The CPR freight shed in the early 1900s

The CPR freight shed in the early 1900s

Murder at the Freight Shed

Janus: Cranbrook Then and Now returns to the Cranbrook Daily Townsman with another three seasons of mind-blowing heritage.

Barry Coulter

Late on the night of March 27, 1899, Felice Pasto, his crony Mike Messico and two others arrived at the house of Jennie Howard, a well-know madame in Cranbrook’s red-light district on Clark (6th) Avenue, near Van Horne Street.

The men, having visited two other houses in the district and obviously drunk, approached the residence seeking admission. Miss Howard refused and the men became abusive. Two hangers-on at the Howard place, W.A. Matheson and William “Kid” Mansfield, took it upon themselves to confront the group outside. They were quickly chased back indoors whereupon Mansfield seized an iron poker and, with Matheson, ventured once more into the fray. Matheson struck Messico with his fist while Mansfield dealt Pasto a blow across the face with the poker before again retreating to the house. It appeared the melee was over and the visitors appeared to leave the area soon thereafter.

The CPR freight shed, constructed in September, 1898, stood near Van Horne Street across from the houses of prostitution and it was near there shortly after midnight that witnesses described hearing men arguing followed by two gunshots. CPR employee John Scanlan, walking the track a short while later, came upon the body of Edward Ryan, a fellow employee, shot dead near the shed. Ryan, an “inoffensive, good-natured” young man of about 25 years of age, was apparently returning home after spending his day off on a spree of his own. He was accosted by Pasto who, mistaking him for Mansfield, took his revenge on the wrong man.

According to the local coroner’s inquest held the next day, “Edward Ryan came to his death at the hand of F. Pasto,” on March 28, 1899. It was the first murder in the history of Cranbrook.

Pictured: The CPR freight shed has proved a vital addition to the Royal Alexandra Hall since it was moved a few hundred feet north in 1994. The location of the murder of Edward Ryan was likely somewhere in   the southern end of the present day parking lot.

Although the coroner’s verdict was clear, the exact location of the slayer was not. Damion Alfonse, questioned soon afterwards, admitted to being in the company of the accused earlier in the evening and stated that they came to his shack about 1:30 a.m. afterwards, at which point Pasto declared, “I shot the man.” He further stated that he had seen Pasto in possession of a pistol several times previously. He added Pasto and Messico left for Elko intending to head for the United States.

Provincial Police Constable Barnes secured the assistance of Harry McVittie the next morning and together they boarded a freight train headed to Wardner. When they arrived they secured arrest warrants from the local magistrate (Wardner still held some importance at the time as the initial East Kootenay depot of the CPR) and then caught a train to Jaffray where they attempted to board yet another train. Unfortunately it was moving at the time and they could not run fast enough.

They then convinced some CPR section men to take them to Elko via rail handcar. It was a hard pull, as they say, and they gave up three miles west of their destination leaving Barnes and McVittie to walk the remaining distance.

A light snow had fallen the night before and along the way they discovered footprints they believed belonged to the wanted men. They followed the track into Elko, arriving about 8:30 p.m., at a store where Pasto and Messico had bought provisions before continuing their escape.

Barnes and McVittie, electing to stay overnight in Elko, left by wagon the next morning, following the tracks leading towards the Elk River. The culprits apparently tried to ford the river twice and failed both times. The trackers came upon the wanted men standing naked near a fire by the river attempting to dry their clothes. Not surprisingly they put up no resistance.

According to Constable Barnes, Pasto admitted to killing Ryan while Messico denied any involvement in the murder. Pasto’s overcoat contained a pistol which was later determined to be the murder weapon.

The group returned to Elko for the night where Barnes and McVittie, obviously men of some stamina, attended a dance at the local hotel.

The entourage arrived in Cranbrook by train the following evening. A preliminary hearing held on April 6, confirmed the coroner’s findings. Dr. King, who performed the post-mortem, stated that a .38 calibre bullet entered Ryan between the fourth and fifth rib on the right side and passed down through the heart and stomach lodging near the eleventh rib. The lungs were filled with blood by internal hemorrhage. Jennie Howard confirmed the facts of the initial fight at her place. Nettie McDowell, another madame located near the crime scene testified, along with Carl Webber, her piano player, to hearing shots and seeing several men quarreling near the freight shed.

Ryan was buried during a bitter spring snowstorm in Cranbrook’s original cemetery near Baker Park [see Janus: Cranbrook Then and Now – Volume One “Digging up Bones”]. William Mansfield, the intended victim, was given a three month sentence for vagrancy. Mike Messico was released.

The trial of Felice Pasto was held in Nelson in early June. Upon the jury’s guilty verdict Pasto, protesting his innocence, was ordered “to be taken from hence to the place from which you came [the Nelson jail] and to be taken from there and hanged by the neck until you are dead; and may God have mercy on your soul.”

The execution was slated for August 10, 1899. On July 27, the Governor General of Canada commuted Pasto’s sentence to life imprisonment. He was sent to Victoria and there, rather later than he intended, his trail grows cold. The resting place of Edward Ryan is no longer known.

Jim Cameron is the author of Janus: Cranbrook Then and Now – Volume One, available at various locations including the Daily Townsman.