It was the hole in poor Dring’s head, and another over his eye, that drew the inquisitive coroner back to the task at hand, and to his medical calling…
They didn’t have DNA back then, nor modern forensic science, but police weren’t entirely helpless when faced with murder. In February 1886, when Crofton settlers Charles Miller and William Henry Dring were found brutally slain in the former’s cabin, Provincial Police Const. Dan Mainguy made his first call to Nanaimo.
He was after Dr. W.W. Walkem, coroner, who immediately responded by taking the newly-built EN Railway.
He didn’t catch the train, exactly; rather, he huffed and puffed to Chemainus on a hand-car to meet Mainguy. A raging windstorm made going "so hard that I had to get off the velocipede. It was a long ride…"
The sight that greeted them was shocking, even for a seasoned policeman and doctor. As physician for the East Wellington Colliery, Walkem had seen many a mutilated body but, making this case harder for him, was the fact that he’d known the victims. Both men had been shot and, for good measure, their throats had been cut. As Mainguy examined the crude cabin that had been home to Miller, and puzzled over the viciousness of the attacks and that the cabin appeared not to have been ransacked, Walkem examined the bodies.
Other than the fact that he lay on the floor beside a table and his interrupted meal, Miller, at first glance, looked to be sleeping, so natural was his position, with one leg doubled back and his arms neatly at his sides. In a Nanaimo courtroom a year and a-half later, Walkem’s testimony revealed that he’d had an interest in more than medicine when he noted the remains of some soup in a bowl, half a loaf of bread and some tea in a cup on the table.
He even checked the lantern to see if it had any oil in it. This was police work, and it was by these observations that Mainguy concluded that Miller and Dring had been attacked during their dinner on Saturday, Feb. 13.
Walkem checked the back door, too, to see if it had been jimmied, and noticed a bullet hole in a window pane. It was the hole in poor Dring’s head, and another over his eye, that drew the inquisitive coroner back to the task at hand, and to his medical calling, although he couldn’t help but scan the ceiling to see if perhaps a shot had passed right on through the victim.
Unlike Miller, Dring remained seated in his chair, encircled by a pool of blood. Because there had been no hemorrhage from Miller’s neck wound, Walkem concluded that it had been inflicted after death by two gunshots which had "completely destroyed the kidney and also the right lobe of the liver.". Either wound would have been fatal. He believed Miller to have been standing when struck. Dring, although shot in the head, had died from having his throat cut, likely because his head wound hadn’t been immediately fatal.
Then it was back to playing the role of Sherlock Holmes for Walkem. Near Miller’s gate, he noticed "the marks of a boot as if from a miner’s brogan with heavy nails [and] another foot mark – like a ladies [sic] boot with tapering heel."
He followed the footprints to the beach, 150 yards from the cabin, noting more prints along the way.
Later B.C. Police Supt. H.B. Roycroft, demonstrating truly modern techniques for the day, made several casts of each with molten wax.
Under cross-examination, Walkem gave a graphic description of how blood spurts when the jugular vein is severed, stated that for some reason rigor mortis was more advanced in Dring, and that Miller had smelled slightly of alcohol.
As it happened, the Miller-Dring tragedy wound to a lengthy and unsatisfactory conclusion in Nanimo. Both men tried for the double murder were acquitted although the accused ringleader died of consumption in prison. Dr. Walkem’s evidence, as professional and helpful as it was, made no difference to the outcome of the case.
But it sheds an illuminating light on the varied roles sometimes demanded of frontier physicians.
The doctor who’d handpumped his way to Chemainus on a velocipede in a raging storm and total darkness to assist police, and who’d found himself checking doors for signs of forced entry, looking for bullet holes in windows and ceiling, and for footprints in the sand, truly was a man for all seasons.