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Murder at Salmo, 1893

Updated: Jul 18, 2021

Salmo first came to prominence as the result of a bar room murder in 1893.


The town — then little more than a cluster of shacks — was known as Salmon City, and was headquarters for contractor Pete Larson, who was building the Nelson and Fort Sheppard Railway. The spot was described as “near the forks of the Salmon river and about two miles from where the railway crosses the north fork.” It was also a rendezvous for placer miners on the Salmon (now Salmo) River and Hall Creek.

One day in September of that year, camp cook Stephen (or Steven) Hamlin went to Nelson with about $400 in his pocket, a considerable sum. Of this he wired $100 to his wife in Ontario, then returned to Salmon City, still flush with cash.


On the afternoon of the 26th, he flashed his clasp purse to a restaurateur in the camp. Taking out $20, he said he planned to either win some more or lose that much. He went to an unlicensed saloon operated by a man named Leslie and joined a poker game with four others: Charlie Ross, Billy O’Brien, Charles Cameron, and Rube McNair. Also present were Leslie, James Bourke, Edward Sisson and a man named Peterson.


Ross was described as “a notorious ruffian, well known during the construction of the man line of the Canadian Pacific.” He was “a gambler and illicit whisky seller and rumor has it has caused the death of five or six men” in the US. He reportedly came to West Kootenay from the Coeur d’Alenes in Idaho.


The game continued until midnight. Hamlin had been drinking, but was not drunk, and did all right with his cards, winning some money. But as the drinks flowed, the men became more argumentative. Ross was spotted taking something from Hamlin’s hip pocket and putting it in his own vest pocket.


Later, Ross claimed he had lost an express cheque and insisted on searching every man at the table. They all emptied their pockets, including Hamlin — who discovered some of his money was gone. He accused O’Brien of stealing it. O’Brien headed for the back door, but Hamlin blocked his way. O’Brien punched Hamlin, who fell down, and followed it with a kick to the head. Sisson pulled O’Brien away, but not before he got a second kick in.


Leslie and Sissons tried to revive Hamlin, who was sufficiently roused to answer questions, but couldn’t get to his feet. A bed was made for Hamlin outside the shack, and Sisson stayed with him overnight. He remained in a stupor, complaining of an acute headache. Hamlin did not improve and it was feared he would not survive.


Here things get even more alarming: by one report, the other poker players asked to take Hamlin to their tent to care for him. He was moved there, and the next day, Ross, O’Brien, McNair, and Leslie skipped town, leaving Hamlin to die alone. He passed away around midnight.

The Spokane Review, which first published news of the crime wrote:

A man was murdered at Salmon River on the line of the Fort Sheppard and Nelson railroad, and considerable mystery surrounds the affair. The murdered man laid for four days just as he died, no one offering to remove him.

The same issue carried this dispatch from Northport: “Quite a number of pretty tough characters have come across the line from British Columbia and are making their way to Spokane and other points of Washington.”


Dr. E.C. Arthur, the coroner in Nelson, heard about the incident, and headed for Salmon City on horseback over the tote road for the future railway. His investigation found Hamlin’s scalp was bruised but not broken. He recorded contusion of the brain as the cause of death.


Although Hamlin had been seen with bank notes before and during the assault, all that could be found on his body were his clothes, a pocket comb, and pocket book. His money was gone.


Dr. Arthur assembled a coroner’s inquest, consisting of James Foot, R.D. Young, Charles Griffin, James O’Connor, Alex Cumming, and Louis Olsen. They returned a verdict that “The said Stephen Hamlin died on or about Sept. 28, 1893, from the effects of a kick received from one William O'Brien in a fight on Tuesday night, Sept. 26, 1893.”


A warrant was issued for Billy O’Brien’s arrest on a charge of murder. He was last seen walking toward Nelson, although it was assumed he was now south of the border.


Spokane’s police chief wired authorities in Nelson to say Charlie Ross was now in his city and could be returned if desired. “But although there is little doubt he was implicated in the crime it would not be easy to prove his complicity,” the Nelson Tribune wrote.


No one was ever arrested or charged with the crime.

The Nelson Miner recorded Stephen Hamlin’s burial: “Beneath a stunted pine, a few yards from the cluster of shacks which constitute Salmon City, a mound of newly turned earth marks the solitary resting place of Steven Hamlin, of Kingston, Ontario.”


Clara Graham wrote in her book Kootenay Yesterdays that Hamlin’s grave was “beside the old tote road which followed the valley floor south of the camp near where was later located the Gagnon ranch.”


Although the grave is not known to have been marked, oral tradition has it that Hamlin lies in a gravelled area west of Salmo, close to where Margaux Resources is now located, at 6259 Highway 3.

Oral tradition has it that Stephen Hamlin was buried somewhere around this property west of Salmo. (Google Street View)


In the wake of the tragedy, Kingston’s police chief began looking for Hamlin’s relatives. The Nelson Miner’s account was reprinted in the Daily British Whig in Kingston, with the note: “The chief has made inquiries, but has failed to find any clue of a family of that name. It is possible that Hamlin lived in the country near by.”

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I can find no trace of O’Brien, Ross, or any other players in this incident, before or after the fact. And despite Ross supposedly having killed a half dozen men, I can’t find any record of a single one of them. But while the fate of the perpetrators is unknown, we do know something more about the victim.


Stephen David Hamlin was born circa 1841-43, in either Frankford or Wooler, Ontario, which would have put him in his early 50s when he was killed. He was the second eldest of five children born to Stephen Hamlin Sr. (1813-69) and Phoebe Hennessy (1816-?).


He married Hester Melissa Preston in Trenton, Ont. on May 14, 1876, and they had six children: Richard Nelson (born 1877), Clara Maude (born 1879), Stephen Daniel III (born 1880), Daniel (born 1881), and twins Adelie and Addison Walter (born 1883).


What compelled Stephen to leave his family in Ontario and head west? It’s not clear. But we know he moved after 1891, for the census that year found him farming at Murray, Ont. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence he was ever in Kingston; that was probably just an error.


In 2001, Donna Symonds posted the following on an ancestry.com bulletin board:

Around 1885-95 my great grandfather was slain over a card game in the Boissevain area. His name was Stephen Daniel Hamlin, born 1843 in Wooler, Ontario. The only reason we know of this was an obit that was sent to his wife — Hester Melissa Preston Hamlin — by a lady who knew of her in Wooler. Can anyone help me find this obit or a newspaper article about it?

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to contact Symonds, and therefore haven’t been able to share the newspaper stories with her that reveal the exact date, place, and circumstances of her great grandfather’s death. I wonder why she believed the fatal card game occurred in Manitoba. Perhaps the obituary sent to Hester was from a newspaper there — the story did appear in the Brandon Mail.


In a follow-up post a year later, Symonds wrote:

I have narrowed down Stephen’s death years that may [make it] easier for helping those who offered help. He was on the 1891 census of Northumberland. Since he was there then and Hester remarried in February 1896, I am assuming he died between 1892 and 1895. She would have waited at least a year, being a proper widow, before marrying again.

Hester married Nelson Washington Osterhout at Wooler, Ont. on Feb. 28, 1896. By 1900, they moved to Sweden, NY. She died at Brockport, NY on Jan. 30, 1941.


Of Steven and Hester’s six children, Richard died in 1896 at age 18 or 19. Clara married James Milton Ellis. They are not known to have had children. Clara died in 1958. The fate of Daniel and Adelie is unknown. They aren’t known to have married. Addison married a woman named Mable and had one son. Addison died in 1918, age 34 or 35.


Stephen III married Grace Louise Lawrence and had at least 11 children, of whom two died young, one may not have married, three married but had no children, while at least three had children of their own. One or two might even still be alive. (Two sons died in 2006 and 2007.)


Which is all to say that probably lots of people still alive are unaware that they are descended from a man murdered in a Salmo saloon.


UPDATE: The BC Archives has the coroner’s inquest file. I sent away for it and present it below. Unfortunately, the microfilm it was extracted from is extremely poor. One page is almost completely illegible. Dr. E.C. Arthur’s handwriting wasn’t the best to begin with. I’ve done my best to transcribe it, and have also posted that below.

Overall, it doesn’t add much to what we already know; it appears to have been the source of the news stories about the incident in the Nelson Miner and Tribune.


One oddity: at the end of the file are two warrants. One for the arrest of William O’Brien for the murder of Stephen Hamlin. The other is for the arrest of Stephen Hamlin for the murder of William O’Brien! I assume that Dr. Arthur simply goofed and then rewrote it, but I don’t know why the erroneous page was preserved.

Sources:

Kootenay Yesterdays, Clara Graham, 1976, p. 32-33


Updated on July 15, 2021 to add the coroner’s file.

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Shelley Ackerman
Shelley Ackerman
Mar 15, 2019

More great song fodder! :)

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