MURDER ON THE S.S. OKANAGAN

in Okanagan/Penticton by

CPR 086 copy

The tragic shooting of Constable George Aston of the Provincial Police is a strange tale. Constable Aston was well liked in Penticton and beyond, having served in the Yukon and territories while a NWMP officer. He was a bachelor living on Ellis Street in downtown Penticton. He was a staunch Freemason and a member of the Greenwood Lodge.

Young George Aston while in the Yukon 1898
Young George Aston while in the                      Yukon 1898

This saga began with the armed robbery of the Okanagan Mission general store.
The characters in this drama are led by a desperado who deserted from the American army, Walter Boyd James. Through his many aliases he liked to emulate his folk hero “Jesse” James; and like Jesse, Walter was never without his guns. He had drifted about the Okanagan, working as a labourer for many of the large land-holders but never for very long. Then on Saturday evening, March 23, 1912; Walter James robbed the Okanagan Mission store at gunpoint. He burst into the store with a large pistol held high and yelled, “Hands up!” The young assistant, Roy Randall, complied quickly but a customer, Mr. Small laughed, thinking it was a prank and had the pistol placed at his temple. Mr. Taylor, the proprietor emerged from the back and was forced to the till but James found it empty. He pushed Taylor to the back and made him open the safe. As the bandit’s attention was at the safe, Randall made a dash out the door. James gave chase firing a round at the fleeing boy, missing him in the darkness. James hurried back to loot the safe and escaped into the night with a small booty.
Randall hurried to the Bellevue Hotel but lost precious time convincing patrons that the robbery was not a joke. Taylor finally reached the telephone to inform the authorities. James was identified even though he was disguised by a white handkerchief and large droopy hat, as he had been loitering about the Hotel most of the day.
Constable Tooth was informed of the robbery and he immediately informed authorities north and south to watch for anyone matching the description. Walter had headed south over the Wild Horse Canyon trail on the east side of Okanagan Lake. On this road he met with a drifter, Frank Wilson who decided to travel south with James. James made no indication that he was on the run from the authorities. Wilson must have been a little suspicious of a man carrying a Winchester repeater and two 44 caliber revolvers in a hip holster. They arrived at the BC Hotel in Penticton the next day but found it fully booked. After trying other hostelries with no luck they returned to the BC Hotel. As they entered the lounge, they found Chief Roche and Constable Aston waiting.

Needless to say, Wilson was very upset and set upon James for not informing him of the serious charge. Wilson insisted to the constable that he was just a bystander. They were both to be traston 2ansported to aston 1Kelowna to be charged. Chief Roche th
ought Aston should wait until morning to embark but Aston insisted on taking the prisoners onto the boat, the S.S. Okanagan, which was set to sail in the morning. ChiefRoche again insisted that Aston not take on the task alone and he suggested Mr. Pope, a retired constable, travel along. Constable Aston did try a colleague, Mr. A.E. Paris, but he was engaged. Mr. Pope did return to the S.S. Okanagan at sailing time and looked in on the travelers and found them asleep in their stateroom.

The heinous deed took place while at sail between Penticton and Peachland. It seems from later testimony, that James had hidden a small 22cal. pistol in bag under his arm. It had not been detected by the police search on his capture. While Aston slept, the small firearm was retrieved. As Aston awoke, James asked him for a glass of water. When offered he drew the pistol and demanded that the officer put his hands up. Aston refused and leapt on James in an attempt to disarm him. The gun made a small ‘pop’ and the Constable fell to the floor.

James turned to Wilson, who was in a state of panic, and pushed the pistol in his face growling “If you cry out I will shoot you dead!” James offered to tie up Wilson and leave him with the dying officer, but in his fear, Wilson refused. The two retrieved the keys to the shackles and the weapons carried by the constable, covered him and then left by the deck door. Without raising any suspicion, they left the sternwheeler at Peachland dock.

As the ship left Peachland, the purser Alfred Watson searched his records and discovered that there had been no tickets issued for Peachland and became suspicious of the two men who left the ship. Just moments later a steward raised alarm with the purser as there was no reply at the constable’s stateroom door. They were able to enter from the deck and found Constable Aston still alive yet gravely wounded. Captain Estabrook was informed and the ship made haste to Gellatly Bay where he raised alarm with authorities north and south. The ship made way to Kelowna where the officer was transferred to hospital. Constable George Aston was pronounced dead soon after arriving.

Before noon, the valley was alive with the news and the manhunt began. Magistrates made every available man a ‘special constable’ and they were ordered to join a posse in their community. The order went out to ‘shoot on sight’ if any resistance was offered. Well over 200 men set out to find the trail. Many hobos and vagrants were herded to the lakeshore for identification.

Then a break; tracks were discovered at the snow line at the Glen Robinson mine above Peachland, then a report that they had held up a shack in Westbank for food. The search continued through the night and it wasn’t until 4pm the following day that a report of their capture came through.
Special Constables Ramsey and Seely had been searching the waterfront at Wilson’s Landing and had spotted the two men sitting on a log near Ramsey’s ranch. The two officers covered the two with their rifles and, even though James seemed to reach for his weapon, he was disarmed without incident. (At the inquest, James asserted that he had seen the constables and could have easily shot them down.)

The two escapees were taken aboard the S.S. Okanagan and securely tied to theaston 3 mast and transported to Kelowna to await trial. At the inquest, Wilson offered testimony against James and, oddly, James corroborated Wilson’s testimony in every detail. Both were charged with the murder and transported to Kamloops to await trial. For his cooperation, Frank Wilson had all charges dropped and was released sometime later. Walter James was convicted and sent to the gallows September 9th.
James was defiant ‘til the end. On the day of his execution, he made a dash for the open door at mealtime, throwing pepper he had saved, into the face of the deathwatch officer. The officer quickly subdued James with his truncheon, knocking him unconscious. The 24 year old James went to the hangman with a large knot on his head.

Aston was placed in the Fairview Cemetery in Penticton with full Freemason honors. 100 years later, The Greenwood Lodge once again honoured Constable Aston with a remembrance ceremony attended by 75 people. Grand Master Bill Cave eulogized “I think it’s important to remember, not just a fallen brother, but a brother who was in the service of our police force.”
Led by a piper and honour guard of RCMP officers, firefighters, and emergency personnel, the Freemasons paid their formal respects to George Aston.

© 2012 by Brian Wilson

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