Goldrush convicts rise from the grave

Three Klondike killers have been unearthed in Dawson City. On November 4, a backhoe operator digging a pit for Dawson's new sewage treatment plant looked down and saw wood and bones. Human bones.

Three Klondike killers have been unearthed in Dawson City.

On November 4, a backhoe operator digging a pit for Dawson’s new sewage treatment plant looked down and saw wood and bones. Human bones.

Three coffins would eventually be dug up. Historians agree they almost certainly contain the remains of convicts executed by the Royal Mounted North West Police during the Klondike Gold Rush, more than a century ago.

But a big question remains: who have we found?

It may be the Nantuck brothers and Edward Henderson, said Ken Coates, a northern history professor with the University of Waterloo.

They were the first men executed by the Mounties in the Yukon. All three were thought to be buried together in an unmarked grave in the vicinity of the current construction project, which was once part of the Mounties barracks.

Coates and William Morrison describe the cases in their book Strange Things Done: Murder in Yukon History.

Dawson and Jim Nantuck, two First Nations men from Tagish, were hanged for murder in Dawson City on August 4, 1899. Their two brothers, Frank and Joe, were also sentenced, but they succumbed to tuberculosis six months earlier.

They were convicted of shooting two prospectors at the mouth of the M’Clintock River. They faulted white men for killing two friends.

First Nations elders have since offered an explanation for the shooting. It all started when an old lady from Marsh Lake who had found, or been given, a can of white powder.

She thought it was baking powder. It was probably arsenic, a poisonous substance used to refine gold.

She baked bread with the powder and fed it to a boy and an old man. Both died.

All belonged to the Crow clan. So did the Nantucks, who would have “had a responsibility to avenge their death, in accordance with tradition,” Coates wrote.

Whether the murdered prospectors had proffered the powder may have been considered irrelevant. Elders who spoke to anthropologist Julie Cruikshank suggested that “the two prospectors … were chosen as representing the ‘clan’ of the white people responsible for the incident, that the prospectors were chosen as social equivalents of the deceased.”

Typically, this collective justice could have also been resolved with compensation. Perhaps the Nantucks sought this and were snubbed.

In the end, all we’re left with is speculation. The deaths make little sense by themselves.

The prospectors carried little of value. There was no escalating violence leading up to the shooting. And the Nantucks hardly looked like hardened killers – the youngest was thought to be 15.

“They don’t look very dangerous,” said Coates. “These aren’t marauding Comanches or Apaches from the prairies. These are kindly, polite, northern aboriginal men. They weren’t the fearsome warriors that some people felt might be lurking in the mountains.

“Quite frankly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

But it’s worth reflecting on how little violence did occur between First Nations and the Klondike stampeders, said Coates.

“When you think about what’s going on in the Yukon, and the vulnerability of non-aboriginal people – they’re on the traplines, they’re in prospectors cabins, they’re mushing down a trail in the middle of winter time – it actually defies logic that there’d be so few aboriginal attacks on non-aboriginal people.”

The Gold Rush dramatically disrupted the traditional lives of First Nations. “You’d think the First Nations would be as mad as could be,” said Coates. “But that’s not what actually occurs.

“One of the bigger questions is not why did the Nantucks murder two people. The question is, why was it such a solitary act, and why are there so few examples of this in Yukon history?”

As for Henderson, an American who was hanged the same day as the Nantucks? He was convicted for shooting a companion at Marsh Lake.

Henderson was cursed with a painful bladder problem that required him to frequently urinate. He used a tin can for this purpose in his tent.

One night, the can spilled on his companion’s blanket. The ensuing argument ended with Henderson shooting the man dead.

Together, these first hangings were intended to carry a strong message, said Coates.

“To First Nations: if you step out of line, you’ll face the full weight of the law, and that includes execution. For the Americans: don’t take things into your own hands – the government of Canada will take all measures necessary and impose justice of the highest order.”

Walker Graham, an amateur historian from Dawson City, has his own theory about the dead men’s identities. “I think it’s Labelle and Fournier,” he said.

Edward Labelle and Peter Fournier were perhaps the most notorious convicts to be executed during the Gold Rush. They hanged on January 20, 1903, for the murder of three French Canadian men, whose bullet-ridden bodies were found weighed down with stones in the river.

“It concerned a murder based on greed, carried out in the most brutal manner imaginable, without

mercy, in secret, and by stealth and cowardice,” Coates wrote.

“Fournier was a drifter, unemployed, a passive character, not very intelligent – all in all, a rather minor actor in the drama. Labelle on the other hand was quick and resourceful and was, moreover, an experienced criminal. He was the leader, Fournier the follower.”

The capture and conviction of Fournier and Labelle solidified the Mounties reputation for always getting their man.

Walker has spent two and a half years researching the history of Gold Rush convicts. By his tally, 10 convicts were hanged at Fort Herchmer, as the Mounties compound was known.

He helped excavate the bodies, and he believes that he saw a telltale clue that suggests Labelle and Fournier were dug up. But, until he firms up his case, he won’t disclose what this hint is.

Hangings were a public event. Mounties would hand out tickets for 100 spectators. Firstcomers were even allowed to stand on the gallows for a close-up view as the hangman wrapped a hemp rope around the convicts necks and triggered the trapdoor.

The bodies would then be cut down, encased in a coffin built from rough-hewn wood, doused in lime and hastily buried.

That was the story’s end – until the bodies were found.

Work halted at the sewage plant site when bones were seen tumbling from the excavation wall into the pit. Greg Hare, Yukon’s senior archeologist, was flown in the next morning.

He decided the bodies needed to be excavated in a hurry. It was about minus 10 Celsius, and it wouldn’t be long before the exposed remains would be frozen into the dirt throughout the long winter ahead.

“This was a completely unacceptable situation,” he said.

He called Dawson and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in. A team of volunteers was hastily assembled.

A rotating shift of around 10 Dawsonites worked late into the night on Friday and Saturday, under the glare of construction floodlights. Over the weekend, they shovelled tons of dirt into buckets and carefully sifted it for remains.

“It was pretty backbreaking work the whole weekend,” said Hare. “I just have to applaud everyone involved.”

The third coffin wasn’t spotted until late Saturday afternoon. As the final planks of the second coffin were removed, the third, buried beside it, came into view.

The coffins had compressed under their burdens of soil. “They’re probably only four or six inches high,” said Hare. They’re really flat.”

The first two coffins were excavated in fragments. But the third was removed whole, and was carefully carried on a sheet of plywood from the pit.

The remains are being kept at a secure site in Dawson. The identities of the convicts will likely be resolved through a battery of scientific tests.

Bones tell tales: the shape of a skeleton speaks to posture, height and disease. Teeth may reveal ethnicity, as well as poverty or wealth. Possessions found on site, such as buttons and buckles, also offer hints.

Test holes had been drilled at the construction site to search for archeological remains prior to excavation. They found nothing.

“People may think this is a wee bit morbid and dark,” said Graham. “But this is how we became a territory. This is an important thing we should talk about.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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