When you hear the words "Frontier Justice" what's the first picture that comes to your mind? Rowdy gunslingers terrorizing a community till quelled by an even tougher sheriff? Hanging Judge Begbie keeping order in the Cariboo gold fields? Or two stern Mounties in red serge, greeting Sitting Bull and his Sioux, when they sought refuge in Canada after the battle of the Little Big Horn, with a dignified welcome and the firm warning that such shenanigans, perhaps perfectly acceptable in the U.S., were frowned on in Canada, land of peace, order and good government.
The impression is that these officers imposed order by their powerful personalities, aided in the U.S. by the snick of a Colt 45.
Of course, lawmen, of any character, were thin on the ground in frontier days, particularly in Canada. In their absence, according to popular myth, truculent townsfolk dealt out justice to local evildoers with a length of hemp, bypassing such niceties as a trial.
Actually, most Western justice was a lot less dramatic. If official lawmen weren't present, life didn't dissolve into anarchy. Ranchers, homesteaders and loggers, being practical people, settled matters in simple and direct ways -- at least they did in the B.C. mountain valley where my family lived.
In l941, during W.W.II, my parents decided to temporarily leave their B.C. homestead for Kingston, Ontario where my father, though too old for active service, had been promised a job in an aircraft manufacturing plant.
Securing the cabin for an indefinite period took little effort. They rolled the mattresses and bedding and hung them by wire hooks from the rafters in the hope this would discourage squirrels and mice from gnawing them, stacked all the tools in the cabin for safe-keeping, clamped a small padlock on the door's hasp, and set off to catch the CNR east-bound train.
Six years later they returned to find that, though the lock was still intact and the bedding mostly useable, all the tools had vanished. Without axes, hoes, saws, wedges and rail-splitters it wasn't possible to continue homesteading. They were skeptical that squadrons of squirrels or myriads of mice had managed to carry off the implements. Even muscular packrats would quail under the weight of a cross cut saw.
Father made inquiries. "Soapy Johnson's got 'em." he was informed. Soapy, local bootlegger and general entrepreneur, doubting that the original owners would ever return from far away Ontario, had taken the tools for himself.
Getting them back was a problem. The town had no resident police officer, nor, indeed, any drivable roads. The nearest B.C. Provincial policeman was located at the railway divisional point, a two-hour train ride away. People didn't bother him with such trivia as missing tools. Furthermore, the closest lawyer licensed to practice at the B.C. Bar was a full day's train travel distant, if Father could afford a lawyer, which he couldn't.
He thought for a while. Then he hiked through the bush to Soapy's dugout. After some chat about the war, the valley, and the availability of deer, Father raised the matter of the missing tools. "Soapy", he declared, " Anne and I are really grateful you helped us out like this. Why, if you hadn't thought of keeping those tools safe, someone might have broken into the cabin and stolen them! We really appreciate what you did. But, they must have been in your way. We're home now, so I'll just take them out of your road." Poor Soapy. He muttered a "Heck, George, it was nothing. Always glad to do a favor for a neighbour. Yep, I believe that spud's yours, too." and stood, watching disconsolately, as Father, with a bristling armload of tools, headed home.
There were times, though, when justice seemed to come down hard on Soapy. As the local bootlegger in a place with no liquor store for 90 miles, he was regarded as a valuable member of the logging and homesteading community. But, occasionally, some malcontent would report him, the constabulary would seize his still and there'd be Soapy, up before the Justice of the Peace.
On one such occasion the trial was proceeding to its inevitable conclusion when a member of the public raised a point. They had only the arresting officer's word, he observed, that the liquid in the jug exhibited contained moonshine. It might equally well contain Swift Creek water, which, everyone knew, was also extremely exhilarating. Shouldn't the group sample the liquid to be sure there was no miscarriage of justice? The Justice said this seemed a reasonable request. The jug went round. Most agreed that it was, indeed, moonshine, and pretty good stuff at that, but there were dissenters. The jug circulated again. By the time all present were convinced and agreed on the quality of the exhibit, the jug was empty. "Case dismissed for lack of evidence."
Soapy, a resourceful man saw no reason why the justice system, which tried to prevent him from making a living, shouldn't work for him. Accordingly, every autumn, he would ostentatiously 'steal' some item valuable enough to net him a six-month sentence in the regional jail. This guaranteed him shelter, warmth and regular, though monotonous, meals, for the winter, and freed him from the necessity of hunting for food or cutting enough wood to see him through to spring. The rest of the homesteaders, bucking up their winter's wood, had a grudging admiration for Soapy's ingenious arrangement. It wasn't Arizona, but, in rural B.C. in the l930s, it wasn't bad. Only once did his plan fail.
King George and Queen Elizabeth, touring Canada to rouse British sentiment prior to W.W.II, were advised to commute the sentences of prisoners convicted for petty crimes. The rationale was that this expression of mercy would heighten loyalty to the Crown.
It didn't work with Soapy. There he was, months before he'd expected it, thrust forth into a northern winter for which he was totally unprepared. The former patriot was often heard to speak harshly about a King who couldn't mind his own business but had to go round interfering with the due process of justice!
(These stories are true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, er, the guilty, ... well...you know what I mean.)
(Trudy is a freelance writer living in Kamloops, B.C.)
Other articles by Trudy Frisk