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  • The Powerhouse Murders: A headless corpse, a burning room, and two trials at the start of BC's electric age.

The Powerhouse Murders: A headless corpse, a burning room, and two trials at the start of BC's electric age.

How 1915 turned bloody at the BC Electric Railway's brand new substations

In 1915, the BC Electric Railway’s Fraser Valley substations were rocked by two murders six months apart. 📷 Vancouver Daily World via newspapers.com / Tyler Olsen / Robert Bushby

This story first appeared in the June history edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. You can find the newsletter here.

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We could start at the end, with the opening of a trap door, the plunge of a chair, and the breaking of a neck.

We could commence in the middle of our timeline, with an accused killer going free or with the discovery of a headless body.

But let us begin at the scene of the first murder, at a famous railway substation that once helped connect the Fraser Valley to Vancouver.

Note: the details in this story come largely from newspaper coverage of court proceedings, and are thus subject to the naturally fallible memories of both witnesses and reporters. Accounts come from four different sources: the Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Province, Vancouver World, and Chilliwack Progress. Many details—ranging from names to accounts of the key events—have changed over time. We have tried to preserve uncertainty where there are conflicting details. We have tried to focus on information that was consistent across the various accounts, though some details may come from a single source and should be read with a degree of skepticism. The Province and Vancouver Sun stories can be found using historical archives accessible to those with a Fraser Valley Regional Library card. Progress stories can be found here.

Today, the Sumas Substation is a luxury mansion and local real-estate curiosity. 📷 Tyler Olsen

Chapter 1: A fire and a body

The Sumas Substation sits heavily at the base of Vedder Mountain, between a little-used rail line and a soggy forest. It’s been there since 1906, when it was constructed as part of a massive project to bring electric rail to the eastern Fraser Valley.

After decades of decline, 21st century renovations brought new life to the building’s concrete facade. Inside the historical grime was wiped away and replaced with a sprawling kitchen, large home theatre room, wine cellar, and other details befitting a “luxury mansion.” The building is now a local real estate curiosity, a favourite of internet writers looking to go semi-viral, and a short-term rental that costs $2,700 a night.

But on the night of June 12, 1915, the substation was still new and a key cog in the bustling BC Electric Railway that connected communities between Chilliwack and New Westminster. It was one of five identical substations built along the rail line to convert electricity from newly built dams into power that could be used by trams carrying goods and people. But the substations were far more than simple powerhouses. They were also operational hubs for local rail work, and housed living quarters for engineers and operators. (Rail labourers frequently lived in nearby shacks and cabins.)

An industrial building, a rooming house, and a social gathering place for local rail workers, the building was—and still is—the largest for miles. Every day, eight trains would pass the station, four in each direction. Motorists were also a regular sight, with Vedder Mountain—and its slopes overlooking Sumas Lake—an increasingly popular place to spend the day.

June 12, 1915, was a Saturday evening and daylight would have lingered as solstice approached. As the sun finally dipped toward the horizon around 8pm, the Sumas Substation was full of people. The building’s regular residents were there: operator Frank Chamberlayne and his wife, engineer Jesse Magoon, school teacher Miss Carey Elliott, and at least one other relief operator. The Chamberlaynes were also hosting two friends that evening: Lorne McIntosh and Joseph Drinkwater.

Around 8pm, a familiar face appeared in the doorway.

Rocco Ferrante was a square-chested railworker from Southern Italy who bunked in a nearby shack with another labourer. Ferrante was well-liked and had seemingly become close friends with 40-year-old Magoon, who by one account was teaching Ferrante to read and write.

Magoon had worked on the railroad for more than a decade after immigrating to the Canadian west from Massachusetts, where he worked as an engineer while racing his bike competitively. His room at the substation was indicative of his expertise and experience at keeping electrical transportation system work in the early 1900s.

The second floor of the Sumas Substation held living quarters for the building’s engineers. 📷 Tyler Olsen

As a distribution engineer, Jesse Magoon played a key on-the-ground role in the operation of the nascent BC Electric Railway 📷 Courtesy Robert Bushby

The substation, though, wasn’t his home. Magoon was a settled man, with a wife, two adolescent sons, and a newborn daughter down the tracks in New Westminster.

Ferrante, meanwhile, was in his mid-30s and had no family in Canada. But he was doing his best to change that. Three or four nights a week he would walk up the road to the substation to visit the residents—particularly Miss Elliott, a young woman who taught in nearby Abbotsford. Although he had a rough job as a labourer, he wasn’t a ruffian. He would dress to impress and before visits, he would change his coat for a sweater, especially if it was a Saturday.

• • • • •

Ferrante was seemingly in love. But he wasn’t all that confident about his prospects for success.

Earlier in the day, Magoon had visited Ferrante in his shack nearby. Ferrante asked his buddy if he had a chance with the young teacher. Magoon thought he did. So Ferrante told his roommate: “I am going to fix things up tonight,” and picked up a pen.

That evening, Ferrante put on a navy blue suit and a black hat, walked to the nearby substation, found Elliott, handed her a letter, and left soon after.

An hour later or so—after Ferrante had left and yet another visitor, Walter Wolfe, had come and gone in a car—Chamberlayne decided to call it a night soon.

With company over, he had arranged to bunk in a colleague’s room. He stepped into the hallway and saw a man, one wearing a brown sweater and a brown hat. The man emerged from Magoon’s quarters, saw Chamberlayne, and then ducked back into the room.

Chamberlayne took brief note of the strange behaviour, then went to bed. But as he was straightening his covers, he sniffed the air. Something smelled like smoke.

Chamberlayne returned to the hallway and tried Magoon’s door. It was locked. Chamberlayne then grabbed a ladder and a fellow operator, and went outside to climb up to Magoon’s room. Around the same time, a train rolled up and its crew also joined in the rescue operation.

The smoke bursting out of the window had become too thick, so Chamberlayne went back inside the substation and broke down the door.

Inside, clothes hanging on a wall were on fire. On the bed, Magoon’s body lay naked and still.

Magoon was taken from the burning room while the fire was extinguished. Still seemingly alive, he was placed on the train and rushed to Huntingdon for medical help. But he never made it, and died en route.

Jesse Magoon was taken by rail to Huntingdon for medical help, but died en route. 📷 Tyler Olsen

More than a century later, it’s easy to think that justice in the early 1900s frequently involved authorities and the public rashly rushing to conclusions, with little concern for evidentiary and procedural requirements. That, surely, was sometimes the case—especially when minorities were involved. But the days, weeks, and months following the demise of Jesse Magoon reveal a side of BC’s early 20th century justice system that still exists today: one that struggles to match a respect for due process with the fact that the humans involved in those processes—witnesses, investigators, prosecutors, reporters, criminals, and victims—are imperfect creatures prone to messing things up.

When Magoon’s body was hauled out of his room and, subsequently, onto the train, a bruise was found on the side of his head, just above the eye. But in the chaos of the moment, nobody apparently looked too close.

In fact, the bruise would prove to be a small hole, like one made by a .32 calibre bullet. Powder marks, suggesting the gun was fired at close range, were found on Magoon’s head. And a matching hole was found in the back of the dead man’s skull.

After Magoon’s body was taken from the train, the vehicle’s crew returned to the scene of the fire. In Magoon’s scorched room, crew members were surprised to find the engineer’s clothes were caked in blood. Scorch marks on the clothes suggested they had been deliberately lit on fire.

(Much later, a judge would condemn the immediate response to the discovery of Magoon’s body, and the way evidence hadn’t been properly preserved.)

At some point that night, an actual police officer, Constable Delair, arrived on the scene and began poking around. Closer examination of Magoon’s room turned up a mark on the substation’s wall that could have been made by a bullet. But no bullet was found.

The possibility that Magoon had shot himself was considered. He had seemed a little off in the days leading up to the killing, and suicide was—and still is—much more common than cold-blooded murder. A .32 calibre gun was found in Magoon’s room, but it was “packed in a grip,” with cobwebs on its barrel.

Jesse Magoon was believed to have been killed by a bullet fired from a .32 calibre revolver. 📷 Shutterstock

So suspicions of homicide started to mount. With Magoon dead, Chamberlayne’s memory fixated on that moment in the substation hallway, when he saw the man emerge from Magoon’s room and quickly duck back in. The behaviour was abnormal. And in retrospect, the man looked a bit like Ferrante.

As dawn approached around 4 am, Delair was still in the area and watched as Ferrante emerged from his shack and headed west. When he was later quizzed about the previous night’s murder, Ferrante said he had no knowledge of the commotion that had seized the nearby substation. He said he had delivered his letter to Miss Elliott, returned to his shack and went to sleep.

Delair kept poking around, and tracked down Wolfe, the man who had visited the substation the previous evening shortly before the killing.

Wolfe told the cop that as he had driven up to the house, he had seen a man leaning out of a second-storey window, calling something indistinctly and possibly drunk. Wolfe had entered the substation to talk to Magoon, but he left two girls, 11-year-old Barbara Bowman and her 16-year-old sister Louise, in the car to wait. They remained there for nearly an hour. Occasionally, they would see the man in the window, and once he waved at them and called something they couldn’t quite hear. The man would have been in a room right next door to Magoon’s bedroom. And he looked, the girls said, a bit like a man they had seen on the local train.

So police brought Ferrante in. They took him to the Abbotsford police station, stuck him in a line-up with five other men, and asked the Bowman girls if one of the men looked like the guy in the window. They also searched Ferrante’s shack and discovered a small arsenal—a .32 automatic revolver in a locked suitcase under Ferrante’s bed, a .32 “police automatic revolver with six loaded shells” under his pillow, and a .32 rifle on the wall. An empty .32 shell was discovered on the floor.

An “abundance of ammunition” was also discovered in the shack, and Ferrante was himself found with a “small Belgian .25 calibre revolver” in his pants when he was searched. (One newspaper has the revolver’s calibre as being .24.)

Although Ferrante was duly arrested, he wasn’t charged. He was allowed to go free—but only for a short time. A couple days later, police once again showed up and arrested him for carrying a concealed weapon. Taken to court, the charges were spectacularly upgraded: Ferrante would be charged with the murder of his erstwhile friend.

• • • • •

Despite the arsenal discovered in Ferrante’s shack and Chamberlayne’s eyewitness account, uncertainty reigned.

The discovery of a mountain of guns in a Vedder Mountain home was hardly seen as criminal or abnormal.

Indeed, later in the summer, the prairie would be consumed by an entirely separate near-murder mystery, in which a farmer was accused of shooting his rifle at a car full of unruly and possibly drunk teenagers. The farmer was arrested and charged with attempted murder. But while he was awaiting trial, he would himself be shot at, seemingly in an act of revenge. With no blood actually shed, a jury acquitted the farmer in September, with a judge ruefully declaring that a finding of not guilty didn’t excuse the tit-for-tat reckless shootings. “Some acquittals have the same moral effect as a conviction,” the judge said.

With Ferrante in jail, the Vancouver Sun reported that a local police chief suggested more arrests were possible. The man spotted by the girls may have not been Ferrante, but rather his accomplice, the paper suggested.

“The crime does not appear to be the work of one man but of several,” the paper breathlessly reported, but offered little reasoning or evidence for the statement, except to say that a clue from a “little girl” would “lead to more arrests.”

More arrests did not follow. Instead, prosecutors and police zeroed in on Ferrante. Even so, every piece of reporting and testimony came with an underlying whiff of doubt. The Province, even as it reported that Ferrante was a prime suspect, described the murder as “one of the most mysterious in the annals of crime in the province.”

Police believed “that the murderer leaped from the open window to the ground, a distance of 12 feet, after shooting Magoon and setting fire to the room, and thus made his escape,” the paper said. They also suggested that at an upcoming preliminary hearing, prosecutors would stress that “drink and jealousy” sparked the murder.

• • • • •

Ferrante’s first big day in court arrived on July 1: Dominion Day. A preliminary hearing was held not to determine any level of guilt, but merely to figure out whether there was enough evidence to demand a full trial.

At the centre of the day’s proceedings were testimony from the two girls—Barbara and Louise Bowman, aged 11 and 16 respectively.

The Province reported that the girls “swore that they saw a man who looked like Ferrante through the window of a second floor room at the time Mr. Wolfe was talking to Magoon.”

But it also noted that “under cross-examination both girls admitted some confusion, being uncertain whether the man they saw was in his shirtsleeves or was wearing a coat.”

Given what we know in 2023 about eyewitness testimony, such evidence seems weak at best. And even in 1915, it wasn’t all that solid. Indeed, the Vancouver Sun left the girls’ evidence out of its account, describing only that the hearing heard “a great amount of conflicting evidence,” and that the Crown’s “star witnesses materially weakened their testimony on cross examination.”

Even when it came to that police line-up, the girls admitted that of the men before them, Ferrante was the only Italian. The suggestion being that the man in the window may have looked a bit like Ferrante, but that there was hardly certainty about whether the man was Ferrante.

The Sun reported that the hearing, “instead of throwing any additional light on the circumstances surrounding the death of Engineer Magoon, only tended to further increase the mystery.”

But there were those guns. And two justices of the peace ruled that their discovery, combined with the witness testimony, was enough to at least deserve a full trial. Someone, after all, had shot Magoon. The evidence against Ferrante was weak, but it was all authorities had.

• • • • •

Four months later, the whole cast of characters was back in court for Ferrante’s trial.

A plan had been made to take the entire court—judge, lawyers, witnesses, and jury—to the Vedder Mountain substation so they could see the scene of the crime first-hand.

In the intervening time, Ferrante’s appointed lawyer left town and was deemed “unlikely” to ever return. Ferrante thought he deserved a lawyer who would be present for his trial. And although prosecutors objected, the court postponed the trail and appointed a new defender, Joseph Martin, and gave him a week to get up to speed on his new case.

The trail began on Nov. 3. Today, such a case would occupy the court’s time for at least a week. In 1915, it took 48 hours, including the visit to the substation.

The trial heard from Ferrante’s shackmate, the Bowman girls, Delair, Wolfe, doctors who examined Magoon’s body and, most crucially, Chamberlayne. Wolfe and the girls said they could not positively identify Ferrante as the person they had spotted in Magoon’s window, leaving Chamberlayne’s testimony the only evidence directly tying the Italian to the murder scene. And even that was shaky. Pressed by Ferrante’s lawyer, Chamberlayne said when he saw Ferrante deliver the letter, he was wearing a navy blue suit and a black hat, but the man who emerged from Magoon’s room wore a brown sweater and, if he remembered correctly, a brown hat.

Prosecutors argued that the man Chamberlayne saw coming from Magoon’s room must be the killer, and that Chamberlayne knew Ferrante and said he was the man he saw. Prosecutors suggested it was strange that in the entire area, only Ferrante seemed unaware of the murder until the following morning.

But Martin, Ferrante’s lawyer, asked why, if that was the case, there hadn’t been an immediate manhunt for his client after the murder. That time would have allowed a guilty man to flee or, at least, remove all his guns from his shack. But Ferrante had stuck around with his arsenal.

Martin told the jury that one could question the reliability of Chamberlayne’s memory while, at the same time, still believing him to be an honest, truthful man. He might think he saw Ferrante, Martin said. But that doesn’t mean he actually saw him in that hallway.

The Daily World reported that Martin told the jury that Chamberlayne’s evidence was all there was tying his client to the crime and that “it would be a terrible thing to hang a man on identification of that kind.”

The judge in the case agreed, even if the actual decision was being left to a jury.

According to the papers, the judge spent 55 minutes explaining the key questions in the case to the jury. As he did so, he observed that “he could not but be struck by the lack of observation by everyone connected with the case as to the exact time Magoon was killed.” He echoed Martin’s observation that it was strange there was no immediate search for the killer and that Ferrante had the opportunity to escape. And he said the lack of evidence was partly a result of carelessness by people intruding on the scene before the arrival of police.

For his part, Ferrante was described as calm throughout the trial.

The Sun would report that “on no occasion has he evinced any sign that he was worrying about the outcome of the trial.”

• • • • •

With Ferrante’s future in their hands, the jury of 12 men deliberated for 45 minutes and returned to the courtroom with their verdict: “not guilty.”

The Italian had escaped the gallows and the public consensus seemed to be that the justice system had got things right.

📷 Vancouver Daily World

“VERDICT IN MAGOON CASE POPULAR,” the Daily World declared.

Ferrante had been “freed from the charge by twelve men, good and true,” the paper said. The reporter declared that the decision “has met with almost unanimous approval of everyone with the case.” And while it’s unclear how true this actually was, given the testimony of Chamberlayne and the police officers, the Daily World’s competitors’ didn’t disagree.

The Chilliwack Progress reported that: “The accused man was at once discharged and was congratulated by the BC E. R. trainmen who knew him as a section hand and who were a unit in their belief in his innocence.”

Ferrante had escaped the gallows. But that left the region’s papers to wonder: who, actually, had killed Jesse Magoon?

Chapter 2: A headless corpse

Some mysteries are solved by the discovery of a new piece of evidence, the emergence of a new witness, or a previously unnoticed connection made by a brilliant investigator.

This is not how Jesse Magoon’s murderer was brought to justice.

Some mysteries can’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Some murders can’t ever be solved. Sometimes, it takes not just more evidence, but an entirely new crime, to firmly connect a killing to its perpetrator.

• • • • •

The murder of Jesse Magoon may have been declared one of BC’s largest mysteries, but once Rocco Ferrante was acquitted, the case quickly receded from attention. The law believed him not guilty, his friends believed him completely innocent, and Ferrante got his old job back, more or less.

Ferrante went back to work for the railroad, and, a month after his release from jail, was transferred to Langley, where he took up residence in a shack near the BC Electric Rail Substation at Coghlan.

The substation still stands today, squatting by the rail tracks off of 256 Street, just north of Highway 1. The building has been converted into an art gallery, while making frequent appearances in film shoots. (Of the five identical substations built by the BCER, only the Coghlan and Vedder Mountain stations are still standing.) But in 1915, the substation—just like its Vedder Mountain counterpart—was both a centre of local social life, and a hub for maintenance and BCER crews.

For Ferrante, December brought freedom and a return to normalcy. He lived in a shack near the substation, but it was a shack with multiple rooms and an electric heater. He even had a roommate who also hailed from Italy.

Years earlier, Italians dominated railcrews, but by the mid-1910s, Nick Forcace and Rocco Ferrante were two of the last to be employed by the BCER.

Nick Forcace was 43 years old, small, skinny, and well-liked. (The spelling of his name is varied in news coverage; we are using the most common spelling.) Raised near Trieste, in northern Italy, he had emigrated to Canada after his sweetheart had married another man. Warring squadrons of Italian and Austrian troops were now battling over the land surrounding his hometown, but Forcace was planning to return. Having heard the man who married his girl was in love with someone else, he intended to return and marry her. He just needed his father to send money so he could afford to travel home.

His new roommate, though, wasn’t a particularly jovial fellow. Ferrante was as strong and stout as ever. But having escaped a death sentence, Ferrante hadn’t returned to work ready to cherish his new lease on life. Instead, he kept to himself and barely spoke.

Ferrante had maintained a blank countenance during his trial for murder. But before the crime he was seemingly well-liked and collegial. He had been described as friendly with Magoon, Miss Elliott seemed to tolerate him, and when he was found not guilty, his colleagues celebrated the jury’s decision as right and just. At Coghlan he didn’t seem to be interested in making friends, even—or especially—with fellow Italians.

Three days before Christmas, Ferrante lay silently on his bunk as Forcace prepared the next day’s meal—beans and macaroni—and chatted with two visitors.

At some point, the visitors left, and Forcace and Ferrante went to sleep.

• • • • •

The next morning, two days before Christmas, Forcace and Ferrante failed to show up for work, prompting their boss to visit their shack. He found it locked, and figured the two Italians had “gone on holiday.” But he also noticed that the power was still running to the electric heater inside. Considering it a waste of electricity (and, perhaps, a fire danger), the foreman unscrewed the locked door and entered the cabin.

Inside, he found a grisly, brutal crime scene. Blood was smeared across the floor, and someone lay on the bed. Covered by a blanket, but otherwise naked, was Nick Forcace. He was dead. And he was missing his head.

Unlike six months earlier at Vedder Mountain, it did not take anyone long to put together the evidence and start a manhunt for the likely killer. And there was not much doubt that the murdered man’s roommate, who just months earlier had been suspected of another substation killing, was the guilty party.

Railworkers immediately organized a posse. Around 9am, police arrived, and Constable Glover narrowed down on Ferrante’s most likely destination. Tracks made by a pair of new boots led south from Coghlan, and Glover inferred that that Ferrante, like a variety of Canadian criminals before and since, bolted south, seeking to disappear in the United States.

He never made it.

Glover quickly telegraphed the Sumas border crossing, telling immigration officials there to be on the lookout for a stout Italian who may have just cut the head off of his roommate. Then he made for the line.

Ferrnate made it to Sumas, Wash., where he applied for entry into the United States. In a manifest of border-crossings, Ferrante listed his last permanent residence as Vedder Mountain, and his final destination as Seattle.

But border officials had received Glover’s telegraph and, when the constable arrived, he found that Ferrante had been detained.

Although Ferrante seemed to consistently dress above his station as a simple rail labourer, his attire couldn’t have helped him as he tried to flee from his crime.

Ferrnate wore a blue, blood-stained coat and waistcoat, and had in his possession a blood-stained handkerchief that had been wrapped around a large hunting knife.

The railworker seemed to know he was done for.

As Const. Delair—the same officer who had investigated the Magoon murder—looked on, an immigration officer asked Ferrante about his knife.

Ferrante didn’t dissemble.

“I cut a man’s head off with that at Coghlan, at about 3:45 this morning.”


The murder may have lacked mystery, but its grisly details and its well-known perpetrator were an immediate media sensation.

ROCCO FERRANTE IS MURDERER OF A COUNTRYMAN, the Vancouver Daily Province (which was published in the evening) blared in its top front-page spot that Dec. 22.

The story (which called Forcace Cocacl—one of several spellings of the victim’s name) revelled in the bloodiness of the crime, noting that Ferrante resembled the famous Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso. It noted that both Magoon and Forcace had been discovered dead.

It also seized on the still-missing head.

“WHERE IS COCACL’S HEAD?” a sub-headline asked.

“The missing head of Nick Cocaci, which gave the suggestion that the murderer is a lunatic, is not in the possession of Ferrante and he had not indicated what he did with that ghastly momento of the crime. His clothes are unspotted from blood and he preserves the same careless sangfroid which is said to have characterized him on his arrest last April and during the early part of the subsequent trial on a charge of murdering Jesse Magoun.”

The next day, readers got their first and last look at Ferrante himself.

📷 Vancouver Daily Province

As men and women across Vancouver hunted for last-minute Christmas gifts on the evening of Dec. 23, Province newsboys held aloft a paper bearing the only images we have of Rocco Ferrante. Flanked by stories about the war in Europe, Rocco Ferrante, wearing a suit, tie, and stylish bowler hat, looks into a camera. His head is slightly cocked to the side, his eyes cool and unpanicked. In an adjacent photo from the side, Ferrante’s hair is wavy and his jaw pronounced. He looks like a 21st century stereotype of a gangster, or a hard man preparing for years of prison and notoriety. He does not look like a man worried about the consequences of having just admitted to a capital crime.

Ferrante had left little doubt about his culpability, describing not just the circumstances of his crime, but the whereabouts of his victim’s missing head.

The details, as relayed by Ferrante to police, then by police to reporters, were spectacularly gruesome and painted a picture of a nihilistic, callous crime.

Ferrante told the officers that he had woken Forcace up in the early morning hours. The Province and the Daily World both reported that Ferrante said Forcace had looked at him “hard”, so he walked over to a table, grabbed a knife and told his bunkmate that he was going to cut his head off.

“He looked funny at me,” Ferrante described, as told by The Province. “I told him ‘You look at me like that I cut your head off.’ He looked at me all the same, so I cut his head off.”

And that’s what happened. Forcace cried, and struggled, but was no match for the bigger man. Ferrante then threw the head into a hunting sack and threw it into the well behind the shack. Then he took off.

Back at Coghlan, railmen had been surveying the grisly scene and trying to figure out just where Forcace’s head was. By the time the first stories went to press, the head was still missing.

Soon after the discovery of Forcace’s body, McIvor and other railmen remained in the area. At some point, he went to a well behind the shack for a pail of drinking water. There he saw a part of a hunting sack and a belt caught in the cover of the well. When he lifted the cover of the well, the sack fell into the water. He grabbed some water anyway.

Only much later in the day, after Ferrante had been captured, a message came from Huntingdon that made McIvor and his colleagues queasy: Look in that well again. They did so, and pulled Forcace’s head from the water below.

• • • • •

Ferrante was hauled to prison, for the second time. The wheels of early 20th century justice once again started turning. And this time there was no stopping them.

In late May, Ferrante attempted to plead guilty to the murder. But the Province reported that, “owing to the gravity of the charge,” a plea of not guilty had been entered.

This was because, in 1915, there was no way to mitigate a sentence for murder.

Then, as now, the killing of another human being could net a variety of punishments. Most commonly, an accused could be found guilty of manslaughter if they did not mean to kill their victim. Killers could also enter insanity pleas, declaring that they were not of sound mind when they took a life.

But if you were convicted of the pure act of murder, the 1906 criminal code was unsparing. And there was no relief given to those who would plead guilty to their crime.

“Everyone who commits murder…shall, on conviction thereof, be sentenced to death,” the code declared.

How familiar Ferrante was with these legalities is unclear. The newspaper reports don’t suggest he tried to plead guilty to a lesser offence. At the same court appearance at which he tried to plead guilty, he asked for a lawyer through an interpreter.

Ferrante got a lawyer, but he didn’t appear to have done much. His trial was held over two days the following week. There was relatively little coverage or drama.

Prosecutors called their witnesses and Ferrante’s lawyer put up little fight. The Sun reported that Ferrante didn’t take the stand and no evidence was offered in his defence.

Ferrante’s lawyer had suggested that his client could be insane. But The Progress said the prosecutor in the case, W.F. Hansford, had offered a detailed rebuttal. He noted that the door of the shack was locked, that the head was hidden, that the electric heater was left on (in a manner that could start a fire), and that Ferrante had fled to the border.

“These facts, Mr. Hansford urged, did not uphold the plea of insanity.”

When it came time to give his orders to the jury, the justice in the case quoted the law regarding an insanity defence. But he told the jury that no evidence had been offered to show Ferrante “was afflicted with a deranged mind.”

The jury agreed and only took a few minutes to proclaim Ferrante guilty.

“Mr. Justice Macdonald pronounced the dread sentence, setting August 15 as the date of the hanging,” The Sun reported. “By no word or sign did Ferrante show that the sentence of death affected him.”

• • • • •

Ferrante had struck a calm, dispassionate presence during both his trials, but the passing of a death sentence changed his demeanor. With the Province now reporting that authorities were “now certain” that he had killed Magoon, The Daily World wrote that he maintained a “morose silence” punctuated by “fits of terrible rage.”

He refused to eat and held out hope that Canada’s justice system would change course.

But in mid-August, carpenters began erecting a scaffold in the yard of New Westminster’s prison. And on Aug. 14, Jack Ellis arrived in New Westminster.

Ellis was a designated hangman, and had come to BC specifically to hang Ferrante and another convicted murderer.

As the following day dawned, Ferrante still apparently held out hope that he would escape the gallows.

When guards came to his cell to take him to the scaffolds, Ferrante fought back, the newspapers reported. The guards pinned his arms and strapped Ferrante to the chair. They then hauled it up the scaffold and placed it atop a trap door.

“Take me back to court—you can not do anything here,” Ferrante yelled. And as Ellis attempted to adjust the chair, Ferrante seized the executioner’s wrist.

Ellis turned hot, punching Ferrante’s hand to free his own.

“What is the matter with you?” he demanded. He asked the question again as he slipped a black cap over the head of Ferrante’s, who still demanded to be taken back to jail.

Ellis backed away. He would have given a signal. The trap door opened, and the chair holding Ferrante plunged toward the ground.

FOR FVC INSIDER MEMBERS ONLY: Robert Bushby was told his grandfather had died in a boxing match. The truth was far more complex? Meet Jesse Magoon’s great-grandson.

This story first appeared in the June history edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.


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