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December 8, 2006

Bill Miner “The Grey Fox” Canada’s First Train Robber



One of the United States’ most famous bandits, Bill Miner, called The Grey Fox, who primarily robbed stage coaches and trains came to British Columbia between 1903 and 1907 and became famous here.  Numerous books, songs, re-enactments and one of Canada’s best known movies celebrate his life.  A hundred years ago this year he was captured, sent to trial in Kamloops, B.C., and given a life sentence.  Before looking at his life in more detail let me introduce a personal connection. 

Mary Spencer – Photographer. 

My family has a long history in Port Colborne where I grew up.  My mother’s original family home was built in 1879 and remains in the family today.  At one time there were several extended family homes in the same block.  My maternal grandmother’s sister (1859-1937) lived next door and married John Spencer (1852-1944) who was a brother to three sisters Elizabeth, Mary, and Isobel.  Mary was an artist and early photographer who moved to Kamloops with her sister Isobel before 1900 where she set up a photography studio.  The curator of the Kamloops Museum which has some of Mary’s photographs notes that “Mary Spencer… is ranked among the best female and male photographers in British Columbia”.  Her sister Bel ran a flower shop.  Her other sister Jennie taught music there briefly. 

When Bill Miner was being hunted down, captured and put on trial Mary was hired by the Vancouver Province newspaper to record the activity.  She was an outstanding photographer and of all of the pictures taken of Bill Miner over the years hers are the best known and have been reproduced on book covers and in books ever since  (see photo).  She was also asked by the local police to take mug shots of Miner and his accomplices.  The pictures were in great demand and she reproduced them with her name stamped on the corner, until she was told by the people who ordered the photos to stop. 

Some of Mary Spencer’s photos of the notorious bandit Bill Miner “The Grey Fox” – note her name on the photos.

Mary and her sister Bel moved to Summerland B.C. and in 1909 had a fine stone home built by the husband of their other sister Elizabeth.  Mary painted, was a potter, took photographs and died in 1938.  Mary became a fascinating part of our family history.  Her brother’s son Jack Spencer who married my Dad’s sister lived to be 100 and died in 1995.  His son Don recently completed a fascinating family history with details on Mary and Bel’s life that renewed my interest in the story that is just touched on here. 

Bill Miner 

Bill Miner was born in 1846 and lived until 1913.  He spent half of is life in prison and as a sociopath never showed the slightest sign of rehabilitation.  He started as a teenager with petty crime and graduated to stage coach and eventually train robberies.  He was in and out of San Quentin Prison five times including one 20 year stay.  He regularly tried to escape over the years and was successful occasionally.  He did not use violence and had a reputation as a gentleman who only robbed the rich.  In 1903 he ran to Princeton British Columbia where he soon performed Canada’s first train robbery where he took a large amount of bonds and securities which he hid.  After a train robbery in the U.S. he carried out a botched robbery in B.C. and was caught and sentenced to life in prison.  Mary Spencer, as mentioned, took the series of remarkable photographs which have been reprinted many times usually with her original stamp on them. 

Some of the books on Bill Miner with Mary Spencer photos on the cover including a new one by Kamloops author Peter Grauer.

According to the 260 page definitive book The Grey Fox by Dugan & Boessenecker a deal was struck at New Westminster B.C. prison where Miner was allowed to escape if he gave back the bonds and securities stolen in a previous robbery.  Miner picked up the loot and cashed it and lived a glorious life for three years until the money ran out.  He robbed a train and got 20 years.  He escaped and was caught and escaped again.  He holed up in a swamp and ingested swamp water and became permanently ill and was captured. 

While Miner was being returned to prison a large crowd greeted him and cheered him with money and cigars.  He died a year later and the people of the local town paid for his funeral. 

In 1983 Canadian Film Director Philip Borsos released his film The Grey Fox which became one of the most acclaimed movies in the history of Canadian film making.  It won seven Canadian Film Awards including Best Film Best Director and Best Screenplay.  It is considered to be one of the ten best Canadian films of all time.  The film fabricates a lot of details including a love affair with a photographer in Kamloops – an affair that never happened in real life. 

As mentioned there are several books on Miner including an excellentnew 600 page one by Kamloops author Peter Grauer (www.billminer.ca) which I have ordered but not yet received.  He discovered that one of the men imprisoned with Miner in New Westminster was wrongfully convicted, given 25 years, and died in prison. 

I should also mention that with 2006 being the 100th anniversary of the trial several special Miner events took place.  The Kamloops Heritage Railway had an interpretive narrative on Bill Miner as the train passed various key locations.  In Kamloops there was a Musical Review based on Bill Miner’s life including a reference to “the feisty photographer Mary Spencer”. 

In Summerland there was a Heritage Tour that included a stop at Mary Spencer’s house and the local Kettle Valley Railway had a robbery re-enactment of Bill Miner robbing the train.  The Grey Fox is part of B.C. history now. 

My thanks to all of the people who gave me enough material for a much larger column.  Special thanks to Richard Mackey my brother and ex RCMP officer who had some friends help with research on this article.  Thanks also to Don Spencer whose family history sparked my interest. 

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