The Whitewater murder mystery — the law finally catches up to Walter Gordon

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

A reporter from the Morning Telegram approached a “gentleman ... well up on the doings of criminals,” asking him about Walter Gordon’s chances of eluding the police.

“If Gordon committed the murders, and is still alive, his chances of escape are very slim,” the gentleman replied.

The reporter then asked if the gentleman believed “the theory that Gordon is the (Whitewater) murderer.”

“I admit the circumstantial evidence against Gordon is very strong, but it may be purely circumstantial. I do not like the evidence given by a couple of witnesses at the coroner’s inquest. They were unmitigated fools, or knew a good deal more about the case than they confessed to. I am inclined to think the latter.”

The gentleman actually thought Daw and Smith were murdered by someone not yet identified with the motive being robbery, and it it was likely “Gordon discovered the crime ... and to silence him he was killed. His body and the horse and buggy could easily have been hidden in some of the large swamps which surround Whitewater, and no one would be the wiser.”

The man said suspicion should fall on Walter Wilbert Jackson, the hired man living on the farm at the time of the double-murder. “It is surprising that if Gordon was the murderer, he did not kill this man.”

Another sighting had Gordon register at the Crescent Hotel in Souris  shortly after he left Whitewater. This sighting was more credible as Manitoba Provincial Police Detective Foster of Brandon had the hotel register in which Gordon signed his own name. Yet, Gordon still eluded capture.

“A large detective force, professional and amateur, is still on the hunt,” announced the Telegram, “and the clues obtained are innumerable.”

A Telegram reporter visited the Winnipeg office of the Manitoba Provincial Police to see what steps were being taken to capture the fugitive, and “was amazed beyond measure at the means employed to bring Gordon before the bar of justice.”

While the reporter was at the police station, a message from Detective Manson reported a tip he was investigating proved to be a false lead. The buggy in question was driven by a farmer delivering eggs for sale in the city. The man was “caught in the act” of receiving sugar and tea in exchange for the eggs at a North End grocery store. The detective said he didn’t arrest the man as he was driving a buggy pulled by a black horse, which didn't match the description of Gordon’s means of escape.

It was alleged that Gordon fled Whitewater when he overheard a conversation in Peters’ grocery store about Foster’s intent to investigate the mysterious disappearances of Charles Daw and Jacob Smith. Upon hearing the news, the shopkeeper said Gordon immediately bought six boxes of cartridges, some tea, sugar, salt and other groceries.

“It is known he spent the Saturday night before his departure in baking bread, which he took with him,” according to a Telegram report on October 16. Gordon “also took his revolver, shotgun and numerous rugs and coats.”

The rumours had investigators looking into clues from hither and yon, including one report that Gordon had fled to New Mexico. Residents of Whitewater believed Gordon was hiding near the community, somewhere in the vicinity of nearby Whitewater Lake (then noted as a prime area for duck and geese hunting during the spring and fall migrations, and is now renowned as a staging ground for migratory birds —  a Manitoba Wildlife Management Area), or in the bushes to the south leading to the Turtle Mountains. 

On the other hand, the MPP firmly believed Gordon had fled across the border. Detectives in the U.S. from the Pinkerton Agency were said to be hot on the trail of Gordon. 

In the meantime, Detective Foster returned from North Dakota, where he succeeded in tracking the alleged killer to Towner in the Dogden Hills, 80 kilometres north of Bismarck, the state capital. Gordon had arrived there during the afternoon of October 3, having travelled 230 kilometres in three days. He sold the horse and buggy to a local farmer and then boarded a train, according to John Gleason, the driver accompanying Detective Foster during the 10 days spent searching for Gordon from Whitewater to North Dakota. Gleason said Gordon was sighted in a Montana mining community as recently as a week earlier.

Further clues showed that Gordon had travelled by train to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he said he was going to Cripple Creek, Colorado. At St. Paul, Gordon’s trail ended.

As events centring around the Gordon case evolved, his travelling to North Dakota and other points south of the border turned out to be closer to the truth.

What Gordon did during the time between the double murder and his capture is remarkable. The details of his escape only became known after he was arrested in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on January 21, 1902. At the time, Gordon was en route to South Africa with a contingent of Canadians being sent over to fight in the Boer War. In Halifax, Gordon was known as Trooper John Gray, who had enlisted in British Columbia with the Canadian Mounted Rifles.

Remarkably, Gordon, alias Gray, had already served in the U.S. Army. He enlisted saying he was from Buffalo, New York, and that his next of kin, a J. Gordon, lived in Ontario. While in the U.S. Army, he served at Fort Meade, South Dakota, but when news reached the fort that the CMR was recruiting men, he decided to desert, made his way to B.C. and enlisted for the South African campaign.

While in custody in the Halifax jail, Gordon was sullen and refused to admit he was the Whitewater murderer, maintaining the story that he was Trooper Gray. His attestation (enlistment) papers were in the name of John Gray, whose next  of kin was J. Gordon of Ontario, although the papers gave his place of birth as Brooklin, Ontario, a portion of Whitby, not Buffalo, New York.

The Free Press said the MPP had never given up the pursuit of the Whitewater murderer. “They had followed Gordon everywhere, but never got near enough to capture him.”

When word of his arrest reached Winnipeg, William Hyndman of the Manitoba Provincial Police was sent east to bring the prisoner back to the Manitoba capital.

It remains a mystery who actually identified Gordon as the Whitewater murderer while Gordon was stationed at the CMR camp. The Halifax Herald claimed a fellow trooper made the identification: “A trooper from the camp who came to the station ... with some changes of clothing for the prisoner, threw some light on the subject. This trooper came from Whitewater, and knew this fellow trooper since he enlisted. He also remembered the murder for which Gordon, alias, Gray, has been arrested.”

Despite the trooper being from Whitewater and knowing about the murders, the Halifax newspaper did not make the outright assertion that it was he who brought the whereabouts of Gordon to the attention of the local authorities.

On the other hand, the Halifax Chronicle reported that Manitoba Attorney-General Colin Campbell was aware that Gordon was on his way to Halifax. Campbell sent a telegram to Colonel Evans of the CMR, with a description of the suspect, which read: “Am informed that Walter Gordon, wanted for murder at Whitewater in 1900, has joined contingent for South Africa ... Was in U.S. Army in Dakota up to 12th December. Please use every endeavour to have him arrested and held by the police and advise me at once if such a man is there or has gone on the (troop ship) Manhattan.”

Using the Halifax newspaper report, the Manitoba Free Press said on February 3 that the colonel turned the matter over to Adjutant Church, a lieutenant, who before joining the CMR had served in the North West Mounted Police and in that capacity had been searching for Gordon for two years. When questioning Gray at the camp, Church felt there was something amiss with his answers. With his suspicion aroused, Church ordered the trooper to strip and found marks on Gray’s body similar to those contained in the telegram. Church contacted the Halifax police with the news he had found Gordon and the suspected murderer was arrested.

When Gordon was identified and in custody, the Halifax police wired Chief Elliott in Winnipeg: “Detective Powers arrested Gordon, the Whitewater murderer. Will hold till we hear from you.”

Corporal Albert E. Hilder, whose diary about his years with the CMR contained an entry about the Gordon arrest, said an unnamed former member of the NWMP had recognized Gray as Gordon from a poster then circulating in the camp. Hilder, the corporal of the camp guard, and two other guardsmen “with fixed bayonets” reported to Church in the orderly room where Gordon and two other troopers — “so that it would not arouse suspicion” —  were called in for questioning.

“He was questioned by the Adjutant and, his description so tallied with the information they had, he was placed under arrest and escorted to the guard room. A short time afterwards, two policemen from Halifax came and took him away.”

Hilder’s diary contained some erroneous information about Gordon’s life and crimes pieced together from camp gossip, but he was a first-hand witness to Gordon’s arrest. It is unfortunate that the English-born corporal, who had settled in Souris, Manitoba, did not name the trooper who originally recognized Gray as the Whitewater murderer.

Who actually contributed to the capture of Gordon was important, as the reward offered by the Manitoba government for his arrest had by then increased to $1,000, at the time a great deal of money.

If Gordon had gone to South Africa with the CMR, it is unlikely he would have ever been tried in Canada. The most likely scenario is that Gordon would have deserted when the opportunity arose; after all, his desertion from the U.S. Army proved he did not fear the consequences of this major breach of military law. South Africa and the confusion of war would have presented Gordon with an ideal opportunity to escape the authorities, adopt a new identity and fade into obscurity in the “Dark Continent.” 

Hyndman escorted Gordon on the train back to Winnipeg. When the train arrived at the Louise Bridge, it was halted and Hyndman got off with his “heavily handcuffed prisoner to be placed in the custody of ... (MPP Chief E.J.) Elliott, who was in a waiting cab.

“Gordon was clad in his khaki uniform and wore about 10 days of whiskers, which did not tend to improve his appearance,” according to a Telegram reporter on the scene.

The prisoner said nothing “beyond a smile and a brief ‘good morning’ to the chief” before entering the cab destined for the provincial jail on Vaughan Street. Gordon was kept in the jail until he could be transported to Boissevain for a preliminary trial into the murders of Daw and Smith.

While in the Winnipeg jail, the prisoner was positively identified by William Scott, a resident of Whitewater, as Walter Gordon.

While Gordon was in the provincial jail in Winnipeg, MPP policemen told reporters they had been on Gordon’s trail for months. In July, Gordon was identified as working in the mines at Leadville, Colorado, but then his trail went cold. The police knew he had enlisted in the U.S. Army, was stationed at Fort Meade, South Dakota, had deserted and travelled to B.C. to enlist in the CMR. 

Extraordinarily, if the MPP had been aware of Gordon’s enlistment in the CMR from the beginning, they could have arrested him in Winnipeg. Gordon had passed through Winnipeg on a troop train, and was among the contingent greeted by a cheering crowd at the station as the train passed through the city.

On February 12, Gordon appeared at a preliminary trial in Boissevain for the murders of Daw and Smith. The trial created quite a stir in the community. The February 12, 1902, Telegram reported that a mass of people surrounded Wright’s Hall long before the hearing began, and several women were injured in the crush. A group of young men forced open a window at the side of the hall and unbarred the door.  As a result, a “rush of excited spectators burst into the place and in a few seconds every available seat was filled, and the platform which had been reserved for the magistrate and members of the bar, was overrun with outsiders. Every foot of floor space in the building was occupied ... Several times the benches in the rear of the hall broke down under the weight they supported.”

One coincidence in a tale full of synchronicity was that Walter Gordon shared his last name and initials with Magistrate William Gordon, who was presiding at the preliminary trial. The Crown prosecutor was G.R. Coldwell, KC, of Brandon. The prisoner was defended by Boissevain lawyer John Morrow, the same barrister who said in 1900 he believed Gordon was responsible for the disappearance of Daw and Smith.

The first witness at the trial was Jackson, Daw’s hired man, who was  intially arrested for the crime and spent time in the local jail until released when suspicion was thrown on Gordon. 

Before Gordon’s disappearance, Jackson said the defendant mentioned he was going to take a team of horses to the U.S. Gordon said he had to take the horses south of the border to be sold as there was a lien against them in Canada and he feared losing them to creditors. 

When the witness returned later in the day, Jackson noticed a horse and buggy were missing. Furthermore, he noticed that Gordon’s clothes and a .32-calibre Smith & Wesson revolver, which had normally lain at the foot of Gordon’s bed, were also missing. Jackson said the last time he saw Daw was at 3 p.m. on July 31 when Daw and Gordon drove to Boissevain. Before leaving, Gordon sent Jackson to the Turtle Mountains, 26 kilometres away, to hay. Gordon later joined him and for a week they were engaged in hay-making.

When Jackson returned from the Turtle Mountains, he detected a stench coming from the abandoned well. Unwittingly,  John Twiss and Jackson helped Gordon fill in the well in order to curtail the foul smell. What neither Jackson or Twiss knew at the time was that the well not only contained a dog’s body, but also the bodies of Daw and Smith.

Gordon expressed surprise at Daw’s and Smith’s continued absence, according to Jackson. He also told Jackson he had paid Daw $5,000 in cash for the house and farm and had a note from Daw for the purchase. Before Gordon left for the U.S., Jackson was told he would find a letter under a tobacco box. Along with the letter, Jackson found a black notebook which he later turned over to the MPP. 

James P. Alexander, the deputy registrar of the land titles office in Boissevain, produced in court a deed of sale which showed Daw had signed over the farm to Gordon.  

Lawyer N.P. Buckingham testified Daw and Gordon had come to his office on July 14, 1900 — just two days after Gordon’s return to Whitewater and his announcement he had struck it rich in New Mexico — to make arrangements for the sale. According to Buckingham, the agreement was to sell the farm for $5,000 and chattels of $1,400, which Gordon was to pay to Daw by August 1.

After July 14, the lawyer had not seen Daw again, but Gordon had visited several times. Gordon told Buckingham that Daw had gone away and expressed anxiety over his absence. 

The lawyer testified Gordon said he had paid Daw $3,600 on the land and $1,400 on the chattels and had a receipt for the money. With Gordon anxious to protect his interests and citing the continued absence of Daw, the lawyer advised him to register the  receipt that he allegedly possessed — although Buckingham was suspicious about the contradictory statements made by Gordon about the purchase.

According to witness Stephen Graham, who occupied the next-door farm, he saw Daw on July 30 when his neighbour came over to say good-bye. Daw told Graham he had sold his farm to Gordon and would be leaving for England on August 1. 

Graham also told the court about shots he heard coming from the direction of the Daw farm. Later, Gordon explained to Graham that he shot a dog which had allegedly bitten a colt.

The fact that Gordon lacked the wherewithal to purchase Daw’s farm was confirmed by B.W. Hughes, the manager of the Union Bank at Deloraine, and J.J. Millidge, the manager of the Union Bank in Boissevain. Both said the defendant “had no money to his credit during the summer of 1900.” In addition, they told the court Daw had not deposited any money in their banks during the same period, which would have indicated Gordon had paid Daw for his farm.

While further testimony was heard throughout the day, it was not until the last two witnesses  were called — constables Hyndman and William Scott — that Gordon was directly tied to the murders.

“A hush fell over the assembly and not a sound was heard in the hall as they told the story,” the Telegram reported. 

“Gordon sat unmoved during the recital and while he was a careful listener of the telling words which may place him on the scaffold trap, he manifested no emotion and gave no visible sign that he realized the terrible position in which he was placed.”

According to Hyndman, Gordon confessed his guilt during the train trip back to Manitoba between Halifax and Moncton, New Brunswick. As recounted in the Telegram, Hyndman testified that Gordon said he shot Daw twice in the head and carried the body to a nearby ravine and covered it with grass. 

He spent the evening at Daw’s farm where he found that Smith had taken a team of horses to Boissevain. Gordon hitched a horse to a stoneboat and took Daw’s body from the ravine to the well.

After Smith came home drunk on July 31, Gordon told Smith he had bought the farm from Daw. While in the stable, they had an argument over feed. Smith called Gordon a “nasty name and Gordon said, ‘If you call me that again I’ll make you hit the ground.’”

Gordon pulled out his revolver and fired several shots, not knowing whether he had hit Smith, who was able to throw a stone at Gordon and flee towards the farmhouse. But Gordon got there first and took up a shotgun. He fired a blast and Smith ran. Gordon fired the second barrel and Smith fell. Gordon said he left Smith lying on the ground, went away and then buried the body in the evening.

Next on the stand was Scott, a resident of Whitewater, who identified Gordon in the provincial jail in Winnipeg. At the jail, the prisoner asked to speak to Scott in private, a request that was granted.

Scott warned Gordon that anything he said could be used against him at his trial, but the prisoner still told him about the day he “fixed” Daw “at that coulee.”

Scott told the court Gordon related how he had retrieved the body from the ravine (coulee) and used a stoneboat to carry it to the well.

Gordon further told Scott he and Smith had argued over the division of feed. He got his revolver from the house and fired twice at Scott, but missed. Gordon then got the shotgun from the house and shot Smith as he came to the door of  the farmhouse.

“He hit him for he saw blood, and Smith started to run for Graham’s line (the property line between Daw’s and Graham’s property). Gordon said he had to fix him and fired the second barrel and killed Smith.”

Scott asked whether Gordon wasn’t afraid that someone would see Smith’s body left lying in the open on the ground.

“Gordon said that if they had come they would have got the same as ‘Jake’ meaning Smith.”

With the testimony of the two chief witnesses, Magistrate Gordon pronounced there was sufficient evidence to present the case before a grand jury.

Gordon’s appearance before a grand jury for two counts of murder was held on March 26, 1902, at the Brandon Assize Court with Justice Joseph Dubuc presiding. The jury found sufficient cause to bring the case to trial.

(Next week: part 3)