Does Crime Pay?

Photo by Alexandre Lallemand

John Coward was late for supper. This in itself did not worry his wife Gertrude, for Coward was a hard worker who took good care of her and their five children, Evelyn, George Jr. (known as Link), W.W., Harold, and Edmond.

And Coward had just been named the manager of the Peerless Carbon Fuel Company in Carbon, 120 kilometers northeast of Calgary, the day before, so long hours were to be expected. But as the night wore on and started to turn into the next morning, Gertrude’s worry increased.

Finally, she and one of her sons got into the family’s second vehicle and set out to find Coward. As they approached Carbon in the early hours of Sept. 29, 1921, they found Coward’s car by the side of the road. He was inside, dead from two gunshot wounds to his head and neck.

The Alberta Provincial Police (APP) later arrested John Francis Gallagher for the murder. Gallagher had been the last person to see Coward and he had a grudge to settle. As the owner of a mine in the Carbon area, he had agreed to turn over his lease to the new company with the expectation of being named manager.

When Coward had been given the position instead, Gallagher, who was known to have a mean streak, had a score to settle with the man who, in his mind, had usurped his position.

The case against Gallagher was strong. Police recovered bloody clothing and more than one local was willing to testify to him owning the type of revolver that killed Coward. Gallagher clearly was not a model citizen, as many talked of his mean streak and more than one father of a teenage girl had to warn Gallagher off in no uncertain terms. It also came out at trial that Gallagher felt his business associates were “beating him out” of his mine. One fellow mine owner, Edward Bolan, known as Teddy, also testified that Gallagher had left his home about 6 PM on the night of Coward’s murder in a car.

Though Bolan couldn’t name the driver, Gallagher himself admitted it was Coward’s car, but that he had not been given a lift, he said instead that he had walked home. This was disputed by Bolan, who stated that it was a clear bright night and he had not seen Gallagher on the road for the 400-yard walk. Bolan did not see Gallagher again until the following morning, when Gallagher informed him of Coward’s murder.

The defense did not call any witnesses.

Gallagher was found guilty of the murder of John Coward and sentenced to hang on April 15, 1922. While Gallagher was not popular in Carbon, he had his defenders. The Women’s Labour League petitioned for a new trial on the grounds Gallagher was deaf due to his war service and he did not understand the trial proceedings.

This is the only time it is mentioned that Gallagher had a handicap and no attestation papers for a John Francis or a J.F. Gallagher are on record with Library and Archives Canada. Despite this, the women’s petition worked, and a new trial was granted.

Gallagher’s second murder trial opened on May 22, 1922 and was a much different affair from the first. The testimony of Bolan was not presented. Bolan had a reputation for not taking safety in his mine seriously. He had been told to replace the timber props holding up the roof but chose not to. On March 1, 1922, as he was exiting his mine, over 500 pounds of rock fell on him. Though Bolan was rushed to a nearby hospital, he died from his injuries without regaining consciousness.

Bolan was gone and testimony about Gallagher’s character in the form of a charge of theft from his time working at a bordering house owned by the Wayne, AB miners’ union was deemed inadmissible as the charges had been dropped. This time, when the jury returned after nine hours of deliberations, they presented a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Gallagher walked out a free man.

A year later, the police spoke with Gallagher about the suspicious death of Jesse Edward Fuller. Fuller disappeared on the night of Dec. 6, 1923. Two suspicious notes were left on the doorstep of the home he shared with his 14-year-old daughter Stella.

Fuller’s body was found on Dec. 10, 1923, at the base of a steep cliff. His jaw was broken in two places and his throat had been cut. The body was left only 75 yards from where Coward had been murdered two years before.

Gallagher spoke at the inquest into Fuller’s death, claiming he was on good terms with Fuller and had loaned him money to purchase alcohol in Drumheller the day of Fuller’s disappearance. Stella concurred that Gallagher had loaned her father $300 in the past and, on the night after her father’s disappearance, had come to the Fuller home to try to get Stella to sign a promissory note for the money.

He also attempted to get Stella to come and stay at his home, claiming at the time Fuller had expressed concern about his young daughter remaining in the home by herself and asked Gallagher to look after her.

Fuller’s murderer was never discovered.

That was not the end of Gallagher’s contact with the law. In 1924, Gallagher insured his home and contents for $1,023 dollars (approximately $18,000 today) and, on Feb. 2, 1924, the same home and contents were destroyed in a fire. The Car and General Insurance Corporation was suspicious and refused to pay out, instead reporting the case to the APP. Gallagher once again enjoyed the hospitality of the local jail, this time charged with arson and two counts of false declaration, and a strong case was presented by the prosecution.

Gallagher had been seen carrying items from his home and hiding them in a nearby coulee. The police marked some of the items and a later search of Gallagher’s new home turned up them up. A neighbour testified Gallagher asked him to store some items. Stella Fuller also testified Gallagher had told her his home was so dry he wouldn’t be surprised if it burned down one day.

Gallagher’s luck finally run out and he was found guilty of all charges. Chief Justice Harvey, who had presided over the murder trial of Coward gave Gallagher seven years each on the false declaration charges and life imprisonment of the arson charge.

This was the first time in Calgary someone had received a life sentence for arson. However, appeals would reduce the sentence to seven years each for false declaration and 10 years for arson.

But Gallagher’s story doesn’t end there. Upon his release in 1932, Gallagher went to live in Winnipeg. The mayor of the city was contacted by Mrs. R. Zarah of England, Gallagher’s aunt. Concerned about her nephew, she offered him £100,000 to return to England and marry by Christmas 1938.

Gallagher chose to accept his aunt’s offer and left Canada.