Past, Present & Beyond – Death on the Range – Pt. IV: The investigation

Barbara Roden's continuing saga into lies and greed and murder in the wild west.

What had started out as a fairly routine, if distressing, case – one partner robbing another in the dead of night and then disappearing into the BC interior – turned into something much more tragic, and mysterious, when the body of the supposed thief was discovered with a bullet through the back of his head. What was more, Thomas Burton Smith had clearly been dead for several days when he was found, throwing the story told by his partner, Albert “Chubby” Clinger, into considerable doubt. After Smith’s body had been found in the bush near Dog Creek, District Chief of Police Frank Aiken promptly arrested Clinger in connection with the death; but he knew that was merely the start of what promised to be a long and difficult investigation.

When Clinger was told that his partner had been found murdered, his response was that someone must have caught up with him. Who that someone was, however, remained a mystery. On Feb. 15, 1915 an autopsy was performed on the body of Smith by Dr. Fort of Walhachin, and Dr. Sanson, the coroner, held an inquest. The jury viewed the body, but the inquest was held over pending further developments. With Clinger in prison, and the clock ticking, Frank Aiken got to work.

Clinger had said that his partner had robbed him of several hundred dollars while the two men had been camped overnight on the road from Dog Creek to Ashcroft. However, no money had been found on Smith’s body when he was discovered. This proved nothing other than that whoever had killed Smith had relieved him of whatever valuables the dead man had possessed. Clinger, when arrested, had been carrying $100, considerably less than the sum of which he had supposedly been robbed. On the other hand, he had had more than a week to dispose of the cash, so this proved nothing. Aiken would have to cast his net further afield.

To that end, he headed out towards Dog Creek, where the pair had made camp on the night when Clinger was supposedly robbed. The policeman hoped to find someone who had seen the pair together, and could confirm or disprove some of Clinger’s story. His investigation eventually took him to the ranch of Napoleon Pigeon, the closest neighbour to Smith and Clinger at their pre-emption at Springhouse Prairie; and it was here that he learned something interesting.

Pigeon told the policeman that he had received a letter from Smith in which the pre-emptor had said he was leaving the country, and possibly going to Europe, which tied in with the story Clinger had told of Smith wanting to go to Romania to visit his son. As he was departing in such a hurry, Smith wrote, there would be no time for a personal goodbye, for which he was sorry. Pigeon, however, told Aiken he thought it was odd that Smith should write to him at all, since the men never saw much of one another, despite their proximity.

Aiken took the letter as evidence, and headed back to Clinton. Why would Smith write a letter of goodbye to a man he barely knew? The more he thought about the case, the more he kept circling back to money as the root of it all. Albert Clinger claimed that Smith had robbed him; but what sort of money had Thomas Burton Smith had at his disposal? If the man had had money of his own, there would seem little need for him to rob his partner. There was only one way to find this out; so Frank Aiken found himself heading back to the cabin at Springhouse Prairie that Smith had shared with his partner.

It did not take long to find that Smith had an account with the Bank of British North America in Ashcroft; there were several returned cheques from that bank in the cabin, written and signed by Smith. Aiken took these as evidence, in part because they provided a sample of Smith’s handwriting and signature. With these in hand he returned to Clinton and phoned Chief Constable Colin Cameron in Ashcroft, asking him to check what funds were in Smith’s account and whether there were any recent cancelled cheques.

Within an hour Cameron reported back. There was approximately $1,000 in Smith’s account, and several cancelled cheques. Aiken asked what the date was on the last cancelled cheque Smith had issued from his account. The answer was Feb. 11.

The date on which Thomas Burton Smith’s body had been found.

By which time the man had been dead for a week.

Aiken asked if there was any possibility of a mistake. Cameron replied that there was not. He was calling from the British North America Bank in Ashcroft, and he had the cancelled cheque, for $57, in his hand as he spoke. It was signed by Thomas Burton Smith . . . but a week after he had died.

Aiken told Cameron to let him have the cheque, as it would undoubtedly prove valuable. When he had it in his hands a few days later, he laid it out beside the other pieces he had assembled. These included the cancelled cheques he had found in the cabin at Springhouse Prairie which were undoubtedly in Thomas Burton Smith’s handwriting; the letter to Napoleon Pigeon, which was supposedly from Smith; and a sample of Albert Clinger’s handwriting, obtained from a letter which was in the file of the local government agent. When laid side by side, and carefully compared, the evidence was overwhelming. The letter to Pigeon, and the cheque for $57 drawn a week after Smith had died, were in the same handwriting; but they were not the handwriting of Thomas Burton Smith.

They were in the handwriting of Albert Clinger.

To be continued

Barbara Roden