They called him “Happy Tom.” A delightful teenager, he always whistled a merry tune and greeted those he met with a cheerful smile. He was tall, athletic and remarkably intelligent. His simple philosophy of life: “I can’t imagine how any man can be unhappy as long as he walks straight and acts right. I don’t mean to do anything wrong all my life.”
Yale was tough country in those early pioneer days of the 1850s and poor Tom didn’t have much of this world’s goods. His clothes were ragged and his boots had holes, but nothing could daunt his happy disposition. He never swore, never stole, never gambled, never drank and never smoked. Everyone loved him for his exuberant personality, twinkling eyes, infectious laugh and his melodic whistling that never seemed to end.
About 20 years later, an Englishman arrived in Victoria named Harry Forman, who settled in James Bay. Harry was a widower and he brought his young daughter, Ellen, with him to help keep house. Ellen had a teaching certificate and since teachers were in short supply, School Superintendent John Jessop hired her quickly. Not long after their arrival, Harry Forman re-married and the three lived very happily in their six-room bungalow.
One day, the city became alive with news of a rich vein of silver that had been discovered near Hope. The principal owners were Dunbar, Moody, Sutton and Chooley, who were reputed to be the four richest men in British Columbia. They came to Victoria to sell shares, which were fetching a high price.
Harry Forman was excited by the prospect of joining the ranks of the rich and famous so, one evening, he invited Chooley to his home. Chooley was a striking man, but unmarried. One look at the pretty and demure Ellen Forman and it was love at first sight. Although Chooley was at least 20 years older than Ellen, Harry thoroughly approved of the match, imagining gold, silver, silks, satins and furs for his only daughter.
The wedding, only a few short weeks later, was a dazzling affair. No expense was spared and it was the talk of the town. The couple went to San Francisco for their honeymoon in an opulent hotel; and Victoria predicted a glorious future for the happy couple.
While in San Francisco, however, another side of Chooley’s character emerged. He had fits of anger, especially when he had been drinking and became abusive to his young bride. He accused her of infidelity without any cause. The quarrelling that ensued was bitter.
They returned to Victoria and lived at the Forman family home, but relationships were strained. A child was born, but this did nothing to improve Chooley’s surly temperament. Harry Forman tried to remonstrate with him on one occasion, so Chooley flew into a rage, pointed a gun at him and threatened his life. Forman ordered him out of the house, and Chooley took rooms at the Driard Hotel. After a few days, Chooley returned and an uneasy truce was declared.
Then came news that the Hope Silver Mine was not as productive as was originally imagined. The ore petered out and so did Chooley’s wealth. This caused him to treat his wife even more viciously and his fits of violent temper were ever more frequent. His drinking became excessive. Many times, he thrashed his wife and, many times, he and Harry Forman came to blows because of it.
On the evening of January 22, 1874, there was a heavy snowfall. A banging on the door of James Anderson at about 6:30 p.m. brought him to his entrance, where he saw his neighbour Harry Forman fall in a heap on the doorstep, blood gushing from a bullet wound in his chest.
Chooley, who had fired the shot, barricaded himself in the Forman house with several loaded guns by his side. The police arrived, knocked down the door and were greeted by a hail of bullets. The police returned the shots, but all missed their mark. The officers retreated to safety, while Chooley erected more barricades, yelling death threats to anyone who dare cross his threshold.
Meanwhile, Harry Forman lay dying in Anderson’s home across the street. He recounted the events that led to the shooting. Apparently, when Forman arrived home that evening, Chooley was roaring drunk and refused to let anyone into the dining room. To try to keep the peace, Mrs. Forman prepared dinner for the family in the kitchen and as they started to eat Chooley appeared at the door, brandished a weapon and aimed it at Forman. He fired. The bullet went through Forman’s hand. The wounded man leapt to his feet when a second shot rang out and entered his lung. The family fled for shelter at the Anderson home and as they left, Chooley fired again, narrowly missing his baby. Harry Forman died early the next morning.
The militia was now called to assist the police. Entering the Forman house, they found Chooley, passed out on the floor in a drunken stupor. Chooley was taken to the cells and charged with murder. Each day, as he was led to the courtroom for trial, angry crowds followed him. Feelings ran high in the city. Harry Forman was a popular Alderman and his daughter a much-loved teacher. One day, Chooley’s lawyer was attacked by the infuriated mob.
The jury returned a guilty verdict after only the briefest of deliberations and Mr. Justice Gray passed sentence of death. Six weeks later, on a bright spring morning, the miserable, surly wretch was led to the gallows, climbed the steps and paused. Suddenly and very unexpectedly, this ugly, loathsome murderer pursed his lips and began to whistle a beautiful melody. Chooley’s first name was Thomas, now unhappy Thomas, but known in his younger days as Happy Tom.
JANUARY 2010 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND
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