T.W. Paterson column: Antoine Lucanage: bootlegger turned killer

Lucanage rushed on deck and, taking Smith by surprise, stabbed him twice.

Journalist D.W. Higgins wrote about the illegal liquor trade. (submitted)

No sooner had Moss headed aft than Lucanage rushed on deck and, taking Smith by surprise, stabbed him twice.

In the words of pioneer journalist D.W. Higgins, the illegal liquor trade that long prevailed along the British Columbia coast amounted to little more than selling poison by the boatload — “the vilest stuff that the ingenuity of wicked-minded and avaricious white men ever concocted”.

Although illegal, it was a highly lucrative trade, conducted, for the most part, under cover of darkness, by unscrupulous and mostly independent traders. For years, Victoria was the headquarters of this illicit trade as sloops, rowboats and dugouts ferried tens of thousands of gallons of rotgut to thirsty customers.

Despite the efforts of the authorities many of those in the business, particularly the wholesale merchants in Victoria, prospered. From liquor import warehouses at the foot of Johnson Street, the vile liquid was smuggled up-coast to eager customers who waited impatiently to pay hard cash for slow death, usually a dollar a bottle.

Among those who willingly risked imprisonment to meet this demand for illegal drink was 35-year-old Antoine Lucanage, a pock-marked, shifty-eyed, and shambling French Canadian who worked out of Bella Coola. Profits were high, the risks reasonably slight and, for a time, like many others, “Antoine,” as he was better known, prospered by selling “tanglefoot”.

The authorities did their best but, considering the hundreds of miles of lonely coastline, and the scarcity of police officers, it was an impossible task. One who tried was John D.B. Ogilvie, Deputy Collector of Customs and Indian Agent at Bella Coola whose dedication to duty cost him his life.

On May 23, 1865, the Hudson’s Bay Company steamer Labouchere docked at Victoria with a large passenger list and cargo. Capt. Lewis also brought intelligence of “the melancholy death of Mr. Ogilvie”.

Seven weeks earlier, said Lewis, Antoine had landed at Bella Coola with three kegs of liquor in his canoe. As he lacked a permit, Ogilvie seized Antoine and the liquor, placing the bootlegger on board the steamer Nanaimo Packet to be taken to New Westminster for trial.

But Lucanage escaped from the Packet and flagged down the northbound schooner Langley whose master obligingly dropped him off — at Bella Coola — where the fugitive announced he was heading for the Cariboo. Ogilvie thought the bootlegger was merely hiding in the woods until the schooner’s southbound trip, when he planned to sneak back aboard.

Days later, the Langley headed down Bentinck Arm against a stiff headwind. Four hours after, Ogilvie, well-known trader Morris Moss, a man named Smith, and four Indians paddled in pursuit, overtaking the labouring vessel late that night. Her master assured them that Lucanage wasn’t aboard, that he hadn’t seen the fugitive since he left the schooner at Bella Coola on the northbound run.

The posse accepted his word and an invitation to go below for dinner. When he went forward to light a fire for tea, Ogilvie volunteered to assist. The captain was just firing the stove, Ogilvie sitting alongside, when, without a word of warning, Lucanage, who’d hidden in a fo’c’sle locker, fired at the unsuspecting customs officer.

Hearing the shot, Moss and Smith, who’d remained in the main cabin, rushed topside. Ogilvie said Lucanage had shot him then collapsed and asked for a drink of water.

At this, the captain charged on deck “in a fearful state of excitement [in the words of a Colonist reporter], and did not appear to know what he was doing. Mr. Moss asked him for a lantern to go down and seize Antoine, but he said there was none on board. He was then told to put the schooner about and run her back to Bella Coola, but not doing so at once, Mr. Moss went aft for that purpose, leaving Mr. Smith to attend to Mr. Ogilvie.”

No sooner had Moss headed aft than Lucanage rushed on deck and, taking Smith by surprise, stabbed him twice. He then turned upon the dying Ogilvie who, with his remaining strength, managed to wrest the gun from his hand. When Lucanage hastened down the companionway, Ogilvie sped his retreat with two shots from the captured gun.

Astern, Moss had heard the latest commotion and took aim at Luacanage — when the arching boom knocked him over the side. Luckily, he was rescued by some passengers who’d abandoned ship in their canoe at the first shot.

Back aboard the schooner, as the captain and his mate assisted the wounded men below, Lucanage seized the opportunity to escape in the ship’s boat. The master did fire four shots but missed, then shouted to Moss who, in the canoe, was too far off to hear him.

Next day, Moss returned with reinforcements, Ogilvie breathing his last an hour later, and his body was returned to Bella Coola by canoe to await shipment to Victoria, where he’d asked to be interred.

Lucanage, meanwhile, had vanished but Moss had more pressing problems of his own, having to escort two prisoners to New Westminster. Two weeks after, he was appointed customs officer in Ogilvie’s place.

Immediately upon receiving word of Ogilvie’s death, the provincial government offered $1,000 reward for his capture. When next heard of, the smalltime bootlegger, now a murderer, was reported to have been seen at Fort Rupert by the master of the trading schooner, Nonpareil, upon his arrival in Victoria. He declared he’d seen the killer eight days earlier but hadn’t been aware of Ogilvie’s slaying. It was believed that Antoine had reached Fort Rupert by canoe by promising some Native boatmen eight blankets if they’d “take him down quick”.

However, once at the trading post, he’d heard that the vessel Jemmy Jones was anchored on the opposite side of the island and “skedaddled for that point at once, leaving his Indians in the lurch…!” Upon learning of the murder of Ogilvie, the Nonpareil’s master had informed the captain of the gunboat, HMS Chameleon.

Ten days passed without further word of the murderer’s whereabouts until a man named Sebastopol — “the well-known and indefatigable prospector” — arrived from the northwest coast. He told a Colonist reporter that he thought he “discovered some faint traces of the murderer of Mr. Ogilvy [sic]. While lying in shore in Queen Charlotte Sound, during a storm, he saw a canoe with two or three men pass down, paddling vigorously against a head wind. He…hailed the canoe and fired [a gun] to attract their attention, but they continued their course. As Indians rarely travel in such a hurry in stormy weather, Sebastopol surmised that some white man must have been in the canoe.

“On arriving at Fort Rupert he learned that Antoine had been there, which rendered it probable that he was in the canoe seen in Queen Charlotte Sound. On Friday last, while on his way down from Fort Rupert, shortly after passing Salmon River, Sebastopol and his party were hailed by a white man from the shore. He wished to land and see who it was, but some of the Indians were afraid, and he was therefore reluctantly obliged to proceed, although the voice called three or four times. Sebastopol thinks it not unlikely that the man was Antoine. It was stated yesterday that someone paid a large sum to two men on Wednesday night to be landed on the [American] side and it was thought that it might possibly have been Antoine, but it is unlikely that rascal could have any money at his disposal.”

Then it was reported that Governor Frederick Seymour had received a telegram from officials in San Francisco to the effect that they had him under police surveillance. As the Colonist optimistically predicted his capture, provincial Chief of Police Chartres Brew boarded the steamer Leviathan for Victoria with the necessary papers for his extradition but arrived too late to make the connection with the mail steamer and, so as not to lose any more time, decided to go overland.

A day later, it was unofficially reported that Antoine had been seen in that Puget Sound port early in July after reaching that city by canoe. There was no question of his identity, said this unidentified informant, as the pilot of the steamer Eliza Anderson “who knew him well” had talked to him. But American officials hadn’t been formally instructed to take action and Antoine had proceeded to Port Discovery where he hoped to board a ship for San Francisco. “…He accordingly seems to have pushed on to Port Angeles, where he probably met the bark or some other vessel, on the point of sailing for the Bay City and managed to secure a passage,” the Colonist surmised.

Chief Brew made it only as far as Monticello when he was instructed by wire to return to New Westminster, B.C. authorities having been informed by San Francisco police that Antoine had slipped from their sight.

For two and a half months, all efforts to trace the fugitive were unsuccessful, Lucanage having dropped out of sight. Only then was it learned that his flight had ended almost as soon as it had begun: his skeletal remains had been found near Fort Rupert and positively identified by his revolver. Apparently the canoemen he’d hired to take him to Rupert had killed him when he failed to make good his promise of eight blankets.

More than a century afterwards, the name of Customs Officer Jack Ogilvie lives on. Victoria’s Burnside Street recalls his farm on the Gorge waterway and, provincially, he’s remembered for having started B.C.’s multi-million-dollar honey industry by importing the province’s first honey bees, in 1858.

www.twpaterson.com

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