From hangings to hauntings

Nanaimo's long and often checkered past holds fascination for residents and visitors.

Aimee Greenaway

Aimee Greenaway

From haunts to hangings, this coastal community has its share of campfire stories.

While Nanaimo is best known for its chocolate sweet treat and annual Bathtub race, the darker side of the city’s history has also seen its share of attention. The haunted Beban mansion was featured on Creepy Canada in 2003 – an episode that’s garnered more than 9,000 YouTube views – and the Nanaimo Museum’s lantern tour on local stories like the Flying Dutchman and Kanaka Pete sold out last year, prompting organizers to triple the number of tours.

We put together a few of the city’s stories.

Nanaimo’s last hanging

Early in the morning on Aug. 25, 1913, a black hood was pulled over the face of prisoner Henry Wagner in the yard of Nanaimo’s provincial jail house. He would be the last man hanged in the city.

Wagner, known as the Flying Dutchman, had been raiding coastal communities and escaping by motorboat until his crime spree led him to a Union Bay store in March that year. There, he was confronted by two police officers, one of which was shot and killed in a gun fight during the robbery. Wagner was tried and sentenced to capital punishment.

On the day of his execution, people gathered outside were quiet and subdued, according to a Daily Free Press article. An “ominous scaffold” was in the corner of the jail yard connected to the ground by a gangway and from the centre beam hung a coil of rope.

“Whilst the Salvation Army officer intoned the Lord’s Prayer, the leg straps were quickly adjusted and the black cap was pulled down over the wretched man’s face, shutting out his last glimpse of life,” the reporter wrote.

More than a century later, the Nanaimo museum still has what’s thought to be the black hood and the rope used to hang the Dutchman and staff members take people to the site of the old hanging yard, which its curator believes was on Skinner Street between the back of 235 Bastion St. and Club 241.

Gallows Point

After an infamous river-side chase and the first jury trial under English Law on the West Coast, two aboriginal men were executed on Douglas Island.

On Jan. 17, 1883, two young aboriginal men from Cowichan and Nanaimo were hung after being found guilty of shooting and killing a shepherd with the Hudson Bay Company.

Governor James Douglas wanted to establish law and order in the new colony of Vancouver Island and after the murder, sent a ship from Victoria to apprehend the two suspects. One of the men, the son of a Nanaimo chief, ran. He was tracked in the snow to what is now called Chase River, where he was captured and arrested. Both men were tried on the deck of the SS Beaver and hung that same afternoon.

The site of their execution, on what’s now Protection Island, is called Gallows Point.

Beban House

Nanaimo’s Beban House has become a well-known haunt in the Harbour City, with stories of faucets turning on by themselves and unexplainable sounds.

Lee Mason, a former tenant of the old mansion, recalls hearing a ball bounce down the stairs while she worked late at night – but thought she imagined it when she couldn’t find the ball. While former Tourism Nanaimo executive director Mark Drysdale still can’t explain how his cat escaped a locked room at Beban House, let alone how it failed to set off the building’s alarms.

“It’s a very, cool, cool old house with lots of history and if it had some ghosts, all the better for it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question that Beban was and probably still is the most well-known haunted establishment in Nanaimo.”

The log house was built in 1930 by Frank Beban, a wealthy sawmill owner who owned 160 acres of land at North Field. The $25,000 mansion is considered a rare example of rustic-style architecture and is protected under the municipal heritage designation bylaw.

Kanaka Pete

On Dec. 4, 1868, four bodies were found in the home of a Nanaimo coal miner.

Police launched a manhunt to find Peter Kakua, a coal miner of Hawaiian descent also known as Kanaka Pete, who had been missing from the home. He was found sitting beside a fire on Newcastle Island and taken into custody, where the details of the multiple murder came to light.

After learning his aboriginal wife was leaving him and returning home to find her packing up her things with his child and in-laws, he left and later, came back intoxicated. When a fight ensued, Kakua said he grabbed an axe and swung indiscriminately until he collapsed in exhaustion. He was charged with the murder of his family and found guilty in a Victoria court room.  He was returned to the gaol under the Bastion in Nanaimo and  executed in March 1869.

Being of neither Caucasian nor First Nations descent, Kakua could not be buried in any of the city’s cemeteries and was instead interred on his last place of freedom – the east side of Newcastle Island.

Thirty years later, the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company unearthed Kakua’s coffin as they dug for a new coal mine. Kakua was reburied in another unmarked grave.

“That’s a big campfire story on Newcastle Island – that he still haunts Kanaka Bay,” said Aimee Greenaway, interpretation curator for the Nanaimo Museum.

– with files from Melissa Fryer, News Bulletin