Another Halloween is rapidly approaching. It is a time of year when attention often turns to stories of old tragedies – cases of shocking murders and mysterious disappearances.
One such tragedy happened near Red Deer at the turn of the last century. It became one of the most sensational murder cases in Alberta’s history.
The victim was Isaac Rufus Belt. He was a carpenter and stonemason, in his late 40s, who had come up from Jamesville, Iowa to prepare a new life for his wife and six children. His sister, Mrs. Adna Thomas, already lived near Haynes, Alberta and his brother Moses lived west of Blackfalds on the Blindman River.
Rufus Belt homesteaded along the Red Deer River, in the Mound Lake/Great Bend district. He built a small log cabin. He also worked around the area and managed to earn a $50 American banknote.
Not long after Belt settled in, a young man, who identified himself as Bert Ellsworth, stopped by and stayed for a few days. Ellsworth was really named Ernest Cashel. Originally from Buffalo, Wyoming, he had an extensive criminal record. He had likely come to Canada to get away from his notorious past, but also to find new people to cheat and rob.
Cashel was in trouble soon after arriving in Alberta. He stole from John Phelan, a Chestermere area farmer, and wrote a number of bad cheques against Phelan’s bank accounts. Cashel was arrested in Ponoka, but escaped custody by jumping out of the washroom window on the train that was transporting him to trial. Cashel then stole a horse at Lacombe. He was not seen again until he showed up under an assumed name at Belt’s home.
Around Halloween 1902, both Belt and Cashel disappeared. When the police were called in to investigate, they found that Belt’s horse, saddle, shotgun and $50 were missing. The police quickly suspected that “Ellsworth” is in fact Cashel and that he had robbed and murdered Belt.
The police soon received reports of Cashel being seen in the Calgary-Banff areas, while continuing a spree of theft. Cashel was finally arrested at Anthracite, near Banff. He had a lot of stolen property on him, some of which had clearly belonged to Rufus Belt.
Cashel was convicted of theft and sentenced to three years at the Stony Mountain prison in Manitoba. Meanwhile, the police and neighbours continued to search for Belt. His badly decomposed body was finally found, floating in the Red Deer River, near the mouth of Haynes Creek. Despite the condition of his remains, there was clearly a bullet hole in his back.
Cashel was brought back to Calgary and was convicted of Belt’s murder. He was sentenced to be hanged on December 15, 1903. However, while he was sitting in the Calgary police cells, awaiting his execution, his brother John was able to sneak two revolvers into the jail. Ernest Cashel made a dramatic escape and a new manhunt commenced.
For 46 days, the hunt for Cashel continued. There were numerous sightings, but many false reports as well. Posses consisting of as many as 40 mounted and armed constables ranged across the countryside in pursuit of the fugitive.
Finally, in late January 1904, Cashel was found hiding in the cellar of a shack east of Calgary. When Cashel refused to surrender, a short gun battle ensues. Finally, the shack was set ablaze by the police to literally “smoke” Cashel out.
Cashel was taken back to Calgary and put under a heavily armed guard in the North West Mounted Police cells. On February 2, 1904, he was hanged in the prison yard.
Meanwhile, Rufus Belt was buried in a small country cemetery, not far from his homestead. There is a small monument on the grave that states “Isaac Rufus Belt, June 9, 1855 –November 1, 1902”.
The Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery has an outstanding exhibition of early photographs by pioneer photographer, Bert Fors. This display, “Nya Bachen – The New Land”, will open on October 29, 201 and will run until the end of the year. For more information, contact the Museum at 403-309-8405.