Carbon, Alberta – A little village known for great coal and ranching/farming history – is highlighted for a not-so-well-known reason, being the home of Canada’s oldest criminal cold case.
At the time, coal mines were prevalent, already operating in the region, and they continued to operate until the late 1950s.
It was just east of where the village now sits that a murder of a wealthy coal mine owner took place amongst the rolling hills leading into the heart of the Red Deer River valley.
Several people heard gunshots at approximately 2:30 a.m. on Wed. Sept. 28, 1921 but to this day, no one has ever admitted to the crime nor been caught.
The body of John Coward was found slumped on the front seat of his McLaughlin Buick Special, having sustained three gunshot wounds to the head and neck while driving home from the mine camps.
A man named John Gallagher was suspect #1 who was initially charged with the murder but was later acquitted of the crime.
Mr. Coward and Mr. Gallagher were both involved in the mining industry in and around Carbon.
At the time, Coward, 45, partnered with two others to form the Peerless Carbon Coal Company.
In preparation for an amalgamation between Peerless and the Gallagher Mine owned and managed by John Gallagher, Coward moved to Carbon to eventually take over management of the two businesses.
Gallagher made it clear that he wished to remain manager of the mine, making it part of the deal with Peerless prior but suspicions rose that Coward would eventually edge out Gallagher which police deemed as a possible motive to kill.
Alberta Provincial Police (APP) determined robbery not to be the motive as Coward’s watch, wallet with considerable cash and a cheque for $400 to an area mining company remained present.
No murder weapon was ever recovered.
Chief Inspector J.D. Nicholson took over the case, having compiled the details collected by staff and found Gallagher to be the only viable suspect.
The most damaging piece of evidence was from the blunt-nosed 0.38 bullet recovered from Coward’s scalp following an autopsy in Carbon.
Before being a permanent coal miner, Gallagher was in WWI and had a brief stint as a police officer with the APP.
When the force formed in 1917, he was one of the first to sign up. Nicholson was put in charge of recruitment which was the two’s first interaction with each other.
Since Gallagher had experience in the Three Hills-Carbon area, he wished to be situated there but since the APP wasn’t planning on building a police station in Carbon soon, he was stationed in Cochrane, northwest of Calgary.
During an inspection of this detachment, Nicholson noticed a private ammunition belt hanging on the peg which wasn’t abnormal as there was a shortage in equipment for new hires so they were encouraged to bring personal firearms and ammunition to use.
What was different is that this belt had several blunt-nosed 0.38 shells in addition to regular cartridges and upon closer look appeared to have been notched like the one found in Coward.
Because of this circumstantial evidence, Nicholson felt he had the murderer, ignoring any other potential leads at the time.
The inquest was one to behold as approximately 400 people descended upon the Carbon Farmers Exchange building as the court was on the upper floor.
It happened on Thurs. Oct. 6 with Three Hills Coroner A. W. Sawdon presiding.
This is the current location of the Carbon Murders Mystery walkthrough tour as part of the Carbon Museum based in the Farmers’ Exchange Building which was built in 1914 by two of Carbon’s early entrepreneurs, Charles Nash and Charles Burnell.
Before the murder of Coward took place that evening, Coward and Gallagher had visited the home of ex-miner Teddy Bolam.
Bolam shared at the trial that Gallagher came to his shack to tell him there was a letter for him at the mine.
Afterwards, Gallagher returned to the vehicle where Bolam heard a door slam shut. He looked out the window and was sure Gallagher had left in the car, otherwise, he would have seen him walking away.
The jury was out for only five hours before coming back with a guilty verdict, sentencing Gallagher to be hanged.
One week before Gallagher’s execution date on April 15, 1922, the unanimous decision of five judges granted him a new trial on points of law.
At this time, public sympathy was growing for him as the Great War Veterans Association shared information on him including that he was born in 1886 in Ireland and at the age of 20, he enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner.
While on patrol being enlisted with the NWMP afterwards on July 11, 1914 in Rumsey, Alta. he was thrown from his horse and lay unconscious for hours. Even though his scalp was torn from the top of his head and he suffered a serious spinal injury, he completely recovered.
On May 2, 1922, Chief Justice Horace Harvey presided over a second trial opened in Calgary with defence lawyer A. Macleod Sinclair and Mr. Mcgillvray for the crown.
The case against Gallagher was weakened substantially with the sudden death of Teddy Bolam who mysteriously and conveniently died in a mining tragedy a week after the first trial at Jesse Fuller’s mine adjacent to Gallagher’s.
It was reported that after the trial, Bolam was given a large sum of money for his witness statement but no one is sure who paid him.
The theory is that whoever paid Bolam did so to have him lie on the stand that he didn’t see Gallagher leave his home that evening on foot and then leave Carbon permanently as part of the deal but when Bolam came back to his home after squandering the money in Calgary, he was killed.
In 1923 on Dec. 3, Fuller was also murdered leading to three mysterious deaths within the span of two years.
Fuller’s death was considered the most brutal of the three as his head had been smashed in and his throat sliced open with a razor.
His body was found by Carl Hedberg and his partner Lou Shanon but no one has ever been caught.
At the second trial, the jury retired for five hours, coming back with a not guilty verdict, setting Gallagher free.
His story ends with a newspaper clipping in Toronto as republished in Carbon’s history book stating: “Convicted of the murder of John G. Coward, of Carbon, Alberta, sentenced to be hanged, finally acquitted, later convicted of arson and sentenced to life imprisonment, which later, under appeal, was reduced to ten years, John Francis Gallagher, former member of the Royal North West Mounted Police, who has been living under an assumed name in Toronto for the past three months, today left for England to claim $500,000 which his aunt has promised him if he settles down and marries before Dec. 25, 1938.”
In a recent interview with the ECA Review, it was shared by Bob and Penny Ohlhauser, active members of the Carbon Museum and Murder Mysteries exhibit, that there have been a few whisperings of potential leads on who killed these three men but nothing solid has ever come to light to be shared publicly and corroborated.
The space where all artifacts relating to this unusual case reside on the upper level of the Carbon Museum which used to house a movie theatre and was also a hall and dance space for special occasions and more.
So… who done it?
To find out more about this historic tale, pick up a copy of Carbon’s History Book or The Carbon Murders Mystery by Frank W. Anderson (Published by Gopher Books) at the Carbon Museum today.