Mary Spencer landed the photo of a lifetime with the now iconic image of legendary robber Bill Miner after his capture in Kamloops.
“Please have photographer who made pictures of robbers rush us copies, as we will pay well, wire answer. Please ask photographer what train he will express bandit pictures on.”
A wire from The Winnipeg Telegram requesting Mary Spencer’s photos of Bill Miner and his gang. From A Steady Lens: The True Story of Pioneer Photographer Mary Spencer by Sherril Foster.
Portraits of a lady
She was reserved, soft-spoken, and took pleasing portraits of wistful young ladies and jubilant children. She was also entrepreneurial, determined, and knew a thing or two about technique—the very qualities that led to her capturing the famous photographs of one Bill Miner, career criminal. While Mary Spencer’s name is not well known today, her photos have lived on.
Spencer was born in 1857 in St. Catharines, Ontario, to a family of British immigrants. She moved to Kamloops in 1899, where she set up a portrait studio. Spencer photographed a range of pioneer personalities over the years, from cherubic toddlers and Chinese orchard workers in Ashcroft to baseball teams and slack-limbed cowboys. The positioning of subjects—the angle of an arm, the tilt of a chin, suggests a definite artistic sensibility.
A sign above her studio in 1904 read: “Miss M. Spencer, Photographic Artist.” It is unclear how she learned photography, writes Sherril Foster, author of A Steady Lens: The True Story of Pioneer Photographer Mary Spencer. By the time she arrived in Kamloops, she was evidently a trained photographer, likely through an apprenticeship. “She was very dedicated to what she was doing,” said Foster in an interview. “She must have had a lot of gumption.”
Spencer’s services were soon in demand, and she became known for her area landscapes and portraits of children, families, and “poignant young ladies,” writes Foster. But her best-known works would be of less savoury characters.
Wanted: Dead or alive
Kentucky-born Bill Miner was a career criminal who went through many accomplices and aliases. By the time he arrived in British Columbia at around age 57, he’d held up stagecoaches and trains and already spent decades in prison. In B.C. he is known for two train robberies. The first took place near Mission Junction in 1904, where his gang snagged $7,000 (or more) in gold and bonds from a Canadian Pacific Railway train. It’s regarded as the first Canadian train robbery in history. A hefty reward was offered, but Miner eluded capture.
On May 9, 1906, Miner and his accomplices William “Shorty” Dunn and Louis Colquhoun robbed a second train at Ducks Landing (now Monte Creek), east of Kamloops. The bandits escaped on foot but were tracked by a posse and caught a week later while eating lunch around a campfire.
After an overnight stay in Quilchena, the Royal North West Mounted Police led their quarry to Kamloops where officers were stunned to see a crowd of townspeople waiting to glimpse the outlaws. Spencer was there. As the only photographer in town, she had been hired on contract by the Vancouver Daily Province to document the capture.
Provincial police in Kamloops asked Spencer to photograph the criminals after initial questioning. She did so on May 16, 1906, posing them against the wall of the jail. The photos caused a sensation. There were telegram requests sent from around the continent for the photographer to send “his” images. Spencer was under contract with the Vancouver Daily Province for exclusive use of the photographs in what is arguably an early example of photojournalism. The police superintendent restricted their use in any case, not wanting the photos to interfere with the trial.
The Gentleman Bandit
The CPR was an unpopular entity at the time, and Miner hence became a folk hero for his exploits and for his polite demeanour. (In January 2014, his name was in the news once again after a gold watch belonging to him was stolen from the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. Unlike Miner, however, the modern gold bandit was quickly apprehended and charged.)
For his part, Miner was sentenced to life in prison in New Westminster, but soon escaped, fled to the U.S., was apprehended again, and so on. He died in jail in 1913 of natural causes.
His exploits were chronicled in the critically acclaimed (but not strictly factual) 1982 film The Grey Fox, in which Richard Farnsworth was cast as Miner and Jackie Burroughs played his love interest, a photographer named Kate Flynn. While there was no relationship between Spencer and the American in real life, there is no doubt the encounter with Miner catapulted her images to the history books.
Miss M. Spencer’s photographs formed an important part of the history of Kamloops, documenting not just a famous train robber, but the joys and struggles of regular people in the city’s early days.
A Steady Lens: The True Story of Pioneer Photographer Mary Spencer by Sherril Foster (Caitlin Press, 2013).
Interred with their Bones: Bill Miner in Canada 1903-1907 by Peter Grauer. Out of print, but available used or in libraries (billminer.ca).