A backhoe cutting into earth in Dawson City, Yukon, where a new sewage treatment plant is under construction, broke open two spruce coffins early this month, spilling out old bones. Archeologists have since determined the site, where the remains of four men have now been recovered, is where North-West Mounted Police buried convicts hung at Fort Herchmer a century ago. Three of the men were executed on the same day in August 1899, at the height of the Klondike gold rush. One, Edward Henderson, a miner from Whitehorse with a health condition that caused frequent urination, is said to have killed his partner during a dispute triggered when Henderson accidentally spilled a cup of pee. In his 40s, Henderson was in excellent shape, says osteologist Susan Moorhead Mooney, though his bones show evidence of his urinary malady and his teeth are stained with chewing tobacco.
Two of the other men were hung for less romantic reasons—a story “of tragedy more than anything else, of complete miscommunication between two different cultures,” says Walker Graham, a nurse and Dawson City amateur historian. Jim and Dawson Nantuck, from a First Nations community at Tagish, were two of four young brothers convicted of shooting to death a white prospector and wounding another. The gunfight is said to have been in response to the deaths of two kinsmen who ate bread baked with what appeared to be flour, but was actually arsenic left behind at another miner’s camp. The other brothers, Frank and Joe, died of TB in custody; their remains are still lost.
The discoveries have upset some among the local First Nations. “Folks can go through the traditional oral history and connect themselves to these individuals,” says Moorhead Mooney. The identity of the fourth interred man is still unknown.