by Bruce Cherney
It had all the hallmarks of an old-time Western movie — a drunken brawl in a brothel, gun play on the street, a murder leading to a flight from the authorities, a posse in hot pursuit, a reward offered for the capture of the fugitive, a shot fired by the posse that convinces the fugitive to surrender, a lynch mob threatening to extract its own justice, an emotional trial, the prisoner planning his escape from jail after his conviction and eventually succeeding.
The American Wild West?
All this actually happened in Winnipeg one moonlit evening in April 1878.
During his testimony at the October 22, 1878, trial, Henri Martel, a farmer from St. Boniface West, said he first met John Gribbon when the fugitive was sitting behind the house of Baptiste Laderoute. Gribbon got up and asked Laderoute and his companions, J.R. Ritchot and Leon Savoyard, if they had come to take him away.
Why should we take you?” asked Martel. “Did you do anything?”
“I shot a man in town and the police are after me,” replied Gribbon. “That’s why I’m here. Last night I laid out of doors and had no blanket, and I’ve hardly eaten anything since I left the city.”
Gribbon earlier asked Laderoute for some milk to go along with the raw fish he had caught to quell his hunger pangs, but was only offered some salt. Gribbon panicked when he thought he heard his pursuers, fleeing from Laderoute’s farmhouse into the night. Exhausted and realizing the police were not hot on his trail, he sat down for some rest, which was when he saw the three men approaching.
“Come to my house and I’ll give you something to eat,” offered Martel.
Gribbon asked how far it was to Martel’s house.
Just a quarter of a mile, replied Martel.
Too far, Gribbon responded.
“Come to the first house and I’ll get you something to eat,” Martel suggested.
Martel proceeded to the house of Jean-Baptiste Le Pernault, where Gribbon ate a hearty meal for the first time since the events of April 12 had transpired and he fled the scene of his crime.
The men then played cards, but Gribbon lost interest and told Martel to go away with him.
Outside, Gribbon asked Martel to get him over the Red River. It had been Gribbon’s intention to escape to Keewatin, where he knew the lay of the land and had friends. The District of Keewatin was under the jurisdiction of the Canadian government, and immediately beyond the then limited boundaries (only 34,965 square kilometres vs. today’s 649,950 square kilometres) of the “postage-stamp province” of Manitoba. In Keewatin, the North West Mounted Police enforced the law, but the vastness of the district would have made it relatively easy for Gribbon to avoid capture.
Martel told Gribbon he didn’t have a boat. “I’m sleepy,” Gribbon said when informed transportation across the Red could not be provided.
“Come to my house and you can sleep,” Martel said.
Once at Martel’s, Gribbon took off his boots. The St. Boniface West resident lit a candle and showed the fugitive the way upstairs.
While undressing for bed, Gribbon took a pistol out of his pocket.
Martel asked Gribbon why he was carrying a pistol.
“I’m looking out for the police.”
“It’s not the custom to have men sleep armed; there is no fear here. I’ll take the pistols and give them to you when you are ready to go.”
“I can’t let you have my pistols. I’d rather go away first, but I’ll empty the pistols and keep the cartridges and you can keep the pistols.”
Actually, at this time Martel didn’t know Gribbon had two pistols. He only learned of the second pistol after Gribbon later drew it out.
Gribbon removed the balls from the chambers and kept them, giving Martel the pistol, which the farmer put into a boxed and locked up. Gribbon then went to sleep.
A barking dog awoke Gribbon. He rushed downstairs demanding his boots while carrying the second pistol. He asked Martel who was outside.
Martel opened the door, looked around and replied that he saw no one.
“Why go so soon, wait and I’ll get you a cup of tea,” Martel then said in a soothing voice.
“No,” Gribbon replied. “I’m going. I want my pistol.”
At this point, Gribbon aimed his second pistol at Martel, forcing the man to open the locked box and hand over the weapon. Gribbon recharged the gun and, with a pistol at Martel’s back, forced him outside. He pushed Martel aside, shouting, “It’s the police! It’s the police!,” and took off into the woods.
A Manitoba Free Press reporter later interviewed Gribbon in jail, asking him about his time as a fugitive.
Apparently, Gribbon had hid in Winnipeg, waiting to make his next move at daybreak. Gribbon found his way from Post Office Street (now Lombard), where the murder took place, to the bank of the Assiniboine River. He found a small boat near the militia barracks, immediately east of where the Manitoba Legislature now stands, and paddled across the Assiniboine.
Gribbon travelled just five kilometres in St. Boniface West where he encountered Martel. St. Boniface West was an expanse of land across the Red River from Old St. Boniface and immediately south of the Assiniboine River. The area went as far south as the northern border of St. Norbert Parish. At the time, St. Boniface West was accessed from Winnipeg by a ferry crossing the Assiniboine at the end of Main Street near Upper Fort Garry.
After the incident of the barking dog and having left Martel’s farmhouse, Gribbon was in the woods, when “he saw he was pursued by some mounted half-breeds — about a dozen in all — who made a rush for him.”
Gribbon told the reporter he tried to cross a clearing to another portion of woods, but the clearing was too long, allowing the Métis pursuers to surround him.
What Gribbon didn’t know was that after his encounter with Laderoute, the man had borrowed a horse to ride to Winnipeg to inform police he had seen Gribbon. Even before Laderoute notified police, news had quickly spread outside Winnipeg that a murder had been committed and the suspect was at large.
Once informed of Gribbon’s whereabouts, Manitoba Provincial Police Chief Richard Power and Winnipeg policemen Dick Fayden, Stone, Duffy and others set off to capture Gribbon. The Free Press reported “a crowd of Winnipeggers also congregated and went to the scene.”
Martel in the company of a Winnipeg policeman had visited the home of Louis Ritchot on the evening of April 14 to warn him to watch his canoe and horses lest they be used by Gribbon to escape.
Testifying at the October 1878 trial, Ritchot said he first saw Gribbon on April 15 and followed him on horseback. “When I reached him he turned with two pistols in his hands. I told him to drop his pistols . He had his hands extended.”
With Ritchot was Leon Nault on horseback and others on foot who made their way behind Gribbon. In later testimony, Laderoute mentioned that Martel, Jean Baptiste Ritchot (the brother of Louis Ritchot) and Leon Sauvage were among the men who encountered Gribbon. Martel added the names of Jean Baptiste St. Arnaud and Chrysostome Laderoute.
During cross-examination at Gribbon’s trial, Laderoute revealed that someone had fired at Gribbon, wounding him, although he did not know who had fired the shot among the seven armed men in the posse, including Manitoba Provincial Police Chief Richard Power.
“The first time I told him to drop his pistols he did not;” testified Ritchot, “but the second time he dropped one. I then told him to let go of the other, which he did and then he said he had no more ... After the prisoner had thrown down his pistols I told him to come to me, which he did. I took charge of him and coming along met the men on foot, who told the prisoner to take off his coat. He did. Then my brother tied him.”
The men went back to the point where they first encountered Gribbon to recover the discarded pistols.
“We took the prisoner some way when he said he could not walk and we sent for a cart and put him in and brought it to the Assiniboine ferry, where we sent for the police who took the prisoner in charge,” testified Ritchot.
After three days as a fugitive and suffering a wound, however slight, there was good reason for Gribbon to tell his captors he could walk no further.
“They’ve got him!” shouted someone during the coroner’s inquest when news reached Winnipeg of Gribbon’s capture. The courthouse cleared as people rushed to get a glimpse of the prisoner.
On April 20, the Free Press reported there were so many people enraged at Gribbon that “it was unsafe to bring the prisoner through the streets.”
At this point, the gathering crowd cried out for Gribbon to be shot.
Eventually, Gribbon was brought safely to the Main Street court house, where the main floor and gallery were crowded to overflowing.
When the men who captured Gribbon entered the court room, the conquering heroes “were greeted with stamping of feet and clapping of hands.”
What precipitated the manhunt and capture were events on April 12.
When the steamboat Manitoba docked at the Post Office Street landing, 23-year-old cabin boy Daniel Bell stepped off the boat around nine o’clock in the evening in the company of John Casey, who also worked on the steamer. After performing their shipboard duties, both St. Paul, Minnesota, men decided to celebrate by having a night on the town.
Although Bell in 1878 was acknowledged by the ship’s complement and friends as being in his twenties, a November 29, 1883, recounting of the incident in the Winnipeg Daily Sun reported Bell was only 18 or 19 at the time, “and was much loved by all.”
Before leaving the steamboat, Casey told the coroner’s inquest that Bell had opened his trunk, took out a pistol and placed it in his pocket.
During their night on the town, Bell and Casey made the rounds of numerous bars in Winnipeg, including Houde’s, the Pride of the West Saloon, Selkirk House (house was another name for hotel) and Hotel du Canada, supposedly their last stop since the hotel had closed for the evening.
But en route to the steamboat, they saw a sight too tempting to be ignored. To cap off their evening of carousing, they decided to enter the “house of ill fame” called the “Sheds” in McDermot’s Flats along Post Office Street and two blocks east of Main Street. The “Sheds”were ideally situated to entice newly-arrived and departing passengers and boat crews into sampling its earthly delights.
McDermot’s Flats — named after merchant and landowner Andrew McDermot — where the “Sheds” stood, had gained an unsavory reputation for the proliferation of houses catering to every conceivable vice.
According to Casey, the brothel he and Bell entered was run by Bella Sutherland. Others said the madam was Mary LeBlanc (this name was citdd in a much later account of the murder), while yet others claimed the madam was a “Mrs. Fontaine.”
Meanwhile, Gribbon and his friends had also been making the rounds of bars on April 12. Winnipegger Neil McArthur told the coroner’s inquest that between nine and 10 o’clock, he and Gribbon had left the Wellington Hotel, located on Main Street near Brown’s Bridge over the creek of the same name (where Bannatyne now crosses Main), to commence their night on the town.
Gribbon had been in Winnipeg for two weeks, staying at the Wellington Hotel. McArthur said Gribbon had been drunk the entire time he had known of him in Winnipeg.
Despite Gribbon’s rather checkered past, which included being sentenced to 14 years in prison for rape — a petition was signed on his behalf resulting in his release after serving only two years — in Thunder Bay, Ontario, as well as being a illicit whiskey trader, Gribbon was hired by the Canadian Pacific Railway as a liquor detective. Apparently, the CPR believed in the old adage that “it takes a thief to know a thief.” As a condition of employment, the CPR had Gribbon swear that he would give up his career as an illicit whiskey trader.
Gribbon was described as 5-foot-10, 185 pounds and either 32 or 33 years of age. He had a light complexion and dark hair with a sandy moustache and chin whiskers. Gribbon had a scar on his forehead, about an inch above the eyes. On the night of April 12, he was wearing a reefing jacket and dark a checkered vest and pants. The cap he wore was described as being peaked at the front and back, which sounds like the deerstalker cap made famous in movies portraying fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
“He is reported, although of a quiet demeanor, to be a desperate and determined man,” claimed the Free Press, “and the record of his career, as told by those who know him, is a startling one ... he has lived a wild life for some years past ...”
Thomas Charette, a lumberman who came to Winnipeg two weeks earlier and was living in the “sheds,” admitted to knowing Gribbon, having seen him in the brothel three times previously. On the evening in question, Charette was eating his supper in the company of Billy McGillis, when McArthur and Gribbon entered the house of ill-fame. McArthur pulled out a bottle of whiskey and “treated the party, myself included.”
After imbibing some whiskey, Charette said he took off his clothes and went to lay down in bed, when “there was considerable noise in the other part of the house. I told them to keep quiet.
“If you don't keep still I’ll go in there and put you out,” added McGillis, rapping on the partition. McGillis had stayed at the table while Charette slept.
From the other room, McGillis heard someone say, “You can’t do it, you son of a b--ch.”
“Let’s go and put them out,” McGillis said to Gribbon.
Gribbon then broke down the door and burst into the room with McArthur following close behind. Charette hastily put on his clothes to see what was going on. He saw Gribbon quarreling with “some man who had his clothes on his arm and who appeared to be anxious to go away.”
Apparently, Bell had been in the company of a woman named Mary Spence and was in a partial state of undress.
Gribbon told the Free Press reporter that when he entered the house, he struck a match. A voice called out,”Put out that light; we don’t want any of that here.”
He lit another match and “found a young man in bed with a woman.”
The two men had words and a rush was made for the door. Gribbon struck out, attempting to hit Bell — instead, it was later revealed he had hit Mary Spence.
McArthur testified that Bell broke loose from Gribbon’s grip and fled out to the street with Gribbon in hot pursuit.
McArthur said he heard Bell coming behind him. “I turned back and looked ... He came as far as the first corner and stood there; he was on the sidewalk; and the prisoner (Gribbon) came out on the sidewalk a little below the man — or towards the river. The prisoner came towards Main Street until he got opposite the man, who stood close up the fence on the sidewalk.”
On the sidewalk, the altercation took a deadly turn.
The conversation on the street leading to the shooting can be pieced together using testimony from several witnesses, including Gribbon, during the trial (Manitoba Gazette, October 26, 1878) and the coroner’s inquest (Free Press, April 20, 1878).
“I will put a ball through you, you son of a b--ch,” Bell threatened, supposedly drawing a pistol.
“Stand back,” was heard from Bell by another witness.
Several witnesses said they saw Bell holding a vest and other clothing over his arm and not a gun.
“You had better put that up (the pistol); two can play that game.” said Gribbon.
McArthur confirmed that this was essentially what Gribbon said.
McArthur said he clearly heard a click as the hammer of a pistol was pulled back by Bell. He was the only witness who said Bell had a pistol in his hand.
Gribbon rushed at Bell and they began to scuffle and a shot rang out.
Bell began to drop to the ground. “Let me go! Oh, God, I am shot!” he cried out as he fell.
Gribbon said he heard a gurgle in Bell’s throat and knew he was mortally wounded.
It was then that Gribbon said he picked up Bell’s gun and fled the scene.
McArthur said he saw the shot fired by Gribbon, who came back to look at Bell as he lay on the ground. Gribbon had two revolvers in each hand, and said to McArthur, “Let’s go down the street.”
“I ain’t going to follow you,” replied McArthur, and Gribbon fled down the street toward the river.
Somehow, Gribbon had also been in contact with McGillis, whom he claimed had promised to aid in his escape. A meeting with McGillis had been arranged at an undisclosed point up the river for Saturday morning, according to Gribbon, but “at the time of his appointment ... instead of meeting him he saw Policeman Miller and another person, across the river, about fifty yards from him, and thinking that McGillis had proven a false friend, and put the police on the track, he hid in the woods.”
When the melee broke out, Casey rushed out the door, running towards the steamboat landing. But he had forgotten his vest and turned back, only to encounter a policeman.
Manitoba Provincial Police sergeant Patrick Lawler — at the time, Lawler and Power were the entire MPP force — said between 11 p.m. and midnight, he was on duty patrolling along Main Street when he heard a shot fired, but did not see the flash of the gun as it went off.
“I proceeded in the direction of the report,” recalled Lawler. He crossed Main Street opposite Davis House and “heard a moan” coming from the direction of Post Office Street.
He met policeman J.H. Grady, who said he saw the flash. When they reached Bannatyne’s corner at Post Office Street, Lawler told Grady to take the south side of the street while he took the north side.
Near the crime scene, Lawler encountered McArthur whom he told to remain at hand. Then he met Mary Spence, asking her, “What was up?”
“A man shot,”she replied.
“Who did it?”
The woman said she didn’t know. Spence would turn out to be a poor witness, adding little to the facts other than saying she lit a match and saw a revolver in Gribbon’s hand and none in Bell’s.
At the inquest, witnesses placed Spence, McGillis and Charette in the doorway of the brothel when the shooting occurred — a prime position for viewing the crime.
At the coroner’s inquest, she said she was near the Commercial House on Post Office Street, travelling up the street to tell someone a man had been shot, when she encountered Lawler.
Lawler told Spence to accompany him during his investigation of the crime.
After his investigation, Lawler took Spence, McArthur and Casey in custody, fearing the witnesses would flee before the coroner’s inquest was held. They were taken to the MPP station at 357 Main St. near William Avenue by Grady.
Casey emerged from behind the houses on the south side of Post Office Street, and Lawler testified that “he was drunk and staggering about.”
“I came to where there was a man lying partly in the road and partly on the sidewalk,” Lawler said during the trial. “I then stooped down to pick him up: as I bent over him I found that he breathed very feebly. I then asked the girl Spence if this was the man — she said ‘yes.’”
Lawler and others at the scene later testified no pistol was found by the body.
Lawler told Grady to fetch Dr. Alexander Douglas, who arrived and pronounced Bell dead. During the trial, Dr. Douglas said he found the body lying on its side close to the sidewalk and noticed a stream of blood running from a wound over the face. Dr. Donald Henderson, who performed the post mortem assisted by Dr. Douglas, said the head wound was caused when Bell fell to the ground and did not contribute to the man’s death.
The post mortem revealed that the cause of death was internal hemorrhaging, resulting from a bullet entering between the ribs on the victim’s left side, which passed through the left lung and lodged just under the breastbone. Both doctors said they could feel the ball under the skin.
Lawler said Bell’s body was about 50 or 75 feet from the “Sheds.”
Lawler brought Police Chief Power to the scene and the chief took custody of Bell’s body, while Lawler went off in pursuit of Gribbon with Winnipeg policeman Huston.
Despite earlier admitting his guilt, Gribbon pled not guilty at the October 21 trial. Gribbon told the Free Press reporter and the court, he was extremely drunk at the time of the shooting, but knew what he was doing.
“I would have given myself up when I shot the man, but, having committed so many deeds in the past, I knew I would not get mercy,” Gribbon told the Free Press reporter in April. I pleaded before and got off easy (the rape case), but I do not intend to plead mercy this time.”
There was only one witness for the defence. Dr. A.G. Jackes testified that before the tragic events of April 12, Gribbon “was under medical treatment — suffering from nervous excitement the result of excessive drinking.”
The drunk defence and the question of whether Bell also had a pistol in his hand at the time of shooting had some effect on the jury, since after just two hours of deliberation, it pronounced Gribbon guilty only of manslaughter.
The jury was also swayed by the closing remarks of Gribbon’s attorney, Henry Joseph Clarke. It was later reported “there never was such a speech delivered as Mr. Clarke’s address to the jury (Winnipeg Daily Sun, November 29, 1883). The audience was electrified ... the jury ... strained their necks to catch every word.”
In a complete reversal of the facts behind the crime, Clarke blamed “the proprietors of those houses of ill-fame” for Bell’s murder. According to Clarke, Gribbon had been a victim of circumstances brought on by the prevalence of vice to tempt the unwary.
“These men, gentlemen of the jury, pass for respectable men, they go to church, they offer prayers for the sinful, they give their money to the church, and send missionaries to christianize the heathens in China and Japan, but how do they get their support? I’ll tell you, gentlemen of the jury, on the rental derived from those crevices of hell.”
Gribbon was sentenced to 10 years in prison. If he had been found guilty of murder, Gribbon would have had a date with the hangman’s noose.
The murder case is interesting for two other reasons.
First, the grand jury, which found sufficient evidence to bring Gribbon to trial, said they were expressing the wish of the entire community “in urging upon the authorities to carry with the utmost severity of the law with respect to the carrying of firearms.” Even in 1878, there were public grumblings in favour of gun control.
“Situated as we are with a floating population continually surrounding us,” the jury continued, “some action should he taken to limit this dangerous habit.”
Second, besides ruling that Bell had been willfully murdered, the inquest jury condemned “the practice of a certain proprietor for letting his tenements to disreputable persons, thus changing what would otherwise be a portion of the city, not only more valuable to himself but the whole community, into a hot-bed of vice, disease and death, and hope the authorities will at once take such means as will effectually stamp out this cesspool of iniquity.”
This jury also wanted the authorities to do something about the “practice of carrying ... deadly weapons,” calling upon the provincial and municipal governments to enforce existing laws enacted to suppress the practice.
Although a reward for the apprehension of the criminal was mentioned during the inquest, the only person specifically singled out in newspapers as receiving any money was Laderoute, who got $25.
After the inquest, the body of murder victim Daniel Bell was transported to Minnesota for burial by his friends and widowed mother.
Apparently, Gribbon’s Winnipeg encounter with the law failed to teach him a lesson. It was reported that prior to sentencing, a skeleton key, file and small saw blade were found in his cell in the provincial jail. As a result, he was hurried off to Stony Mountain penitentiary.
When the escape tools were found, Gribbon was said to have exclaimed, “That’s a bad give away.” If the tools had not been discovered and they had been in his possession for another night, Gribbon told officials, he would have made good his escape.
A year later, Gribbon did escape from Stony Mountain through the guard room window. He walked to Emerson, crossed the U.S.-Manitoba border and made his way to Grand Forks.
On November 24, 1879, the Daily Free Press reported Gribbon had been arrested by authorities in Grand Forks, Dakota Territories. Gribbon was followed by steamboat men who recognized him as the murderer of their friend Bell and reported his whereabouts to the law. MMP Chief Power was notified and came to Grand Forks to take custody, but this is when the tale of Gribbon takes another strange turn.
All the efforts to have Gribbon extradited under the terms of the Ashburton Treaty between Britain and the U.S. failed, as there was a provision in the treaty for murder but not for the sentence of manslaughter. On a technicality, Gribbon was let free despite the protests of Canadians and Grand Forks residents who didn’t want a murderer let loose in their midst. At the time of his extradition hearing, it was reported that Gribbon said he would “rather die than go back to Manitoba.” Gribbon was later reported to be in Montana.
On November 29, 1883, the Daily Sun reported Gribbon was recaptured in Brandon. His recapture was too hastily reported as the Gribbon arrested was not the murderer Gribbon. On the morning of November 29, Gribbon, alias Charles Sherman, was found in bed by Brandon police. Gribbon offered no resistance, although he had the means at hand. “It was found he had a revolver under his pillow, and judging from his hard-looking countenance would have made a hard fight had he not been caught unprepared.”
Winnipeg policemen came to Brandon and confirmed that the man in custody was not John Gribbon. He was actually another liquor runner named Jacob “Jack” Gribbon, alias Sweatman.
John Gribbon, the real murderer, continued to elude police.