In my recent travels I became aware of two interesting women. Each is noteworthy in her own right but the juxtaposition of encountering the two of them in the past month, some two thousand miles apart, and so many years after the events for which they are famous, is intriguing. One was an Irish-born American with a strong connection to Canada. The other was Canadian. Both became well known. In some ways they are mirror images of each other.
Ellen Cashman, more commonly known as “Nellie”, was among a rare breed of pioneer women; possibly unique. Born in Ireland in 1845, in the 80 years that followed, her life came to parallel the history of the gold rush in 19th and early 20th century North America.
Cashman immigrated to the United States at age five with her mother and sister, settling in Boston. She worked as a hotel bell hop and delivered telegrams; both jobs more often held by young men. In 1865 the family moved to San Francisco.
In 1874, during the Klondike Gold Rush, Cashman left home and moved to the Cassiar Mountains of British Columbia where she established a boarding house for miners. A life long Catholic, she asked residents for donations to the Sisters of St. Anne in exchange for accommodations. While traveling to Victoria to deliver $500 in donations to the Sisters, she received word that a snowstorm had stranded 26 miners in the Cassiar Mountains without food and in ill-health. Pulling together a six-man search party, she collected food and medicine to bring to the stranded miners. After 77 days, Cashman and her party located the sick men, who numbered far more than 26; some estimates credit Cashman with saving the lives of as many as 75. The trip to the Cassiar would be important for another reason. It was Cashman’s first glimpse of Alaska. She ran her businesses and mined in the Cassiar Mountains during 1875 and 1876, but left in late 1876 to return to San Francisco where she took care of her aged mother. By the time of her return to the southern territories, her reputation as a miner, businesswoman, and philanthropist was well established.
From 1877 – 1898, Cashman lived in Arizona. first in Tucson and later in Tombstone. During this period she ran a boarding house, and co-owned a hotel and restaurant in Tombstone called Russ House, now known as “Nellie Cashman’s”, According to a popular legend, a client once complained about Cashman’s cooking, and fellow diner, Doc Holliday, drew his pistol, asking the customer to repeat what he had said. Embarrassed, the client replied, “Best I ever ate”. She ran a restaurant, Delmonico’s, in Tucson. She also ran retail businesses providing supplies and equipment to miners. During this period Cashman also raised money to build the Sacred Heart Catholic Church and committed herself to charity work with the Sisters of St. Joseph working as a nurse in a Cochise County hospital. In 1883 she adopted her 5 nieces and nephews who’d been orphaned by the death of her widowed sister.
In 1894, five men who’d been convicted to killing innocent bystanders during a robbery; the so-called “Bisbee Massacre”, were sentenced to be hanged. A local carpenter built a grandstand next to the courthouse and planned to charge for tickets to witness the public hanging. Feeling no death should be a cause for celebration, she and a crew of volunteers tore down the grandstand the night before the hangings. The hangings took place on schedule but without the circus atmosphere. The men were buried in Boothill Cemetery.
In 1886, Cashman left Tombstone, briefly, to travel across Arizona, opening restaurants and boarding houses in Nogales, Jerome, Prescott, Yuma, and Harquahala. She traveled to Baja California to prospect, unsuccessfully, for gold and silver.
In 1898, Cashman left Arizona for the Yukon where she stayed until 1905. Her prospecting ventures took her to Klondike, Fairbanks, and Nolan Creek. On her arrival at Fairbanks, she opened a grocery store. She also undertook fund-raising for the new Episcopalian St. Matthews Hospital. She set out to raise money for the new hospital by staking herself in some of the many poker games in the well-to-do mining camp. She opened a second Delmonico’s restaurant and, later, owned a store in Dawson City.
In 1921, Cashman visited California, where she declared her desire to be appointed U.S. deputy Marshal for the area of Koyukuk. She was unsuccessful. In 1922-23 , the Associated Press documented her trip, mushing her own dog sled, from Nolan Creek to Anchorage; a 17 day, 350 mile, journey. She was 78.
Despite one publicly announced engagement, Cashman never married. She died of pneumonia and rheumatism on January 4, 1925 in St. Ann’s Hospital in Victoria, B.C. , the same hospital that she had helped to build fifty-one years earlier. She was interred at Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, British Columbia.
Nellie Cashman made her own way in the world. She paid her way by establishing businesses, buying and selling mines, and mining. Excess dollars earned from these ventures, supplemented by funds she raised from her fellow miners, were used to establish schools, churches, and hospitals from the Mexican border to Alaska. On March 15, 2006, she was inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame.
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Four years before Nellie Cashman’s death, Evelyn MacLean was born in Beamsville, Ontario, near Niagara Falls; the daughter of Donald and Alexandra MacLean. The following year, the family moved to Hamilton, Ontario where Donald worked for the local streetcar line. It is in Hamilton that Evelyn would meet and marry John Dick. And it was by that name, Evelyn Dick, she would become famous throughout Canada in the late 1940’s for her alleged participation in what would come to be known as “The Torso Murder”.
Evelyn’s childhood was not happy. Her father drank and her mother had a temper. The parents didn’t get along and often spent time apart. Evelyn didn’t associate much with the neighbourhood children. Her parents considered her too fragile to be out playing on the streets.
With parental encouragement, Evelyn worked to become recognized in the finer circles in town. She would host lavish parties at the Royal Connaught Hotel, Hamilton’s finest, and spend money freely on acquaintances. She never gained the social acceptance for which she and her parents hoped.
It was rumored that Donald was embezzling from the streetcar line. The MacLeans lived very well and always had huge sums in the bank. Donald and Alexandra MacLean would send Evelyn shopping with handfuls of nickels, the streetcar fare at the time.
The attractive Evelyn was the subject of rumors as well. While still in her teens, she had more expensive jewelry and furs than was considered proper and she spent time in the company of older men. In 1942, Evelyn gave birth to a daughter. Evelyn claimed she was married to a man named White who was stationed overseas but military records failed to support this. Evelyn’s daughter, Heather White, was born with mental retardation. In the summer of 1943, Evelyn had a stillborn baby. Then in September of 1944, Peter David White was born. No one is certain who the father was for any of her children and Evelyn’s trial testimony would later indicate the number of possible candidates was large.
In June of 1945, Evelyn. her mother, who’d recently separated from Evelyn’s father, and young Heather moved into an apartment together in downtown Hamilton. It is unclear where nine-month-old Peter was at this time. Shortly thereafter, Evelyn announced she was going to marry John Dick a streetcar conductor.
Saturday, March 16, 1946 a group of five children found what they thought looked like the body of a headless pig laying part way down the side of Hamilton’s escarpment, or what locals call ‘The Mountain’. Their find proved to be more gruesome. It was the torso of an adult male. The head, arms and legs were missing. A deep wound in the abdomen suggested that someone had tried to cut the torso itself in two. The head and limbs had been sawn from his body. Evidence later surfaced that they had been burned in the furnace of Evelyn Dick’s home. An identification of the remains by doctors and a positive i.d. by his brother-in-law led police to conclude they’d found the remains of John Dick.
When questioned by police, Evelyn responded to the news that the torso belonged to her husband by remarking ” Don’t look at me. I don’t know anything about it”. She then told a story about a nattily dressed Italian hit-man who arrived at her door looking for John. He said that he was going to “fix” him for messing around with his wife. Days later, police learned that Evelyn had borrowed a car from a friend. When the car was returned, the seat covers were missing, the front seat was covered with blood and bloody clothing was found in the back. Evelyn had explained that Heather had cut herself. Investigation proved the blood to be the same type as John Dick’s.
At this point, Evelyn told police that a mysterious man had called her, told her that John had made a woman pregnant and that he was getting what was coming to him. The man then asked to meet Evelyn so that he could borrow a car. Evelyn explained that when she met the man he had a large sack with him. He told her it contained ‘part of John’. Evelyn’s story went on to say that she drove this man and his cargo to the dumping site. Mrs. Dick took police on the route that she claimed they followed. When asked if it was alarming to her that her husband’s body was in the vehicle, she said that she wasn’t happy about his demise, but that it was a “pretty mean trick to break up a home”, referring to the woman who Dick had allegedly impregnated. She emphatically denied conspiring to kill her husband.
Her first trial was a sensation. Hundreds lined up outside the courthouse in hopes of getting into the gallery. During the trial Evelyn was asked by an attorney regarding her young son:
“Is it not a fact that the father of that child could have been any one of 400 men in this city?”
“No, not that many,” replied Ms. Dick.
“Three hundred, then,” the attorney suggested.
“Tell the court, how many men you’ve had sexual intercourse with then,” the lawyer asked.
“Maybe 150,” Evelyn says.
She went on to say the 150 included the trial judge’s son.
In her first trial, after nine days of testimony the jury took less than two hours to return a guilty verdict. Evelyn was sentenced to death. Her conviction was overturned on appeal and she was acquitted of murdering her husband in a second trial. She was found guilty of manslaughter, however, in the death of her infant son and sentenced to life in Kingston Prison for Women. Evelyn Dick was paroled in 1958 and disappeared. If still alive today, she would be 92.
The Torso murder case is one of the most sensational and talked-about murder cases in Canada’s history. More than half a century after the crime, it spawned a play, a 2002 television film, Torso: The Evelyn Dick Story, which suggests Evelyn protected her parents, who were also viable suspects in the murder of her baby and husband, and that she was sexually abused by her father and exploited by both parents (especially by her mother) to provide them a higher standing and income. The case was also the subject of the 2005 film noir musical, Black Widow.
The stories of these two women illustrate opposing perspectives on common themes. Nellie Cashman came from a disadvantaged background and grew to become an independent woman. She succeeded in fields usually reserved to men in her time. She took responsibility for herself and made an effort to help others. Evelyn Dick came from an advantaged, if not privileged, background. She sought social status. Evidence suggests there may have been a history of abuse, There is also some indication she may have been somewhat mentally challenged. These must be considered before judging her. Regardless of their similarities or differences, their challenges or advantages; one left behind a legacy of philanthropy. The other left only a legacy of mystery and scandal.