The prisoner’s cell at the Vanderhoof Provincial Police buiulding

Past, Present & Beyond – The Coward murder case – Pt. 2: Motive for murder

Barbara Roden's conclusion to a turn of the century murder in Fort St. James.

The following story was written for the Caledonia Courier newspaper in Fort St. James; I hope Golden Country readers find it of interest.

The murder, in September 1915, of pre-emptor Jim Coward near Fort St. James had initially been blamed by the dead man’s widow on a vengeful Indian. It was not long, however, before the finger of suspicion pointed clearly at the widow herself, Betty Coward, who had told three different stories about events on the night, and – to a lesser extent – her daughter Rose. District Chief of Police Bill Dunwoody had reached this conclusion, while investigating the murder site, when he heard a shout. Justice of the Peace Dave Hoy, who had accompanied Dunwoody to the Coward cabin, had turned over a steel washtub. Underneath it was a .38 calibre revolver, fully loaded except for one chamber. The bullet that had killed Jim Coward had been fired from a .38 calibre revolver. Dunwoody had Hoy replace the revolver; then the men returned to Vanderhoof.

Betty Coward approached Dunwoody the next day, and said that she and Rose were planning on returning to the States. Could she, the widow asked, go to the cabin to collect a few personal belongings? Dunwoody said yes, then gave instructions to Cst. Rupert Rayner to ride to the cabin without being seen, hide himself, and keep an eye on the washtub. Rayner headed out of town on a bush trail, and once at the cabin hid himself in a barn.

Eventually a horse-drawn rig pulled up, and Betty Coward and a neighbour got out. The two women entered the cabin, and emerged a few minutes later carrying some clothing. Betty asked the neighbour to take the clothes to the wagon, and as soon as the woman was out of sight hurried to the washtub and turned it over. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, she headed to the wagon. When they had gone, Rayner retrieved the revolver and rode back to Vanderhoof, where he related his story to Dunwoody.

A preliminary hearing was held in Vanderhoof on Sept. 16, only a week after Coward’s death had been reported, and a verdict of murder was brought in against Betty Coward and her daughter Rose Dell, who was charged as an accessory. The Prince George Herald reported that the women had arrived at the hearing in the charge of Chief Dunwoody, and “will be taken to Kamloops to await trial”.

The trial was to be held at the Fall Assize – a travelling court that tried major cases – which was due to start in Clinton in the first week of October 1915.This meant that Dunwoody had only a month to build his case against Betty Coward, so he was soon on his way to southern California to learn more about her past.

He turned up an amazing story. As far as anyone in Canada knew, Betty Dell – who was separated from her first husband – had run a boarding house in San Francisco, where she had taken a liking to Jim Coward, one of her boarders. However, when Dunwoody tracked down Betty’s first husband, he told the policeman that he and Betty had been living in Forest City, Iowa when she had run off with Coward, the town marshal. The two had become friendly, and one day skipped town together, headed for San Francisco. Dell had been more than happy when his wife left him. “She’s a dangerous woman, and has a hell of a temper,” he told Dunwoody. “You mark my words, she’ll commit murder one day.”

Dunwoody headed to Forest City, where he uncovered the last link in the chain. Betty Dell had insured Jim Coward’s life for a considerable sum of money, and had kept up the payments on the policy. Armed with this information, Dunwoody returned to Canada.

Cst. Rayner and 12 witnesses had left Vanderhoof on the BX stagecoach on Oct. 2, bound for the Clinton Assize. Dunwoody, fresh from his investigations in the States, arrived in Clinton shortly thereafter. When it came time for him to take the stand, his evidence was little short of a bombshell. Betty Coward’s defence was shattered, and Mr. Justice Denis Murphy, who was trying the case, congratulated Dunwoody.

The case against Rose Dell was dropped, and the girl – who had by then turned 18 – was acquitted. On Oct. 7, 1915 the jury returned a verdict of guilty against Betty Coward, sentencing her to death; the first woman to be thus sentenced in the province. Justice was swift in those days, and she was scheduled to be executed at Kamloops on Dec. 23, 1915. A paragraph in the Dec. 4, 1915 issue of the Herald noted that “The date set for the death by hanging of Elizabeth Coward, who was convicted of murdering her husband at Stuart Lake, is drawing close. Many are wondering if this fair province is about to establish a precedent by exacting the death penalty of a woman.”

The paper turned up the heat the following week, when a leader on the front page noted that “One short week from next Thursday morning, at daybreak, in the city of Kamloops, province of British Columbia, in this twentieth century of Christian civilization, the hangman’s noose will snuff out the life of Elizabeth Coward, unless justice is tempered with mercy and the death penalty commuted. Are we about to establish a horrible precedent by taking the life of a woman, no matter how guilty she may be, and forever stigmatize the name of our fair province? If so, may God pity our depravity!”

Justice may have been swift in those days, but it was not without mercy. A mere 48 hours before she was due to be hanged in Kamloops, Elizabeth Coward’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Barbara Roden

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