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Chapter XXXVI


from Memoirs of a great detective:
incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray

compiled by Victor Speer

ONE-EYED Ranse Forbes was considered the best shot in his section of the county of Elgin. Ranse lived near Eden, in the township of Bayham. He had a sister, Jennie, and the two frequently visited at the home of Lewis N. Stillwell, a young farmer, who lived with his wife and two children in the same township of Bayham. Ranse and Mrs. Stillwell were old acquaintances, and Stillwell and Ranse's sister had known each other for a long time.

   "On New Year's Day, 1885," says Murray, "Ranse and his sister Jennie, and Albert Thomas, the son of a neighbouring farmer, were at the Stillwells'. It was a jolly party. Stillwell was about thirty-five years old, Ranse was twenty-eight years old, and Thomas, the youngest of the three, was twenty-two years old. They had a fine dinner at the Stillwells' that day. A neighbour who asked for Stillwell that evening was told he had gone to his father's house. Forbes and Thomas told other neighbours that Stillwell had started on the afternoon of New Year's Day to visit his parents. The parents had seen nothing of him, so on the following Saturday a searching party was organised, and fields and woods were beaten, and the body of Stillwell was found in a clump of woods some distance from his house. He was dead.

   "A bullet hole in the back of the head and a hole in the forehead showed how he had died. I went to the place. The shot had been a beauty. It required a perfect marksman to put a bullet in the head so it would bore, as it came out, a hole directly through the centre of the forehead. I learned that Ranse had borrowed a forty-four calibre Spencer repeating rifle on December 26th from a man named Rutherford. I learned also by thorough inquiry that Forbes had bought a box of forty-four calibre cartridges at Golding's. I questioned young Thomas. He was not communicative. In fact, after I had left him he said to a friend, 'The authorities will have to stretch my neck as long as a fence rail before I'll squeal.'

   "No one had even suggested squealing or confessing to this young man, so far as I knew. But I promptly heard what he had said, and it decided me finally as to my course in the case. I learned from the women at the Stillwell house on New Year's Day that after dinner on that day Stillwell, Forbes, and Thomas went down to the clump of woods in which Stillwell's body was found. I learned also that along towards twilight Forbes and Thomas returned to the Stillwell house alone. They were committed for trial.

   "Soon after they were committed, a magistrate of the neighbourhood came to me, and asked if Thomas could tell the whole truth. Thomas's father and sister had called on him. I saw Judge Hughes, and Thomas was called in before Forbes and Mrs. Stillwell, and he, the young man whose neck would be stretched as long as a fence rail before he would squeal, voluntarily confessed, and told his story of what had happened. He said that after the three entered the woods, Forbes walking behind, shot Stillwell in the back of the head, the bullet passing out through the forehead. Forbes and Thomas then returned to the house, leaving Stillwell dead in the woods. When they arrived at the house, said Thomas, Forbes said to Mrs. Stillwell, 'Come back to the kitchen.' When she went to the kitchen, said Thomas, Forbes told her, 'We've done the job.'

   "The trial was held at the Spring Assizes. Judge Matthew Cruiks Cameron, of whose extensive career as a defender of prisoners I already have spoken, presided at the trial, as he had become a judge some years before. McDougal and Robertson were counsel for the accused, and Colter, of Cayuga, prosecuted. The defence, of course, knew that young Thomas was to testify against Forbes. They set out to nullify his testimony. They got some one into the gaol who talked that Forbes was going on the stand and swear that it was Thomas, not he, who did the shooting. When Thomas was on the witness-stand at the trial, he was asked in cross-examination if he had heard any one say that Forbes had stated he would swear Thomas did the shooting? Thomas replied that he had heard such talk.

   "'Who was doing the talking, did you think?' he was asked.

   "I thought detectives were those talking it,' he answered.

   "Judge Cameron discarded his evidence. The defence made an able fight, and the verdict was acquittal.

   "I was in California on another case at the time of the trial, and was not present during any part of it. The case was one of interest at the time, for the public seemed to have well-defined ideas as to how the death of Stillwell had occurred. Confessions are not always effective, even if they should happen to be true in every detail. The circumstances surrounding every episode of significance in a case are certain to weigh heavily one way or the other. I have seen direct evidence, given under unfavourable circumstances, thrown out or rendered ineffective by reason of these very disadvantages of circumstances. Circumstantial evidence is harder to upset than direct evidence in certain respects. A positive fact, relying on a direct statement for its confirmation, may fail by reason of the statement being involved in extraneous matters damaging to its own good repute or validity. A positive fact, borne out by circumstances, needs no further confirmation.

   "The Stillwell case demonstrated clearly that some one was lying desperately. Thomas said Forbes shot Stillwell. Thomas's statement was discounted because some one had stated Forbes said Thomas shot Stillwell. The accident theory, that Stillwell had shot himself, did not figure in the case. But the chief interest of the case, to my mind, was not in its mystery, for after the evidence was collected there was no mystery about it, but in the clever evasion of the effects of a damaging confession. And after all, young Thomas's neck was not stretched as long as a fence rail.

   "The results of such a trial are permanent, even where there is an acquittal. For instance, in the township of Bayham, the entire countryside does not puzzle still as to who killed Stillwell. The trial served some good ends. The verdict was 'Not guilty.' The people heard it, and went on about their business. That was the only thing to do.

   "Jennie Forbes, Ranse's' sister, afterwards married the turnkey of the St. Thomas gaol."

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