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Details of 1927 BC train robbery and murder of Dutch immigrant revisited

Victim Otto Bosch died in Vancouver hospital

Tags: Immigration Features History

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Back in 1992, almost 65 years after the July 23, 1927 murder of his then young bachelor uncle Otto Bosch, nephew Julius Bosch and his wife Beatrix (Ensel), stood at the Mountain View Cemetery graveside where the remains of his father Jan’s older brother had been buried. Puzzled why there was no sign of the headstone the family had paid for so long ago, he asked the attending cemetery employee where the grave marker could have gone. The man then poked around for it in the soil, and eventually hit something solid underneath. Soon, an overgrown vertical grave marker was uncovered from underneath a foot of dirt.

Back in the Netherlands, the family Bosch had received the news that their son Otto had died in a rail box car incident. It is not certain they were told of the exact circumstances that had led to Otto’s death. At the time, they did place a small obituary in their area’s newspaper, and also paid for the burial and a grave marker that cost them in 1927 funds, twenty Canadian dollars, eight for the burial and twelve for the marker.

The demise of Otto in faraway Canada remained on the minds of his family members. What had the family been told and what had the parents shared with their children? So, when in 1992 Otto’s younger brother, the now 90-year old retired physician, heard that his son Julius and his wife Beatrix were planning to tour British Columbia, he asked them to look for Otto’s grave and investigate further what really had happened to his brother.

Otto Bosch was the Zetten, Gelderland-born older son of Rev. J. Bosch who at the time served the Grijpskerk Reformed Church in Groningen. The younger Bosch had in 1926 departed for a new life in Canada, apparently together with fellow Dutch immigrant J. de Boer. While DeBoer found work in the Chatham, Ontario area, Otto Bosch wanted to look for better job prospects in British Columbia where he found work in lumber camps. However, by July 1927, the restless Otto Bosch was ready to move on, now accompanied by fellow Dutch immigrant Bernhart F. Rhebergen who he may have met at a lumber camp. Little did they know that news of their travels in an empty railway coal car would soon be splashed across the frontpages of the continent’s newspapers.

That coverage revealed that the travel companions were headed for Edmonton, Alberta for other job prospects. To get there, as was quite common for frugal, unattached young men, they, along with a number of others, including two teenagers, hitched a ride aboard a freight train. As the reports would have it, Otto and Bernhart sat initially atop a load of lumber but were beckoned by the two teenagers, a George Burgess, aged 18, and his companion John McKenzie, 17, to join them in an empty coal box car. A while after the CNR train had passed the villages of Mission and Agassiz in the Upper Fraser Valley, things ‘went off the tracks for the Dutch pair’, when the two teenagers attacked the Dutch friends with a bolt. Both of them were injured in the attack, Otto seriously who died two days later in a Vancouver hospital of a fractured skull. At the CNR railway stop of the hamlet Ruby Creek the police arrested Burgess and McKenzie and also held Bernhart Rhebergen as a material witness.

During the court trial a few weeks later, the defence for the teenagers attempted to sow doubt about Bernhart’s version of the incident, since, newspaper reports suggest, that the attack had occurred in a dark box car. It was clear from the testimony that robbery had been a motive. John McKenzie had demanded money from Bernhart who apparently had only three dollars on him. When Bernhardt complained about having no money left, he told the court in broken English, that the robber had given him one dollar back. The teenage robbers seemed to have assumed that the Dutchmen had at least fifty dollars on them.

The defense did not convince the jury of its case and declared the youths guilty, George Burgess of murder and John Mckenzie of being an accomplice to it. The presiding judge sentenced them to hang three weeks after the tragedy, a sentence that was immediately appealed. The following January, the appeal court by majority opinion, 2-1, let the sentence stand and set the date of the execution of both teenagers. However, the split decision gave the defense an opening to petition the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the case and or to plead for clemency. Instead, the BC cabinet passed an Order in Council sparing the teenagers from execution to a life behind bars at the Burnaby Oakalla prison. With the robbers behind bars, the trail of them in digitized newspaper information banks offers no further information on them. It is not known when they died.

It was in the 1980s, that Peterborough, Ontario resident Jack Van Winssen asked staff at the Windmill Herald, if by chance they would be willing to look for information for him on a train robbery murder back in the 1920s, in which a relative on his mother’s side had been killed. A search of archives and of hard-to-read grainy microfilm reels of the local newspapers did not offer much new information. More came to the attention of the Windmill Herald when Julius and Beatrix Bosch called with news of their discovery of the Otto Bosch grave located at the Mountain View Cemetery. Apart from a comment from another Bosch family member residing in the USA, who responded to the 1992 coverage of the Julius Bosch interview, nothing further happened to still incomplete Otto Bosch murder file.

Just recently, in June 2020, a surprise discovery in a file at the Windmill Archives, prompted another look at the Otto Bosch case. While cataloguing the contents of a file on Edam, Saskatchewan, a memoir was spotted of a former, late 1920s Edam resident, a certain Mr. DeBoer, who apparently was the companion who joined Otto Bosch on his journey to Canada. A copy of the 1970s memoir had been received around 1980 when the editors at The Windmill Herald were doing an article on the origin of the Saskatchewan community with its Dutch name as Edam was to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Mr. DeBoer, who eventually settled in Edmonton, recollects in his memoir the tragic death of Otto Bosch, who had split ways with him as Bosch wanted to go West to British Columbia while DeBoer decided to stay in Ontario. This memoir, called ‘This Land is Our Land. It is the Land We Chose for or family’, includes the previously unnoticed reference to the murder that could have added valuable information to the Bosch coverage back in 1992!

Thanks to the online, digitized newspapers collections, a fairly comprehensive overview of the 1927 tragedy is in the open at last. Unfortunately, Jack van Winssen did not live to hear this outcome and Julius Bosch could not be reached since no longer lives at his last known address.