Cold Case

A centuries-old whodunit may finally have been solved

From York Factory on Hudson Bay, Letitia Mactavish Hargrave wrote to her mother in Kintyre, Scotland: “There has been nothing further of John McLoughlin’s murder, except that master and men were all drunk, firing at each other till John who was in the condition of a maniac fell dead.”

Hargrave did not have all the facts straight, and the victim’s father, Dr. John McLoughlin, later turned up evidence of premeditation. Yet the letter writer was not far off the mark when she added: “It is a fearful thing, the men will be acquitted, as it will be justifiable homicide, but how are ignorant men to be taught the distinction between that and murder.”

By coincidence, I quoted the above lines in a work in progress days before I received a review copy of Debra Komar’s The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Murder of John McLoughlin, Jr. What? Had I stumbled onto a trending topic?

Sober second thought suggested otherwise. Over the past decade, and apart from me and Komar, probably no more than half a dozen writers have so much as alluded to the 1842 murder of McLoughlin. This is an arcane subject. Yet against all odds, Komar has turned this unsolved murder into a compelling mystery—a true-crime narrative that unfolds against the backdrop of the fur trade.

The author is a forensic anthropologist who has used forensic methods to investigate historical crimes. In this case, however, she uses no new technologies: no genetic testing or cutting-edge computer simulations. “Ultimately, all that was required,” she writes, “was an impartial eye and a systematic assessment of the evidence. This crime could have been solved the day it was committed.”

Komar has published two previous books in the same genre: The Ballad of Jacob Peck and The Lynching of Peter Wheeler. And anyone given to stereotyping expert scientists as inferior story-tellers is in for a surprise. Komar is strong analytically, but she is also a terrific writer, both stylistically and structurally.

Describing Hudson’s Bay Company employees and their relations with their boss, that infamous little emperor George Simpson, she writes: “Those whose noses were not permanently imbedded in the Governor’s backside had an entirely different perspective … Sun-stroked and windswept, [Simpson] bore the perennially queasy look of an ill-prepared tourist.” As for the man’s much-younger wife, Komar shows no mercy: “Unburdened by intellect, and bred for domesticity, Frances curled inward, cowed, contrite, and overly dutiful, a living testament to the negligible difference between ‘bridal’ and ‘bridle.’”

Room for one more? Welcome to Fort Stikine: “In its infinite wisdom, the Hudson’s Bay Company had hired criminals, issued them guns and a generous monthly allotment of liquor, and shipped them off to a cesspool. What could possibly go wrong.”

Structurally, the book is daring. The murder narrative unfolds in short, vivid, tightly focused chapters set in April 1842. This storyline is intercut with longer, more discursive chapters that move backward to the 1780s and forward to the present day. This work takes a literary approach to historical non-fiction.

The murder victim, John McLoughlin Jr., was in charge of the HBC outpost at Fort Stikine in present-day Alaska. It was an isolated hellhole staffed by about 30 of the worst ruffians in the Company employ, and surrounded by mostly hostile Natives.

McLoughlin, a mixed-blood son of one of the HBC’s leading lights, John McLoughlin, had survived a lonely, tumultuous upbringing among strangers who cared little whether he lived or died. He became a rebellious youth and, from a distance, infuriated his father. But in recent years he had made peace with the older man. He had turned his life around and begun to flourish in the HBC.

But then, just after midnight on April 21, 1842, while serving as chief trader at Fort Stikine, the 29-year-old McLoughlin was shot dead by his own men. Days later, when George Simpson arrived at the outpost on one of his unannounced visits, McLoughlin had already been buried. The governor did a cursory investigation. He heard that the chief trader had been given to drunken and abusive rampages. Simpson decided that this was a case of “justifiable homicide.”

Realizing that any publicity could only harm the HBC, he closed the book on the case. He sent a letter to Dr. McLoughlin praising “the murderous crew,” as Komar calls them, adding that “their conduct throughout has been fully better than could have been expected under such inhuman treatment as they were frequently exposed to.”

Predictably, the young man’s father was outraged by this assessment. Driven, additionally, by his guilt at having ignored his son for so many years, “Dr. John” launched an investigation of his own. This evolved into an obsessive quest for justice—one that could only be self–destructive because it pitted him against Simpson, the most powerful man in the Pacific Northwest. The governor “was dead inside,” Komar writes, “an empty and withered husk of a man, even with those he professed to hold dear. Heaven help those he hated.”

By laying out the facts and exploring them with relentless logic, Debra Komar does solve the mystery of who murdered John McLoughlin—or at least makes a completely convincing case. Not only that: she does so with panache. And she delivers a surprising resolution, leaving the reader nodding: ah, yes, of course, I see it now. The Bastard of Fort Stikine works as a conventional mystery.

Komar also shows considerable expertise in painting a portrait of the 19th-century fur trade. She notes that George Simpson increased his power, for example, by exploiting the slowness of communications, and she fleshes out the little-known story of William Rae, the heavy-drinking older brother of Arctic explorer John Rae. She does make a rare misstep when she alludes to veteran fur trader Peter Warren Dease as a “famed navigator.” Had she learned more about Dease, she might have offered a different take on the murder of Thomas Simpson—a case far better known than that of McLoughlin.

Bottom line: The Bastard of Fort Stikine is entertaining, multidimensional and informative. It reads like a novel, educates like a biography and fills a gap in the history of the fur trade.