May 2010

The trials of Gallagher

Murder and mystery in a frontier coal mining town

By C. Baldwin


Gallagher's mine, Carbon, Alberta

Mine owner Jack Gallagher heard the verdict in a Calgary courtroom on January 19, 1922 — he had been found guilty of murder and was sentenced to be hung. The previous September, his business partner, John Coward, had been found dead in his Buick, shot three times in the head while on his way home from the coal mines just east of Carbon, Alberta. Gallagher was the obvious suspect, although whether or not he was actually the murderer remains a mystery.

On September 28, 1921, Coward and Gallagher had been returning to the mine from a business trip when they stopped at a shack to pick on an unlikeable and unemployed miner named Teddy Bolan. Gallagher barged into Bolan’s shack and made some off-hand remarks before leaving. No one knows for sure if he got back into Coward’s vehicle, but a few minutes later, and one mile down the road, Coward was dead.

Immediate suspicions pointed to Gallagher, but it was not until Chief Inspector Nicholson arrived from Calgary that the suspect’s real troubles began. The two had met previously in 1917 when the inspector was recruiting for the police and Gallagher had been hired, although he was denied the Carbon posting that he had requested. A month later, Nicholson, and others, sensed that the new recruit had begun to act strangely. As it turned out, though, Gallagher was attempting to hide the full extent of two separate head injuries that had left him nearly deaf. His intense manner, while unnerving, was simply a result of his lip reading.

Regardless, Nicholson had a bad feeling about Gallagher, especially when he discovered his private ammunitions belt stocked with notched, blunt-nosed bullets — certainly not standard regulation. Nicholson refused Gallagher’s second request for reposting but not his request for resignation. Four years later, when a blunt-nosed bullet was extracted from Coward’s skull, Nicholson knew he had his man.

At the time of the murder, Gallagher had been in the middle of negotiations with the Peerless Coal Company, of which Coward was part-owner. Coward had arrived in Carbon a few weeks earlier to temporarily look after the business side of the mine. Gallagher remained in charge of mining operations, a role he intended to keep in the new deal. But behind his back, Peerless appointed Coward future manager in a private meeting. Coward was murdered two days later, and Nicholson was sure that Gallagher had found out and taken revenge.

All other leads were off, although the police had trouble finding enough substantial evidence to convict Gallagher. A retracing of the murderer’s steps failed to link the prime suspect to the crime. He was in possession of the strange bullets, but not a gun.

Nicholson turned to Gallagher’s housekeeper, Dorothy Bruce, who lived with him, along with her five-year-old daughter. He suspected that the relationship was more than professional and brought in an inspector from the Department of Neglected Children as, at that time, it was unlawful to live in common law while a child was in residence. Bruce, who was proving to be a difficult witness, was threatened with having her daughter taken away if she did not testify against her “employer.” Though shaken, she refused, and Nicholson had Gallagher arrested on a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

A search of Gallagher’s shack revealed that the remaining blunt-nosed bullets had been replaced with standard ones. Not long after, a local boy found one of the missing bullets at the murder site — an area that had been searched thoroughly by police. It was found on the same side of the car as where the murderer must have stood. Nicholson, unswayed by this poorly planted evidence, surmised that the bullet had simply bounced back off the opposing hillside.

Teddy Bolan had always said that he had not actually seen Gallagher entering Coward’s vehicle on the night of the murder; however, at the trial he gave surprise testimony, claiming to have gone to look out his window. He said he could not see Gallagher walking down the path toward his home, which meant that he must have driven away with Coward. Bolan’s evidence convinced the jury, and Gallagher was found guilty of murder.

Luckily for Gallagher, his friends in the Great War Veterans’ Association rallied behind him and sent in a lively Scotsman named Sinclair to take up his case. Sinclair got busy on an appeal, proving that Gallagher was innocent and that Nicholson had ruined the investigation by ignoring all other leads.

And there were plenty of other leads, including a connection that many of the men had been involved with the recent labour crisis in the nearby Drumheller Valley. Gallagher had gained a reputation for his forceful tactics while helping the Veterans’ Association crush the labour union movement. Coward himself had warned him not to hire miners from Drumheller, fearing retaliation for a mine closure that left miners with unpaid wages. Suspiciously, the morning after the murder, three miners from Gallagher’s camp returned to Drumheller, leaving behind their pay.

Sinclair was thorough, hiring a private eye to snoop around the mines. He dug up plenty of dirt, most notably on Teddy Bolan. Following Bolan’s surprise testimony at the trial, he received a suspicious, and rather large, sum of money. He left for Mexico soon after but only made it as far as Calgary, where, the story goes, a “light-fingered woman” emptied his wallet, forcing him to return to Carbon. One week later, he was killed in a suspicious mining accident. When the private eye’s agency was sent a threatening letter containing more of the now-infamous blunt-nosed bullets, it was obvious that someone else was involved. Sinclair had gathered enough evidence in Gallagher’s defence and requested an appeal. He was granted a new trial — one week before his execution date.

Sinclair’s defense was systematic and convincing and, in a grand manoeuver, he brought the window of Teddy’s shack into the courtroom to prove that the now-deceased miner had given false testimony. It was obvious that Teddy could not have seen Gallagher returning down the path that night because his window was completely covered in a thick layer of coal dust. Sinclair won the case, and Gallagher’s innocence was restored.

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