Cariboo Gold Fields

Kentucky Cannibal In Cariboo

A Story of the Killer Boone Helm

Never before in the history of colony of British Columbia had such a viscious and depraved badman, in the character of one Boone Helm, travelled amongst us. Having killed, robbed, cheated and even eaten so many of his honest brethren that it is doubtful whether even he, could have given an accurate account of his crimes; still, he escaped the laws of two countries over a period of some twenty years and left a legacy of infamy that lives on to this day.

Born in Kentucky in 1828, Boone moved with his parents to one of the newest settlements in Missouri when he was very young. The rough pursuits of border life were congenial to his tastes and, as a young man, he became known for his great physical strength and his rowdyism. He delighted in nothing more than any quarrel which would bring his prowess into full display. He was also an inordinate consumer of liquor, and when thus excited would give way to all the evil passions of nature. On one occasion, while the circuit court was in session, the sheriff attempted to arrest him. Helm resisted the officer, but urging his horse up the stairs into the court-room, astonished the judge by demanding with profane emphasis what he wanted with him.

Boone determined to emigrate either to Texas or California. Littlebury Shoot, a neighbour and friend had promised to accompany him. By some accounts, Shoot had made the promise to a drunken Helm with intent of pacification. When Helm heard that his friend was intending to stay in Missouri he called upon his friend’s house and an exchange of this sort took place:—

“So Littlebury, you’ve backed down on the Texas question, have you?”
Shoot, attempting an explanation was stopped by the preemptory demand:—
“Well, are you going or not? Say yes or no.”

At the utterance of this reply, Helm dissolved the brief partnership with a bowie knife between the ribs. Shoot died instantly and Boone fled West.

The brother of the victim and a few resolute friends followed in pursuit. They tracked him for a distance before capturing him by surprise at an Indian reservation and returning him to Monroe county for trial. He was convicted of murder; but his conduct was such while in confinement as to raise some serious doubts of his sanity. In the words of the court, “His manner was not only unbecoming but unbalanced.”
After his conviction, under the advice of physicians, he was consigned to the lunatic asylum from which he eventually escaped and fled immediately to California.

Helm killed several persons then in 1858 escaped arrest by flight to the Dalles, Oregon Territory.
Late in October Boone and several companions left Grande Ronde river for Camp Floyd. A first hand narrative of this adventure was detailed byJohn W. Powell who unwittingly saved the scoundrel’s life near the end of his journey:—

“...on the 10th of April, 1859... I had crossed the Snake river just above Fort Hall, pitched my lodge and was entering to indulge in a brief sleep, when I heard some one outside ask in a loud tone of voice, “Who owns this shebang?” Stepping to the door and looking out, I saw a tall, cadaverous, sunken-eyed man standing over me, dressed in a dirty, dilapidated coat and shirt and drawers, and moccasins so worn that they could scarcely be tied to his feet. Having invited him in and inquired his business, he told me substantially the following:—
His name was Boone Helm. In company with five others he had left Dalles City, Oregon, in October, 1858, intending to go to Camp Floyed, Utah Territory. Having reached the Raft river they were attacked by a party of Digger Indians, with whom they maintained a running fight for several miles, but none of the party was killed or severly wounded. Late in the evening they reached the Bannack river, where they camped, picketed their horses near by, and stationed two sentinels. During the night one of the sentinels was killed, the savage who committed the deed escaping on a horse belonging to the party.
(Eventually) … they reached Soda Springs on Bear river... and travelled up that river until they reached Thomas’s fork... where they found a comfortable cabin and went into winter quarters. Their provisions soon being all gone they commenced subsisting on their horses, killing one after another... making snow-shoes out of the hides of the horses... and started towards Fort Hall.
The party kept together until they had got beyond Soda Springs, where some had become so exhausted they could scarcely travel. With their meat supply getting low, Helm and a man named Burton concluded not to endanger their own lives by waiting for the wearied ones, so they left them behind.
When they had reached the site of Cantonment Loring, Burton: starving, weary, and snow-blind; was unable to proceed. Helm left him, and continued on for the Fort.
Reaching the fort, he found it without an occupant. He then returned to Burton, reaching him about dark. When out in the willows procuring firewood, he heard the report of a pistol. Running back into the house, he found Burton had committed suicide by shooting himself. Helm decided to try and find his way into Salt Lake valley. Cutting off, well up in the thigh, Burton’s remaining leg (having already eaten the other) he rolled the limb up in an old red flannel shirt, tied it across his shoulder, and started.
Boone Helm eventually made Salt Lake City where he was again driven out of town for his atrocious deeds. There is good reason to believe that before Helm fled from that town, he murdered two citizens in cold blood.
From a letter published in the Colonist newspaper on April 4, 1864 we learn that Helm has made his way to Cariboo.
In July of 1862 the villain is reported to be at Antler Creek, some sixteen kilometres from Barkerville over the heights of Prosperpine Mountain. Here our story picks up in the words of W. T. Collinson, a miner of the era who had the misfortune of meeting Boone that fateful spring, and the good luck of surviving to tell the tale some 31 years later.
“Tommy Harvey, alias ‘Irish Tommy’ and myself left Antler Creek with Sokolosky and two Frenchmen for Forks Quesnelle. This was on or about the 18th of July, 1862. We journeyed together until we arrived at Keithley Creek, where the three aforementioned gentlemen, carrying on a mule and two horses about $32,000 in coarse gold, stopped for dinner. Harvey and I, continued on three miles... where we cooked our repast a la mode Cariboo.”

Some have reported that Boone befriended Sokolosky & co. in Antler Creek, although this seems unlikely given Collinson’s account. More probable is that after passing Collinson on the road, Helm and his associate met the three men either at Keithley Creek or somewhere between there and Heck’s ferry. After an exchange of lead slugs, in which the three gold-laden miners were slayed, Helm & friend, buried the greater portion of gold and left the bodies near the road. Boone Helm and his partner turned back to Quesnelle Forks in haste, intending to retrieve their cache at a later date.

Collinson continues:

“We stayed at the Forks next day and saw the murdered men brought in. They had made a brave fight, every man’s pistol (good six shooters) was empty, and each man had a bullet through his head. Boone Helm and his chum killed these three men, took and hid the dust, and if no stranger has found it, it is there yet. For Boone left the country, I have proof of that...
“After leaving the Forks, I … journeyed on down, stopping at Beaver Lake, Deep Creek, and Williams Lake. I met Boone Helm and his chum at Little Bloody Run ...a few miles above Cook & Kimble’s Ferry (now Spence’s Bridge).”
“The first thing I heard was,
“Throw up your hands!”
and looking up, I saw the muzzle of a double-barreled shot-gun about four feet from my head. It took his partner about five minutes to cut my pack-straps, after taking my six shooter and purse. The latter contained three Mexican dollars and three British shillings. One of my old shirts contained a good wad...” but a “small bag containing bullets attracted their attention and saved my dust, which being tied in the old shirt pocket... was not seen. They emptied my pistol, gave it back to me and told me to ‘git’ and not look back. As my road was downhill, I lost no time.”

A. Browning had just arrived in Quesnelle Forks the day after the murders had been committed and saw the bodies brought in. He gives the following illumination:

“The trail leading down the mountain to the Forks of Quesnelle was a mile long and as I came near... I saw on the trail... a procession of men carrying three stretchers. I found on meeting them that they were carrying three dead men. They were found on the trail coming from Cariboo, robbed and murdered for... each of them [had been] carrying bags of gold... Who was the murderer, or who were the murderers? Everybody said in whispers it was Boone Helm, a gambler and cutthroat who had escaped the San Francisco Vigilance Committee...”
“Pursuit down the trail was determined on, and $700 raised to pay the cost of pursuers. Boone, I imagine, got wind of all this, and escaped across the line...”

From Browning, we see that the case was viewed with grave sincerity by the community of Quesnelle Forks and that every effort was made to capture Helm and bring him to justice for his evil deeds. Strangely, Boone Helm did not go ‘across the line’, or at least, not for any length of time. The Victoria Colonist next reports him showing up in that city on October 13, 1862.

“Boone Helm, said to be a dangerous character, was arrested by Sergeant Blake last evening.”

And on October 14th:

“Suspicious Character.- Boone Helm, represented as a bad character, was taken into custody on Sunday night last, upon a charge of drinking at saloons and leaving without settling his score … Sgt. Blake, who made the arrest, said that he understood the accused had killed a man at Salmon River (Florence), and fled to British Columbia. Helm was remanded for three days in order to see what account he can then give of himself.”

And on the 17th.

“Boone Helm.- … was brought before the Police Magistrate yesterday on a remand from Monday last. The prisoner was defended by Mr. Bishop, by whom it was urged that a prejudice had been created against him in the minds of the residents. The Police officers present denied that any such arrangement existed so far as they were aware, and the Chief of Police swore that he was known as a bad character. The proprietor of the Adelphi Saloon testified that he had procured drinks there, and then when pay was requested, replied,
“Don’t you know that I’m a desparate character?”

Sergeant Blake said that people who knew the accused best, were afraid of him. The Magistrate ordered Helm to find security to be of good behavior for the term of six months, himself in 50, and two securities in 20 each; in default, to suffer one month’s imprisonment.”
Boone defaulted and spent the next month building and repairing the streets of Victoria in a chain gang.

As another historian echoes before me, “It seems odd that in the newspaper articles at the time of Helm’s court hearing in October 1862, that no reference is made to the suspicion that he was responsible for the three deaths in the Cariboo that summer.” Victoria was a popular wintering place for miners who had ‘made their pile’, surely there would have been those in Victoria who had heard of Helm’s involvement in the slayings at Quesnelle Forks?

The Colonist reports that authorities held Boone Helm in “safe-keeping for some three or four weeks, in the expectation that a charge would by preferred against him by our cousins on the other side, and a request made for his surrender, but as nothing transpired, he was released and three days afterwards the demand came.”

By that time, Helm was gone and it wasn’t until the spring of 1863 that he was again arrested, this time at Fort Yale in the Fraser Canyon.
W. T. Collinson says this:

“The next I saw of Helm was at Sumas in the spring of 1864 (Collinson has his year confused, it was 1863). He was along with a packtrain owned by Dan Harris (alias Dirty Harris)... Helm was on his way to get the dust hid at Quesnelle and next day I got on my way to intercept Helm at Yale,"

From the Colonist:

“...a notorious character named Boon [sic.] Helm, who it is said to have committed a murder somewhere on the Salmon River, has been arrested by the British Authorities at Fort Yale on the Fraser River, and handed over in due form to the custody of a Mr. Brandian, a special offecer sent across for the purpose by the U.S. Authorities...” while another BC paper reports “He was brought into the city last night strongly ironed. The first clue of the detectives was the report that two men had been seen trudging up the Frazer river on foot... Helm’s conduct on the road is conclusive evidence that he was aware he was being pursued. He passed around the more populous settlements, or through them in the night time. When overtaken, he was so exhausted by fatigue and hunger that it would have been impossible for him to have continued many hours longer… Upon being asked what had become of his companion, he replied with the utmost sang froid:—”
“Why, do you suppose that I’m a — fool enough to starve to death when I can help it? I ate him up, of course.”
“The man who accompanied him has not been seen or heard of since, and from what we have been told of this case-hardened villain’s antecedents, we are inclined to believe he told the truth. It is said this is not the first time he has been guilty of cannibalism.”

Boone Helm was transported from Victoria to Port Townsend where Collinson reports he “dug out of Townsend jail and once more made his way to the hills, finally fetching up in...” either Boise, Idaho or Bannock, Montana.

Here begins the final chapter of Helm’s depravity. Having teamed up with the notorious Henry Plummer, who was sheriff of Bannock and a thief and murderer on the side, Boone and his friends raised the ire of the local communities in Bannock and Virginia City to the point where a vigilante committee was formed to deal with the public menace. After capturing five of the gang-leaders, Helm amongst them, the Committee tried these men in secret.

On February 15, 1864, the Victoria Colonist writes “Hung at Last.- The Notorious Boon [sic.] Helm, who so long suceeded in escaping the ends of justice, has been lynched, with twelve others, at Bannock Mines.”

Epilogue ...

His grave, marked by a well-kept metal headstone and flanked on either side by two of the ‘oreniest’ cutt-throats that ever graced a gallows, sits on a little knoll overlooking the town. These five were planted there, plenty deep, on January 14, 1864, by the vigilantes who tried them in secret and hanged them in public from a cross beam in an uncompleted building in the centre of town.


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©Contents Copyright Ron Young