By Sean Graham
In the spring of 1893, a murder in Sumas Prairie, British Columbia rocked the community and kicked off a lengthy debate about who committed the crime, multiple trials, and unanswered questions about the legal process in the rural community. The victim, John Marshall, was a Portuguese immigrant who had settled on a farm and built a successful life, prompting the questions over who would have killed him. The investigation settled on Albert Stroebel, a local handyman who, to many, seemed an unlikely suspect. The resulting debate over Stroebel’s guilt split the local population into two factions, one who believed Stroebel’s claims of innocence and those who were convinced of his guilt.
The story is the subject of the new book The Trials of Albert Stroebel: Love, Murder, and Justice at the End of the Frontier by Chad Reimer, who came across the court records of this long forgotten episode in Canadian history when researching another project. In the book, Reimer details the events of Marshall’s murder, the evidence against Stroebel, and the lingering questions. As a piece of legal history, the tale of Albert Stroebel serves as an example of the challenge of investigating crimes during the late 19th century. In an era where western colonization was characterized, at least in the popular imagination, with violence and lawlessness, Stroebel’s prosecution is a cautionary tale of how violence in this era has been romanticized.
A professional historian, Reimer guides the reader through the story, providing the necessary details with great clarity. In going through the events, the principal participants emerge and you are increasingly forced to think about their backgrounds and motivations. It’s not so much a ‘whodunit’ as it is a thought-provoking analysis of why and how the events took place and, most importantly, why it matters.
In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Chad Reimer about the book. We talk about John Marshall’s path to Sumas Prairie, Albert Stroebel’s life, and the other key people in the story. We also talk about murder investigations in the late 19th century, the legal process in rural B.C. at the time, and how the case served as a significant precedent for the province.
Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca