From mounted police life in Canada, a record of thirty-one years’ service, by Superintendent Richard Burton Deane: On the evening of February 13, 1895, it was reported to me at Lethbridge that a man named Willis had blown his brains out. I went to his house and found the report in no way exaggerated, as brains were scattered all over one of the walls. He had put the muzzle of a Winchester rifle into his mouth and pressed the trigger with his great toe. The deceased, whom I had known for some years, had had good situations, but had lost them through drink, and he had been steadily going down the hill for some time, his earnings being very precarious.
Iarrived in Lethbridge to be married in February of 1890. Willis met the train, and right away I knew I’d come too far. He wore a bearskin coat. I had seen buffalo robes before, but I never knew there was such a thing in this world as a bearskin coat. He held a slopping tankard, carried absent-mindedly from the tavern, and did not think to take my valise. My mind caught as a skirt might snag on a nail, but I still got off the train. So, you see, I chose this.
Willis had courted me in Calgary, a wild enough place. When I demurred, he swore he would be a good provider, and I believed that. His face had a sweet eagerness then. For two or three years he did maintain us well, before he fell into the glooms.
deane: At this time Willis was out of work and the wolf was at his door. The household was kept going by a lodger named James Ronald. “But for him,” Mrs. Willis said on one occasion, “we should have had nothing to eat.” Willis had, however, frequently complained to various people of the undue intimacy between his lodger and his wife—and not a little indignation had been aroused by the treatment which the husband complained of having received.
They said it was us carrying on that led Willis to do himself the injury. Superintendent Deane plainly thought the same, when James ran to fetch him. Deane tramped through the house without a word or a nod to me. Blank-eyed, his mouth guarded by a drape of moustache, certain of his own keen rectitude—he did not ask me one question, but spoke only to James. The wreckage of my ear and eye was plain to see, but he said nothing then nor ever about how sorely I’d been used. Because he believed that I had wronged Willis with James Ronald.
But I had not. James was a soft baby, hardly a man at all, tuft-bearded, lip- dangling. It was not like that between us.
deane: On one occasion when Willis arrived at home somewhat the worse for liquor he found his wife sitting in the lodger’s lap. When he remonstrated with them, the lodger put him quietly but firmly out of the house, shut the door and turned the key in the lock.
That was nothing, that old occasion they made so much of. James felt a moment’s sympathy for me, was all. Seeing fat red welts on my neck that time, and my cheek swelled and split like a rotting yellow plum, he pulled me down to sit upon his knee, saying poor girl, poor girl. He is a slight man and I too large for his lap, but he meant to be kind.
One afternoon I did think of it, when we went walking to see his younger brother, who was living rough in a soddy on the plateau above the town. Up there, endless wind sends the grass flowing in long folds. Jamie’s pale skin flushed in the lowering sun to the new-fawn shade of his hair, and the disturbance of the breeze made him seem gentle, as if he might be hurt, which you would not want to do. The fit was over by sunset; I am ashamed of it now. He was a foolish boy, nervous and a little tiresome, though he played the fiddle well. He and Willis sniggered together over nothing when they were in liquor.
Willis loved him. That was how it began, Willis brought home a friend and said he needed lodging. It was his friend that bothered him, not I, when he burst in on us—that his friend would be dandling me on his knee.
It was not like the report, not like it seemed when the men talked of it in court. We had not done the marriage act in many months. Willis was never one for that. He told me soon after we married that he preferred less abundance in the bosom. It hurt me to think of that, and irritated me that I should be hurt, so I would not think of it. He liked to lie beside me, though, or sit close-cuddling on a bench. Strange how people are. From time to time, maybe twice a year, he’d take his way, but it did not mean much to him. And it took him a very long time if he did finish off, so that I was always sore after. I would not seek the solace of embraces for myself, knowing he would push me away or lose his temper.
I do not know why he courted me in the first place. I suppose it was for someone to keep him fed, or for loneliness. Or for the look of it, to have a wife at hand.
Things were not well between us, but I felt I’d made my bargain and should stick by it, even when he lost his place at the livery stable and was reduced to hunting. He called it hunting—but if he did set out with a gun, he only ever went as far as the hotel before turning aside. Someone there would buy him a drink and listen to his hard lines. He said they were employing him at the taproom, but if they did they only paid in liquor. He had no industry at all, poor man, and there were plenty others around who had none either. I took in mending and laundry, and James paid us regular from what he got from his father back East, and in that way we still managed. So when James left town that time, after Willis walked in on us like that, it was hard lines for me as well, and also I missed having a temperate speaker about the house who might say a civil good morning.
While James was gone away back East, Willis fell into bad company down at the hotel. An American called Charles Warren, among others. Warren was a tall man, well set up, with a strangely quiet air. Handsome, but something sideways and secret about the brow, so that he would always be thought shifty. He kept his mouth near shut as he spoke, for his teeth were any which way.
He brought Willis home dead drunk a time or two, and loitered in my kitchen amid the lines of laundry hung round the room to dry, smiling with a closed mouth and disputing with me in that confiding, soft-drawling purr that pawed at your ear until you did what he wanted you to.
I have been a bad judge of men.
deane: James Ronald went away from Lethbridge for a time, but returned, and it is no disregard of the obligation de mortuis to say that when Willis readmitted Ronald to his household he knew what his past experience had been.
In the event, James Ronald’s father, a tin-pot tyrant by all accounts, sent him packing straight back west again, ordering him to be a man and see to his younger brother, Maxwell, then living in a tar-paper shack on the edge of town.
But even after Jamie returned—though professing to be glad to see him and insisting that he board with us again—Willis drank on. Bile and ill-temper accumulated in his gut till he was worse than useless, and every cent I scraped together, he spent on liquor. So we argued, saying bad things to each other, and then he beat me.
One night when I baited him he took into a fury and slated me so bad about the head that I lost my senses. When I came to myself, Jamie had dragged me up onto the bed and was trying to staunch the blood. He washed my head and my ear, where Willis had nigh torn it off, and patted me as you might pat a baby, till I was calmed and fell almost into a doze. He’d have treated Willis the same, had I been unkind to him. I do not believe he felt aught for me beyond what you would for a wounded animal. It was in the way of kindred sympathy, for Jamie himself had been rough-treated in the past, and he was a naturally gentle fellow.
Then Willis came sneaking back to get the little money left in my tin can, and shouted even more to find us there upon the bed. But seeing what he’d done to my face this time, and how the top of my ear flapped loose, he cried. And when the torn part fell away amid fresh bleeding, he was overcome with self-loathing and blundered through the lines of laundry to the back kitchen, where he used his rifle on himself.
At first I thought it was a trick, but James broke out crying and weeping and so I pushed up from the bed and went to see, and there he was. Not Willis any longer.
I could not make shift to clean it up, but sat beside him holding his poor arm. I had not even got a bandage round my head by the time James came back with Deane and his men. Finding myself disregarded, I tore a strip of clean sheet to tie up my wound and hung in the corner in a trance, waiting for them to be done.
When they had taken the body away I filled a bucket with meltwater and scrubbed the wall and floor until my hands and knuckles bled to match my ear. I was sorry that he did it. We had been married a fair while by then and I did not want him to be dead—just less feckless and disagreeable.
My head burned. I slept at last in the tumble of old sheets, but in the morning I washed the linens properly and hung them outside, there being no room inside, to stiffen in the snap of cold wind, thinking mostly that February was only half over and it would be cold for some considerable time to come. I grew up in softer weather and never can get used to this wind.
As it would no longer be decent for me to board a single man, James moved his traps up to his brother Maxwell’s. A poor place, but a roof. I had the comfort of only myself to care for now at least. Those two hopeless boys could comfort each other.
The funeral was well attended, all the town having heard of the death and owning an opinion on the rights of the matter. The Presbyterian minister McKillop—willing to bury a suicide, is why I chose him—gave a homily that spoke gravely of sin and continence, but I was not completely attending to his words, and maybe still a little hard of hearing from my ear being pulled. The women turned away from me and James outside the church and it was borne in upon me then that some or all felt my actions had caused Willis to shoot himself. Not that those women had ever been particular friends of mine.
At the inquest the question was brought up. James stammered and denied that we had ever been affectionate, saying the words improper relations like they were ordure on his tongue, like he had never thought of such a thing in life. He was upset by the very notion, it seemed to me, where I stood listening at the crack of the anteroom door while the other women moved about setting out a cold lunch for Superintendent Deane and the lawyers. My legs shuddered, standing there, being talked about without the chance to answer. Perhaps I should have broke the door down then and shouted bloody murder at them all, my broken husband dead now and the blame of it coming on my own broken head. I could not tell any longer what was pain of my injuries and what was from the inward hurt of it.
James came out that way after giving his evidence. He would not look at me. He never looked me in the eye again, never once, never spoke to me again, even while I held snow to his bare chest later, working over him in the darkness.
His brother, less fastidious, tipped his hat to me when he came through. Max and I had always got along, and I guess he was sorry for my widowed state.
And there was the American, Charles Warren, standing watching at the back. As I ducked out of the courthouse after the men went in to lunch, Warren caught my arm in a rude grip. Not cruel enough to mark, but to remind me that we were the same kind of reprobate. He never spoke loud, but said I should watch out for my friend, and be more circumspect myself.
deane: Charles Warren, an American citizen, had been in town for a few months, doing no work, and having no visible means of support, but quiet and inoffensive withal. He habitually carried a six-shooter in his breast pocket.
What say did Charles Warren have in the matter? It was a thing between me and my husband alone—no concern of his. In various ways he had been no friend to Willis, I can tell you. He brought malice with him from farther south, and you can be sure there was a reason he no longer sported himself down there.
By the courthouse step, the Presbyterian minister stood with his whiskers arranged in judgment. He, too, addressed me, from a distance, saying I ought to be ashamed to show my face. So I walked about town on the boardwalks all the afternoon, showing my face to all the people I could. It was no kind of comfort, but the walking stopped the shuddering in my limbs.
That same night, the night of the inquest, a band of men went out to Max’s place and held them up, the brothers. They left Max huddled in the bed with the covers over his head, pissing himself with fright, two of them staying behind with guns to keep him from reporting. He was not yet twenty and they were eight big men, what could he have done? But he will always feel that he betrayed poor James.
Poor James—him they pulled out of bed and hustled out to the road. The men were not shouting as you hear tell of, but quite silent. They’d dragged along a wagon with a pot of tar, and they daubed him with it and then slung over him a sack of feathers (some woman’s winter pillow- savings wasted) which stuck fast in the tar, or dangled and fluffed in the night wind as if he was a prairie chicken.
deane: James was pulled out of bed, tarred, feathered, and led with a rope round his neck by a half-mile route to the front door of the Lethbridge House, the principal hotel in the town. He was pushed into the hall, the door was temporarily fastened from without, and the masked gang rapidly and quietly dispersed. James Ronald was then at liberty to make his way home without molestation. It was rather a stormy night, with drifting snow; a night on which few people would be about the streets, and no noise was made.
Not knowing who else to try, Max came for me, and I ran back with him to help. It made you sick to see it. We stripped his small-clothes, what they’d left on him, and Max burned those in the yard. The pitch was part of him by then, so he looked no man but a monster, a wild beast—all over tar, poisonous stuff that seeps into the eyes and nose, sharp feathers sticking everywhere. They’d shoved the tar paddle between his teeth, even.
I was ashamed and angry, feeling I had half caused this dreadful thing. I said Max should go for the police, but he would not. He was persuaded that one of the men who kept guard on him had been from the barracks, and I could not move him.
We boiled water so it would be clean, but could not use it too hot or it hurt him more. Oil might have worked, but they only had cheap kerosene in the shack, and I was afraid to use too much because beneath the tar his skin was burned in places. The best way we found was snow, to freeze it hard and then pick at it. We spent most of that night freezing him, holding a clump of snow to a patch and then scraping quick. There was not much clean snow left out there at Max’s place, for wind had stripped the grass bare, and we were soon far from the house in our search for more. Where the land sloped into a sheltered coulee we found a cranny of ice-carved snow still left. Max ran back for blankets while I kept at it. James was by this time well past crying, partly delirious, muttering about the whisperer who’d spurred the men on to harry him.
Scraping and plucking, I got most of James’s back cleaned. His front was a calamity. If we’d had the choice to give up, we would, both of us. James hit out sometimes as I pulled at the tar, but he was weak as a cat and I did persevere, much as it hurt him.
I told Max then that he must go to the police—this was grievous harm those men had done. He was still unwilling, but too young to stand against my stronger will, and he promised to find Deane and report.
In the first light I at last went home, straggling through the streets in my weariness. A sergeant on duty accosted me as I passed by the barracks, but seeing who I was he turned away with a filthy word and a promise of soiled laundry.
Passing, I took a backwards look at the sergeant’s rifle, because it had feathers stuck to it.
deane: Neither of the brothers was able to identify any of their assailants, nor give us any information which would help us to trace them, so they decided to let the matter drop, and James left town at once for the East, declining either to make or support a complaint.
A few days after this accident it came to my knowledge that Sergeant Phair was one of the members of the tar-and-feather gang, and that he had been seen on that eventful evening with a black mask in his possession and tar and feathers on his Winchester carbine.
James Ronald went back to Ontario to face his father, but I had no money to leave town. Our house was only rented and the landlord came round the day after the lynching to say he had need of it himself, against which there was no defence. I wondered if he was one of those who did the tarring. The furniture was his. My own things fit in one box, and I left the various laundry and mending bundled on the step for those who owned them to collect. I wasn’t long for that town any rate. I had stayed with Willis because he was weak and needed help. Once he’d shot himself, all that kept me down in that town was the need to make my fare away.
I found work in the kitchen at the King Hotel, down the street from Lethbridge House (though I despised and will not even now name the man who ran the King), because I could get no farther without coin. He gave me half a bed in the attic, which I shared with a girl called Sissy who was slow-witted and jiggled all night long until I’d have liked to slap her. But I was most times so tired at the end of the night, and had to be up again so early, that I’d drop off after dealing her a couple of quieting shoves. Poor girl, it was not her fault.
Other nights I lay wakeful on my half of the bed and wept that they could dare to call me loose, when Willis had been with all the whores in town, and some of the other women too, because at times he could wheedle and whine. That my husband did not trust me, when it was his own self that was too weak to be trusted. That I was not worthy of trust. That he traded my regard for that of others, my dignity for a pocket of nothing.
When Max next came by the King Hotel I made him promise to go back to Deane—no use going myself—and tell about the feathers on his man’s rifle. And it was a lucky chance the night he came: I took Max down to listen at the kitchen door to hear Charles Warren, who was holding court with his cronies in the bar parlour, to say if he was the man who’d been the boss that night. And by the shiver that soft confiding voice set up in Max, I saw that indeed it was he.
I schooled the poor boy until at last he went in with what we knew, and then a trial was put forth against Warren for burglary and riot. Although he slighted me, I believe Deane was a decent officer, determined to stamp out wild justice.
They set the trial at Macleod, thirty miles distant, in the faint hope of an unbiased jury. James was booked to come back to give testimony, but he would go straight to Macleod and would not have to see me. If that sergeant had not broke his arm he would be for it too, but instead he was to give evidence against Charles Warren.
They called it a lynching when it came to court at last. I thought that meant a hanging, I don’t know why they called it that. Scofflaws in that town thought it a fine joke, but Deane took a serious view, though many said it was only what James deserved.
And what did I deserve, being known as a loose woman who would establish another man in her husband’s bed—which night should I expect them to come down on me for that? Or what did I deserve, I ask instead, for being fool enough to stay with a sodden husband, vicious in drink. For not scotching rumour when it was first born. Perhaps I was proud to let them think someone wanted me.
All this took some length of time and in the meanwhile my purse kept very thin.
deane: On hearing Warren’s voice, James became so nervous that he trembled and could hardly stand. It became a grave question whether or not we could put him in the witness-box at all. He had permitted himself at the inquest to say that he had had no improper relations with the woman, and the defence made no secret of their intention to produce the woman to contradict him if he should repeat such a statement.
They finished the trial at Fort Macleod with a hung jury, and Charles Warren was set free to wait for the second trial. He came back to town and up to the room I shared with Sissy at the King Hotel, and lounged there in the doorway laughing at my dislike.
He had drunk with Willis often and encouraged him to laze about, and kept him in just enough money to stay confused. He had made sport of Willis for loving Jamie so, and then he’d been the one to tar and feather the poor stupid boy—him and the weak-minded men he talked into it. He had the unfair physique that does not go to seed with drink, but he was a ruined man in that place. And Willis could never know now or be sad for what congress Charles Warren had coaxed me into, in the close-hanging thicket of laundered sheets in the night-warm kitchen.
He took my arm again, liking to pit his strength against one who had less, and pulled me in as if to fondle again. That was him wanting to make a fool of me, so I did not respond in anger but made myself stupid, as if I was the same as Sissy. He pressed his mouth against my eye, where it still hurt. I felt myself uprising but I made it stay still, that twining interior snake that wants things. I think we have a thing inside us like men have outside, that wants, wants. One reason I could stay with Willis all that time was that he did not trouble that wanting thing at all, so there was some peace.
deane: Warren was released on bail until the winter assizes, and took advantage of his freedom to cross the boundary. The case was called at Macleod in the following November, but the accused did not appear, and his bail was ordered to be estreated. The prosecution, however, had its effect, and was such as to discourage further experiments with Lynch Law.
I did not go to Macleod, then or ever. I felt so strictured all through that time, as if I was made to wear another person’s coat. Once in the courthouse anteroom I saw a mad-jacket, coarse canvas and buckles, with leg-long sleeves to cross and tie behind. It would scratch your arms raw, that cloth.
I wrote to my sister in Maple Creek to ask if I could come home to the farm. I was not waiting for the reply, only for my wages for the train, when Max Ronald came to see me at the hotel. He wanted to give me fifty dollars that he said was from James. I did not believe him, but I took it.
Looking conscious, Max backed and pranced and finally let fall that his father would arrive soon to complain about the trial. His pocked face bent to make it clear that he’d as soon I was out of town before his father got there.
I had no prospects, and might have lain down on the dirty carpet and wept, but I was not yet twenty-five years of age. I could start again and do better, set free by the despicable behaviour of everyone involved.
The sitting-room fire was out, and the room cold. I got up to walk about to warm myself, and there outside the window was the dairyman’s wagon going up to Calgary, a good start on my way. I hollered out the window to Peterson to wait a moment if he did not mind, and without a word to Max I ran for the narrow attic stairs, hooked my valise down from the shelf, and told Sissy she could have my other things.
Then with a considerable lightening, as if I’d been carrying a heavy-laden tray for too long and set it down at last, I ran out into the street and hopped into the wagon, feeling the good jolt of it as I jumped up, and left that time behind.