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Guilty or innocent: The fate of Charles Bodman

Charles H. Bodman was once called one of “one of the best known engineers in the service” [1] of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company (OSN) and a man of “generous impulses,” with “honest and industrious” habits, who “always had the confidence of his employer.” [2] It made his eventual downfall surprising and perplexing.

Bodman was born in Reading, Ohio in 1850. [3] In his adolescence, he pursued an occupation as a machinist and a steam engineer. Early in his career, he came out west and found employment with the OSN, working on sternwheelers plying Puget Sound and the Snake, Willamette, and Columbia Rivers. [4] Other biographical tidbits suggest that he once served as an engineer aboard an ocean steamship running to China. [5]

In 1891, the 41-year-old Bodman signed on as chief engineer of the sternwheeler Columbia, plying between Revelstoke and Little Dalles, Wash., a tiny settlement located 27 km (16 miles) below the international boundary. A year later, Northport would replace Little Dalles as her southern port.

Bodman’s home was in Portland, Oregon, but after joining the Columbia’s crew, he resided in Spokane. Typically, the Columbia tied up for the winter, and the crew dispersed until the season opened in April. In 1893, she had stopped running on Dec. 19, and Bodman left Northport by train bound for Spokane the following day. [6] 

On Dec. 30, 1893, Bodman was arrested in Spokane for smuggling opium into the US. [7] The officer in charge was Inspector J.G. McCoy, from Washington, DC, who had been sent out to investigate rumours that an opium smuggling ring was alive and well in Spokane, with large quantities entering the US from British Columbia. [8]

Spokane Review, Jan. 2, 1894

McCoy had first heard about Bodman on a trip he had taken to Nelson and Kaslo two months earlier in October and had learned that he “was engaged, in connection with confederates, in [the] systematic smuggling of opium.” [9]

McCoy also had heard that Bodman, as an engineer, had befriended some of the railroad engineers on the Spokane Falls & Northern Railway running between Spokane and Northport and that he would bring quantities of unstamped opium through to Spokane with their assistance. [10]

In his own words, McCoy was “fully satisfied” that Bodman “had several hundred pounds of opium stored” in Spokane. [11] So when McCoy was told that Bodman was in Spokane, he had a detective follow the engineer for a few days. When the detective reported back to McCoy that Bodman disclosed to him personally that he was a smuggler of opium, and he had been for years, McCoy had the suspect arrested. [12]

If found guilty, Bodman stood to face a fine of $5,000 and two years in prison. After spending two nights in the county jail, he was arraigned before US court Commissioner A.H. Kenyon, who fixed a bond for Bodman at $5,000 and set the date for a preliminary hearing two days hence, on Jan. 4. [13] As a condition of his release, Bodman was required to be shadowed by a guard night and day, for which he paid - his evenings where spent at the Hyde Block, which housed the US District Court. [14]


Even though only a few days old, interest in the case had already started to pique the public’s curiosity and on the day of the hearing, the courtroom was crowded. The government was confident that the chief engineer would be the first in a long list of “opium smuggling frauds” to be tried. [15]

They believed that the contraband was being stored in the engine room of the Columbia on her downriver trips and that a group of men were retrieving the opium from the boat at Northport, and taking it to Portland and other places for distribution. [16] 

The steamers Columbia (left) and Lytton at Revelstoke in the late summer of 1891.(Photograph courtesy of the Revelstoke Museum & Archives)  

Bodman, on the other hand, steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, telling newspapers that he knew “nothing about this business” and there “can be no proof of any kind against him” because, for a start, he hadn’t been in Spokane in the previous ten months before his arrest. [17] He was confident he would be released once the hearing was concluded. Bodman’s lawyer said he “positively” knew his client was innocent and that his arrest was “an outrage.” [18]

A number of the engineer’s acquaintances also came forward in the press to offer support, painting a picture of him as someone with “outstanding character,” who they believed was innocent of the charges and who they doubted had any knowledge of an opium smuggling ring. [19]


Posturing aside, the hearing didn’t last long. Inspector McCoy had been delayed in Nelson along with his witnesses on account of a landslide blocking the railway, so Commissioner Kenyon postponed the hearing for two days. However, before adjourning, he reduced Bodman’s bond from $5,000 to $2,500 based on evidence of “good character.” [20] 

At the second hearing, the government’s key witness was Mrs. Hattie Hoyt of Nelson, who, along with her husband, managed the dining room at the International Hotel in Nelson. Her testimony alleged that Bodman had told her on several occasions that he was involved in the opium smuggling business and once said: “he had been engaged in it for 15 years.” [21]

She later explained that Bodman had approached her in her hotel room in Spokane on Dec. 20 carrying a tin containing opium in the pocket of his overcoat and said he had a stash of 400 pounds of the contraband in town. He said Spokane was not a good place to sell the product, recalled Mrs. Hoyt, and planned that if he couldn’t find a buyer, he would take it to Portland. [22]

Bodman left and made a sale for $400 in gold. He then returned to the witness’s room and asked if she could keep the gold for safekeeping until he could make a deposit next morning. She testified that the next day, he came back as promised, took the gold, and made his deposit, returning to her room afterwards to show her the receipt from the Traders’ Bank. [23] Bodman’s lawyer then cross-examined the witness, questioning her about her relationship with his client and introducing evidence attacking her “character and credibility.” [24]

The government’s next witness, Joel Warren, took the stand, recounting an evening spent with Bodman when the engineer, inebriated, confided to Warren that secretly he was an “opium smuggler,” but Warren confessed that at no time had he personally seen any drugs in Bodman’s possession. [25] The government had summoned another witness, George Caton, a purser on the Columbia, but he managed to slip away to Seattle before the US Deputy Marshal could serve him. [26] 

When it was Bodman’s turn on the stand, his testimony contradicted Mrs. Hoyt’s sworn statements on several key points. He said he had indeed met Hoyt on the night in question, but he denied giving her any money to hold or that he had shown her a tin of opium during their rendezvous. In Bodman’s version of the evening, he had taken her to supper, and they shared a bottle of wine. [27] Both agreed a meeting took place the next morning, but here again, their stories differed. Bodman alleged that at their meeting, Hoyt said she had no money and that “she would have to pawn her husband’s watch” to get a rail ticket home, so he gave her $20. [28]  

A more contemporary picture of the Hyde Block, Spokane, where Charles Bodman stayed throughout his hearings. (Photograph courtesy of the Spokesman-Review

The defence’s next witness was the former Northport Customs Inspector, Tom Savage, who said Bodman was in his store the day he met Hoyt and purchased a purse. According to Savage, Bodman “had about $400 in gold in his pocket” and was heading to Spokane. [29] This refuted Hoyt’s testimony that Bodman obtained his cash in Spokane from a sale.

Despite the sensational testimony heard that day, no hard evidence was presented. As a result, the defence asked for a dismissal. Commissioner Kenyon denied the motion, but while he felt there wasn’t sufficient evidence to present the accused to a grand jury for a conviction, he did believe that it was his duty to hold Bodman over until the government could “fortify” its case with additional witnesses. [30] For a second time, the Commissioner reduced the defendant’s bond, this time from $2,500 to $2,000. [31] The next hearing was scheduled to convene in two days. 

At his third hearing in five days, Bodman’s lawyer continued his line of questioning against other government witnesses to discredit Hoyt’s and Warren’s testimonies. According to The Spokane Daily Chronicle, this led to “considerable sparring” between the attorneys. [32] In the end, Commissioner Kenyon felt there was sufficient evidence to bind Bodman over to the grand jury, but he remained adamant that there was insufficient evidence for a conviction. 

A few days after the hearing, Bodman became sick in his room at the Hyde Block. According to his lawyer, the accused was “a man of nervous temperament,” and he believed the “keen disgrace” of the charge “drove him into a fever.” [33] As a result of his condition, the proceeding was postponed. But Bodman’s mental state deteriorated by the day. Diagnosed with typhoid fever, in the days that followed, he became delirious and was only rational at certain times.

His brother Samuel, who arrived from Portland, confided to the press that at one of his brother’s lucid moments, Charles said he was going to die, believing that the fever had gotten “too strong of a hold on him.” [34] He went on to say that the charge of smuggling “will hang over me when I am gone — that is what I feel the worst about.” [35] He said, Sam, I’m “just as innocent of that charge as you or any other man.” [36] Charles Bodman died a few minutes after at 5 p.m. on Feb. 7, 1894. 

The question on everyone’s mind seemed to be: was Bodman innocent? Mrs. Hattie Hoyt, the government’s key witness, returned to Nelson and less than two weeks later, on the morning of Jan. 19, the International Hotel — where she and her husband were managing the dining room and staying — caught fire and burned to the ground. According to The Miner , the Hoyts “lost all their effects save some articles of wearing apparel.” [37] After the fire, The Spokane Review reported she left Canada. [38] This may have been true in the short term, but she, along with her husband Alfred (Al), later appeared in the 1901 Nelson census. 

A Neelands Bros. photo of Nelson, circa 1893. The white, two-storey International Hotel is visible in the centre and was located on the corner of Vernon and Stanley streets. (Photograph courtesy of Nelson Museum, Archives and Gallery) 

Bodman’s body was returned to Portland, and he was buried at the Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery on Feb. 11, 1894. As he feared, his arrest as a smuggler received widespread coverage throughout the US Pacific Northwest. The scandal made the front page of The Daily Telegram in Nanaimo with the headline “Border Smuggling –Extensive Smuggling Being Carried on Between Revelstoke and Northport.” [39] Also, The San Francisco Call and Post featured the story with the headline: “Worry Caused His Death – Demise of a man Unjustly Accused of Smuggling.” [40]

It’s little wonder that Charles Bodman’s case received the kind of front page attention it did. At the time of his arrest, opium smuggling across the southeastern border of British Columbia into the Spokane area was believed to be pervasive, according to US government  agents. The press frequently featured headlines of arrests and seizures, often accompanied by tales of demimonde underground schemes, adventuresome spirits stashing the potent drug in the woods and inside abandoned cabins, and the exploits of US authorities in pursuing their elusive suspects.

Only three weeks after Bodman’s sudden passing, the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that once the deep snow had melted and the wooded trails around Northport were passable, Uncle Sam was planning to post twenty men to guard against smugglers entering the State, hoping to “put a stop to the (smuggling) business absolutely.” [41] Later that same year, the US would cut its fiscal lifeblood on opium duties in half, from $12 to $6 a pound, making the importation of the illicit “sleepy drug” no longer profitable. Not surprisingly, this new legislation resulted in a sudden and drastic reduction in the quantity of opium seized at the border, as well as a corresponding disappearance in sensational news stories. 

One cannot but wonder about the zealousness of Inspector McCoy in trying to make an example of Bodman. In his letter to the Treasury Department, he commented on how the “smuggler’s friends and sympathizers crowded the courtroom, and were both arrogant and insolent.” [42]

McCoy was especially critical of Deputy US Marshal Samuel Vinson’s handling of his duties regarding Bodman, making the alarming accusation that Vinson “was loud and persistent in his declarations that there was no case against Bodman” even before he had heard a single shred of evidence against the accused and he claimed that the Deputy Marshal “was fully in sympathy with the smugglers and opposed to their prosecution or to their being interfered with in their illegal traffic.” and that the only witness he was required to subpoena, the Columbia’s purser, “he permitted to get out of town unsummoned.” [43] 

One curious footnote to Inspector McCoy’s story was his attempt to receive a reimbursement for the $20 he spent hiring a lawyer for one day at the Bodman hearings. He would eventually have to write the US Congress to recover his paltry out-of-pocket expense because the Department of Justice in Washington could not deal with such a small appropriation, and his request had been denied. [44] 

Charles Bodman’s untimely passing before facing formal charges and trial leaves his story tragically unresolved. In hindsight, if he was guilty of smuggling opium while chief engineer of the steamer Columbia, he did a masterful job of concealing it from his fellow officers and crew. Most certainly, if Captain John C. Gore had the slightest inkling that his chief engineer was involved in the opium trade, he would have, no doubt, been dismissed immediately. 

A grim marker of reality at the time, Bodman’s name, once associated with the distinguished profession of steam engineer, now bears the weight of his alleged involvement with the scourge of opium smuggling; sadly, as he had feared, he was remembered, not for who he was but for what he was accused of. 


[1] Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 460. 

[2] Ibid, 460. 

[3] has Charles Bodman’s year of birth as 1849 and that he was born in Oxford, Ohio. A family tree at records his year of birth as 1853. 

[4] The Spokane Weekly Review, Jan. 4, 1894, 5. 

[5] The Dalles Times-Mountaineer, Feb. 10, 1894, 3. 

[6] Letter from Chinese Inspector J.G. McCoy to C.S. Hamlin, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, 53D, Congress, House of Representatives, Ex. Doc. No. 183, 3-6. 

[7] The Spokane Daily Chronicle, Jan. 2, 1894, 1.  

[8] Ibid, 1. 

[9] Letter from Chinese Inspector J.G. McCoy to C.S. Hamlin, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, 53D, Congress, House of Representatives, Ex. Doc. No. 183, 3-6. 

[10] Ibid, 3-6. 

[11] Ibid, 3-6. 

[12] Ibid, 3-6. 

[13] The Spokane Daily Chronicle, Jan. 2, 1894, 1. 

[14] Letter from Chinese Inspector J.G. McCoy to C.S. Hamlin, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, 53D, Congress, House of Representatives, Ex. Doc. No. 183, 3-6. 

[15] The Spokane Daily Chronicle, Jan. 4, 1894, 3. 

[16] Ibid, 3. 

[17] The Spokane Daily Chronicle, Jan. 2, 1894, 1. 

[18] The Spokane Review, February 8, 1894, 3. 

[19] The Spokane Daily Chronicle, Jan. 2, 1894, 1 and The Spokane Weekly Review, Jan. 4, 1894, 5. 

[20] The Spokane Daily Chronicle, Jan. 4, 1894, 3. 

[21] The Spokane Daily Chronicle, Jan. 6, 1894, 1. 

[22] Ibid, 1. 

[23] Ibid, 1. 

[24] Ibid, 1. 

[25] The Spokane Review, Jan. 7, 1894, 3. 

[26] Letter from Chinese Inspector J.G. McCoy to C.S. Hamlin, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, 53D, Congress, House of Representatives, Ex. Doc. No. 183, 3-6. 

[27] The Spokane Weekly Review, Jan. 11, 1894, 3. 

[28] Ibid, 3. 

[29] Ibid, 3. 9 

[30] The Spokane Review, Feb. 8, 1894, 3. 

[31] The Spokane Daily Chronicle, Jan. 9, 1894, 3. 

[32] Ibid, 3. 

[33] The Spokane Review, Feb. 8, 1894, 3. 

[34] The Spokane Daily Chronicle, Feb. 9, 1894, 3. 

[35] Ibid, 3. 

[36] Ibid, 3. 

[37] The Miner (Nelson), Jan. 20, 1894, 1. 

[38] The Spokane Review, Feb. 8, 1894, 3. 

[39] The Daily Telegram (Nanaimo), April 19, 1894, 1. 

[40] The San Francisco Call and Post, Feb. 8, 1894, 2. 

[41] The Spokane Daily Chronicle, Feb. 24, 1894, 4. 

[42] Letter from Chinese Inspector J.G. McCoy to C.S. Hamlin, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, 53D, Congress, House of Representatives, Ex. Doc. No. 183, 3-6. 

[43] Ibid, 3-6. 

[44] Ibid, 3-6.

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4 commenti

And thanks to Michael Cone

Mi piace

Very interesting read. No shortage of controversy and intrigue. One has to wonder why an opium smuggler would parade around telling someone stories that he was and had been so for 15 years.

Mi piace

Thanks Greg, for another excellent piece of BC/US history. In my research I often came across tales of opium smuggling. My favourite is when Kootenay character "Red Paddy" told US officials that Trail's Col. Topping was smuggling opium. When the officials inspected Topping's suitcase, they found it filled with ore samples!

Mi piace

thanks for delivering another fine chunk of Kootenay history!

Mi piace
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