The murder of Dr. Maximilian Fifer

They came to Yale to make a fortune. They died within months of each other in twin acts of vengeance.

By Tyler Olsen | August 25, 2021 |4:30 pm

The first part of this story first appeared in Aug. 23’s edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. The second part appeared the following day. To get access to every story we publish, as soon as we publish it, sign up for the newsletter above or below.

On Aug. 23, 1861, hundreds of Yale residents crowded into the gold rush town’s graveyard to witness the vengeful response to a vengeful crime. This August marked the 160th anniversary of the climax of one of the most spectacular crime-and-punishment episodes in British Columbia’s history. The murder of Maximilan Fifer and the pursuit of his killer is a tale that seems ripped from a Hollywood script. But it was one that, within years, was all but forgotten—not just across the province, but in Yale itself.

The following account is a summation of a longer account in Ian Brown’s Hallowed Ground: Stories of the Yale Pioneer Cemetery. Brown’s account relies on contemporary sources such as newspaper articles from the time. As such, the accuracy of certain details are dependent on that of those published accounts.

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Maximilian Fifer was one of the most powerful, respected men in Yale. Robert Wall was not.

The pair had come separately to Yale in 1858 at the very start of the Fraser Canyon gold rush. Fifer, 39, had previously made a tidy sum of money in the California gold rush, learned to be a doctor, and then travelled to Yale when miners struck paydirt there. At the time, Yale was a place where gold was changing hands at an unimaginable rate, and Wall had come to Hill’s Bar—the golden gravel bar opposite the current Yale townsite—to seek his own fortune.

Their paths first crossed when Wall visited Fifer to seek treatment after developing a painful venereal disease that caused sores on his legs and left him unable to walk properly. Fifer, who was apparently self-taught and favoured natural remedies, prescribed a treatment. Its effects left Wall impotent and burning with fury toward the prominent doctor. (One account suggested that Wall’s rage was stoked by a competing doctor.)

Over the next two years, Fifer became chair of Yale’s council and “well-loved,” despite questions across the river about his actual medical skills. Wall stewed in his impotence, living a vagabond’s life and telling others he wanted to kill Fifer.

As murder plots go, Wall’s was not particularly discreet. On July 5, a friend warned Fifer that Wall was coming upriver to kill him. Fifer does not appear to have worried much. That afternoon, Wall arrived in town. His purpose: to kill Fifer.

After biding his time for two hours, Wall entered the store and found Fifer in a back room. Fifer didn’t recognize the man whom he had once treated and been so recently warned about. Wall handed Fifer a newspaper and asked him to look at it. When the doctor looked down, Wall shot him in the heart. He then calmly departed the drugstore, walking toward the river, where he hopped into a canoe with three other men. They shoved off and began paddling downriver.

Back at Fifer’s office, people who had been sitting outside the drugstore had learned the doctor inside had just been murdered (some had apparently believed the explosion they heard was a firecracker of some sort). Men jumped in three canoes and set off in pursuit. They were too far behind. By the time they arrived in Hope, 22km downriver, they were told Wall had left his canoe and taken a trail along the Fraser toward Langley.

The men in one of the three canoes paddled another eight kilometres downriver, where they stopped for the night to camp. At some point before morning, Wall appeared. The posse shot at the fugitive, but Wall disappeared into the woods, apparently uninjured. A couple days later, Wall arrived in Fort Langley and then fled toward the perceived safety of the United States. By then, people across the region were watching for him, and he was arrested on a trail between Langley and Semiahmoo. If he had made it across the border, he still may not have escaped: US officials had pledged to arrest him and turn him over to the Canadians if he turned up.

Taken back to Yale, Wall apparently admitted to the crime, but claimed he had been driven insane by the medicine prescribed by Fifer. The insanity defence was met with disdain—partly because of the precision of Wall’s plan and subsequent escape. He was sentenced to hang by the province’s most famous judge, Justice Matthew Begbie. Fifer’s body, meanwhile, was laid to rest in Yale’s new cemetery—possibly the third person to ever be buried there.

On the morning of Aug. 23, 1861, hundreds of people gathered around Fifer’s burial plot. But the visitors on this Monday did not come to pay their respects. They came to watch his killer die.

The year 1861 was not a moment for subtlety. Not only had Begbie condemned Wall to hang, but to underscore the eye-for-an-eye nature of the execution, it was decided that the gallows would be constructed directly above the grave of the man he killed.

Between 10 and 11am, Wall stepped to the front of the platform and delivered a short speech to those watching. He repeated that Fifer’s prescription had messed him up, before concluding: "I am prepared to meet my doom and hope to be forgiven as I forgave all. I have no more to say. Goodbye."

He stood back. A rope was adjusted. A cap drawn over his eyes. And a trap door opened at Wall’s feet and he plunged five feet toward Fifer’s burial plot. Wall didn’t die instantly. The 400 onlookers watched as his feet flailed for minutes, before finally coming to a rest.

• • •

The Wall/Fifer case was notorious for a moment and covered extensively by newspapers in Yale and Victoria. But life changed exceptionally quickly, and the following years provide a remarkable coda to the case. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Brown about why the story has remained largely untold.

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The Canadian Pacific Railway was built next to—and over—Yale's Pioneer Cemetery 📷 Tyler Olsen

In 1861, a prominent doctor was murdered in Yale. His killer fled, precipitating a canoe chase down the Fraser River and toward Langley. Gunshots followed, as did a chase on land. Eventually, the suspect was arrested, taken back to Yale, and—as hundreds watched—hanged over the grave of the man he killed. This was the story we told in yesterday’s Current.

It was a seemingly unforgettable moment that was almost immediately forgotten, according to Ian Brown, the author of Hallowed Ground: Stories of the Yale Pioneer Cemetery.

When the murderer Robert Wall was hanged 160 years* and one day ago, it was a major local event. Newspapers from around the colony covered the hanging, and hundreds showed up for the public execution. It’s the type of story that people write about a century later. But just a couple decades later, the moment wasn’t just largely forgotten, but the centrepiece of the spectacle was gone.

After Fifer was buried, his devoted assistant, Ah Chung, moved back to San Francisco. Two decades later, around 1883, he returned to bearing a cherished mortar and pestle that the doctor used to grind his medicine.

"He wanted to give that back to the town as sort of a memorial to Dr. Fifer," Brown said.

But Chung found a town that had largely forgotten Fifer. Fifer’s old office was either gone or in disrepair. And Chung—who had supposedly been in the drug store and had innocently directed Wall to a back room prior to the murder—grew even more dismayed when he arrived at the cemetery and found Fifer’s grave had vanished. Where a marker had once stood, trains roared atop a gleaming new railway that had been built through town, and right over the oldest segment of the cemetery.

"Times moved on quickly back then." Brown said. "The irony of it is, they hung [Wall] over Fifer’s grave and it was this big deal, but then in the years between 1860 and 1880 the cemetery was just ignored. It was a big moment in the colony, and then, like five years later, nobody even knew."

Chung left disillusioned. He ended up leaving the belongings at the Abbotsford/Huntingdon border crossing with an agent whom Fifer had supposedly delivered as a newborn, decades prior—and who was apparently a distant relative of Brown himself.

Fifer’s story did live on with one person in particular, though. Dr. Gerd Asche, a long-time family doctor in Hope who devoted himself to researching the life of a man he considered his predecessor, and ended up writing a fictional account of his murder, as told through the eyes of Chung. Asche’s colourful, fictional accounts decorated the back page of the BC Medical Journal for several years. He even wrote a book that imagined Wall dodging death and fleeing across the river.

• • • • •

There is one last bit of Fifer-related trivia, before we close the book on him.

Fifer may have been respectable. But his three years in Yale sure do pack a lot of conflict into a short time. Before he came to British Columbia, he had served on San Francisco’s Vigilance Committee, a vigilante group that sought to root out crime and corruption in the California boom town. The committee had persecuted a lawyer named Ned McGowan, who ended up fleeing to Yale.

A 2003 book called McGowan’s War by Donald Hauka focused on McGowan, and centred on events in and around Yale in early 1859. Fifer plays an important role in the book because McGowan attacked the doctor in the middle of a Yale over "lingering grievances" related to San Francisco. McGowan was charged and convicted of assault, and left Yale in February after stirring up so much trouble that Hauka suggested it threatened to tear British Columbia apart.

Fifer, meanwhile, would go on to treat patients for another two years before another figure from his past arrived in Yale.

This account draws largely from Ian Brown’s book Hallowed Ground: Stories of the Yale Pioneer Cemetery, which contains biographies of dozens of people buried at the site. The book is available to borrow from the Fraser Valley Regional Library and or for purchase in an e-reader version.

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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