Past, Present & Beyond – The Shallow Grave, Pt. 2 – Still a mystery

Barbara Roden's conclusion of the unmarked grave on the Ashcroft Reserve.

by Barbara Roden

It’s safe to say that no one in Ashcroft expected 30-year-old Matilda Sampson, and her 35-year-old husband Johnny Edmonds, to die within a few months of each other in 1937. In the normal course of events, they should have lived many more years. Their untimely deaths, however, revealed a mystery which has never been solved.

Matilda, who died of pneumonia brought on by influenza, was buried in one of the two spaces remaining in the Edmonds family plot in the Ashcroft Reserve cemetery; the final space was reserved for Johnny. When he was struck and killed by a train near Ashcroft in August 1937, the task of digging his grave fell to Jimmy Antoine, who made a grim discovery. While preparing Johnny’s grave, Antoine uncovered the skeleton of a woman, buried in a shallow grave only a foot below the surface. The grave was a small one, not marked in any way, and there was no sign of a coffin; indeed, the body appeared to have been thrown into the crude hole which had been dug for it.

Residents of the Reserve immediately summoned the police, and Chief Markland of the B.C. Provincial Police detachment in Ashcroft, along with Constables Sharpe and Norman, visited the cemetery. The body was disinterred and taken to Ashcroft for examination, while the area in and around the grave was examined in the hope of finding any clues.

In the place where the body had been, the searchers found pieces of a silk blouse or dress, a container of red rouge in what looked to be the remnants of a vanity case, and several strips of leather from what might have been a purse. When the soil around the gravesite was sifted, a ring was found, but it – like the other items – gave no hint as to who the woman was. Nothing else was discovered.

Attention then turned to the woman herself. A skeleton was all that remained of her, and the local physician, Dr. Drummond, was called in to conduct the initial examination. He concluded that the bones were those of a fully grown woman between the ages of 20 and 30, and that they were probably those of an Indian (although there was some disagreement on this point, which never seems to have been resolved). He felt the body had been there at least five years, but could not be more precise.

Older residents of the Reserve could not recall a burial such as this one – hurried, crude, with no coffin or gravestone – taking place. It was suggested that a previous gravedigger had, in the course of his work, uncovered the skeleton unexpectedly. Rather than take the time and trouble to dig another, proper, grave the digger had quietly buried the remains in the small, shallow hole in the corner of the Edmonds plot, believing they would not be disturbed for many years, if at all. This idea was quickly dismissed, however, due to the care and respect the Indians traditionally displayed towards the dead.

Another theory was that the woman had died during the flu pandemic of 1918-1920, which had killed tens of millions around the world. The Ashcroft Reserve had not escaped; those who could remember that terrible time recalled that the flu had taken so many Indians that there had not been time for proper burials for everyone. That would explain the apparent hastiness of the burial, and the absence of both a coffin and a grave marker. But could the body have been there for as long as 20 years?

An article in the Ashcroft Journal, published at the time the remains were discovered, found this possibility unlikely. In the writer’s opinion, the remains would have shown more signs of decay if they had been there for nearly two decades. What Dr. Drummond, or any other medical person, thought of this idea is unrecorded, but it is unlikely that they endorsed it. Human skeletal remains are remarkably durable, as the world was reminded last year when archaeologists in England uncovered the body of King Richard III, who died in 1485. Despite the fact that he had been buried in the damp earth of England for more than 500 years, Richard’s skeleton was remarkably well preserved and easily identifiable, even before DNA testing was carried out. It had certainly not “decayed into dust”, as the Journal suggested would have happened to a skeleton after less than 20 years in the dry climate of Ashcroft.

There were other suggestions and opinions put forward by locals, in an attempt to explain the mystery, but they were all rejected, by residents and by the police. The lack of any sort of proper explanation for the crude burial, or any identification of the unfortunate woman, kept the official investigation open for a time, in the hope that more information would come to light. No new leads were uncovered, however, and the woman’s identity remained a mystery, judging by the lack of any follow-up in the Journal, which would almost certainly have reported on the story if any positive developments had come to light.

Eventually the case was closed, with no one any closer to a solution than they had been when Jimmy Antoine made his grim discovery.

The historical record is therefore silent regarding who the woman was, and how she came to be buried in such crude fashion in a corner of the Edmonds plot. Matilda’s grave missed the woman’s resting place by just six inches. If Johnny Edmonds had not died at such a young age, necessitating the digging up of the last piece of earth in the plot, the disturbing find might never have been made.