“If Vancouver were south of the Mason Dixon line there would be a lynching today,” began an editorial in the Daily World on 9 October 1922. The occasion was the death of 23 year-old Robert McBeath, a Victoria Cross recipient and one of Vancouver’s finest. Constable McBeath was fatally shot at the corner of Granville and Davie streets after he and Detective Quirk stopped a car allegedly being driven erratically.
The driver and shooter was Fred Deal, a black sleeping-car porter. Passed out drunk in the seat beside him was Marjorie Earl, the owner of both the car and the police revolver Deal was packing. She was a white woman, well known to the police because she ran a bawdyhouse out of her Granville Street apartment. That’s where they were headed when the two officers jumped on the running boards and ordered Deal to stop the car. They pulled him out of the vehicle and soon after McBeath lay dying on the sidewalk from a gunshot wound just below his heart.
The World assured its readers that British justice did not lag behind the lynch-mob justice of the Jim Crow south. It confidently predicted McBeath’s murderer would “surely hang at the end of hempen rope by due process of law, after his guilt has been formally established in court.”
Mayor Tisdall responded to the incident with instructions for the chief constable to “rid the city of all undesirables.” The police, declared the mayor, were to raid pool rooms, “questionable” hotels, dance halls, and “lower class clubs,” as well as monitor all boat and train arrivals for suspicious-looking “riff-raff” looking to settle in Vancouver. Chief Anderson soon announced the formation of an armed flying squad that would assist regular police patrols with the crackdown. He issued Order No. 382 authorizing police retaliation “in view of the recent tragic murder of our brother officer.” Police were instructed to find evidence that would “secure the conviction or deportation of idle and degenerate men and their paramours” and to arrest “all vagrants of every description: poolroom loafers, drug fiends, bootleggers, and so on.”
Officialdom did not specify the race of undesirables to be culled from the city, but black residents knew that Fred Deal’s race meant the fall-out would hit them hardest. Nora Hendrix (grandmother of Jimi) recalled the backlash: “Everybody was all mad about this coloured boy shooting a policeman. Well, you know, that put a damper on where the coloured boys were working in different places, it made it hard for them, they want to bar them out.” This was the reason Ross Hendrix, her husband and a former Chicago police special, was rejected for a job he had been promised cleaning the men’s restroom at the corner of Main and Hastings. “There was some excuse,” Nora Hendrix reflected decades later.
The “excuse” for the backlash assumed not only that Fred Deal was somehow a representative of his race, but also that Robert McBeath exemplified his. McBeath joined the police force two years earlier, shortly after arriving from Scotland and at a time when it was understood only Scots need apply to the police department. There were some exceptions by the 1920s, but for most of the force, McBeath was a compatriot as well as a fellow officer. His Victoria Cross symbolized that he was the best the British Empire, Scotland, and the Vancouver Police Department had to offer.
For people like the editor of the World, it was an open-and-shut case and a trial was merely an obligatory formality. After all, the incident seemed to affirm the fear-mongering of contemporary racists: a “crazed negro” denizen of the underworld murders a heroic white police officer in cold blood. Judge W. A. McDonald wanted justice to be swift and saw no valid reason for prolonging the process. He denied motions to have the trial moved out of Vancouver and postpone it to the spring assizes. Both motions were filed by Deal’s lawyer in an attempt to offset the hostile racial climate in the wake of McBeath’s death. Less than a month after the shooting, Fred Deal was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang by the neck until dead.
As extraordinary as the incident was, it was not unprecedented. In 1917, Bob Tait, described as a “drug-crazed negro” in the press, initiated a shoot-out with police and killed Chief Constable McLennan and an eight-year old boy before committing suicide. That grisly drama began before the police were called with the landlord and his hireling breaking into Tait’s apartment, demanding rent, intimidating his white “paramour,” and threatening to kick Tait’s face in. By killing himself, Tait denied police the chance to avenge their chief, although they did try, unsuccessfully, to have his companion convicted for McLennan’s murder.
The 1917 cop-killing was fodder for celebrated suffragist and magistrate Emily Murphy to promote the stereotype of black men as dangerous “dope-fiends” in her infamous anti-drug screed, The Black Candle. Published the same year McBeath was killed, The Black Candle links race and drugs and uses the case to illustrate dope-fiend tactics. For Murphy, the evil of drugs was less their detrimental effect on users than it was non-white men using them to corrupt white women. One lurid photograph illustrating her book shows a black man in bed with a white woman with the caption implying he lured her there with drugs.
The Black Candle also describes how drug-addicted sleeping-car porters were disposed to “ignoble and swinish appetites.” Murphy could not imagine “anything more dangerous than a filthy-minded drug-addict in charge of a coach of sleeping people, whatever his color may be.” But though drug addiction was colour-blind, the job market in 1922 was not; most if not all sleeping-car porters were black men like Fred Deal. When the World characterized him as a “drink and drug crazed negro,” it hardly mattered that Fred Deal had never taken drugs.
The year after the 1917 cop-killing, an all-black church, the Fountain Chapel, opened at 823 Jackson Avenue, a few blocks from where Chief McLennan was murdered in Vancouver’s East End (today’s Strathcona). Nora Hendrix explained that she and other black residents got together and decided, “Well, ‘we should get a church of our own.’ Yeah. ‘Ain’t got any other business of our own, so got to get a church anyway, if nothing else.’” The Fountain Chapel housed the local chapter of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which owned the building until the Basel Hakka Lutheran Church took it over in the mid-1980s. By then the chapel was defunct. Few other traces of an East End black community had survived the construction of the Georgia Viaduct off-ramp that obliterated Hogan’s Alley in the early 1970s.
The black population was thinly spread across the city, with the exception of a small concentration that settled around Hogan’s Alley. Sandwiched between Prior and Union streets, Hogan’s Alley extended from the Fountain Chapel on Jackson to Park Lane, the alley just east of Main. This three-block alley stretch was notorious for illicit gambling and drinking that attracted revellers and rowdies from all over the city, including the occasional policeman and politician. Reflecting the immigrant composition of the East End, Hogan’s Alley was a cultural hodgepodge. But with the Fountain Chapel at one end and various southern-style juke joints for dancing and live music, it had a distinctive black flavour not found in any other part of the city.
The best-known Hogan’s Alley resident until his death in 1937 was Fielding William Spotts, who came as an infant with a group of black pioneers that migrated to Vancouver Island in 1858 to escape the racism they suffered in California. More typically, black men came to Vancouver like Fred Deal, as railroad porters. Canadian railroad companies recruited black men from the American south and the West Indies, largely to undermine their unionized white employees, and then segregated railroad work as a concession to the white-only union. Black porters who settled in the Terminal City’s East End did so because of its proximity to the train station. Black men also found work as janitors, but few other legitimate occupations were open to them. William Johnston, a friend of Fred Deal who lived on Granville Street when the shooting occurred, made his living betting on racehorses. Johnston fled to Seattle to escape the racial backlash but returned in time for the trial, this time choosing to live near the Fountain Chapel on Jackson Avenue. Black women might find domestic work, as did Nora Hendrix, a vaudeville dancer who earned money in Vancouver doing laundry. Members of this nebulous community mobilized support for Fred Deal, not because they were convinced of his innocence, but because they believed he was a victim of racism.
The first hint during the trial that racism may have played a role in the incident came from Fred Deal’s testimony that McBeath and Quirk beat him the night of the shooting. His account was suspect however, because he initially denied any involvement in the killing or that he was even in the car with Marjorie Earl. But other evidence helped his story of police brutality seem believable by casting doubt on McBeath and Quirk’s motives for pulling him over that night. Several police witnesses, for example, testified that Deal did not seem intoxicated, undermining Detective Quirk’s claim that drunk driving was the reason they had stopped the car. Deal admitted drinking that night, but not enough to make him drunk or incapacitated.
The nature of the relationship between the police and Deal’s white companion, Marjorie Earl, also hinted that the officers may have had personal if not racist reasons for stopping the car. Described with euphemisms like “powdered and painted woman” and “woman of the streets,” Earl was a middle-aged Southern Belle gone astray, known for keeping company with black men. Fred Deal had been staying with her and was employed as her driver. Dressed in furs and accompanied by a younger protégé, Earl basked in her newfound notoriety and charmed reporters at the trial. Two of them offered to write her life story, feeling her “obvious education and good breeding coupled with her present position in life” would make “good copy.”
Earl testified that she was too drunk that night to recollect events leading to McBeath’s death, but under cross-examination she began describing the “friendly” relations she had with police. They frequently visited her apartment, whether they wanted a drink or not, she told the court, implying their visits were not always official. The judge interrupted her testimony to ask if the defence was trying to discredit the entire police force. Earl nevertheless managed to share the story of the police gun Deal used in the shooting. Ex-Inspector Scott had given it to her because he owed her a “considerable sum of money” and Deal must have taken it from her apartment. Although the relationship between Earl and the police was only reluctantly and partially allowed to be aired in court, it was enough to leave the impression that the police were anything but impartial in the case.
The most compelling evidence of police brutality was Fred Deal’s physical appearance in court: “nose split, one eye almost closed, lips puffed and cut and with his face a mass of bruises,” according to the World. In his initial statement in which he denied any involvement, Deal claimed that two men had beaten him “for being a nigger.” He later described how McBeath shouted at him with profane and racialized language, and how both officers clubbed him several times with what felt like a blackjack or the butt of a gun, at one point knocking him to the ground and unconscious.
In countering Deal’s testimony, police witnesses claimed his injuries resulted from beatings he received in custody after McBeath was shot, not before. Sergeant Tuning explained how he became overcome with emotion when he saw Deal in the police station and punched him four times in the head. Deal was also reportedly beaten in the police station elevator and again in his cell.
There were significant discrepancies in police descriptions of Deal’s condition at the time of arrest, ranging from a scratch on the nose to a swollen face and two black eyes. Constable Langham claimed that he had exaggerated the extent of Deal’s injuries at the time of arrest in his earlier testimony to cover-up the in-custody beatings administered by his brother officers. If Langham was willing to commit perjury before, an obvious conclusion would have been that he was just as likely to lie in order to conceal McBeath and Quirk’s initial brutality. Fred Deal may have been an unreliable witness, but no more so than his police accusers.
According to the Vancouver Police Department’s official history, Fred Deal’s death sentence was reduced to life in prison because of the beatings he received while in custody. In reality, the only consequence for those beatings was that Sergeant Tuning received a month-long suspension without pay. The basis of the appeal filed by Deal’s lawyer, C. S. Arnold, was police brutality, but the alleged brutality that occurred before McBeath was shot.
The legal reasoning for the appeal was that the judge’s instructions to the jury precluded any possibility that Deal discharged the gun by “misadventure,” meaning it was an accident and there was no intent to kill. The scenario C. S. Arnold painted was that Deal was so disoriented after being beaten that he was no longer in control of his actions. However ridiculous the judge considered this defence, Arnold argued, the jury should have been allowed to consider it. Instead, the judge’s instructions were that unless the jury believed Deal acted in self-defence or was provoked, they must find him guilty of the capital offence of murder, provided they believed he was holding the gun when McBeath was shot. These instructions ignored the evidence and arguments presented by the defence, but simplified the task of members of the jury, who only required an hour and forty-five minutes of deliberations to find Deal guilty of murder. After the Court of Appeal ruled in C. S. Arnold’s favour, a new trial was scheduled for the following assizes in March 1923.
The second trial was conducted over three days to a packed courtroom. Witnesses repeated their earlier testimonies and new ones offered fresh tidbits for the jury to mull over. One woman recounted overhearing McBeath threaten that “he would get Marjorie Earl and Deal if it took all winter.” McBeath made the comment in reference to another woman who felt threatened by him. “There’s only one woman who needs to be afraid of me,” he allegedly said, “and that’s Marjorie Earl.” Two other witnesses, one for the defence and one for the prosecution, testified hearing profanity from the two officers before McBeath was shot, contradicting Detective Quirk’s version in which they were neither verbally nor physically aggressive until Deal resisted.
On the final day of the trial, hundreds of spectators overflowed the courtroom. The crowd included professionals and businessmen, mothers and babies, the young and old. One reporter was struck by the large number of women present and that many others telephoned to enquire about Deal’s fate. He described a middle-aged black woman in the gallery who was especially moved by the trial: “Every appearance of Deal was the signal for nervous face twitchings and tearfilled eyes or for a handkerchief to be stuffed into her mouth to stifle hastily rising sobs.” Most of Deal’s black supporters were in a section reserved “for the benefit of the colored people of the city.” The sheriff explained that “we didn’t want anyone to say that Deal did not get a fair trial on account of his color or anything else, so we arranged that his friends could see everything that went on.”
In contrast to the first trial, the jury deliberated for ten and a half hours, a new record in Vancouver. Many spectators made a full day of it, having packed lunches and sharing with those who didn’t. Few expected an acquittal or another murder verdict; bets were on manslaughter or a hung jury. It was after midnight when the jury finally re-emerged. Everyone but reporters and court officials had risen to their feet and were leaning forward in anticipation when the foreman pronounced Fred Deal guilty of manslaughter. An incipient burst of applause was cut short by the sheriff and judge demanding order.
About twenty police officers were scattered throughout the room in case the verdict triggered any disturbances. Police suspected an attempt might be made to free Deal, and the Sun reported that rumours had been circulating since the first trial that violence was planned both “against and on behalf of the prisoner.” Such rumours proved unfounded as the crowd was well behaved. A group of people gathered outside hoping for one final glimpse of Fred Deal before he was transported back to the Oakalla prison farm in Burnaby. Just to be safe, Inspector Cruikshank of the BC Provincial Police decided it was best to postpone moving the prisoner until the crowd had dispersed.
Some of Fred Deal’s black supporters had hoped for an acquittal, but all were elated their efforts had helped save his life. “Ah jes’ cahnt praise de Lawd enuff,” the World quoted one woman, being sure to emphasize her dialect. “Ah’ve been prayin’ an’ prayin’ an’ prayin’ right here ever since that jury went out, an’ now look. Ever’thin’s all bright an’ fair.” Both the judge and Reverend U. S. Robinson of the Fountain Chapel credited “British justice” for a trial they felt was fair and free of racism. Whether it was divine intervention, the inherent fairness of the British legal system, or his lawyer’s savvy that saved Fred Deal from the gallows, certainly Deal’s supporters deserve a share of the credit. Their impressive showing injected a mindfulness into the proceedings that ensured Fred Deal was tried for his actions, not his race.
Newspaper accounts only offer a brief glimpse of developments outside the formal proceedings. Reverend Robinson visited Fred Deal on death row, baptized him, and brought him reading material. Deal said later that he entered the second trial with a hope he did not have in the first one. No doubt he was buoyed by the generous moral support, and probably more so by the defence fund that was set up, presumably through the Fountain Chapel. If C. S. Arnold’s participation in the appeal process was at all contingent on his legal fees, the contribution of Deal’s supporters was decisive in saving his life. At the very least, their participation would have made it easier for Arnold to muster a vigorous defence at the second trial and perhaps instilled him with confidence that an appeal was viable in the first place.
Fred Deal’s trial did not prove that McBeath and Quirk racially targeted him for brutality for being with a white woman, as C. S. Arnold surmised, but the evidence showed that possibility to be more than remote. Nor can it be said definitively that the expediency and outcome of the first trial were products of racism. Deal’s supporters certainly believed they were however, and there was sufficient evidence for the second jury to have reasonable doubt that events unfolded the way police said. McBeath’s death was indeed tragic and for that Fred Deal paid with a life sentence, but he did not die because Deal was a “crazed negro.” What the trial did prove, with the help of Deal’s supporters, was that race makes a poor substitute for establishing murderous intent.
The trial of Fred Deal was pivotal for Vancouver’s prewar black population. It was an early instance in which they came together as a community to defend one of its members against racism. The Fountain Chapel served a similar function on at least one other occasion. In the early 1950s, friends of Clarence Clemons, a black longshoreman who had been beaten by the police, looked to Reverend J. Ivan Moore for help lobbying for an inquiry. A coroner’s inquest was eventually held because Clemons lapsed into a coma and died after his ordeal. The police were exonerated of any wrongdoing, but a study of the case by historian Ross Lambertson indicates that relations between the Vancouver police and the black community had not improved since the 1920s.
Vancouver’s white supremacists were enjoying a heyday in the 1920s, but most, including the local Ku Klux Klan, were more preoccupied with the larger Asian population. There were too few blacks to be construed as a threat to the “white man’s province” and they therefore were not targeted by political campaigns like the one that led to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act. Nora Hendrix’s son Al claimed that the number of blacks in the city in the 1930s was so small that they all knew each other. Yet just because they were off the political radar does not mean black Vancouverites were exempted from racism. The court’s responsiveness to concerns about racism in the second trial probably did not reflect a commitment to racial equality. More likely, the trial was a chance to tout the superiority of the British justice system compared to the barbaric vigilantism that was rampant in the American south. At the same time, the episode demonstrated that the distance between Vancouver and the Mason Dixon line was not as great as some would have liked to believe.