Victoria in 1899 was no stranger to killing, but this was a new and horrifying kind of murder
Warning: The following story contains graphic descriptions of murder.
The last anyone had seen 44-year-old baker Agnes Bings, she had been bracing herself against the wind and rain as she walked home on an unusually dark autumn night.
There were safer, more well-lit ways to get home, but Bings chose the fastest: Across the E&N railway bridge located roughly where the Johnson Street Bridge is now. Laden down with packages, she had asked her brother Jordan to accompany her home, but he had refused, ostensibly because he was buried in a book.
The next day, Bings’ mangled body was found in Vic West, crumpled against a telegraph pole.
“The woman had been throttled to death, stripped of her clothing and disembowelled in the horrible manner of Jack the Ripper,” read a B.C. newspaper account from the time. Another account called the details “too revolting for publication.”
As soon as the crime came across the desk of the province’s deputy attorney general, H.A. Maclean, he immediately called in outside help. And thus, on October 11, 1899 a Pinkerton Agency detective known to history only as Agent Number Five stepped off a steamship from Portland on a mission to find Canada’s Jack the Ripper.
Agent Number Five was entering a very different Victoria than the wealthy, retiree haven it is now. It was a city of whaling ships, heavy industry and a place where the local Songhees and Esquimalt continued to travel primarily by cedar canoe and lived among elders who could still remember the days before the arrival of Europeans.
Victoria still dwarfed Vancouver in both size and economic power. While it was already a city of high-end tea rooms and hilltop mansions, it also retained the gritty character of a dirt-roaded port city.
Bings’ Store Street bakery was only a few blocks away from a vibrant red light district quietly tolerated by local authorities. Chinatown, far from being the tourist-friendly drag that it is now, was an anarchic assemblage of shops, gambling dens, opium factories and densely packed wooden shacks.
The city was still enjoying the afterglow of the immense economic boom brought about by the Klondike Gold Rush, when the city had acted as a prime supplier for the thousands stampeding north to the Yukon. Now, Victoria was roiled anew by another far-away happening: The Boer War. During his investigation, Agent Number Five once missed the boat to Vancouver because it was already packed to the gunwales with volunteer soldiers bound for South Africa.
The B.C. capital was no stranger to murder and death. It was only 10 years’ removed from holding public hangings. The year before the Bings murder, a prostitute named Belle Adams had severed the head of her lover after he had threatened to leave her for another woman. Only two days after Bings’ death, the owner of the Garrick’s Head Pub, Michael Powers, would be fatally bludgeoned in an act of suspected romantic retribution. Agent Number Five would be probing both killings while in Victoria.
The full Pinkerton Agency notes from which much of this story is sourced. Courtesy of the B.C. Archives.
But Bings’ death had been different from all of Victoria’s other mayhem. Press accounts called Bings’ murder a crime of such “fiendishness and mysteriousness (that has) seldom been equalled in this part of the world.”
This wasn’t a botched robbery or even a domestic murder: It was an act of incomprehensible depravity. The very concept of serial killing was still a foreign idea. It had only been two years before that U.S. authorities had executed H.H. Holmes, the Chicago mass murderer often cited as America’s first serial killer.
A graphic Daily Colonist account of Bings’ murder didn’t even consider the possibility that Bings might have been a random victim murdered by a stranger for fun or sexual gratification. Their theory was that the murderer had attempted to rob Bings “and meeting with a stout resistance became maddened and murdered and mutilated her.”
The only description of the murderer was of an overcoated figure “quick in his movements” who seemed to be taking pains to hide his appearance. A scarf concealed his face and he even wore rubber boots that hid the sound of his footsteps on the wooden surface of the rail bridge.
The chilling portrait came from a woman who may have narrowly escaped becoming the figure’s victim that night. A Mrs. Bales had also been heading towards the railway bridge that night when she had glimpsed the cloaked figure lurking in a stand of railway buildings. After noticing that the figure was following her, a panicked Bales ducked into a group of men going the other direction and doubled back towards downtown.
After waiting until the figure had seemingly moved on, Bales once again made for the bridge just as Bings was doing the same. As the two women wordlessly reached the western shore and went their separate ways, Bales suddenly saw the overcoated figure step off the bridge and set off in Bings’ direction through the gale force winds. “In about 4 or 5 minutes (Bales) heard two screams,” read a police report.
The cause of Bings’ death is believed to have been strangulation, and her body showed signs that she had fought hard against her attacker in her final moments. She found completely naked; her clothes having been carried a short distance away from the scene of the murder and thrown in a bush. Curiously, given the violence of the killing, the clothes didn’t have a trace of blood on them.
Bing’s lower body had been viciously slashed by a blunt object, with gouges particularly notable around her genitals and perineum. Her womb and ovaries were still attached but lay outside of her body, and 12 feet of her intestines were missing.
Like the 1888 victims of Jack the Ripper, Bings’ gruesome death came at the end of a life that had already been filled with hardship. Jack had exclusively targeted London prostitutes in their late 30s and early 40s, but Victoria’s murderer had taken the life of a German immigrant forced to work long hours in order to care for a invalid husband and an eight-year-old son. She often returned home after dark and neighbours reported she had little time for friends.
Agent Number Five quickly discovered that the 1890s Victoria police were laughably incompetent at solving murders. At the time he took up the investigation, the most promising leads pursued by local law enforcement were the word of a psychic. This psychic had apparently used her “second sight” to pin the crime on an “Indian … some 30 miles up the coast,” and the police quickly dispatched an officer to check it out. “I was somewhat at a loss to know what to say to (the investigating officers) as they evidently put some faith in this supernatural revelation,” wrote the agent.
It wasn’t the last time that one of Victoria’s hapless police would drop everything to chase down a tip on the Bings murder sent in by the city’s ample supply of spiritualists and self-proclaimed clairvoyants. “It would appear there are a lot of cranks here,” concluded Agent Number Five.
A typical day of investigation for the Pinkerton detective could see him start the day meeting with B.C. premier Charles Semlin in the palatial and newly finished Parliament Buildings. Within hours, he could be chasing down leads in smoke-filled downtown saloons or seedy back alleys.
Suspects began to emerge. There was a man named “Coats” who had once made “improper proposals” to Bings in her bakery. There was a Bill Helborn, who, on the night of the murder, had walked into the city’s Tivoli Theatre and begun aggressively telling the manager about his idea for a play about a woman who is “killed and cut to pieces.” There was “Bob,” a native man who had reportedly threatened a woman on the Songhees reserve that he would cut her up “like he did that white woman.”
But Agent Number Five seemed to reserve special scrutiny for Bings’ brother Jordan. He was a heavy drinker known for his violent temper. Most suspicious of all, even before Bings’ body had been found, several witnesses reported that Jordan was already declaring that his sister had been murdered.
Ever since the killing, Jordan had been loudly proclaiming to anyone who listened that the murder was committed by “Indians.” “Since the murder Jordan said … that he was sure Indians had committed the deed as he knew the Indians in Arizona disembowled their victims,” wrote Agent Number Five.
This was squarely within an era in Canadian history in which non-whites could easily come under criminal suspicion under the flimsiest of evidence. Nevertheless, Victoria’s Indigenous largely escaped official blame in the Bings murder – although it wasn’t for any lack of stereotyping.
“Indians seldom or never commit murder without provocation,” proclaimed the Daily Colonist. “And when they do, do not mutilate the bodies in the way Mrs. Bings’ was.”
Just like the original Jack the Ripper, the killer of Agnes Bings would never face justice. To this day, the crime is deemed unsolved. But there is an epilogue to this story that did not exist in the case of Jack’s Whitechapel Murders.
Investigators on the Bings murder ultimately began to suspect that the true killer had been among them the whole time. David McDonald Gordon, a 73-year-old drifter with deep connections to the city’s underworld, had briefly been recruited as an auxiliary constable to help probe the killing. Not only did Gordon turn out to have an suspiciously intimate knowledge of the case, but he would become curiously adamant, without any evidence, that the killer was a man named Jim McCluskey, who had since left town and couldn’t be found.
In December, after Gordon found himself back in jail for a petty theft, Pinkerton dispatched a new detective, Agent Number Three, to go undercover as a prisoner and befriend the suspected killer.
For days on end, Agent Number Three endured Gordon’s “extremely vulgar” stories about his past: His stints as a back alley doctor for sex diseases, the endless young girls he boasted of “ruining,” his lewd stories of Victoria women receiving crude vasectomies (which he referred to as being “disemboweled”). When Agent Number Three made up a story of raping a 15-year-old girl, Gordon hung on his every word.
The Pinkerton detective began to believe he was befriending a kind of 19th century Robert Pickton: An insatiable sex-crazed psychopath who likely had a trail of victims all throughout the young province.
“The more I talk with Gordon convinces me that he either committed the Bings murder or has in some way been connected in some serious trouble before,” wrote Agent Number Three. “I expect to hear of more than the one case, in fact I believe him to be a man of demoralized brain.”
Ultimately, the Bings murder would only come up once. By sheer coincidence, another prisoner would bring up the killing, along with his own theory that the culprit had likely bribed the police off his trail. All of a sudden, the normally loudmouthed Gordon clammed up, other than to repeat his confidence that a Jim McCluskey had done the deed. “Well I know it, some men have a mania that way and cannot help themselves,” Gordon explained.
Then, Gordon directly addressed Agent Number Three with haunting sincerity. “If you ever kill a man, never let the blood of the man’s head get on your clothes or even your hands for it will never come off,” he said as he examined his own palms.
Only three days later, Gordon was returning from the prison laundry when he began to vomit up blood from a pulmonary hemorrhage. Agent Number Three was able to rush to his side, and as Gordon violently choked up clots of blood the detective heard him say “I want to tell you something.”
Gasping and clutching at the air with his hand, Gordon said “I am gone” before screaming his last words: “oh my God! My mother! Oh my God.”
Wrote the detective, “he died still holding my hand.”