The cemetery on the Ashcroft Indian Reserve

The cemetery on the Ashcroft Indian Reserve

Past, Present & Beyond – The Shallow Grave – Pt. 1

Barbara Roden digs up another mysterious whodunit from Ashcroft's past.

Winter of 1936/37 was a bad one for influenza in the B.C. interior. Hardly a week went by without the Ashcroft Journal reporting another case, more often than not fatal. Those who could remember the flu pandemic of 1918-20, which had killed up to 100 million people worldwide, shivered at the thought that it had come again.

The Native community had been especially hard hit. There had been so many burials in the cemetery on the Cornwall [now Ashcroft] Reserve that the gravediggers had had to resort to burying the dead in haste, without a proper burial.

In mid-February 1937 Matilda Sampson, the 30-year-old wife of Johnny Edmonds of the Cornwall Rancherie, or Reserve, came into Ashcroft with a friend to help deliver a load of hay. She and her husband were longtime residents of the area, and were familiar figures in town. Within a short time of her visit she fell ill, and it was at first suspected that she had caught a chill. Her condition soon worsened, however, and it was clear she was suffering from flu. Then it developed into something more serious, and on Feb. 16 she was brought to the hospital in Ashcroft. It was clear that she needed medical assistance; but the local physician, Dr. Drummond, was in Lone Butte, stranded there by poor road conditions. On the morning of Feb. 17 she died, of pneumonia brought on by flu.

The cemetery on the Cornwall Reserve had, at the time, a number of family plots; burial areas kept for the use of one family and its members, each surrounded by a neat wooden fence. In February 1937 there were two spaces left in the plot in which Matilda and Johnny were to be buried, and there were doubtless many people present at her funeral who had not expected a grave to be dug in that plot for many years.

Johnny, the widower, was only 35, and there was no reason to think that he would not live a long life. A few months later, however, tragedy once again struck the Edmonds family; and this time it was to lead to a mysterious, and grisly, discovery.

On Friday Aug. 20 1937, Edmonds got into an argument with Henry Madson of Pavilion over a jug of wine. The altercation ended with Edmonds knocking out the other man, then riding away from town. At 20 minutes before midnight he arrived at the home of Chief Frank Harry, about three miles west of town. Two men who were staying at the house that night – Willie Harry and Jimmie Burke – said that Edmonds was considerably under the influence of alcohol when he arrived, and that he asked to see the Chief. Edmonds was taken into another room, where the two visitors heard him tell Chief Harry that he was in great trouble and would be put in jail in the morning. He pleaded for help, but was apparently told that there was nothing Chief Harry could do.

At midnight Johnny Edmonds left the house and mounted his horse. It was the last time he was seen alive.

An hour later CNR passenger train No. 1, heavily loaded, was a mile west of Ashcroft heading towards the coast. It had been an uneventful trip to that point, and there was no reason to think the remainder of the journey would be any different. The engineer looked ahead down the track, expecting to see nothing but darkness. Instead he saw what he thought was a piece of white paper between the rails some 10 pole lengths (55 yards) ahead. When the train was approximately four pole lengths (22 yards) away he realized that the white form was a body lying between the rails, its legs over the north rail. The engineer threw on the emergency brakes, but it was too late to halt the train. The engine and two cars had passed over the body before the train stopped, and it was clear there was no hope he had survived.

The unfortunate victim was placed on a stretcher, and the engineer and another man lifted him into the baggage car. Then the engineer began the slow process of backing CNR passenger train No. 1 the mile into Ashcroft. As he did so, he noted that a saddle horse was near the scene of the accident, tied to a fence a few yards from the track. At some point in the night the horse broke its reins, and was found next morning running in a nearby field. The horse was identified as belonging to Johnny Edmonds.

When the train reached Ashcroft the police were summoned. The body was quickly identified as that of Johnny Edmonds, and an inquest was held five days later, after a short delay so that the train engineer could return and give evidence. A verdict of accidental death was brought in, with no blame attached to anyone.

Before the inquest, however, came the grim task of digging a final grave in the Edmonds plot, many years before anyone had reasonably expected such a thing to be needed. Jimmy Antoine was the man who carried out this duty, and he it was who made a completely unexpected discovery. While digging Johnny Edmonds’ grave, a short distance from where his wife lay and in the only area of the enclosure that had been undisturbed, Antoine came across what appeared to be another grave, unmarked, within the plot. For a foot below the surface of the sandy soil, in a narrow hole some three feet long, he uncovered the skeleton of a woman, huddled in her crude grave as if she had been hastily and carelessly deposited there.

To be continued

Barbara Roden