“…Laid in wait for at the edge of a lonely woods, and shot down FROM BEHIND by a stealthy assassin…” —Colonist, Aug. 6, 1869.
For more than a century and a half, Ma Miller’s pub in Langford has witnessed the comings and goings of a legion of guests and passersby. Among them the tragic Capt. Joseph Baker who, in August 1869, was murdered shortly after leaving what was then the Goldstream Hotel on his way to Victoria.
The discovery of human remains in a Goldstream swamp, what was known until recently filled-in and developed as the Langford Plains, prompted the Colonist to ask, “Who has lost a friend?”
The ‘who’ in this case was the victim; the other ‘who,’ as in ‘whodunit,’ remains unsolved 147 years later.
This mystery began on a hot summer afternoon when two hunters found a skeleton in a shallow pool “half a mile beyond Langford Lake and about a stone’s throw from the Goldstream Road”. The hunters, one of whom was identified as Mr. Porter, recognized the bones, lying in a few inches of water, to be human.
Neither man seems to have attached much importance to their find, perhaps dismissing the skeleton as being ancient.
This seems indicated by the fact that, the next day, Porter dispatched his son to the swamp to inter the remains where they lay. But the younger Porter was slightly more inquisitive and observant than his father; poking about the shallows with his shovel, he uncovered more bones, all of which, he said, were greatly decayed and, “in place, destitute of flesh,” as was the face.
The skeleton in the meadow seems to have been forgotten for some weeks as Porter and neighbours concerned themselves with harvest season. That done, Porter revisited the death scene with some friends, to find that the pool had dried up and animals had scattered most of the bones (his son having done, it would seem, a poor job of interment).
“There were no shreds of clothing, or hair to be found anywhere,” reported the Colonist when it finally heard of the discovery — “nothing in fact to furnish the faintest clue to the identification of the remains, and the bones were finally collected and buried. Whether the bones are those of some poor demented wretch who strayed away from his keepers [not as far-fetched a theory as it may sound to us today] and perished miserably from starvation [again not an unheard-of occurrence in earlyday Victoria], whether they are those of a self-immolated victim; or whether they constitute the evidence of ‘murder most foul,’ may never be known; but from the condition of the remains when found, it is inferred that they were instinct [sic] with life not many weeks ago…”
(This is the first indication that the remains were more recent than the initial reports of their deteriorated state would suggest.)
As indicated by the newspaper, the remains were now believed to be fairly recent. Nevertheless, the mystery might have been dismissed into limbo had it not been for Bob McMillan, colonial police officer.
His initial efforts revealed that a young Victoria man had, in fact, disappeared about the time that Porter and companions made their grim discovery.
His announced plan to hike to Cowichan, hunting along the way, would have taken him within a stone’s throw of the mystery skeleton’s final resting place. The missing hunter hadn’t arrived at Cowichan and hadn’t returned to town, and several people expressed fears that it was their friend whose discovered bones had become popularly known as the ‘Langford Lake Mystery.’
Magistrate A.F. Pemberton and Dr. J.S. Helmcken visited Goldstream to personally supervise exhumation of the bones. Unfortunately, all Helmcken could be sure of, given the limit of the forensic science of the day, was that the dead man had been Caucasian.
News of the case prompted settlers in the Langford Lake-Goldstream district to recall that, the previous spring, they’d been approached by a man who said he was looking for a friend who’d set out for Victoria from Leechtown but never arrived.
By this time, thanks to Officer McMillan, if there was doubt as to the skeleton’s identity, there was none as to the cause of death. From the swamp, 75 feet away from the remains, he’d recovered a vest, a pair of drawers and other oddments of clothing. Most interesting of these was the vest. Tattered from exposure to the elements and, likely, to animals, the garment was also marred by four holes — two in the front and two in the back. Because those in front corresponded with those in the back, McMillan concluded that they were bullet holes. His suspicion of murder seemed to be corroborated by the fact that the vest had been hidden under a log some distance from the skeleton.
(To be continued)