In which a final plea to spare the life of convicted murderer Robert Wall is made, his last moments on earth accounted, and a daring escape attempted.
|The murder of Dr Fifer
Hope, BC, 26 September 1861
After leaving a sick young man whom I had attended to while he was lying dying, I took my way up the river, and on arriving at Fort Yale was welcomed by my friend, Dr Fifer.
I entered his store, sat down in his consulting room, and conversed for about half an hour. Immediately after leaving I heard what I concluded to be the explosion of a Chinese firecracker, but was almost immediately undeceived by being informed that the doctor was shot. I hurried back to witness only his last breath, the bullet having perforated the heart of the man I had left so strong and healthy a few moments before. The murderer had, like myself, come up the river, I having noticed the canoe most distinctly, he had watched the house until I had left, and then he committed the murder.
Dr Fifer was an attendant on our ministry, and one from whom I ever experienced kindness, and whose death I sincerely regret.
— Reverend Arthur Brownin
William Burton Crickmer, the Anglican Church reverend in Yale, had looked after the prisoner’s spiritual needs as best he could. The execution of Robert Wall, murderer of Dr Maximilian Fifer, was set, by headquarters’ direction, for 8 a.m. Awake at the slightest noise, Crickmer had a sleepless night. Throughout the dark hours, he was hoping to hear the steamer’s whistle as the stern-wheeler churned up the river and rounded Sawmill Point.
The early dawn softened the darkness; the morning came and still no steamer. Finally Crickmer got dressed and went to see the magistrate who was up early, talking to eight men in his office, swearing them in as extra constables for the occasion of the day and sending them off. Crickmer, as the community’s only resident minister felt entitled to discuss personal matters with the magistrate.
“Good morning, Mr Sanders. I see your nose is healing well,” said Crickmer, referring to the nasty incident on the morning of the magistrate’s wedding day, when his pet bear, in a bad mood, bit off part of his nose.
Sanders responded, “Thanks to the skill of the late Dr Fifer, I was able to get married, albeit with a plastered nose. The laceration has healed well, although still red and,” he laughed, “giving to one who does not know, the idea of a wine drinker’s nose.”
Crickmer sensed the occasion favorable to come forward with his request. “Allow me, sir, to speak in confidence. My visit concerns the execution. I have sent an appeal to the Governor to spare Wall’s life and expect a reply to arrive by this morning’s boat. Would you use your good offices to postpone the execution by an hour, to 9:00, so as to give a chance for a reply?”
The magistrate, who had received him very kindly, listened to his plea and replied, “Reverend, it is my duty to see that justice is carried out; we would not want to learn of a death sentence commuted to life after the horse is out of the barn and the man suspended by his neck.” He called to his clerk, “Mr Tennent, see to it immediately that the execution is put off till 9:00!”
At about 8:30, they heard the echo of the well-known signal of the steamer as it reflected off the quiet mountains above Hill’s Bar, and Crickmer rushed to the landing.
The first thing to arrive for Crickmer was the large, ominous brown package from the Governor in Victoria, bearing the great red seal and the Royal Arms. “How intense life can be at certain points,” he thought. He opened the official letter and read the reply of the secretary to Governor Douglas:
His Excellency the Governor acknowledges the receipt of your letter and has asked me to convey my thanks to you for your benevolent attention to the convict, R. Wall—the circumstances of the case are not such as would justify His Excellency to extend royal clemency.
A political decision
The second thing to arrive for Crickmer, by separate mail, was a personal letter; the very kind-hearted old friend Governor Douglas replied in the feeling and Christian way in which Crickmer knew he would. The Governor agreed with the parson that Dr Fifer’s murderer was not fully responsible morally, however he proceeded to say that the act had been so brazenly public and daringly lawless, perpetrated on a prominent American in the presence of Americans and other foreigners, that he dare not take upon himself the responsibility of staying the execution. In the present atmosphere of instability in the gold fields he had to set an example to others. There had to be a solemn judicial warning.
This was the final decision. Since Crickmer had spoken to no one of his appeal, there was no additional suffering for Wall in the failure.
He shared the letter’s contents with Sophia, his wife. “How appalling it is to look at the countenance of one in the prime of his life and perfectly hale and well, who is face to face with an absolutely inevitable, ignominious, and violent death!”
She concurred. “All odds are against him.”
In his cell, the prisoner had nothing to leave but his short cutty pipe, which Crickmer took, left half-smoked because the smith came to strike off his irons.
Wall complained of a very dry throat and he begged for something to lubricate it with. There was nothing at hand, so they waited until he hastily ate some cold soup. Then he quietly seemed to reconcile himself to die.
On their way he strode along, keeping every bit of the time close to the Reverend as though his future hopes were in his hands. Crickmer walked by his side across the flat of about a quarter of a mile, picking their way through boulders and charred stumps of pines. They approached the gallows on the cemetery. Little did the condemned man care that the derrick, as the verdict stipulated, was directly above the doctor’s grave on the river’s edge, beneath a pretty hill, in a peaceful spot.
Crickmer could not supply his charge fast enough with words of comfort and strength, as he strode along toward the terribly visible trysting place.
The authorities had not believed Wall’s repentance; his abject penance had excited much comment and caused the suspicion that it was part of a plot by, as they said, “gulling the parson.” Martin Gallagher from New York Bar was heard to have said ominously, “McGowan has left Hill’s Bar, but I’m not so sure if Wall does not have friends who might raise posse and spring him.”
As a result, the execution was carried out under heavy guard. Elaborate security preparations had been taken because there was rumor and speculation about the attempts to free the prisoner.
Soon all were convinced that no rescue was thought of and that there was a genuine reason for the murderer keeping so close to the parson, both in life and at the time of his death. On their way up the platform they left the constables behind and mounted the steps. The magistrate and attendants remained at a distance of some 40 feet.
Wall sat on a block and was pinioned by the little wizened old hangman, who had come a day before, but whom no one had seen. This man’s face, his gestures, and the grotesque dress he wore—which he put on so that no one would recognize him—were weird and revolting, the kind of which one reads in Sir Walter Scott’s romances. The magistrate had paid him his fee in advance. Crickmer was not surprised that Wall shuddered when this apparition touched him. His voice faltered when he and Crickmer kneeled down and prayed. In their prayer, side by side on the drop, they included all those present. The minister had anxiously waited for this moment, and it had now arrived, and he said:
“Now, Wall, this is your one and only opportunity afforded you. Do you think you can speak a word to your God?”
Wall made no sign, but stood silent. Crickmer feared that, as it had been at his trial in court, Wall was in shock from overexcitement. But the very reverse then took place. He was only meditating what to say. All of a sudden, he seemed strangely sobered and wonderfully strengthened. Advancing to the front of the platform he began to speak, so calmly that the crowd at first scarcely realized that so ferocious a murderer could be the person who was uttering such calm, warning words, better than mere religious sentiment or hysterical rhapsody. Most of those present, chiefly American or Americanized, would not have attached any value to an address of sensational pietistic sentimentality. His tone and the drift of his concise address, by such a preacher, from such a pulpit, are not likely to be forgotten. As far as the congregation was concerned, this person, Robert Wall, was preaching one of the most gripping sermons.
“Gentlemen, I now can feel, and do acknowledge, that my sentence is just; and God has been merciful to me. I cannot comment on the treatment that Dr Fifer used towards me. The medicine he gave me at times entirely ruined my brain. I gave my victim no time to repent; but God has been more merciful to me for He has given me space for repentance. Oh. Gentlemen, if I only had read my bible, I should not be standing here before you now, in this ignominious and awful situation. I have no more to say, Goodbye.”
Delivering his last words, Wall was standing with the hangman by his side, holding the rope in one hand and the white hood in the other, with the death tree forming the frame of the picture. Wall’s speech visibly moved some of the thick-skinned onlookers, numbering around 400.
Crickmer’s thoughts were in turmoil. “Perhaps, in the ‘day of visitation,’ that homily will have had its own value, as a preparative dispensation. I bid my brother a bitter, affectionate farewell.”
Having concluded his address, the doomed man stepped back onto the drop. The hangman took the rope and slipped the noose over Wall’s head, which he bent in offering. He swallowed frequently, and his chest heaved. He moved his neck around, as one would with a collar too tight. The executioner pulled the bag of oiled silk over Wall’s face and adjusted the hemp collar.
The boards on which Wall stood gave way. The fall downward was stopped by a snapping sensation at the neck, associated with an intense ringing in his left ear. It seemed hours; he woke up, acutely aware of a pressure on his throat and a sense of choking. An agony of pain shot down from the neck, reaching every fibre of his body, like flashing pulsating spikes of searing heat. He was conscious of a feeling of fullness in his head. He did not have the power to think and was only conscious of the motion until stopped by some soft resistance. He knew that the rope had broken and the grave mound absorbed his fall.
There was no additional strangulation; the noose around his neck was already suffocating him.
The river’s edge was only feet away and he got up and started to run, his legs moving instinctively. If only he could reach the water, the current would carry him off, across the Fraser to his friends at Hill’s Bar. He reached the water’s edge and plunged in. The coldness sharpened his senses and while the rope kept the water out of his lungs, the prospect of choking to death at the bottom of the river, instead of drowning, seemed absurd. The light faded and he became aware that his wrists were tied behind his back. He had no trouble freeing his hands and could now swim. Both hands grabbed the noose and slipped it off. His arms automatically beat the water, he came to the surface, and with supreme effort his lungs engulfed a huge draft of air.
His senses had returned, keen, alert, and refined. His heart pounded in his ears, his throat burned, the soup he ate too fast at the jail was coming up; a smoke might settle the heartburn. He thought of his cutty pipe, a harp carved on one side, and a shamrock on the other; he would get it back from the minister.
The forest at the opposite riverbank came into view, the individual scrub maple, their branches moving in the wind, he heard the rushing sound of the water along the edge. Looking over his shoulder, there were the gallows, the grave, and the executioner. A vortex caught him and in a moment flung him upon the gravel at the left bank of the river; he had arrived at Hill’s Bar. The sudden arrest of his movement restored him and he wept with delight. He was content to remain in that enchanting spot, the August sun warming him. He heard a shot fired from across the river and sprang to his feet, rushing into the thicket. He arrived at the miners’ settlement; there stood McGowan and Martin Gallagher to welcome him.
They open the door, he steps inside; he feels a stunning blow to the neck, a blinding white light all about him with the sound of the shot of a cannon, and then all is darkness and silence.
Dr Fifer’s slayer is dead. His body, with a broken neck, swings gently from side to side over the grave of his victim. Two crows rise above the trees. Searching for carrion, oblivious to the scene, their misanthropic screeching sounds sacrilegious.
Reverend Crickmer wrote in his diary, “The hangman gets me off the drop. I rush to the back of the scaffold, throw myself down in prayer. There is a concussion as though the whole was coming down, a dreadful shudder, and a writhing struggle for some minutes, appearing as if his neck was not broken, then the body becomes quiet. Suspended between heaven and earth hangs Robert Wall, a dull, distorted mass, facing the newly risen sun. The hour is between 10 and 11 o’clock in the morning. Another murderer is, I trust and believe, where He is to whom the Savior of sinners said: ‘Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.’ Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?”
After hanging for half an hour the body was cut down and buried by the authorities. A canoe took the hangman to Hope. From aboard the Surprise he saw the hull of the ill-fated S.S. Yale; the remains of the exploded steamer, stranded on a sand bar, subject of a near-collision with the canoe on his way up to Hope.
In later years, Sophia, Crickmer’s wife, told her daughter Nellie that for some days after Wall’s execution her husband was sick, unable to take any food. He did not attend any more such occasions.
Although Crickmer must have well remembered the hanging, his upset was short-lived. In his collection of “Papa’s Jokes for the Children” he wrote, “Why is hanging a murderer like a fresh-frozen pond? Because it is only just-ice.”
In 1829, Hector Berlioz gave up studying medicine and instead took to composing music. The sounds of the Symphonie Fantastique, of which he called the fourth movement “March to the Scaffold,” may enrich the reading of the story. Another choice, Camille Saint-Saën’s Danse Macabre is a chef d’œvre said to have made his own mother faint.
Dr Asche is a retired family physician who has lived, along with his wife Dr Ursula Asche-Quint, in Hope for the past 50 years. He is also an air pilot and performs medical examinations for fitness of air pilots and air traffic controllers. His special interest is medical history of the Victorian era; he is currently writing a biography of Dr Maximilian William Fifer, his predecessor in the area during the Fraser River Gold Rush, 150 years ago. Other chapters of Dr Fifer’s story have appeared in BCMJ 2004;46(10):546 and BCMJ 2005;47(1)70.
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