Nanaimo author Jan Peterson explains in her book Hub City why Nanaimo’s entire police force quit in 1905. CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

Timeless Tales: The day Nanaimo’s entire police force quit

Visits to Nanaimo’s red light district prompted untimely resignation of Nanaimo’s police force.

Nanaimo contributed its share of moments to B.C.’s history of frontier law and order.

In 1852, the province’s first hanging happened at Gallows Point – originally called Execution Point – when two men accused of a murder in Victoria had their sentences carried out on the southern point of Protection Island.

Public intoxication accounted for the majority of cases before the courts back in the day, but policing the region could quickly turn nasty. Notorious American criminal Henry Wagner, also known as the Flying Dutchman to U.S. authorities who wanted him for murder and piracy, was hanged on Skinner Street in 1913 for shooting and killing Const. Harry Westaway during a robbery attempt in Union Bay.

But in January 1905, Nanaimo’s police chief James Crossan and city constables Jacob Neen and George A. Thompson walked off the job under accusations of neglect of duty, based on complaints received from the minister of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Rev. D.A. McRae that dated from 1895, when he claimed the constables were seen gambling in the Crescent Hotel downtown. Crossan was allegedly seen entering through the back door of an establishment at 61 Fraser St. in Nanaimo’s red light district.

“I don’t know if he personally saw these things or if people had reported them to him, but he was a bit concerned about what was happening on Fraser Street and the red light district in Nanaimo,” said Jan Peterson, author of Hub City, which chronicles Nanaimo’s history from 1886 to 1920.

“Apparently the constable and the chief of police had been seen going into this address on Fraser Street and he didn’t come right back out. By account they stayed for over an hour. Oh, my goodness.”

Crossan was accused of buying liquor and cigars, contrary to the law, during his visit. He apparently never discussed it publicly, but considering the crime in Nanaimo averaged about a dozen cases a month for things like vagrancy, public intoxication, offensive language, selling liquor to minors, obstructing a sidewalk and allowing cattle run amok, it’s understandable the men might find ways to kill spare time on their hands. The accusations helped fuel what appeared to be an already existing power struggle between the police commission, which took its direction from the province and the city, which had to pay for the police force’s administration, uniforms and salaries.

“Up until that time [1894] the city was in control of the police,” Peterson said. “Then they made an amendment to the municipal act, which meant that they had to form a police commission.”

After 10 years of wrangling between city council and the police commission, the police commission finally advised the men to resign and accepted the resignations, even though no neglect of duty charges were ever brought against the men. It also left the commission and the city in an uncomfortable position when it was suggested the former police chief and constables appeal to the B.C. attorney general to form a royal commission to investigate the matter.

With job openings for a new police chief and constable, Nanaimo Mayor Albert Planta, put a call out for men to apply for the positions. (The chief of police position, Peterson noted in her book, paid $90 per month provided a home, rent-free. The constable’s pay was $80 per month.)

The police commission, possibly in a show of independence from city council and probably to save face, decided the citizens of Nanaimo should appoint the new police chief and constables by voting for the field of candidates, which included five applicants for police chief and 12 applicants for the constable position.

But on the day of the vote, the police commissioners dumped the idea for the public vote and just went ahead and appointed the new chief and constables, giving Crossan and Neen, who were among the applicants, their old jobs back.

Crossan stayed on as chief until 1912 when Neen succeeded him as police chief and held the job until 1920.



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