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History Hunter: George Black had a storied affair with the law

Michael Gates & Kathy Jones-Gates
George Black was an important presence in the legal profession in the Yukon for more than 50 years. He developed a reputation of getting acquittals for his clients when conviction seemed a sure thing. (Courtesy/Library and Archives Canada C-039892)

Michael Gates & Kathy Jones-Gates

George Black was a lawyer, a soldier, and for fifty years, a major player on the Yukon’s political landscape. Black was especially noted for his skill in a courtroom.

According to an article describing his legal exploits, one of Black’s earliest cases was defending a bank employee who was accused of stealing a substantial sum of money from the bank where he was employed. The sum was something like $10,000. Black was successful in having his client acquitted. Thankful for Black’s effective legal defence, the man asked Black how much he owed him, to which Black immediately responded, “half of what you stole from the bank!”

Unfortunately, we failed to write down the source of this amusing story many years ago and are still searching for it today.

This, and other better documented stories told by Black suggest that he was proud of his success in winning criminal cases in the Yukon law courts. Time and again, he seemed to pull legal victories, like so many rabbits, out of a magician’s hat.

Black gained a reputation as a resourceful legal practitioner, when pleading a case before a jury, though not everyone appreciated his effort on behalf of certain clients. Judge Dugas, while speaking of the difficulty of securing convictions against gamblers and prostitutes even when guilt was apparent, offered the opinion that Black must have known that many of his clients were guilty.

The Mounted Police were less appreciative of Black’s courtroom talents, especially when utilized in defence of violators of the Liquor License Ordinance.

“Time and again,” wrote one prominent Mountie, “cases have been prosecuted in the courts but we were unable to get convictions; we were confronted with the cleverest legal talent that money could procure (these people always appeared to have unlimited capital at their backs) … we spent money and energy in working up cases, employing special men (stool pigeons) but always with the same result.”

Not all his cases were defending murderers and embezzlers and thieves. The records show that much of his energy was devoted to defending clients in civil disputes related to mining and mining claims.

In 1904, Black was hired to defend two men, named Campbell and Miller, against a charge of assaulting Frank Slavin. Slavin alleged that the men were removing timber from property that was legally his. The defendants argued that the lumber in question came from a cabin that they had acquired by purchase two years earlier. They claimed that they were only defending themselves from an attack by Slavin upon them. Slavin, incidentally, was a former Australian heavyweight boxing champion, who was quite capable of taking care of himself.

Black insisted upon a trial by jury, but the presiding judge decided that he would hear the case himself and reach the verdict. In the end, the two men were found guilty of assault and immediately sentenced to several months of hard labour.

Black appealed on the grounds that the men should be released from jail until his appeal to a higher court was heard. Judge Dugas, in a lengthy decision, denied Black’s request for release on bail, pending a hearing of the appeal, and immediately committed them to serving their sentences.

A petition in support of the two men with 2,000 signatures was forwarded to Ottawa, and an order instructing the men to be released was eventually issued. By the time these instructions were received in Dawson, Miller had already been released, having served his term of three months, and Campbell had only one week left in his jail term.

Black never forgot this case, reasoning that it was not fair for the accused to be tried by the same parties that had arrested them and put them on trial. He was also hoping to get favourable decisions when presenting his case before a jury. Shortly after he was elected to the House of Commons in 1921, Black introduced a private member’s bill to amend the Yukon Act to provide for trial by jury. The amendment was passed into law, but 18 years too late for Miller and Campbell.

In another case in 1908, Black took on the case pro bono of defending Ned Elfors, who had been arrested on a charge of murder. The evidence against Elfors was overwhelming. Black presented no witnesses for the defence, and devoted his work to challenging the testimony and evidence of the prosecution. Instead, he went for a “hail Mary” strategy of appealing to the sentiments of the jury.

Judge Craig, fearing that the jury might be swayed by Black’s summation, and convinced of the man’s guilt, instructed the jury that they had no choice but to find Elfors guilty. Elfors was hanged in Dawson on Oct. 6, 1908.

Years later, George Black’s wife, Martha, published an article in True Detective Magazine in which she stated that while Black defended Elfors without payment, he was convinced of the man’s guilt. Perhaps Black felt that in taking on the case for the defendant at his own expense, he was upholding the principle that every accused person should be provided with proper representation in a court of law.

In a final example of Black’s ability to manoeuvre in a court of law, he took on a case in 1948, in which an airman in the Royal Canadian Air Force was tried on a charge of murder. Black described it in his own words: “Some years ago an Air Force chauffeur driving the Commanding Officer’s wife in a staff car, drove her to her destination and instead of returning the car to the garage, went for a ‘joy ride’ with three friends, two girls and a man.”

“On the Alaska Highway, a few miles south of Whitehorse, the car ran off the road, turned over in its side and killed the man in the back seat. The driver was charged with murder and imprisoned.

“I was retained to defend the driver. … So inexperienced was the judge that he tried the accused without asking him to plead. He was tried without plea and convicted of manslaughter.

“Of course, I appealed the verdict to the Appeal Court of British Columbia, to which court appeals from the Territorial Court of Yukon go, … on the ground that the accused had been convicted without being asked to plead.

“I stated the facts of the case with its official record to the Minister of Justice. He ordered the Clerk of the trial court to enter a decision of no prosecution. That ended the case, and the accused was given his liberty.”

This may have been the first case in modern British and Canadian legal history in which a man was convicted of a crime without first being asked to plea. And Black, the crafty lawyer that he was, knew that all along.

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at Kathy Jones-Gates is a researcher, historian, writer, and former co-editor of the Klondike Sun newspaper.