evening of Feb. 13 (not on Valentine’s Day, as stated on their headstone). Then their throats had been slashed for good measure. Robbery didn’t appear to be the motive and three sets of footprints on the nearby beach indicated the possibility of two men and a woman, or a child, being involved.

If the motive wasn’t robbery — Miller’s $100 stash was still in a tin box under his bed — what? They appeared to have had no known enemies and had lived peacefully at Osborne Bay for years, Miller after taking part in the California and Fraser River gold rushes. Even less was known about Dring other than that, between the two of them, they’d acquired 336 acres of the future community of Crofton.

The wounds to the bodies, particularly those inflicted on Miller, indicated panic on the part of the killers or that they’d borne particular malice for him. Perhaps poor Dring had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time?

The waterside footprints that Mainguy had had the foresight to cast in wax, were all the police had to go on. The small provincial force did what it could, asking all and sundry, white and native, up and down the Island’s east coast, if they knew anything about who’d killed them, or why. The case might well have remained unsolved had not the investigation of further murders near Campbell River yielded information on the Miller-Dring case.

A year and a-half after their “massacre,” the trading schooner Seabird went missing. Provincial Police Supt. H.B. Roycroft took personal charge of the investigation and uncovered the sorry fact that the schooner had been plundered and burned after its captain and two-man crew were murdered.

With the arrest of Macamoose, a Salmon River man, for the triple slaying had come a bonus: Sally Ah-hoo-mult told police that she could identify the man who’d killed two white men near Chemainus the year before. Taken under police escort to Comox, she did just that, pointing out her uncle, Quomlet. There was no arresting Johnny Kla-quot-sie, another uncle whom she named as being implicated, however, as she said he’d died of exposure the previous winter.

Sally even claimed to know why Quomlet had murdered Miller and Dring. It all went back to November 1885, three months before their deaths, when a fight broke out during a Salmon River potlatch and, in a rage, her father, Kaiwoos, Quomlet’s younger brother, had killed Quom Kack-elak-is, Quomlet’s father-in-law.

On Feb. 5, 1886 — nine days before Miller and Dring were killed — Kaiwoos went to the gallows in Nanaimo. He’d been convicted, for the most part, on the testimony of his brother, Quomlet. While this satisfied his wife for the death of her father, it certainly hadn’t appeased Sally, daughter of the executed man. She accused her uncle of betraying his brother, of having broken family and tribal honour by turning Kaiwoos over to the whites for hanging.

Already torn between having done what was right, and with grief and guilt over his brother’s execution, Quomlet recoiled before her fury. What could he do to placate his niece and set things right?

The answer that came to him was a simple, if not straightforward one. Since he couldn’t turn back the clock, the only course left to him, so he reasoned, was to avenge Kaiwoo’s death. “Don’t cry,” he told Sally, “We are going to look for this hangman that hanged your father.”

Thus it was that, just over a week after the execution, Quomlet, Johnny Kla-quot-sie and Sally loaded a canoe and paddled southward in cold, blustery weather. With a Winchester rifle, a Hudson’s Bay Co. Musket, a bowie knife, two bottles of whisky to keep them warm — and murder in their hearts — they set off for Osborne Bay.

Initially, Sally had told the police that Johnny had died of exposure the previous winter, leaving Quomlet as the only suspect, but the police disproved this by arresting Johnny. It was at his trial in Victoria, in July 1888, that Sally gave a riveting account through an interpreter of how she’d accompanied her uncles by canoe from Nanaimo to Osborne Bay to avenge themselves for the execution of her father.

After hours of paddling in a choppy sea, they pulled up onto the beach and made camp. As they rested by their fire, Quomlet said, simply, “We are looking for the hangman, my dear.” He said no more and Sally said she made no reply.

Setting out again early in the morning, they landed on the beach of what is today’s Crofton marina about dusk. Quomlet obviously knew where they were going as he pointed out a landing spot and said to Johnny, “We will go and see that white man.” He instructed Sally to “keep a good watch in case a canoe might come round. We are going up to see that white man.”

He was referring to Miller whose shack was several hundred yards from the shoreline, behind a rise and some trees. Quomlet took the lead, carrying his Winchester rifle and bowie knife, Johnny following with the old HBCo. muzzle-loading shotgun loaded with solid shot. Sally watched them walk up the hill until they disappeared into some trees, but she could hear Miller’s dog barking.

“Not long after I heard two shots fired, just one after the other. Then again I heard two more shots fired, and after that I saw Johnny coming down the hill with the gun in one hand and a sack of flour in the other. Then Quomlet came down with the Winchester in one hand and a sack of flour in the other.” The front of his calico shirt and white trousers were stained with blood.

Sally was so busy pacing up and down the beach that Quomlet had to command Johnny to fetch their canoe while he returned to the cabin. Sally followed him from a distance but couldn’t bring herself to look inside while he gathered up clothing and a third sack of flour. “We then returned to the canoe and Quomlet told me and Johnny to load [it], and to be quick lest someone might come round and see us.”

(To Be Continued)


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