The Chilco Ranch in the 1920s. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin)

The Chilco Ranch in the 1920s. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin)

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: Murder at the Chilco Ranch

On Sept. 10, 1930, Cosens Spencer asked his foreman and his bookkeeper to accompany him to Deer Park

Barry Sale

Special to Black Press Media

The historic Chilco Ranch is located up on the bench on the south side of the Chilcotin River across from Hanceville, close to Yunesit’in (Stone) First Nation.

It was first pre-empted in 1884 and over the years parcels of land have been added.

At one time it covered more than 23,000 acres, and had more than 90 miles of fencing, although today, it has been downsized considerably.

Almost 100 years ago in 1922, the ranch was purchased by a man named Cosens Spencer. He was an English-Canadian entrepreneur who had made over a million dollars in the Australian motion picture industry.

His real name was Spencer Cosens, but he had switched the order because he felt it sounded more impressive and flamboyant. He was a middle-aged man who always dressed in a three-piece suit.

He had moustache and a goatee, and he really looked like a typical Hollywood promoter.

Surprisingly, even though he did not involve himself in the day-to-day work of the ranch, Spencer was an astute businessman who ran a good operation.

He built a large store above the ranch house and began a brisk business trading in all kinds of items — his slogan was: “Everything from a needle to a wagon.”

He built up the cattle herd, expanded the number of cleared meadows, and added several outbuildings.

Under his management, the ranch was thriving.

By the late 1920s, things began to turn sour for Spencer.

He was married to a well-respected and determined woman, Mary Stuart, who had made friends throughout the Chilcotin.

Spencer was more moody and unpredictable, often quick to anger and earning a reputation of being unneighbourly and stingy.

By 1930, his behaviour had deteriorated, and he had had several violent outbursts. Mary, and those who knew him best, feared that he was becoming mentally unstable.

On Sept. 10, 1930, Spencer asked his foreman, David Stoddart and his bookkeeper, Ed Smith, to accompany him to Deer Park, an isolated part of the ranch.

He took his shotgun along with him because they might see some grouse.

The three men arrived at Deer Park, had some discussions about the operations of the ranch in a cabin there, and then, as they were leaving, Spencer shot Ed Smith in the back.

He then fired at Stoddart, hitting him in the right arm. Then he turned and walked away.

Somehow, Stoddart was able to fashion a tourniquet and apply it to his arm.

He then went to kneel beside Smith, who was dying.

Ed Smith was able to tell his foreman his final will before he passed away.

Stoddart made it back to the ranch truck, but was in such pain that he passed out and ran it off the road into a ditch.

When he awoke, he knew he couldn’t get the vehicle out without help.

Even though he was in shock, he hid in the ditch, fearing that Spencer would return.

When the three men did not return home on time, Mary Spencer became worried.

She enlisted the help of Christopher Vick, the ranch carpenter, and they went looking.

They found Stoddart, who told them what had happened.

He was taken to hospital in Williams Lake, and the police were notified.

A young constable was dispatched to investigate and to bring in the body.

Accompanying him was Rene Hance on his very first assignment as coroner.

The record shows that it was a miserable, rainy day when they arrived at the scene at dusk.

The body was lying there, but the two men were worried about where Spencer might be and whether he was lying in wait.

The constable said to Hance “Well, you are the Coroner. What do you want to do?”

Hance famously replied: “I want to resign.” Despite their trepidation, the body was recovered, and a search was begun for Spencer.

As word got around the Chilcotin about the incident, the fear factor intensified. People were worried that Spencer was insane, at large and armed.

READ MORE: HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The Prior House at Little Lake

Rumours flew about imagined sightings. The ranch hands at the Chilco stood guard with rifles and had orders to shoot if Spencer appeared.

Some people refused to remain in their houses.

Only Mary Spencer was convinced that her husband was dead. She firmly believed that if he were still alive, he would contact her.

She posted a $500 reward for finding his body, to be doubled each month until it was located.

Two months later, a First Nations tracker from the Anaham Reserve, Little Charlie, saw what looked like a hand sticking out of a log jam in the river near the Deer Creek place.

Spencer always wore a gold ring on his right hand, and the sunlight glinting off this ring caught Little Charlie’s eye.

Spencer’s body was recovered, and the tracker collected $2,000 in reward money.

He then returned and found the shotgun, collecting another $100 reward for it.

It appeared that Spencer had been trying to cross the river and had been caught by the current. He was swept downstream to his death.

He was quite a wealthy man at the time of his demise, leaving his wife an estate worth more than $500,000.

This included the ranch itself, cash, shares in Spencer’s Pictures Ltd. in Australia, and property in Vancouver.

A total of $8,000 was paid from his estate to the mother of Ed Smith to compensate her for loss of support due to her son’s death.

David Stoddart lost his right arm. He too was compensated, but the amount was not made public.

The remainder of the estate was split up between family members, with a substantial sum being left to orphanages in Sydney, Australia.

Spencer’s body was shipped to Vancouver for burial there.

Mary Stuart stayed on at the Chilco, as did Christopher Vick, who became the ranch manager.

They married on Oct. 8, 1932 in Vancouver, and between the two of them, they made improvements to the store, the big house and to the operations.

When they sold to the Mayfield brothers in 1937, the Chilco was a going concern.

The murder and manhunt joined the folklore of the Chilcotin country and became part of the history of this famous and picturesque ranch.

For this story, I relied heavily on the Wittle Sisters’ book: “Chilcotin: Preserving Pioneer Memories.”

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