Left: On Oct. 19

Left: On Oct. 19

The Untimely Death of Trooper Samuel Green Watson

An affair, a fight, a death in Cranbrook; a trial in Fernie in 1915

Jim Cameron

The house may still be there. Police Chief Adams said it was the third one across the creek on French (5th) Avenue. W.A. Jeffries & Co.’s, 1914 Cranbrook City Directory lists #130-French Avenue as the McGill residence. It may be missing the old verandah and, if not, it is certainly missing a verandah post and floor board.

(Excerpt from the Cranbrook Herald, September 23, 1915): “Sunday afternoon the grave closed over the saddest event that has happened within the city in many years, when the funeral of the late Samuel Watson took place. Services were held at the family residence, Slaterville, Rev. W.K. Thomson, pastor of Knox Presbyterian church, performing the last rites.

“The funeral partook of a military nature, the deceased being a member of the 11th C.M.R’s, Vernon. Twelve members of the 107th East Kootenay Regiment under command of Lieut. Venus composed a firing party, while two trumpeters from Fernie sounded the “Last Post.

“At the graveside the most pathetic sight man ever gazed on, was witnessed by a tear-dimmed audience. The stillness of that autumn afternoon will long be remembered by many.

“The aged mother of deceased, well up in the seventies, stood beside the grave as the body was lowered, weeping bitterly and whispering the name of the boy. There are many races and tongues of men, but the sobs of mothers speak but one language.”

And so it was that blue-eyed, brown-haired Trooper Samuel Green Watson, age 25, on “harvesting leave” from the 54th Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles stationed at Vernon, B.C., went to his eternal reward in the Cranbrook Old General Cemetery.  It was a noble ceremony but it was not a noble death. In fact it was a pretty ignoble death, if you want to get right down to it, which is exactly what the coroner’s jury did the previous day when they indicted Hugh McGill for murder, the first in the city of Cranbrook in 13 years. It caused quite a sensation given the events and the families involved.

Hugh McGill, age 31, was a railroad man, a CPR machinist, who lived with his wife on the aforementioned French Avenue, between Van Horne and Louis (1st) Street. Hugh, having switched from day shift to night shift the day before, was lying on the couch when he heard someone coming up the walk. Opening the door, he said “What the devil are you doing here?’ at which point he claims Trooper Watson struck him with a riding crop. McGill responded with his fists. Watson responded by dying.

You see, Sam Watson was having an affair with Mrs. McGill; “improper relations” was the phrase of the day. Almost a year previously, Mr. McGill asked Police Chief Adams to warn both his wife and her suitor against the union, which he did. It was Chief Adams who received a telephone call from McGill at three o’clock in the afternoon of September 15, 1915, in which McGill stated, “You remember that man I spoke to you about? I got him. Come up and I’ll show you where he is.” He was, in fact, lying unconscious from a brain hemorrhage on the front room floor of the McGill residence. “He had it coming to him. It was self defense,” claimed McGill.

It all came out in the coroner’s inquest: the love letters signed “Lots of hugs and kisses from Nellie” (Mrs. McGill’s actual given name is never stated), the photograph of Mrs. McGill upon Watson’s person at the time of death, Watson’s cap, clothes and riding crop, the sharp-edged post from the verandah upon which Watson apparently struck his head following a punch from McGill, even a blood-stained board from the porch floor, all given in evidence.

The resulting two day trial took place at the fall assizes in Fernie the following month, with about 30 people called from Cranbrook appearing both as witnesses and jurymen. The crown prosecutor attempted to prove that the accused was the aggressor in the fatal fight but it came to naught. The defense lawyer made a strong appeal for his client and was roundly applauded by the audience. The jury was out for half an hour before returning a unanimous not guilty verdict and Hugh McGill exited the Fernie court room a free man. Chief Justice Hunter, in discharging the accused, congratulated him and expressed “the hope that might be able to live down the dark shadow which had been cast across his domestic life, and also hoped the untimely ending of the life of young Watson would serve as a lesson to others regarding the breaking up of the homes of other people.”

When McGill arrived by train in Cranbrook nearly 100 friends were waiting at the station to congratulate him on being released.

It would appear that Hugh McGill did live down the “dark shadow cast across his domestic life.” He died in the Cranbrook St. Eugene Hospital in 1955 and was buried in Westlawn cemetery. His wife at the time, Helen (of which “Nellie” is a derivative, by the way), died in 1970 at the former Bowness residence which was then in use as a rest home. She, too, is buried in Westlawn.

Is the old house on French Avenue still there? Probably, although it’s hard to say which one it actually is. Is the verandah still there? Perhaps, minus an original post and a blood-covered board.

Samuel Watson is surely still there, in the Old General Cemetery just across the road from the McGills in Westlawn, who are undoubtedly both there also.

Needless to say, the motives for the entire tragic affair are still there and likely always will be.