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From the history file: Who killed Jim Coward?

His widow claimed an intruder had murdered her husband; but her story didn't add up.
The Vanderhoof B.C. Provincial Police building

It was in 1914 that the B.C. Provincial Police established a detachment in Vanderhoof: a log building at the corner of Second and Fraser (the building is now on the Vanderhoof Museum grounds). The completion of the Grand Trunk Railway through the area had drawn an influx of new settlers, and it was doubtless felt that a police presence would be a good idea. Little did the men stationed there know that they would soon be confronted with a case of murder most foul.

The report came in Sept. 1915, when a rider brought news that a settler named Jim Coward had been killed in the cabin on his pre-emption about five miles from Fort St. James. His 40-year-old wife Elizabeth (Betty) and her 17-year-old daughter Rose—clad in their nightclothes, and hysterical with fear—had pounded on the door of a nearby cabin occupied by two women, and were eventually able to tell a nearly incoherent story about Jim having been killed by an intruder; an Indian from Vanderhoof with a grudge against Coward, due to a dispute over the transportation of a trunk, according to Betty.

The next morning the four women ventured back to the Coward cabin, where they found Jim Coward lying dead on a makeshift bed outside the cabin. That was when the neighbour was dispatched to Vanderhoof, where the local constable telegraphed to Fort (now Prince) George asking for help. Thus it was that, a short time later, 36-year-old District Chief W.R. (Bill) Dunwoody arrived in Vanderhoof to take charge of the case.

Dunwoody wasted no time in travelling to the isolated Coward cabin, along with the coroner, Justice of the Peace Dave Hoy, and Dr. W. D. Stone, the area’s first doctor. There Dunwoody began his investigation, starting with Mrs. Coward’s statement. She told the policeman that she and her husband had arrived in the area the previous year, and had then been joined by Rose, Betty’s daughter from a previous marriage. As the cabin only had two bunks, Coward had moved to a rough bed outside, leaving the two women to sleep in the cabin.

On the night of the murder, Betty said that she and Rose had retired to bed inside, while Jim settled down in his outdoor bed. Hardly had the lamp been turned down, however, when the women heard a shout and then a shot. They had re-lit the lamp and hurried outside, to find Coward dead.

When Dunwoody examined the body, he found that Coward had been shot in the head—through one nostril—from very close range; so close that there were powder marks on his moustache and eyebrows. Dr. Stone thought that death had been instantaneous, which made Dunwoody wonder who had shouted. Surely not the dead man, whose death had been so sudden; and if it had been the murderer, Coward would have wakened and moved. And why would the murderer shout?

A .32 calibre revolver lay by the dead man’s side, and it was at first thought this was the murder weapon. However, when an autopsy was performed the bullet was removed from Coward’s head, and Dunwoody, on examining it, felt from its weight that it was from a .38 calibre weapon. He was later able to confirm this by borrowing a set of scales and weighing the spent bullet against other .38 calibre bullets.

Dunwoody paid a visit to the neighbours who had taken Betty and Rose in on that fateful night, and learned from them that Betty had told them she was getting ready for bed when she heard the shot. She had told Dunwoody she was in bed when the shot was fired. Dunwoody noted the discrepancy, and filed it away.

He found the Indian in Vanderhoof who supposedly held a grudge against Coward, and discovered the man had an airtight alibi for the night in question. Having ruled him out as a suspect, Dunwoody turned again to Betty’s evidence. By this time a Coroner’s inquest had been held, at which Jim Coward was found to have been murdered “by person or persons unknown”. While giving evidence, however, Betty had said that when the shot was fired she was kneeling beside her bed, saying her prayers. It was the third version of the story she had told, and Dunwoody determined to get to the bottom of it.

He travelled back to the Coward cabin with Dave Hoy, in search of the .38 calibre revolver he was sure existed. A thorough search of the cabin turned up no such item; but a cartridge belt filled with .38 calibre bullets was discovered. Dunwoody also found, under a loose floorboard, a leatherbound notebook that had apparently belonged to the dead man. The last entry was dated Sept. 2, 1915—four days before Coward’s death—and read, in Coward’s handwriting, “Threatened to shoot me if I molested the dog in any way.”

The finger of suspicion now pointed clearly in one direction: Betty Coward, and—to a lesser extent—her daughter Rose. Just as Dunwoody had reached this conclusion, he heard a shout from outside the cabin. Hoy had been poking around, and idly turned over a galvanized steel washtub. Underneath it was a .38 calibre revolver, fully loaded except for one chamber. Dunwoody had Hoy replace it under the tub; then the men returned to Vanderhoof.

Betty Coward approached Dunwoody the next day, and said that she and Rose were planning on returning to the States. Could she, the widow asked, return to the cabin to collect a few personal belongings? Dunwoody said yes, then gave instructions to Constable Rupert Rayner to ride to the cabin without being seen, hide himself, and keep an eye on the washtub. Rayner headed out of town on a bush trail, and once at the cabin hid himself in a barn.

Two hours later a horse-drawn rig pulled up, and Betty Coward and a neighbour got out. The two women entered the cabin, and emerged a few minutes later carrying armfuls of clothing. Betty asked the neighbour to take the clothes to the wagon while she went back to the cabin for one more thing. As soon as the neighbour was out of sight, Betty hurried to the washtub and turned it over. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, she put the tub down and headed to the wagon. When they had gone, Rayner retrieved the revolver and headed back to Vanderhoof. His story was enough to prompt Dunwoody to arrest Betty Coward on suspicion of murder, and her daughter Rose Dell as an accessory.

It was still early in September, and the Fall Assize—a travelling court that tried major cases—was due to start in Clinton in the first week of October. Dunwoody had only a few weeks to build his case against Betty Coward, so returned to Fort George and, a short time later, was on his way to southern California to learn more about Betty Coward’s past.

He turned up an amazing story. As far as anyone knew Betty Dell, separated from her first husband, had run a boarding-house in San Francisco, where she had taken a liking to Jim Coward, one of her boarders. However, when Dunwoody tracked down Mr. Dell, he told the policeman that he and Betty had been living in Iowa when she had run off with Jim Coward, the town marshal in Forest City, where they lived. The two had become friendly, and one day skipped town together, headed for San Francisco. Dell had been more than happy when his wife left him. “She’s a dangerous woman, and has a hell of a temper,” he told Dunwoody. “You mark my words, she’ll commit murder one day.”

Dunwoody headed to Forest City, where he turned up the last link in the chain. Betty Dell had ensured Jim Coward’s life for a considerable sum of money, and had kept up the payments on the policy. Armed with this information, Dunwoody returned to Canada, where his evidence at the Clinton Assize was little short of a bombshell. Betty Coward’s defence was shattered, and Mr. Justice Denis Murphy, who was trying the case, congratulated Dunwoody.

The case against Rose Dell was dropped, but the jury returned a verdict of guilty against Betty Coward, sentencing her to death; the first woman to be thus sentenced in the province. She was scheduled to be executed at Kamloops on Dec. 23, 1915; but 48 hours before she was due to be hanged, her sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Barbara Roden