Like many other frontier towns, it has its share of ups and downs, bright days and tragic tales. One of these tales is the murder of John Coward.
Coward was a part of the Peerless Coal Company, along with three other partners. In 1921, his company entered into negotiations with another miner named John Gallagher, who opened a mine in 1918.
These negotiations came to an abrupt halt on September 28, 1921 when John Coward was shot in the head on the way home from the mine.
He was found in the driver’s seat of his McLaughlin Buick, east of Carbon at about 3 a.m. Gallagher quickly became the main suspect.
Gallagher had served in World War I and after returning home, he joined the Alberta Provincial Police. He was refused a transfer from Cochrane to Drumheller and abruptly quit the force. He came to Drumheller to work, and then bought interest in the coalfields in Carbon.
Initial investigation found that Gallagher was the last person to see Coward alive.
As the investigation continued, inspector Nicholson of the Alberta Provincial Police came in. He had a history with Gallagher, as he was a recruiting officer when Gallagher entered the force four years earlier. This familiarity helped to narrow down the suspects.
During the autopsy a .38 blunt shell was recovered from Coward. This bullet was familiar because Inspector Nicholson remembered years before inspecting a detachment house when Gallagher was new recruit. He recalled seeing a private ammunition belt owned by Gallagher that had the blunt nosed shells. The investigators felt they had their man, but they still had no murder weapon.
It was written in the Carbon history book, Carbon: Our History Our Heritage, that 400 people attended the preliminary hearing. When all was said and done, the magistrate committed John Gallagher to stand trial for murder.
The Crown relied on the motive that Coward had been appointed mine manager, although the property transfer of the mine was not complete, and that Gallagher felt he should be manager. It also relied on the testimony of Teddy Bolam, whose shack both Gallagher and Coward were at before the murder.
The trial was in Calgary in January of 1922. A six-man jury found Gallagher guilty, but his lawyer applied to appeal before sentence was passed.
A new trial was ordered, but this time without Bolam. It was learned that he received a large sum of money following the trial. He went to Calgary, but retuned a week later without a penny. He went to work at another mine in the area where he was killed a week later under suspicious circumstances.
Bolam’s testimony was read into evidence at the new trial in May of 1922, but it did not have as much strength. The defence was able to paint a picture of an innocent man and that evidence was being concocted to convict his client. While the crown believed the murder happened around 7:30 p.m., the defence contended it was much later as the body was still warm when it was found in the early morning hours. The man who purchased the car following the murder also contended that he did not have to recharge the battery, despite the assumption the car had sat with the lights and ignitions on throughout the night.
Gallagher himself testified and he refuted his original police statement and said he had given a statement to Detective Lesley, but refused to sign it when the officer did not allow him to read it. It took the jury five hours to reach a not guilty verdict.
Gallagher was a free man, but in debt. In 1924, he burned some buildings on his property, and received a 10-year sentence for arson.
The Carbon history book, Carbon: Our History Our Heritage, includes a passage said to be from a Toronto newspaper. It stated that John Gallagher had been living under an assumed name in Toronto, and left for England to claim $500,000, which his aunt promised him if he settled down before December 25, 1938.