History hunting can be a big challenge. I pursue an interesting story and keep finding blind alleys. It leaves me frustrated, but doggedly determined to track down the facts.
I have been helping my wife Kathy gather information about former Yukon M.P. and political powerhouse, George Black. Some aspects of his life story have been hard to track down and one fact, in particular had been driving me nuts!
Here’s the background: George Black was a young lawyer when he came to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. Like many other stampeders, he laboured hard in pursuit of the dream of finding a paystreak of gold. Instead, he found his paystreak in a rewarding career in Yukon law and politics.
Black, always a committed conservative, had been a loyal party supporter and campaigner back in New Brunswick. This continued in Dawson City, where he became an outspoken opponent of the corrupt Liberal political machine of Frederick Congdon.
In 1905, he was elected to the territorial council, where he served for about five years.
Black was appointed to the position of Commissioner of the Yukon in 1912, after a Conservative election victory, and held that position until 1916, when he volunteered for service during World War I.
Wounded while serving in France, he returned to Canada after the war with a strong respect for the men who risked their lives in the service of their country.
Black ran for parliament, and in 1921, he was elected M.P. for the Yukon, a post he retired from in 1949. For five years between 1930 and 1935, he held the position of speaker of parliament. During his one absence from Ottawa, 1935-1940, his wife Martha took his place in the House of Commons.
In sum, his life was filled with dedication and service to his community. Throughout it all, he continued to practice law.
While researching this interesting man, we came across an intriguing little newspaper article from the 1930s.
The article, written by political journalist Grant Dexter, reported that sometime between 1921 and 1930, a man, who had been recruited by Black during the Great War, was charged with stabbing to death, in Jasper, a German who had “made remarks derogatory to the British Empire”.
The man was arrested and taken to Edmonton where he was held for trial. Flat broke, and speaking in broken English, the article states, he demanded “Please telegraph Captain Black. He will protect me.”
When learning that Black was a Member of Parliament, the jail officials hesitated to contact him, but when they finally did, the article further relates, Black responded immediately.
Three days later, he arrived in Edmonton by train to defend his comrade in arms.
According to the account, Black put up such an impassioned and spirited defence that he was able to turn a certain conviction into an acquittal for his friend.
Black always had a soft spot for veterans who put their lives on the line in service of their country, so this account presents him as an heroic figure, doing his best to help an underdog.
This is the sort of story that heroes are made of! Here is a man who battled corruption in office, championed the little guy and served his country in war, now taking on a lost cause and winning!
I set out to learn more about this trial, but that proved more difficult than I had imagined.
My search has taken me to Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton. It has taken me to the internet, where I tapped a variety of online research tools that have yielded little about the affair.
I have plagued judges for help, and have bored my friends with the details in hope that someone has read about the episode somewhere. It has consumed me for two years.
I have hounded people in various libraries and archives in search of more information about this trial. The best they could do was refer me to another archivist or librarian at another institution.
The Dexter article did not provide a date for the trial, and the Alberta newspapers were not easily searched online, so newspaper accounts, if they existed, were hidden somewhere within a 10-year window of newspaper reporting. That’s a lot of reading!
Archivist Karen Simonson at the Alberta Provincial Archives located a file containing the records of a trial of a man with a similar name, a stabbing, that sounded like the one I had been searching for. Braving the heavy traffic and construction zones of Edmonton streets during my recent visit, I drove to the Archives to examine the enticing documents but they proved not to be the ones I was hoping for.
This quest has taught me that one must be persistent in order to get to facts of a story. If I can’t find the trial records, does that mean that the trial didn’t take place? If that is what happened (or didn’t), then is the story merely a piece of journalistic fiction? It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened. In that case, what was the intention behind writing the article in the first place?
Another possibility is that the trial actually took place, but that the facts reported in the newspaper article are in some way inaccurate. It is not unusual for reporters to write articles in a hurry before they can check all of the facts. Perhaps the case was tried before Black became an M.P.? Perhaps the location was inaccurately stated, or the name of the accused was incorrectly reported. Any of these could cause a researcher to follow many dead ends before getting to the facts.
Was George Black a hero of the common man for pursuing a lost cause and triumphing, or was he merely the subject of some slick journalistic misdirection intended to make him look good when he didn’t deserve it?
Upon my return to Whitehorse, I received an e-mail in response to an earlier inquiry.
The institution had nothing about the trial, but they did have George Black’s application for admission to the Alberta Bar.
It mentioned a pending criminal trial. More important, it had a date.
Quickly, I went back to sources previously searched. Now that I had a date, I could zero in on specific issues of the Edmonton newspapers. And there it was, after nearly two years of searching, described in articles reporting on the trial!
The name was wrong in the original article, and the outcome of the trial was not the same as was described in the first article we found. At last I had found it.
People must have thought me strange to be doing handsprings over such minor details. But that is what makes history interesting to explore, and what has made me into a history hunter.
And the trial? That’s a story for another column!