T.W. Paterson: Death of Nanaimo fireman still unsolved

There would have been no inquest had not the deceased’s family insisted.

There would have been no inquest had not the deceased’s family insisted.


Fictional mystery is a popular literary genre. But, in real life, a mystery means unanswered questions that leave everyone dissatisfied. Such was the case, in March-April 1909, after Albert Walter John Stewart was found lying in the street by the Nicol Street fire hall.

For two years a fireman, and for 15 months a tenant in the fire hall, he was said to be a man of sober habits and popular with his fellows. In the early hours of March 13 he collapsed outside the hall in what appeared to Chief Parkin to be “a fit”. Stewart was carried to his room where he appeared to have a second seizure but recovered to the point of returning to duty although he began to act “in rather a queer manner” — queer enough that Parkin asked Dr. Drysdale to look him over.

The second last time Parkin saw him, he told the coroner’s jury, was about 11 o’clock Saturday evening at the hall when Stewart declined to accompany Johnson for a walk because of the lateness of the hour.

Crescent Hotel bartender Fred Broney stated that Stewart came to his side door about midnight. He was sober and Broney admitted that he’d never seen him under the influence. He didn’t say what Stewart wanted.

The mystery deepened when the same Dr. Drysdale took the stand to give the results of his autopsy. Stewart, he said, had been in perfect physical condition. There were only some mild bruises on the right side of his face but the victim’s skull was fractured — “from back to front and the fracture had been forced apart sufficiently to allow of the blade of a knife being inserted, as if caused by a heavy blow having been delivered”.

That said, however, Drysdale didn’t suspect foul play. He thought that Stewart had had another seizure and, in pitching heavily forward, struck his head on “something very hard and smooth”. It was possible, even, that he’d sustained the injury before Saturday night: “A man could walk around for a week after getting such a hurt, and the effect of it would be to intensify the fits.”

Vernon Stewart declared that never to his knowledge had his brother had a convulsion “since 1883”. It’s not explained if he meant that there had been seizures prior to 1883 or that he was only privy to such knowledge over the subsequent 26 years. He wanted to know where his brother spent the evening of his final seizure.

The coroner’s jury, going on the limited medical evidence presented to them, had little difficulty in ruling that Stewart died “by concussion”. As to how he came to be concussed, they chose not to concern themselves, leaving the deceased’s family totally dissatisfied.

They weren’t the only ones wanting to know more. The Free Press thought the Stewart case was a prime example of a shoddy judicial system: “If a case had been wanted to prove the unsatisfactoriness and even the danger of the laws at present obtaining on the subject nothing more complete and convincing than this Stewart tragedy could conceivably have been found…The objection to [deeper investigation by coroners] taken by the authorities is lodged solely on the ground of expense, and until there is an unmistakable demand from the people for the enactment of the law it will surely remain as it is. What can happen, what is happening every day as the result of this miserable policy of economy, may readily be imagined from the circumstances surrounding the death of Albert Stewart…This Stewart tragedy…establishes an overwhelming case for the amendment of the law in regard to inquests.”

The newspaper questioned the easy acceptance by the authorities and a jury that Stewart had been epileptic, based upon testimony that he’d suffered several seizures in the days leading up to his death, and their resulting rush to judgment that he’d been fatally injured by falling on his head. The same medical evidence suggested as strongly that Stewart’s “fits” were the result of his head injury from a cause unknown, rather than the other way round. The nature of his skull fracture could as well have resulted from a blow with a blunt instrument as from his having landed on the top of his head from a fall, the newspaper argued. In fact, the Press was more inclined to believe that Stewart was the victim of foul play.

Despite this, the police made little effort to retrace Stewart’s final movements and his mysterious death remains just that, more than a century later.


Cowichan Valley Citizen

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