In 1879, Johnny Ussher was the Hudson Bay Company's man in Fort Kamloops, a small trading post 300 miles northeast of present-day Vancouver, at the fork of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers. Ussher wore almost every official hat in town: local sheriff; the law and jailer (aka goaler), gold commissioner, etc.

The dominant local outlaw gang, known as the Kamloops Outlaws, was comprised of three Metis or half-breed brothers: Allan, Charlie and Archie McLean, and their partner, Alex Hare, another half-breed (Indian mother). Archie and Charlie were mere teenagers.

They had run afoul of Ussher before, once arraigned on robbery and rustling charges, but they had escaped the rudimentary Kamloops jail. Charlie McLean had done some time for biting off the nose of a local Indian.

The band was running amuck. A local wrote to an acquaintance:

Archie Mclean, Kamloops outlaw, 1880"This is a fine state of affairs, to be terrorized by four brats who have threatened to burn the jail.... If these vagabonds are not either arrested or driven to the American territory, it may become pretty hot for us. I'm afraid it will end in something more serious for the boys are armed to the teeth."

To the eternal credit of the pioneers of Canada, crime was not rampant in the British colony as it was to the South. The then-chief justice of British Columbia Matthew Begbie had written this to the British government:

"Criminal statistics of the colony appear highly favourable when placed beside those of any other gold producing country. Crimes of violence are extremely rare. The express (stage-coach) has for years travelled constantly over 500 miles of road, chiefly through moutainous or forest country. It carries from $50,000 to $2000,000 ... and I don't think it has been once attacked. Stabbing and pistolling, so common in the adjacent territories are almost unheard of on the British side of the line."

The McLeans would exploit this relative peaceful culture.

The drama started when a horse was stolen and Charlie McLean found to be proudly riding it. Ussher was summoned and he organized a posse to arrest the McLeans.

But the posse was lightly armed, expecting the McLeans to surrender. That outlook changed the instant they came across the outlaw's camp as they were met with a hail of bullets. Ussher still believed in miracles and he got off his horse and walked towards Hare and Allan McLean asking them to put down their guns. Hare went right up to Ussher and knocked him to the ground, all the while Ussher, recently married,  screaming:

"Don't kill me boys!"

Archie McLean, then only a young man, joined the affray and one of them yelled: "kill the son-of-a-bitch". Archie pulled his revolver and shot Ussher at point blank range, and the other two joined in the shooting.

With Ussher dead, the outlaws renewed their shooting at the remaining members of the posse, now wounded and weaponless but able to retreat. Of the outlaws, only Allan McLean had been wounded but it would be an injury eventually fatal to all four. Before they left the scene, the outlaws stripped Ussher's body and mutilated the corpse with kicks and dagger thrusts, especially Hare and Archie.

The gang was aware of the reach of Justice Matthew Begbie then based at New Westminster and the circuit judge for area. Charlie McLean bragged that he'd kill Begbie if he came after him.

As the gang meandered away from Kamloops they lost no opportunity of bragging of the murder, as if it was some kind of badge of honour. They showed off Ussher's horse and clothing and his handcuffs.

Allan McLeans' wound was not healing and the gang held up at Douglas Lake where they were found by a 75-men and fully loaded posse which soon had the log cabin surrounded. The posse decided to burn the men out but overhearing their talk, the outlaws offered to surrender provided only that they were not put in irons. The posse agreed, the gang surrendered and were instantly put in irons.

Brought to the same Kamloops jail they had broken out of in the past, this time the concern was from the outside, vigilante justice  and a lunching by the local population horrified at the brutal murder of their foremost citizen.

In irons, the prisoners were transported to Begbie's courtroom at New Westminster.

The first trial was presided over by Justice Henry Crease in March of 1880. All four outlaws were convicted by the jury, with these words upon sentencing by Justice Crease:

Henry Crease"After a long and patient trial, defended by able counsel, before a jury of twelve impartial men, you have been found guilty of a foul, atrocious murder, marked by peculiar brutality, and, in the case of one or perhaps two of you, aggravated by the additional stain of base ingratitude. Your life for some years previously had been that of outlaws and robbers - your hand against every man and every man's hand against you. Since then your life has been one continued course of blood and rapine. You became a terror to your neighbourhood and a disgrace to a province which is, and ever has been, pre-eminently peaceful and law-abiding. Until at last all your neighbours arose in arms against you to hand you over to that Law whose Majesty you had so offended. There is not one single redeeming feature, one extenuating circumstance to put forward in mitigation of your offence. A blacker record of crime in so young men I never saw.

"You, Allan, not content with perilling your own life and steeping your soul in sin, instead of protecting, drew all your brothers into a similar danger with yourself and prostituted the hereditary courage of your race to the commission of violence and robbery and at last, murder, and became a band of outlaws chased about the Country like wild beasts....

"Allan McLean, Charles McLean, Archibald McLean, Alexander Hare, the sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to the place whence you came and from thence to the place of execution and there that you be hanged by the neck until you be dead. And may God have mercy on your Souls."

But the conviction was overturned on appeal because of a technical irregularity related to the convening of the trial. A new trial was held in November, again with Crease at the helm and again, with a conviction and sentence of death  by hanging.

All four members of the Kamloops Outlaws were hanged on January 31, 1881.

REFERENCES:

  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Wild, Wild West Law, Sept. 25, 2012
  • Foster, Hamar, The Kamloops Outlaws, published in Essays in the History of Canadian Law, Volume II (Toronto: Osgoode Society, 1983), pages 308-364.