In the late afternoon of Saturday, April 22, 1899, Peter McEachern was returning to his farm in Minto Township, southeast of Harriston.
As he passed near the point where the Grand Trunk’s rail line to Mount Forest and Durham crossed the road, he noticed a flock of crows feasting noisily on something about 30 feet or so off to the side of the road.
He got out of his wagon, hopped over the fence, and then jumped back in horror to see the body of a dead man, partially disintegrated, and with the face partially devoured. The body was dressed in the clothing of a farm labourer. He found a tweed coat about 25 feet away.
McEachern turned and rushed back to Harriston and reported the discovery to the authorities. The coroner, Dr. Sam Cowan, opened an inquest the following Monday, after a post-mortem examination by Dr. W.A. Harvey. The discovery had been the leading subject of talk after church on Sunday, and by the time of the inquest the discovery had become something of a sensation in the area.
The first witnesses, Captain Myles Bateman, R.B. Snell, Robert Morrison, and John Walker, all were familiar with men who had disappeared from the area over the previous year, but all testified that the deceased man was not any of those who had been reported missing.
Dr. Harvey estimated that the man was between 30 and 35 years of age. There was no hint of any identification on the body.
The deceased had been a muscular man, about 5 feet, eight inches tall, and weighed about 170 pounds. He was clean shaven, and had black hair. The doctor said there was little food in the bowels. The internal organs all appeared strong and healthy, testified the doctor. He confirmed that the man had almost certainly died in the late fall, probably of exposure, and that snow had covered the corpse until its discovery.
Some people suggested that the body might have floated downstream in the Maitland River, which flowed past the site of the discovery of the body. That possibility, though, was soon dismissed.
As the evidence unfolded it became obvious that the body had been brought to the place where it was discovered. The deceased’s overcoat was a few feet from the body, and he was found in an exposed place. Had he been caught in a storm, he certainly would not have removed his coat and stretched out in such an exposed place.
There were several puzzles regarding the evidence: for example, he was clad as a common labourer, but his hands were soft, indicating that he did no hard physical work.
On a request from County Crown Attorney Henry Peterson, Coroner Cowan adjourned the inquest for a week.
There were too many unanswered questions and inconsistencies to the evidence discovered so far, and Peterson, as was his habit, was determined to get to the bottom of the puzzle. He told Coroner Cowan to spend every waking hour investigating the case.
High Constable Mereweather was also on the case, asking questions everywhere and carrying the investigation as far as Palmerston, Arthur and Mount Forest.
By this time the case was popularly referred to as the “Minto Mystery,” and reports appeared in most of the newspapers in Ontario. In the Harriston area everyone talked about it endlessly, and there was no shortage of theories as to who the man was and what had happened to him.
After a few days, many people concluded that the man was a labourer hired the previous fall by Angus Darroch to work on his threshing crew. Members of the Darroch family confirmed that they had hired a man the previous November, named Aaron Noble, who had left after a few days, but their description of him did not match the body.
Further investigation of the discovery site, two days after the inquest was adjourned, turned up a bundle of clothing, wrapped in an overcoat and hidden in some shrubs nearby. That confirmed that foul play was involved in the case. A man freezing in storm would not hide his clothes.
Also that day one of the investigators found a bottle of Paris Green, a deadly poison used for pest control, sitting out in the open on a stump near where the body had been discovered. It had not been there when the body was discovered.
The discovery of the poison led Peterson to order more intense investigation. He described that as a clumsy attempt to suggest suicide. Someone local obviously was involved, and one way or another he would identify the man. He arranged for an unidentified plain-clothes investigator to work on the case.
When the inquest resumed on May 1, 1899, there were many rumours about new evidence and startling revelations to be made public.
Medical evidence from Dr. Harvey at the second session focussed on possible trauma to the deceased. He had spent more time examining the cadaver. There were possible marks of blunt force damage to the skull and neck that may well have caused death, but the head was in such poor condition that those conclusions were only tentative.
Newspapers carried detailed descriptions of the clothing worn by the dead man and the attire found in the bundle hidden near him. Peterson thought someone might remember a man wearing those items. Constable Mereweather had been busy interviewing clothing store proprietors. He thought that he might be able to identify the store where some of the items had been purchased, but all that work came up blank.
When all the evidence was heard, there was nothing new that might lead to an identification of the dead man. The only new clue that might have been useful was the discovery, in a pocket of the hidden overcoat, of a copy of the Buffalo Express dated Nov. 21, 1898. Peterson regarded the newspaper as a red herring, planted there to mislead police authorities. It was strange that an old Buffalo newspaper should be the only item to be found on the body.
Another discovery, about 50 feet from the body, was a black felt cowboy hat.
The public was disappointed that the investigation had not provided a solution to the mystery, or even turned up any useful clues. Crown Attorney Peterson could not hide his frustration. He seldom had encountered a mystery so opaque that he had nothing to show for an intense investigation.
Reluctantly, Coroner Cowan requested the jury to deliberate and bring forward their conclusions. They retired for about an hour, and then returned with their verdict: “We believe this unknown man came to his death by some foul means at the hands of some party or parties unknown to the jury.”
Who was the dead man? Who killed him? And why? Those questions remained unanswered when Cowan dismissed the coroner’s jury.
But another opinion would soon add to the mystery of the case.
Next week: Fresh eyes view the case.