The tombstone of Dring and Miller continues to intrigue viewers today at St. Peter Quamichan cemetery. (T.W. Paterson photo)

T.W. Paterson column: ‘Justice is served’ in the Miller-Dring murders, conclusion

Johnny, the reluctant accomplice, faced the music alone in a Nanaimo courtroom

By T.W. Paterson

Conclusion

Quomlet’s death of consumption while awaiting a second trial for Miller’s slaying left Johnny, the reluctant accomplice, to face the music alone in a Nanaimo courtroom.

For those who’ve been following the Miller and Dring saga over the past few weeks, their murders in February 1886 must get curiouser and curiouser.

We’ve seen that they were brutally slain, not for plunder but for vengeance. But, vengeance for what? What did Charles Miller and William Henry Dring, two innocuous settlers at Osborne Bay, ever do to Salmon River tribesmen Quomlet, Johnny Kla-quot-sie and niece Sally?

The answer is one of those maddening ironies that make history so fascinating: Nothing. Nothing at all!

Poor Dring, it turned out, was just an innocent bystander, in the wrong place at the wrong time when he visited his neighbour and stayed for dinner. And Miller? Not only was he, too, in the wrong place, he was the wrong man!

Here again, briefly, are the facts of the case. On Sunday (Valentine’s Day) Feb. 14, 1886, George Liley, another neighbour, stopped by Miller’s cabin with his mail, only to find both men shot to death and their throats cut. B.C. Const. Dan Mainguy, who demonstrated some first-class sleuthing skills in his examination of the murder scene, saw no evidence that anything had been taken — $100 in a tin was still under the bed — which only served to puzzle him all the more. The case likely would have gone unsolved had not Sally been turned up with her damning testimony during the course of another investigation a year and a half later.

It was Sally who’d badgered Quomlet into avenging the death of his younger brother, her father, who’d been executed for murdering an in-law on Quomlet’s testimony. It’s not clear whether she or Quomlet first suggested killing the hangman as a roundabout means of achieving satisfaction, but — within days of Kaiwoios going to the gallows in Nanaimo — Quomlet talked Johnny Kla-quot-sie into accompanying him and Sally to Osborne Bay, there to “look for the hangman”.

For Miller and Dring, obviously, it meant sudden death. For Quomlet and Johnny, it meant trial for murder. Quomlet, having been acquitted in Dring’s death, died of consumption in jail while awaiting a second trial, for Miller’s slaying. That left Johnny, the reluctant accomplice, to face the music alone in a Nanaimo courtroom. To the astonishment of many, he was, as Quomlet before him, discharged. Edwin Johnson, QC and Stipendiary Magistrate, ruled that Sally wasn’t a credible witness as she’d contradicted her testimony given in Quomlet’s case, and admissions made by Johnny since his arrest were inadmissible because they’d been obtained under promise of immunity. Johnny, in effect, was freed because he told the truth; Sally was never charged. Technically, the murders of Charles Miller and William Henry Dring remain unsolved.

Which brings us back to the hangman angle. Why had Quomlet led his companions to the Miller cabin? For the answer to this we have to go back to the hanging of Kaiwoos. As there was no state executioner in those days, this distasteful job was put out to tender. Thus it was usually a member of the community who, wearing a hood for anonymity, oversaw the condemned prisoner’s launch into eternity.

The man who volunteered to serve as executioner for Kaiwoos had so relished the chore that he’d refused to hide his face. Among those in attendance, we must surmise, was Quomlet, brother of the condemned man, who’d watched with stricken conscience for being instrumental in sending him to the gallows, and who’d since been the lightning rod for Sally’s rantings of betrayal and demands for “justice”.

Thus their visit to Osborne Bay. They were looking for the voluntary hangman who was supposed to live in the area — a mile and more from Miller’s cabin, as it happened. Completing the many ironies of this case, with its twists and turns, was that the hangman and Miller looked very much alike — almost to the point of being brothers. Miller was the victim of mistaken identity, Dring the victim of circumstances. Their deaths by “massacre,” as stated on their headstone in St. Peter’s, Quamichan cemetery, have made them local legend. Their only consolation, such as it was, was Quomlet’s death by natural causes while in prison.

* * * *

In September 1989 it was reported that the Cowichan Valley Museum had lost one of its most prized artifacts, a 22-inch dagger and scabbard which had belonged to Henry Dring. It had been donated by the late John Robison who thought it had been in his family for 100 years, having originally come from his mother’s side of the family, the Beaumonts of Maple Bay. He described the “very, very old sword” as being of Asian manufacture, with a handle of wood, brass and tortoise shell veneer.

Two years later, Miller’s and Dring’s famed headstone, with its bas-relief of a winged angel kneeling at a tombstone, was given a cleaning by members of the Old Cemeteries Society of Victoria. The headstone has been described as being “very fine” by the late David Williams, who wrote the history of St. Peter’s, Quamichan and its beautiful cemetery. He thought it likely that it was paid for by friends of the murdered men as they had no known families.

It’s at St. Peter’s today, where it continues to intrigue visitors with its eye-catching legend, “Massacred.”

www.twpaterson.com

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