“The Marshall Murder! Murderer Cleverly Captured!! The Pursuers Unarmed!!!”
Such, with no fewer than six exclamation points, were the headlines of the Nov. 28, 1890 issue of the Nanaimo Daily Free Press. Less than a week and a half later, the Press would report the outcome of the resulting trial and the culprit’s sentence. That could never happen in today’s judicial system — and if it did it would warrant more than exclamation points!
This shoot-em-up from our frontier past began the day before with a friendly mid-afternoon game of seven-up for drinks between proprietor George Dunbar, James Marshall and Cipriano Luperini in the Italian Hotel, at the corner of Haliburton and Needham. Watching while Marshall and Luperini bet a dollar a hand on the side were John Whitfield, J. Lynch and John “Texas Jack” Carragh. When Marshall asked Dunbar, who surrendered his seat to Carragh, for a stake, the obliging hotelier stacked $5 in silver on the table in front of him.
With a swipe of his hand, Luperini scooped up $3, the amount that he claimed Marshall already owed him, and put the coins in his pocket. The young Scotsman ordered Luperini to put them back. Luperini refused, words ensued and they began fighting until Dunbar managed to separate them. As the 33-year-old Marshall stepped towards the bar, Luperini drew a revolver (described as being a new one because of its shiny appearance). Before Dunbar could complete the sentence — “For God’s sake, don’t fire—!” Luperini, who hadn’t spoken since he and Marshall were separated, squeezed the trigger from just 10 feet distant.
“Oh, Whitfield, Whitfield,” cried Marshall. Struck in the left side, he fell to the floor and, 10 minutes later, expired. By then his slayer had fled up Haliburton Street. A teamster later spotted him on the Wellington road. He jumped into the bushes when he saw the wagon approaching and another man gave pursuit but he got away. When next seen, he was eating a loaf of bread by the cemetery. Peter Boyle gave chase but Luperini, propelled by fear, widened the distance between them.
When both men saw a wagon load of miners headed for the Northfield Mine, Boyle raised the alarm and the slayer plunged into the bush. Several of the miners joined Boyle in the pursuit but soon gave it up. As the determined Boyle headed back to town, he ran into William Jones who, with his crew, was erecting a fence. Jones, A. Stepney, J. McMilan and Waddy Hilbert joined with him to form an unofficial posse and all hastened to where Luperini was last seen.
Boyle and McMilan soon spotted him but, sure that he was armed, they waited for the others to catch up. As all four approached the wanted man who was hiding behind a log, they saw that he appeared to be exhausted after his rainy night in the bush. Jones placed his hand on his hip pocket (where he kept his two-foot ruler) and made as though he was reaching for a pistol as he called out to Luperini to give up because he was surrounded and had no chance for escape.
It was all too much for the wanted man who, although he still had his pistol, made no further resistance. While headed back to town, the posse encountered Sheriff Sam Drake and relinquished their haggard prisoner. As a charge of “wilful murder” was read against him, Luperini stroked his moustache with his head down as he struggled to collect his thoughts. It was surmised that his lack of real resistance was because he hadn’t been aware that his victim had died.
In the meantime, the body of James Marshall, a native of Bothkenner, Stirlingshire, had been removed to the undertaking parlors to await the inquest and funeral.
Just four days later, a preliminary hearing was held before Stipendiary magistrate J.P. Planta and Mayor John Hilbert. While questioning Dunbar, Luperini made several unsuccessful attempts to have the hotelier confirm his version of events: that he’d won three bets, that Marshall owed him $3, that Marshall had provoked the fight by grabbing him by his collar and pushing him into a corner and repeatedly striking him about the face, that he’d warned Marshall to back off with “a motion of my hand to my pocket.”
John Carragh, however, backed him up almost to the letter, stating further that Marshall had called Luperini a “damned s– of a b–” and declared that he’d knock his head off.
The final witness was Dr. L.T. Davis — who refused to give testimony (to the effect that the deceased had died of internal hemorrhage) until he was paid in advance because the city already owed him for services previously rendered!
After presenting virtually no defence, Luperini’s counsel tried to impress upon the jury that Marshall’s death was manslaughter not murder, that the victim was known to be quarrelsome, that his client had acted in a rage without premeditation. After just seven minutes’ deliberation the jury returned a verdict of guilty of manslaughter.
“You have barely escaped the capital crime for which you were indicted,” intoned the judge. “It appears you were in the wrong, you commenced the quarrel, you had no right to take the money from the table, it did not belong to you, and Marshall was a defenceless man, and after you were parted you shot him down. It ought to be a lesson to all those who are here not to carry weapons. If you [the prisoner] had not carried them you would not be here now. I shall now pass a sentence of 14 years in the penitentiary.”
That’s the way it was in the good old days — even in seemingly civilized Nanaimo. The Hub City may not have been part of the so-called Wild West but it was still, after all, on the Canadian frontier.