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Murder in the dirty 30's — a story from Coquitlam's early years

Golf Club service station on North Road in the 1930s. The owner, Thomas Douglas, a Coquitlam councillor was murdered here in 1934. Some people speculated at the time that it was a political assassination because Douglas was a socialist, but the rumour was never proven. - COQUITLAM 100 YEARS PHOTO
Golf Club service station on North Road in the 1930s. The owner, Thomas Douglas, a Coquitlam councillor was murdered here in 1934. Some people speculated at the time that it was a political assassination because Douglas was a socialist, but the rumour was never proven.
— image credit: COQUITLAM 100 YEARS PHOTO

Eighty years ago, in the summer of 1934, residents of of Burquitlam and Maillardville were shocked to learn a popular Coquitlam councillor, Thomas Douglas, had been murdered at his North Road gas station.

It was a terrible tragedy for the community and for Douglas' family but today few recall the incident.North Road is now a major shopping district and it's being transformed again by the Evergreen Line.

Five years ago the Tri-City News published a story about the murder in the hopes of generating information for a documentary proposed by Anthony Bortolussi, a Vancouver film maker who is also Douglas' great great grandson.

In an update to the story last week, Bortolussi said he was unable to get funding for the documentary but the original story is being reprinted here with updates because it represents an intriguing period in Coquitlam's 100-year history.

•••

NEW WESTMINSTER, July 13 — Stark tragedy stalked through the peaceful hamlet of Burquitlam Thursday afternoon, cutting short the life of Police Commissioner and Councillor Thomas Douglas of Coquitlam municipality, and leaving Gordon Wilson, 29, wood cutter, on the brink of eternity.

— Newspaper report from The Vancouver Sun, July 13, 1934

•••

Anthony Bortolussi flips open his Mac laptop and scrolls through his files. There are several of them but, with a light touch on the scroll bar, he pulls up some notes about his family's history.

Bortolussi is trying to find out everything he can about his mother's Scottish-born ancestors to solve a mystery that haunts the family to this day. On July 12, 1934 Thomas Douglas, a popular Coquitlam councillor known throughout the community for his generosity, was shot and killed by a brooding, uncommunicative Irishman. No one knows why.

"This story is a diamond in the rough. It has a lot of appeal for B.C...It's a story about struggle, really, and courage," Bortolussi says.

What is known about the story comes from newspaper clippings and "Coquitlam: 100 Years," a compendium of pioneer biographies dating back to 1890.

FADE TO BLACK

"Bang."

The sharp report of a single-barreled shotgun of German origin reverberated through the sleepy community of Burquitlam like a thunder clap, bringing neighbours to their windows. A few chicken ranchers stepped out of their doors and one, James Bremner, confronted a lone gunman, as he left a Shell gas station at the corner of North Road and Austin Avenue where the sound of a shot gun blast originated.

"It's all right. Go back into your house," the man said, before turning to walk up North Road toward Port Moody.

Inside the gas station, a small, nondescript building that housed a pool hall and a confectionary, Thomas Douglas lay dying. HIs father, John Douglas, folded a jacket and placed it under his son's head. Douglas' wife, Agnes, and a neighbour, Ellen Walker, were also in the room.

"I don't know what he wanted to shoot me for," Douglas is reported to have said. The popular Coquitlam councillor then turned to his wife and told her not to worry — their sons would look after her.

When Const. Richard Dunn arrived to survey the scene, Douglas managed to blurt out a few more words, according to newspaper reports of day. "I'm finished, I'm dying, get a doctor quick. McFadden shot me," he is reported to have said.

That was all Dunn needed. He wheeled out the door and took off down North Road in search of Robert McFadden, the man who Douglas said was the shooter.

At the foot of Snake Hill in Port Moody, Dunn spotted the Irish immigrant and World War 1 veteran sitting at the side of the road. McFadden, who called himself Mac, said he felt sick and gave up the gun.

But it was too late for Douglas. He died of his wounds in Royal Columbian Hospital, leaving behind his wife, four sons, a daughter.

A SHOCK

Douglas' murder came as a shock to the chicken ranchers, merchants and millworkers who lived in Burquitlam and Maillardville during those difficult early years of the depression. The former Baptist minister from Scotland had been a generous man, giving Christmas gifts to children in the neighborhood, and taking families of unemployed mill workers to White Rock for picnics. He was also involved in the notorious Fraser Mills strike in 1931, pleading the worker's case on council, marching with them and he even went to jail for a day on their behalf.

Funeral parade

When his funeral was held, more than 1,000 people showed up. The question on everybody's mind was: Why would someone want to kill Douglas?

There was no doubt in Harold Pritchett's mind that there was more to Douglas' death than the simple actions of a crazy man. The Port Moody resident and founding president of the International Woodworkers of America was also Douglas' campaign manager.

He believed Douglas' politics upset the local establishment and someone wanted him killed.

For Douglas wasn't just a generous businessman, he was also a socialist, who strayed from his class to join the workers in their fight for better pay and more government relief.

In 1933, just before his death, Douglas ran for the United Front (farmer's and workers) Party, which was even further left than the fledgling Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the precursor to the NDP), which ran its own candidate.

Although Douglas was popular, few supported his bid for the United Front and he lost to the local Liberal candidate by thousands of votes.

But did someone want to have him killed?

A SAD LEGACY

After the initial shock of the incident, the rumor mill speculated that someone had Douglas shot. But the rumor was never proven and people in the community went on with their lives; The Second World War came and went and a post-war boom changed the city of Coquitlam.

But for Bortolussi, Douglas' great, great grandson, the story is part of his family's history. He was never able to prove that McFadden was anything more than a mentally ill man who was on a rampage of his own making and Bortolussi is disappointed that he was unable to raise funds for an historical documentary.

Today the 28-year-old is is a graduate of Capilano University and works for a Vancouver video production company. He still wonders about the killer, who was declared insane but escaped from Essondale (the former Riverview Hospital) after 12 years.

"He  (Robert McFadden) was never found, people thought he may have died in the woods. Maybe he moved to Vegas and took on a new identity? Who knows?"

But as Coquitlam wraps up its centennial year, the story of Thomas Douglas' murder in 1934 is an opportunity to reflect on one of the more colorful periods in the city's 100 years.

dstrandberg@tricitynews.ca

 

 

 

 

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