Vancouver and Nanaimo made newspaper headlines, early in July 1888: Vancouver with two murders and two accidental deaths; smaller, tamer Nanaimo with an apparent suicide.
The lifeless body of Henrich Surholt, said to be tired of life, was found at Chase River. To government agent Bray went the hapless job of cutting down his body from the cabin ridge pole to which, by all appearances, he’d secured a noose about his neck before stepping off a barrel.
German by birth, naturalized American by choice, and brewer by trade, he’d been unable to find employment in his profession and had arrived in town to seek work as a labourer for Lewis and McDonald, contractors for the new water works dam. Although he left no note, his empty purse suggested the cause of the despondency.
At the inquest Albert Randle testified that he’d gone out to the dam worksite in his capacity as a tinsmith on Sunday morning. As he passed a small cabin, “I thought I saw a man who appeared to me to be standing; he was in a queer position, and on looking around again I saw the rope around his neck…” He didn’t recognize the man and hurried off to report his discovery rather than look closer.
Contractor Thomas B. Lewis deposed that, upon being alerted by Randle, he’d accompanied him to the cabin used by his workers as a stable. Apparently Lewis was no more inclined than the tinsmith to look too closely, not even to confirm that Surholt, whom he recognized as having applied for a job, was dead. It did strike him as odd, though, that the man’s feet were touching the ground. This was due to the fact that the cabin was less than seven feet tall, despite Surholt having secured himself to the ridge pole’s higher end.
Ironically, Lewis had offered Surholt a job, to begin the next day.
R.H. Smith, Collector of Customs, testified that he’d been “walking to the dam with Mr. Paul last Sunday afternoon, July 1st. Arrived there about noon, met Mr. Lewis, and he informed us that a man had hanged himself in a cabin nearby. He directed us to the cabin, and we went to see the body. He was hanging by a small rope round his neck, and attached to a board in the cabin.”
He described the noose as being no more than a slip-knot but “carefully made,” and fastened to the ridge pole by two half-hitches. Everything, to Smith’s mind, pointed to suicide as, “The spare end was hanging down as low as his hands; he could have pulled this loose end and let himself down; his feet were touching the ground and his legs were bent at the knees. Had he straightened himself up he could have relieved the pressure on his neck. The rope used was a light one and would no doubt stretch with his weight upon it.
“I think he must have stood on something when he put the noose on his head; there was a half-barrel three or four feet behind the deceased. I should judge he kicked the tub away after he adjusted the noose. I took it to be a case of suicide” — particularly as the dead man was still wearing his hat.
Smith had no doubt that Surholt had taken his own life, that he’d allowed himself to strangle even as the ridge pole sagged, the light rope stretched and his feet touched the ground.
Jurors Cowie, Rowbottom, Wilks, Hughes, Beveridge, Frame and Miller, however, were harder to convince. After hearing all the testimony, and having Henrich Surholt’s identity confirmed by his U.S. naturalization papers they ruled that the helpless brewer did, in fact, die from strangulation “but there was no evidence to show if self-inflicted or not”.