Historical police records give glimpse into Victoria's seamier side

Two 19th-century Victoria crimes — a Jack-the-Ripper-style murder and the beating death of a saloon keeper — offer historians more than tales of old-time police work.

Linda Eversole, vice-president of the Friends of the B.C. Archives, says historical police records also offer glimpses into life among segments of society that are often overlooked.

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“We always hear about the elites, the Dunsmuirs and people like that, because their records tend to be preserved,” said Eversole in a telephone interview. “But we don’t hear much about the poor people or the people who have got in trouble.”

She will be speaking Sunday at the Newcombe Auditorium, attached to the Royal B.C. Museum, in a lecture called Without Justice: Two Victorian Era Unsolved Murders. And both crimes provide great insights into the lives of ordinary Victorians of the time.

On Sept. 29, 1899, the owner of a Store Street bakery, Agnes Bings, 44, was killed while walking across the railway trestle on Johnson Street. She was on her way home to Vic West, where she lived with a young son and an invalid husband.

Bings’s body was found the next day, naked and disembowelled on what was then the Songhees reserve.

Two days after Bings’s murder, two men attacked 39-year-old Mike Powers, operator of the Garrick’s Head Pub, still in operation on Bastion Square. Powers was knocked down and kicked outside his Fort Street home. He died three days later from internal injuries.

“Now, every time I go in there [the Garrick’s Head], I drink a toast to Mike Powers,” said Eversole.

Eversole has been involved with historical records for more than 40 years, beginning with what was once called the B.C. Provincial Museum, before its name was changed to affix the “Royal.”

She later worked as a researcher with the B.C. Heritage Branch and authored Stella: Unrepentant Madam, about a Victoria brothel keeper.

As a historian, Eversole said police reports, court documents and things like coroner’s inquests are a gold mine for learning about everyday society from the past.

For example, with Bings’s body found on the native reserve, it immediately played into the prejudices and injustices of 19th-century Victoria.

Newspapers of the time started editorializing about how unsafe the Songhees reserve was. Editorial opinion, however, quickly decided the murderer was not likely one of “our Indians” but was probably an outsider.

Nevertheless, Bings’s death fuelled more calls to move the reserve farther afield. It was later moved to the western portion of Esquimalt, on the western border of what is now Gorge Vale Golf Club.

As well, from the beginning of the investigation, police reports of the time indicated the murder was likely not solvable.

But investigators believed they had identified the killer, a 73-year-old Scot named David McDonald Gordon, a drifter most of his life.

As a military man, a veteran of the Crimean War, Gordon was recruited to work as an auxiliary constable to help with the Bings case. And he revealed a little too much knowledge.

But he died in prison shortly after the murder, after being jailed for stealing a watch. He was never charged with Bings’s murder.

The murder of Mike Powers also reveals something of the workings of Victoria small-business society of the time.

Powers was a big, hard-drinking, loud-talking Irish immigrant who spent a fair bit of time in Victoria brothels. But Eversole said these were places operating much like clubs. Men drank and talked. Sex was on offer but not obligatory.

Powers was living with a woman and wanted to settle down. And he clashed with prostitutes for meeting dates in his saloon, records show.

He also made disparaging remarks about a particular Victoria woman. She was not a prostitute but worked in a hotel and was a known beauty.

Her husband, however, was out of town a great deal, and Powers was known to make loud and public disparaging remarks about the woman’s fidelity. It’s believed she might have had something to do with the beating.

Powers died without identifying the men who attacked him. The investigating detectives, however, made notes that are still in existence.

“They were recording everything,” said Eversole. They recorded “who they talked to, what it was like in the saloon, then all the gossip.”

“It’s all that kind of stuff that there is really no record of normally,” she said. “It’s a different side of social history.”

Eversole speaks Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Newcombe Hall. Admission is free to the Friends of the B.C. Archives, otherwise it’s $5.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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