1949: Jacob Bokai, the first Israeli spy executed 1993: Joseph Paul Jernigan, Visible Human Project subject

1899: Three in the Klondike Gold Rush

August 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1899, the gallows of gold rush boom down Dawson City, Yukon strained for three murderers.

The 1896 gold strike in the Klondike triggered a huge rush of prospectors warming sub-Arctic climes with visions of sudden wealth. “When the world rang with the tale of Arctic gold, and the lure of the North gripped the heartstrings of men,” as put by that lure’s great muse Jack London, who himself had already come and gone from the Dawson City by this time, and struck his own variety of fortune in the process.

Miners pouring into the Yukon did not, of course, enter virgin territory. Native peoples had occupied it for thousands of years.

In May 1898, two prospectors, Christian Fox and William Meehan, camped near the mouth of McClintock Creek were only mildly uneasy about the arrival of the Nantucks, Tagish brothers who set up an adjacent camp. Relations were amicable for a while, but when returning one afternoon from the day’s work the prospectors were suddenly fired upon from ambush by their neighbors.

Meehan was slain in the fusillade. The injured Christian Fox managed to float away, get to land, and reach a miners’ settlement. He described the attack thus:

I was lying on the sacks against the side of the boat … and I saw Joe standing with his gun like this … and all the boys went into the brush, and I says to myself “Now they have shot us for our outfit, and are hurrying down to the next bend in the river to catch the boat … My only show is to get to the opposite side of the river and try to make for a white habitation” … I took the paddle in my hand and tried to paddle the boat but I was too weak, so I … used it as a pry … The boat ran up to a nice little level place where it was grassy and as I stepped out I stepped over the leg of my partner as he was stretched out over the boat with his head back and his mouth open and I saw that he was dead, and I said “Good by Billy old boy, I can do nothing for you here.”

By Fox’s report, the four Nantucks were soon taken into custody.


The four Nantuck brothers, shackled after arrest.

The trial unfolded in a court at the territorial capital of Dawson City. A compelling chapter in Strange Things Done: Murder in Yukon History does wonderful work with the cultural disconnections, including a two-page exchange between judge and interpreter (and, off-camera, Frank Nantuck) in which the court struggles to get the accused sworn “so help me God” since Frank’s cosmology has no idea of an afterlife. “He says, when he is dead he is dead — that is all I can get out of him,” the helpless middleman reports.

Q Has he any knowledge of God at all or any idea about a future state of rewards and punishments?

A No sir.

Q Or any clear belief in religion of any kind?

A No sir.

Q Will you say to him that we want him to tell us the truth and not to tell us anything that is not the truth; that he may be punished if he tells us anything that is not the truth; that we are going to ask him some questions and that he must tell us just the truth; ask him if he will agree to do that.

The outcome of the trial will not surprise and there was no question but that the Nantucks had done the shooting. What the Dawson court only barely noted was that brothers had been detailed to avenge two Tagish deaths. An old woman had previously been given or found some “baking powder” and proceeded to make bread with it: in fact, it was arsenic, which was used in mining. Here again is the cultural dislocation; the Nantucks living next to Fox and Meehan were trying to feel out whether those two prospectors were of the tribe that had provided this poison, and of equivalent social rank to the two men who died eating the arsenic-bread. Basically, neither side in this subarctic tragedy had any concept of what the other was on about.

There’s a play about this case, Justice. Peruse the play’s pdf companion study guide on the real historical case here.

In the end, all four Nantucks were condemned to die; Frank was probably still a minor, and he had cooperated with the investigation, so his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment … which did not turn out to be very long at all, since Frank and his condemned brother Joe both died in jail of tuberculosis during the 1898-99 winter.

Dawson Nantuck and Jim Nantuck remained to hang.

Momentarily sensational, the case was long forgotten among whites; it has, however, remained in the oral tradition of Yukon First Peoples. Both communities, however, saw the case brought to the fore when excavations accidentally turned up their remains — along with those of two other hanged men.

One of the other two was the third man to hang this date, a fellow by the name of Ed Henderson. Henderson was an American prospector whose fate might be a bit less instructive for posterity. He suffered from a horrible bladder infection that caused him to pass bloody water every 15 or 20 minutes. “The tortures of the damned,” he described it to court. Wincing yet?

The fact that Henderson suffered from it meant his two prospector-mates suffered from it as well — call it purgatory-level suffering; a member of their party had to relieve himself constantly and thrashed about in his sleeping bag all night for the agony it caused him.

Their empathy for his situation was overturned along with Ed Henderson’s inside-the-tent piss-bowl one night. The drenched and vengeful Tomberg Peterson started an immediate brawl, but Henderson’s leaky plumbing didn’t impair his ability to shoot Peterson dead. Henderson himself reported the incident when the prospectors reached their destination, possibly thinking that no jury would convict him.

The trio comprises the first men hanged by the Yukon Territory, which was only separated from the Northwest Territory in 1898. In fact, there was a bizarre procedural deficiency for the Nantucks (but not for Henderson): they were condemned by the court of the wrong, former territory since word of the territories’ separation had not reached Dawson City at the time of the trial. Nobody saw fit to remedy this blunder, however.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines

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