There’s nothing like a body or old bones to spark a mystery.
The recent discovery of human remains on the Malahat and the resulting suspicion of foul play is a grim reminder that, unlike in the movies or on TV, the answers aren’t always forthcoming. Sometimes the mystery remains just that.
Particularly in the old days, before cutting-edge forensic sciences and DNA, although solutions did happen from time to time. Not so, however, in the case of the human skeleton found at Royal Oak by hunter George Carter. It was in the woods, some 200 yards off the West Saanich Road.
The last thing Carter expected to find that day was a body. But, after almost stepping on a skeleton in the underbrush he had the presence of mind to retire and leave the remains, obviously human, undisturbed.
Carter, in fact, was the ideal man to make the discovery. Before notifying police he examined the death scene without touching anything. By the advanced state of decomposition the body obviously had been there for quite some time, the torso, head and hair having been scattered (likely by animals) over an area eight feet square. After taking mental note of various articles of clothing and effects — a coat, a pair of trousers and a brown felt hat, a belt and sheath without knife, and a tin powder flask — Carter deduced (rightly as it turned out) that the dead man had been white. Thus informed, he returned to town and notified the authorities.
When police reached the scene they were unable to detect anything more than had the observant Carter and, after bundling up the remains, issued a public appeal for information. The coroner announced that he’d postpone an inquest until he had more to go on.
Fortunately, information concerning what had become known as “the death in the woods” was forthcoming and, two weeks after Carter’s grim discovery at Royal Oak, a 14-man jury, with John Van Amon foreman, was empanelled at the Royal Oak Tavern to hear evidence.
First to testify was Gideon Halcrow, a Saanich carpenter. Three years before, he said, he’d been visited at his home by a stranger. The man, whom he took to be a surveyor, had been about 33 years old, of average height, with dark brown hair. He’d been wearing a blue coat, pants of a colour Halcrow couldn’t recall, long boots and hat. The anonymous ‘surveyor’ had been equipped with a knife in his belt, packsack and double-barrelled shotgun.
Asked why a stranger of three years before had stood out in his memory, Halcrow had a ready answer: “There was this peculiarity about his head which attracted my attention. Posteriorly and laterally there was a very considerable projection, but on which side I cannot say; to the best of my recollection it was on the right.”
The man’s behaviour had also captured the carpenter’s attention: “He was not of sound mind and memory…”
Shown the tattered hat found with the body, Halcrow agreed that it resembled that worn by his caller. Upon being questioned further he said that the stranger had spoken plain English but he didn’t know the man’s nationality. “He was supposed to have been killed by the Indians in North Saanich, where he built a small house,” Halcrow concluded, “and about this time to which I have referred, suddenly disappeared, and since then has not been seen.”
Dr. Davie then testified that he’d examined the remains found by Carter and declared them to be those of a man aged about 30, about five feet six inches in height and, probably, Caucasian. However, because the remains had been exposed to the weather and foraging animals for three or four years, and several of the smaller bones were broken, he couldn’t even guess as to the cause of death.
But his examination had dovetailed with Halcrow’s remembrance of a stranger with a head deformity: “The formation of the head was peculiar,” Davie testified. “On the left side, posteriorly, there was a very considerable projection.”
No further information, or the deceased’s identity being available, the jury returned a verdict of death by unknown cause. Well over a century and a-half later, the mystery of the ‘surveyor’s’ identity and how he came to meet his death, alone in the woods of Royal Oak, remains unsolved.