Updated: Sep 3
The dramatic story of the Bluebell murder, how Thomas Hammill (or Hamill, or Hammil) died near present-day Riondel on Kootenay Lake, allegedly at the hands of Robert Sproule, has been told many times. But the story of Hammill’s grave and grave markers — there are two or three of the latter, depending on how you count them — has not.
Remarkably, none of these markers now denote the precise location where Hammill was buried.
To briefly recap the case: Sproule staked the Bluebell claim in 1882. On the verge of starvation, he left the site, unaware that Hammill was watching and waiting. He immediately restaked the claim — or more accurately, jumped it.
Sproule returned the following spring and, outraged to find Hammill’s men working the Bluebell, filed a lawsuit. William A. Baillie-Grohman acted as Sproule’s counsel. Sproule won the case, which was upheld on appeal, but to pay his legal fees, he deeded a one-third interest in the Bluebell to Baillie-Grohman — who in turn sold his share to Hammill. Sproule was aghast.
Thomas Hammill, circa 1880. (Image A-02195 courtesy Royal BC Museum and Archives)
On the morning of June 1, 1885, Hammill was found near the Bluebell site, writhing in pain. He had been shot in the back and died within half an hour, without identifying his killer.
Cst. Henry Anderson went looking for Sproule, the prime suspect, who allegedly threatened Hammill. Sproule was then on the lake, paddling toward the border. A few days later, a posse caught up with him and arrested him. He protested his innocence, but was taken to Victoria, tried, convicted, and after several delays, hanged. He was buried in the jail yard, which today is the site of the S.J. Willis Education Centre.
As for Hammill, his gravesite was first mentioned in the Spokane Falls Morning Review of Oct. 14, 1886 in a lengthy account of the case written by someone who signed themselves “An English resident of Spokane Falls.”
In a quiet nook on the shores of the magnificent Kootenai [sic] lake the murdered man lies buried; loving hands have made the grave fragrant with flowers, and his comrades have placed over him a stone bearing this inscription:
Assassinated June 1st, 1885
At his home in England a widowed mother sorrows silently for an only son who will never return …
In fact it wasn’t a stone marker, but a wooden one. And while Hammill was indeed murdered, the word “assassinated” was peculiar. As David Scott and Edna Hanic put it in their book Nelson: Queen City of the Kootenays (1972): “One wonders why the word ‘assassinated’ with its connotation of political intrigue was used. But in the spirit of the time, grandeur was the thing, and assassination had more dignity than common murder.”
The word also betrays the person who probably chose it. Baillie-Grohman, pictured here in a frontispiece from his 1900 memoir, Fifteen Years’ Sport and Life in the Hunting Grounds of Western American and British Columbia, wrote on p. 249: “This was the event to which I have already alluded, namely, the assassination of young Hammil while at work on the Blue Bell.”
Sproule would have been further incensed to know his former lawyer helped bury his nemesis.
A few other references to the Hammill grave exist, giving us a general indication of where the grave actually was.
• The Spokane Falls Review of Oct. 31, 1889 wrote: “A rude paling inclosing a solitary grave, and a wooden slab with the gruesome inscription ‘Assassinated’ show that tragedy was part of the play where the moaning waves and the sighing trees were the only mourners, and sung the only requiem at the lonely burial.”
• According to the Slocan Prospector of March 16, 1895: “Thomas Hammill’s dust lies in a grave surrounded by a neat picket fence with a pine plank at the head, on a slight raise to the left as you enter Galena bay, about one-half mile south of where he met his death.”
• In a letter dated Jan. 21, 1909 and quoted in the November 1958 issue of Cominco Magazine, A.D. Wheeler wrote to S.S. Fowler that after after Hammill’s death, “Sproule was brought back and Stipendiary Magistrate Vowell shortly afterward appeared and held a preliminary trial in one of the log cabins of the Ainsworths in Galena Bay about 150 feet south of Hammill’s burial place.”
• Charles S. Wheeler wrote in National Motorist, as quoted in the Kaslo Kootenaian of March 13, 1930: “On a knoll between the Kootenay Chief and Blue Bell mines is the grave of one of the early settlers, Thomas Hammil, shot by Thomas Sproule …”
• However, R.G. Joy, in the Nelson Daily News of July 21, 1948 provided a location that didn’t match the previous references: “Hammel’s [sic] grave is situated one mile north of Riondel.”
The confusion probably arose from the fact that by this time, as Joy explained, the “wooden cedar slab” that marked the grave had long since rotted at the base, fallen over, and been removed. There was no mention of a fence.
“I was informed that the late S.S. Fowler, well and favorably known to oldtimers, took the slab to Riondel in order to renovate the inscription,” Joy wrote.
Fowler, a mining engineer and preeminent figure in early Riondel (he named the place) died in 1940 and James Symes repainted the inscription and the headboard. I don’t know who Symes was, but Joy referred to him as “the late James Symes.”
W. Bennett, now of Trail, asked me if I would finish Symes’ work. Then he told me of Symes’ idea for preserving the gravemarker. It was to face the board with plate glass on front and back and cover the edges with zinc.
Mr. Mayo delivered the marker at my residence. On making inquiries on the preserving qualities of the glass and zinc an authority on wood told me that moisture would get under the glass. After some discussion with several, I met Johnny Learmonth and we thought that a stone monument with a bronze inscription would be best and he volunteered to look after the board marker.
The Old Timer’s Association have in mind to erect a neat granite monument with a bronze plaque with the wording of the original memorial inscription.
The CM&S [Consolidated Mining and Smelting] have promised a subscription; also to create the memorial, take it to Hammel’s [sic] resting place and erect it.
Treasurer A.C. Emory, Baker St., and secretary R.G. Joy, 904 Josephine St., are receiving subscriptions to finance the memorial.
I don’t know who Mr. Mayo was or why he had the marker. But in December 1963, historian Elsie Turnbull interviewed Bennett. His full name was William Albert Bennett, he was a wholesale meat packer, and he died in Trail in 1967, age 85.
According to notes in Box 24, File 5 of the Turnbull fonds held by the Selkirk College Regional Archives:
Mr. Bennett told me that Hamill was buried in a graveyard above Galena Bay at Riondel with five other burials. A wooden headboard marked his grave, stating that he was ‘assinated.’ The board rotted and was taken by a man named Symes who gave it to a widow who gave it to Mr. Bennett. He in turn presented it to the Nelson museum but they changed the spelling on it to its proper form.
It seems highly unlikely that there were five other burials and no other source mentions the misspelling.
But the original marker went on display perhaps for the first time at the West Kootenay Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition in Nelson, according to the Daily News of of Sept. 16, 1950. And it did indeed go to the Nelson Museum, formed in 1955, where it became one of the most memorable artifacts of the permanent exhibit, and remains on display (pictured here). Its accession number is 1970.034.001 and its description reads: “Cedar original marker from grave of Thomas Hammill at the Bluebell Mine, 1885. Painted white/light yellow with black letters.” The re-lettering job was very crude and might well have covered up a misspelling.
Back at Riondel, the replacement marker R.G. Joy envisioned did come to fruition. According to Scott and Hanic:
In 1952 Cominco built a new mill on Galena Bay and in so doing had to disturb what had always been considered to be Thomas Hammill’s grave. At their own expense, they elected a fine stone copying exactly the words on the wooden slab which stood at the head of the grave … Cominco had every right to expect old-timers to be delighted with their fine memorial to Hammill, but instead, Kootenay prospectors screamed “Who wants a memorial to that stinking claim jumper?”
According to The Vancouver Sun of Oct. 13, 1951, “A bulldozer is stripping the soil carefully to try and recover the bones of the murdered Thomas Hammil, but to date without success.”
The new marker was placed on a concrete pad overlooking the bay. While it was probably not far from Hammill’s actual burial site, I am guessing the exact location was no longer known, since the wooden marker had been removed at least a dozen years earlier.
From Cominco Magazine, 1970
The BC Archives also has an undated photo of this new marker in situ, seen below, with a building in the background that has long since been removed.
(Image B-05407 courtesy Royal BC Museum and Archives)
When, why, and by whom the replacement marker was removed, I don’t know. But I first discovered it in the early 2000s in a compound behind the ball field at Riondel where the historical society stored larger artifacts.
In recent years, it has been placed on Teck property on the hillside back from the ballfield, next to an old wheel. It makes a nice display, but I haven’t been able to learn who put it there or why they chose this location.
As for the old concrete slab, it’s still there, and so is the stone the marker used to sit on. So Hammill is memorialized in three places, including the Nelson Museum, even though none actually mark the exact site of his burial. Otherwise he would have the oldest marked grave in West Kootenay, a distinction that instead belongs to Thomas Higstrim across the lake at Ainsworth.
The concrete slab and stone where the Hammill gravemarker used to sit, overlooking the Galena Bay wharf at Riondel.
One final footnote: while the BC Archives has a portrait of Thomas Hammill, seen at the top of this page, its provenance is not known, although it has been widely reproduced. But no photo is known to exist of Sproule, even though you would think there would have been interest in taking one of a condemned man.
— With thanks to Terry Turner.
Updated on Nov. 20, 2018 to add the 1951 item about Cominco keeping an eye out for bones and on Sept. 1, 2023 to add the bit about the gravemarker being exhibited in 1950.