The Whitewater murder mystery —Daw and Smith disappear under suspicious circumstances

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

For two years, he was the subject of an intensive police search encompassing Canada and the United States, but before that he was merely one of thousands of Ontarians coming to Manitoba to seek their fame and fortune. Over the course of just a couple years, Walter Gordon earned a healthy dose of the former and briefly possessed a portion of the latter.

When Gordon arrived in Whitewater, Manitoba, from Whitby, Ontario, in 1898, he took on a series of menial jobs. But he unexpectedly left in November 1899 and upon his return, Gordon boldly announced to the residents in the small southwestern Manitoba community that he and an unnamed partner had made a “lucky” strike while mining in New Mexico. Gordon said the claim was sold for $10,000 of which half was his share.

Few doubted the tale told by the personable young man, who returned in a state of jubilation at his good fortune on July 12 to the small community, which straddled a Canadian Pacific Railway branch line and was located halfway between Deloraine and Boissevain. 

Gordon was employed by a number of area farmers until hired by 26-year-old Charles Daw, who farmed a parcel of land a few kilometres from Whitewater with Jacob Smith, an older man of 45 years, who was said to have entered into an agreement with Daw on sharing the earnings from the property. Smith, originally from Croydon, Ontario, had come to Whitewater 12 years earlier, working for other farmers before acquiring a quarter section of land and then becoming involved in Daw’s more substantial farming enterprise. Helping to work the Daw farm was hired-man Walter Wilbert Jackson. 

After Gordon’s return from New Mexico, Daw announced to his neighbours he was accepting an offer from the newly-wealthy former miner to purchase his farm. Daw told neighbours on July 31, 1900, he intended to attend the Brandon Fair and afterward proceed to England to visit his ill father. 

Daw had arrived in Whitewater in the spring of 1893 from Crediton, Devonshire, England. Daw purchased a farm near Whitewater and became known as “an honourable, forward man,” who was highly thought of by his neighbours. In the fall of 1897, while in poor health, he made a pilgrimage to England. When he returned, Daw announced his intention to sell his property and live in England with his parents, who were commonly believed in Whitewater to be extremely wealthy. 

Gordon’s bonanza finally made it possible for Daw to make the journey to the Old Country.

For weeks, no one was overly concerned about the continued absence of Daw and Smith. But as time passed, their mysterious disappearance left friends and neighbours speculating about their fate. Quite naturally, they turned to Gordon, the man in possession of the former Daw farm, for answers.

“I purchased the Daw farm and paid $5,000 in cash to Daw in the house on the farm,” Gordon is said to have told his neighbours, “and I was to pay the balance when I got a Torrens (land) title for it. I paid this money over on July 31, but got no receipt for it. I purchased the stock and implements owned by Jacob Smith for $625, and gave him a receipt for the same. Daw and Smith went to the Brandon fair, but I expect Daw back to settle the title for the land.”

Suspicious neighbours began to make futile inquiries in nearby communities. In particular, neighbour Thomas Wilson visited Boissevain, where Gordon was said to have driven  Daw and from there travelled to Brandon. No one in the two communities was able to provide information on the whereabouts of either Daw or Smith.

Boissevain barrister John Morrow also became suspicious when Gordon appeared in the local court on the matter of Whitewater grocery store owner Fred Peters suing Smith for money owed to the merchant for goods received. While Smith failed to appear, Gordon was present to fight a garnishee entered against him to recover the money owed by Smith. In court, Gordon produced a receipt for the stock sold to  him by Smith, while another receipt showed that Daw had sold his farm to Gordon. Morrow later told the Manitoba Free Press that the handwriting on the two documents looked suspiciously similar, convincing him they were forgeries. 

Boissevain lawyer N.P. Buckingham began to wonder about the validity of statements made to him by Gordon, which to the barrister seemed to be contradictory. In mid-July, Daw and Gordon arrived in his office to draw up papers on the farm sale. This was the last time he saw Daw, but Gordon returned several times following the mysterious disappearance of Daw and Smith. After closely questioning Gordon on the matter of his payment to Daw, Gordon finally said the money was drawn from the Union Bank in Boissevain. Buckingham subsequently approached the bank about Gordon’s claim and found it to be false. The Boissevain lawyer then wrote to Manitoba Attorney General Colin Campbell about his suspicions and the facts he had obtained.

Wilson approached Detective Foster of Brandon, relating what he knew about the mystery. The detective advised him to write the attorney-general’s office in Winnipeg in order to open an official investigation. 

Despite letters from Buckingham and Wilson to the attorney general, it was days before action was taken, Finally, E.J. Elliott, the chief of the Manitoba Provincial Police, was appointed to head the investigation into the disappearance of Daw and Smith. The fact that foul play was suspected is indicated by the number of senior police officials Elliott brought with him on October 7 to the Whitewater-area farm. Accompanying Elliott were Chief Detective Carpenter of Montreal, Winnipeg Police Chief J.C. McRae, Detective Foster of Brandon and Detective Cox of Portage la Prairie. Another 50 local men were recruited to help search the area in the vicinity of the Daw farm.

Elliott arrived at the farm, centring his search in a nearby ravine. But a dried-up and earth-filled well about 75 metres south of the farmhouse eventually attracted Elliott’s attention. He directed some men to start digging in that spot. The men quickly came upon a human leg against the side of the well that was covered by only a few centimetres of soil. Just over a metre down, the diggers uncovered the carcass of Smith’s pet dog and immediately under the dog was found Smith’s body. The next body unearthed was Daw’s whose leg the diggers first uncovered.

Whitewater Coroner, Dr. Schaffer, did the initial examination of the badly decomposed bodies immediately after they were removed from the well. For his examination, the bodies were laid out on a make-shift platform he erected. The doctor discovered two bullet wounds in Daw’s body and wounds caused by several shotgun pellets were found in Smith’s back. The bodies were in such an advanced state of decomposition that Daw had to be identified using visiting cards found in his pocket, while Smith was identified by a truss he was known to always wear.

Dr. R.J. Campbell of Boissevain in his post mortem examination in Whitewater found there were three perforations to Daw’s skull, resulting from two bullets.

Dr. Lawrence of Boissevain later confirmed that Smith had been shot in the neck with a shotgun, citing as evidence several pellets removed from the top vertebrae. The doctor said the fact Smith’s head so easily detached from the body, during the transportation to the on-site platform used to examine the bodies, was further evidence that the farmer had been shot in the neck.

The doctor found a hole in the right side of Daw’s skull, another in the right side of the temple and one on the left temple where a bullet had exited. Another bullet wound had been found in the centre of the forehead. The .32-calibre bullet which caused this hole was found in the skull. It was the doctor’s opinion that any of the bullet wounds to the skull were sufficient to cause death.

Immediately suspicion centred on Gordon, whom Elliott immediately felt was responsible for the double murder. He dispatched Detective Foster to the Dakota territory in the United States to investigate a clue that Gordon had fled across the border on Sunday, September 30,  to escape justice.

“Every effort is being put forth to apprehend the murderer,” announced the Portage la Prairie News and Review on October 12, 1900, “and a reward has been offered by the attorney general’s department for his arrest.”

Circulars describing Gordon were sent out to police departments across Canada and the U.S. The reward offered was $300 and the description posted said Gordon was 5-foot-7, 165 pounds, with a straight build, blue eyes, and clean-shaven with black hair. Distinguishing features were a gold-capped front tooth, dark eyebrows and a full fleshy face.

“Has fashion of pulling his nose when talking,” the reward posters announced. “Walks with a swagger.”

Before leaving Whitewater, Gordon was rumoured to have taken the precaution to destroy all papers and photographs that could be used to identify him.

Herbert Ellis said Gordon was carrying some drawings and pictures made by Daw’s sister in England that she had sent to her brother. Ellis said he had seen these items in Gordon’s possession during a visit to the farm after Daw’s disappearance.

“Surely Daw did not sell you those,” Ellis asked Gordon at the time.

“Of course he did,” replied Gordon. “He sold me everything in the place.”

Witnesses said Gordon left Whitewater driving a buggy pulled by a “brown mouse-coloured mare ... in very poor condition.”

Soon after the reward was announced, Gordon was reported to have been seen in various locations across Manitoba. In one instance, the suspect was allegedly seen by the bridge keeper at the Louise Bridge in Winnipeg to be heading in the direction of East Selkirk, according to a October 13, 1900, Morning Telegram report.

The bridge keeper said he thought nothing of the man riding the mouse-coloured horse using a blanket in place of a saddle until he saw a description of Gordon published the next day. He said the description of Gordon “tallied in every way with the rider.”

This sighting was discounted as it was over 260 kilometres to Winnipeg from  Whitewater, a distance virtually impossible for a horse in “very poor condition” to travel in such a short period of time. 

“Where is the buggy is a question which would naturally be asked?” the Telegram skeptically querried when confronted with the claim that Gordon was riding a horse and not seated in the buggy used in the escape from Whitewater.

Another sighting in Winnipeg was allegedly at the Woodbine Hotel along Main Street where Gordon was said to be drinking a beer at the bar. An investigation proved the man at the bar was about 40 years older than Gordon.

S.R. Hambley, the local manager of the Canada Cycle and Motor Company, said a young man came to his store and hired a “wheel” (bicycle), promising to return it at 4 p.m. the same day, but failed to reappear. Hambley said the man claimed it would be difficult for him to ride the “wheel” as he had two bullet wounds. Staff at the store laughed at this assertion, but the man showed them a wound in his thigh and another in his kneecap. While the man showed them his wounds, the staff reported they noticed revolvers in both his pockets. Hambley later said the wounds appeared to be about two weeks old. 

When shown a likeness of Gordon, the staff claimed the man who came into the shop was identical to it down to the gold-filled tooth. Each member of the staff was prepared to swear the man who hired the “wheel” was Gordon.

A man answering the same description was observed at O’Meara’s Lodging House, situated a few doors down from the CPR depot. In the morning, the man gave the proprietor a $772 cheque to cash and left before it was converted into money. The cheque was drawn on A.R. Garden’s account in the Scandia American Bank of Crookston, Minnesota, dated October 2, and payable to A.R. Gordon who endorsed the cheque.

Gordon’s so-called double was earlier reported to be staying at McRae’s Hotel in Letellier, where he told the proprietor he had just returned from the Philippines after a stint in the U.S. Army. The proprietor was so impressed by the man, who gave his name as A.R. Gordon, that he advanced him fare to Winnipeg.

It was further alleged that A.R. Gordon had imbibed freely in a St. Boniface Hotel. In fact, police later arrested him for public drunkenness and Gordon was fined $2. He left a bicycle as surety for the fine and was released.

The police ignored the claim that the killer had been seen in Winnipeg as mere  coincidence. They said the escapee and the American only had similar names, and the Gordon in Winnipeg had more than one gold-filled tooth and was taller than the Gordon from Whitewater. The fact the man served in the U.S. Army explained his bullet wounds.

(Next week: part 2)