From January to May of 1933 a sensational story captured the headlines of the Smithers Interior News. “Fire Probe Conducted,” proclaimed a prominent title on January 25th. “Dawson to Face Charge of Arson” was the update on February 22nd. Three of the four pages of the April 5th edition were taken up by an account of the E.C. Dawson preliminary hearing. The captivating story riveted Interior News readers, and was no doubt the talk of the town. Nearly 90 years later, it remains a sensational story.
Who was E.C. Dawson?
Ernest Claude Dawson was born on September 14th 1900 in Assiniboia East (today the North West Territories) to English immigrants Mary and William Dawson. Around 1918 the Dawsons moved to Smithers, where William worked as a clerk for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. In March of 1927, Ernest married Lois Devoin, daughter of Louis and Annie Devoin of Hazelton.
In May of 1927, Ernest ventured into a new business, opening a men’s clothing store on Main Street in Smithers. The store sold “a complete stock of men’s clothing and furnishings“, and was marketed to the discerning gentleman shopper; an Interior News article describing the new store stated that Ernest planned to keep only a “small clean stock of seasonable goods in the very latest styles“.
The Fire of 1930
On September 25th 1930, a fire broke out around 5am in the building that housed Ernest’s store. The shop and the apartment where Ernest, Lois, and their children lived were completely destroyed. The fire was first spotted by a man named Harry Johnson, who spotted smoke emanating from the building. Ernest and his brother-in-law John Devoin, who was staying with him at the time, were roused by Johnson and exited safely. Lois and the children were not at home; they had stayed at her parent’s house that night.
Fires were quite common in the first few decades of Smithers history; it was not until after the devastating Main Street fires of the late 1940s that water lines and hydrants were finally installed by the Village of Smithers. As with all fires, the “bucket brigade” of volunteer fire fighters did their very best to stop the spread, even employing the brand new fire truck for the first time. Despite their efforts, the fire burned out of control. The Interior News cited a “large pile of rubbish near the rear door” that may have helped to fuel the flames.
In total the losses of the building and clothing stock were estimated at about $12,000 (approximately $175,000 today), but “considerable” insurance was carried on both, according to the newspaper. The building itself was not owned by Ernest, but he did lose the store fixtures, his entire clothing stock, and his family’s possessions.
The Fire of 1932
Life in Smithers continued on. The Depression, which had started in 1929, brought financial hardship to the town. Ernest was now in his early thirties. His livelihood had been destroyed, and he appears to have had few prospects in a time of great unemployment. Despite presumably receiving some insurance payouts, he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1931. By 1932 his family (himself, Lois, and their two children) had moved into a bedroom in William and Mary Dawson’s house on Broadway Avenue. All of this likely felt quite humiliating in an era when a man’s self-worth was closely aligned with his ability to support his family .
At the end of the year, disaster struck again: William and Mary’s house burned to the ground on Christmas Eve. Thankfully no one was home at the time, but all contents in the home were proclaimed destroyed. It was a terrible loss to both families.
To make matters worse for the Dawsons, something about this second fire – perhaps the size of the blaze, perhaps whispers from neighbours – raised the suspicions of the local police, who began investigating the incident.
Accusations of Arson
An official probe into the house fire began in January 1933. There were questions – and conflicting answers – regarding the whereabouts of Ernest and Lois prior to the fire breaking out. Perhaps most damningly, police officers discovered a considerable number of supposedly-destroyed possessions hidden in a garage and other out-buildings on the property after the fire.
Deputy Fire Marshall W. Walker, conducting the probe on behalf of the provincial fire marshal’s department, grilled Ernest and Lois on the items that had miraculously been saved: toys previously seen by witnesses under the Christmas tree, an heirloom brooch of Mary Dawson’s, clothing and other personal effects that would normally be used day-to-day in the house. Few of the items had any reason to be in an exterior shed. The fact that Ernest had been in talks to purchase a candy store in Williams Lake, but couldn’t explain how he had planned to afford it, raised more suspicion. Even Christmas decorations were scrutinized – apparently the Dawsons had “overdecorated” with evergreen boughs, and it was suggested that this was intentional, to help fuel the flames. The evidence seemed to be mounting against Ernest. At the end of the inquiry the police had also decided to also take a second look at the clothing store fire of 1930.
Charges soon followed. “Dawson to Face Charge of Arson” proclaimed the Interior News of February 22nd. When the case finally went to preliminary trial in March, Ernest Dawson officially faced two counts of arson: one for setting fire to his business in 1930, and one for setting fire to his parents’ house in 1932. It is likely that these charges would have made Ernest (and by proximity, his wife Lois) a social pariah. The idea that someone would intentionally set a fire that could have devastated entire blocks of the community would have been unthinkable.
Hearing from the Witnesses
The preliminary hearing into the arson charges was heard by Magistrate R.L. Gale at the Smithers courthouse (today the Central Park Building, home to the Bulkley Valley Museum) in late March 1933. Both this preliminary hearing and the eventual trial involved testimony from a number of witnesses, including Ernest’s parents, Mary and William, Lois’ sister Dorothy Lewis, Lois’ brother John Devoin (who had been with Ernest the night of the 1930 fire), and several neighbours and other citizens who had either witnessed the fires or were familiar with Ernest’s financial situation at the time of the 1930 fire. Among these witnesses were Ernest Hann, L.B. Warner (publisher of the Interior News), Percy Davidson (fire chief at the time), Charles Reid (manager of the Royal Bank in Smithers), Sergeant Andy Fairbairn and Constable Oland of the provincial police detachment in Smithers.¹
On April 5th it was determined that Dawson would face an official trial by jury in Prince Rupert. Dawson was held in prison until the trial, with bail set at a whopping $6000. When the trial finally got underway in May, Ernest was defended by James T. Harvey of Prince Rupert, while Smithers lawyer Leonard Sydney McGill acted as Crown prosecutor.² Close to forty individuals traveled from Smithers to Prince Rupert to participate as witnesses.
The First Trial
The two cases of arson were tried separately. The trial for the 1932 fire was conducted first, with witness testimony beginning on May 5th. Summaries of the trial can be read online through the Prince Rupert Daily News for May 4th, May 5th, and May 6th.³ While we cannot document all of the witness testimony here, evidence against Ernest included:
- that he had been seen alone around the home right before the fire broke out
- that the doors had been locked (perhaps to prevent anyone fighting the fire)
- that a number of personal items including “four trunks, two club bags, suitcase, three cartons, hockey stick, shotgun, overcoat” and a brooch belonging to his mother Mary had been recovered from an exterior shed
- that a $2200 insurance policy had been taken out on the home earlier in December
- at the time of the fire, a $1000 mortgage on the house was owed to Ernest’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Lewis, who received a $1500 insurance payout as a result of the fire.
Ernest’s defense countered with testimony from his father, William Dawson, that explained that personal items had been moved to the garage before the fire due to flooding that had occurred from frost on the house walls melting inside. The logic of burning down his parents’ home when Ernest himself was only an indirect beneficiary was also called into question. The Crown’s case seemed to rely heavily on circumstantial evidence.
On May 8th the jury was given the case, and returned with a verdict after less than fifteen minutes of deliberations: not guilty.
The Second Trial
The second trial for the 1930 fire began on May 10th. Crown Prosecutor McGill outlined his case first, with witnesses testifying that before the 1930 fire, Ernest’s business was in trouble, and he was nearly bankrupt. In the weeks just before the fire, he had purchased $5500 in additional insurance coverage for his business. On the night of the fire he had been seen about the store long after it had closed for the day, and had recently oiled the floors. Those who arrived at the scene that night to help found multiple fires burning throughout the building.
May 11th brought potentially damning testimony from Lois’ siblings. Ernest’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Lewis, testified that before the 1930 fire she had heard Ernest state that he would “have a damn good fire one of these days”, and that after the insurance was paid out for the clothing store she had finally received the $1000 Ernest owed her. John Devoin, Ernest’s brother-in-law, gave perhaps the most remarkable testimony of either trial. He stated in open court that his brother-in-law had discussed his intention to burn down the business on a hunting trip the two of them had been on, and had even asked for John’s help in carrying out the plan (which John had refused to do).
Defense lawyer Harvey countered by questioning the memories of these two key witnesses, and in the case of John Devoin, why he had never come forward to the police before. He claimed that the case against his client had been fueled by gossip in Smithers, and that both of Ernest’s in-laws were “actuated by malice and spite” against their brother-in-law. He countered that Ernest had not actually paid for the additional $5500 insurance at the time of the fire, and had no knowledge that it was in affect. The memory of other witnesses was also called into question, as was the intelligence of Ernest actually burning down his shop after stating he intended to do so, for this exact reason – that they would be able to testify against him later.
The jury was given the case on May 12th, and after nearly two hours of deliberations returned a second not-guilty verdict.
Did He Do It?
Shortly after the trial ended in 1933, Ernest and Lois left Smithers, relocating to Quesnel.4 It seems likely that in the aftermath of the trial that the stigma of bankruptcy and arson, coupled with probable bad blood between Lois and her siblings, was too much to overcome. A fresh start was the best way forward for the family.
Whether Ernest Dawson actually was an arsonist remains lost to history. The testimony from Ernest’s brother and sister-in-law for the 1930 fire is quite damning, and while the evidence and direct motive for the 1932 fire remains murky at best, it remains highly suspicious that so many of their worldly goods just happened to make it into an outside shed. It remains possible that Ernest and Lois Dawson were just that unlucky. Stranger things have happened, and fires certainly were common in the early decades of Smithers history.
A search through the Cariboo Observer newspaper from Quesnel from the years 1934 to 1962 does not bring to light any further accusations of arson connected to the Dawsons. Ernest Dawson passed away on December 25th 1962 at the age of 62. Lois lived to be 80, passing away on May 18th 1987.
If you had been on the jury, how might you have voted?
1. Thank you to Dirk Mendel for the considerable work he has done filling out the records of the Smithers Cemetery on the Find A Grave website. Search the Smithers Cemetery by clicking here.
2. Leonard Sydney McGill came to Smithers around 1920, and established his law practice at the corner of Third Avenue and Main Street. McGill was an extremely engaged citizen, serving (at various points between 1920-1934) as President of the District Board of Trade, President of the Associated Board of Trade of Northern B.C., Secretary and Treasurer of the Smithers Miner’s and Prospector’s Association, President of the Omineca Chamber of Mines, President of the Smithers & District Chamber of Commerce. McGill died in 1934 at the young age of 43. His death was considered a great loss to the community. An obituary in the Omineca Herald lamented his death, stating that “in his passing Smithers lost one of its most valuable citizens…there is general regret throughout the entire community”.
3. With LB. Warner caught up in the trial as a witness, the Interior News’s accounts of the trial are largely focused on the preliminary hearings of April (which capture much of the same information), and a small article about the outcome of the trial in the May 17th edition.
4. Ernest’s name first appears in the Quesnel newspaper, the Cariboo Observer, in January 1934.