Follow the Case!
"The finding of the tell-tale bullet," from the crime file Labelle-Fournier murder, 1902
In June 1902, three French-Canadians arrived in the Yukon to seek their fame and fortune. The latter eluded them; they achieved the former at the cost of their lives. Leon Bouthillette, Guy Beaudoin, and Alphonse Constantine first met in Vancouver. They traveled together to the Yukon, where they met two other French-Canadians. The five set off from Whitehorse in mid-June, destination Dawson. En route, the three companions were brutally murdered in what was one of the most violent crimes ever committed in the Territory. Ken Coates and William Baker tell the story in their fine book, Strange Things Done: Murder in Yukon History (2004). What follows is a look at some of the documentation created during the investigation, and at the methods used by the Mounted Police and those assisting the police to track down, arrest and charge one of the men responsible for the murders.
The Clue on the Mystery Body
A body is found in the Yukon River near Ogilvie. On the body is a key ring with what seems to be a name, "Couthiller" and a place, "East Broughton." Superintendent Zachary Taylor Wood sends a telegram to Frederick White, Comptroller, informing him of the gruesome discovery. In criminal investigations, the Mounted Police often correspond with one another in code, especially when exchanging telegrams.
After determining that East Broughton is in the province of Quebec, Fred White wires the local parish priest, the Rev. J.O.D. Naud, asking about a man named "Couthiller" and whether he might be in the Yukon.
The next day, Father Naud wires Fred White, writing that the name of the person in question is Leon Bouthillette, and that additional information should be available from the parish priest in St. François Beauce.
White sends a telegram to Father Charles Ovide Godbout at St. François Beauce. The priest replies on the 19th with a full description of Leon Bouthillette
Fred White immediately wires Superintendent Wood in Dawson with the information about Bouthillette as provided by Father Godbout. Again the two men communicate in code.
Who Killed the Three Men from Quebec?
During the Klondike Gold Rush, the NWMP keep records of those entering the interior by noting the names of all men and women traveling by boat on the Yukon River. Checking the records shows that five men embarked in boat number 3744: Leon Bouthillette, Alphonse Constantine, Guy Beaudoin, Louis Ladouceur, and Peter Forest. Bouthillette, Constantine, and Beaudoin were friends from Quebec. It looks as though all three have been murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on the remaining two men, Ladouceur and Forest.
On July 22, Superintendent Wood asks Fred White if photographs of the victims can be provided. White corresponds with families in Quebec and gets a quick reply. The photographs are on their way to the Yukon on July 26.
On August 5, a second body, that of Guy Beaudoin, is found in the Yukon River.
The Yukon may be a rough-and-tumble place, but the murder of two, perhaps three, men in cold blood is very disturbing. The police are determined to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The Mounted Police often seek the assistance of private detectives and do so in this case. They hire William H. Welsh, an American-born resident of the Yukon, to lead the investigation. On August 16, Welsh, now in Seattle, reports to Fred White, summarizing his work on the case so far, and identifying Edward Labelle as a person of interest.
By August 26, Welsh has several leads on Labelle's whereabouts. He keeps Fred White informed in a series of telegrams and a letter. He reports that Labelle was in Seattle three weeks before but may have returned to St. Rose, near Montreal. He contacts law enforcement authorities in Montana, who report that "Lebelle" [sic] alias Letournaux has been there recently. Welsh writes to Fred White, summarizing the case so far. He reports that Labelle's accomplice, Pete Fournier (alias Peter Forest) was arrested in Dawson.
On the same day, August 26, Superintendent Wood telegraphs Fred White to give him a brief account of Welsh's progress and to inform him of the arrest of Fournier in Dawson.
The very next day, Welsh telegraphs White that he is leaving immediately for Chicago, in pursuit of Labelle. But only days later, the investigation takes another turn and Welsh heads to Nevada.
Welsh apprehends Labelle in a railway construction camp in Wadsworth, Nevada, and immediately reports his success to Fred White in Ottawa.
Labelle confesses. Wood notifies Fred White in Ottawa that Welsh and Labelle are en route back to the Yukon, via Seattle.
On September 3rd, the Vancouver Daily World summarizes the work of William Welsh in tracking Labelle to the United States; the headline simply reads: "Ended," adding in classic journalistic alliteration, "Welch's [sic] Wary Work"
Trial and Execution
The case against Labelle and Fournier is strong, but Superintendent Wood is taking no chances. The Dominion Police help by supplying the names of close relatives of two of the victims who are prepared to travel to the Yukon to testify. On the same day, White informs Wood that the two witnesses, Beaudoin's sister and Bouthillette's sister-in-law, are ready to leave for the North.
However, the two women are not enthusiastic about traveling to the Yukon in mid-September. Fred White informs Superintendent Wood that they are reluctant to go further than Ottawa.
Four days later, Supt. Wood informs Fred White that only Mrs. Denis is needed for the trial.
Further complications arise. André Marcoux, of the Dominion Police, who has been charged with accompanying the witness to the Yukon, informs White that Mrs. Denis and her companion, a Mrs. Joseph Gilbert, are reluctance to travel unless they can be assured that their expenses will be paid by the government. White assures them that they will be compensated.
Mrs. Denis still expresses concern about the trip, but acquiesces when threatened with a subpoena.
The trip across the country is a success; Marcoux reports from Vancouver that the women are pleased with everything.
Finally, the trial proceeds speedily, without further problems. Labelle is found guilty and sentenced to death.
The trial of the second accused, Pierre Fournier, begins on November 4, and he is convicted of murder on the same day.
Fred White, Comptroller of the NWMP in Ottawa, is pleased that the case has been resolved so quickly. Mounted Police in the Yukon and on the Prairies, law enforcement agencies in Canada and the United States, and private detective Welsh have all had a hand in solving the murders of Leon Bouthillette, Guy Beaudoin and Alphonse Constantine. He sends his congratulations to Superintendent Wood.
Labelle and Fournier are hanged for their crime, but not until September 1904 is the body of Alphonse Constantine discovered on the Yukon River.
From the time the first body was discovered and reported on July 16, only 47 days elapsed before Detective Welsh put his hands on Edward Labelle in Wadsworth, Nevada, thousands of miles from the scene of the crime. In an age before long-distance telephone service, especially in remote areas, the police and those who assisted them relied on the telegram to communicate with one another and with others in Canada and the United States. The identity of the murderers was quickly established; the capture of Edward Labelle was extraordinary. These documents illustrate both the methods employed by the investigation team, and the speed with which information could be conveyed, understood and acted upon in different jurisdictions.
On September 20, 1902, Edward Welsh sat down and prepared a lengthy report on the case and his pursuit of Labelle. It is a fascinating account of frontier justice and the means employed to ensure that those who broke the law were made to pay for their transgressions.
Capital punishment, now considered by most Canadians to be a brutal form of punishment, was eventually abandoned.