Vancouver scientist pioneered police forensics

‘Sherlock Holmes of Canada’ John F.C.B.Vance put Canada on the map

Book Launch: Blood Sweat and Fear by Eve Lazarus, Vancouver Police Museum, 240 E. Cordova Street, Thursday June 8, 7 p.m.

Although there was blood on the meat-cutter’s clothes, police couldn’t say for sure if he had blood on his hands.

The meat-cutter, also known as Barney West, insisted it was nothing out of the ordinary. It made sense there’d be blood on his clothes, he argued, because he worked in a butcher store and messiness – often a bloody mess – simply came with the territory.

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But police in Dawson City, Yukon, who were anxiously trying to solve the murder of retired/miner Michael Essanasa, weren’t convinced.

They reached out to John F.C.B. Vance in Vancouver for help.

The year was 1932 and Vance, then internationally renowned as “the Sherlock Holmes of Canada,” was in high demand due to his uncanny ability to help detectives solve cases by using sound scientific reasoning and strong evidence-gathering.

Vance got to work quickly.

He was an expert in toxicology, firearms examination, gathering trace evidence, and serology, the latter of which would be particularly useful.  

Serology is essentially the testing of blood. It was Vance’s job to determine if the blood stains on West’s clothing came from him butchering animals or, well, a person.

Not only was Vance able to prove that the blood on West’s clothing was in fact human, he was able to determine that the blood belonged to the same blood-group as Essanasa’s.

When confronted with this evidence in court, West immediately confessed to the murder.

“It’s laughable now, but back then this was an incredibly long, drawn out process,” says writer Eve Lazarus when describing Vance’s determined and diligent work in analyzing blood and gathering evidence.

Vance’s four-decade career spent helping Vancouver police solve crimes, primarily through his pioneering use of forensic science, is the subject of Lazarus’ new book, Blood, Sweat and Fear.

In addition, the book paints an at-times grizzly portrait of Vancouver from the beginning of the 20th century until after the Second World War and traces some of the city’s most notorious crimes, both solved and unsolved.

“It gave me an excuse to really look into the most sensational crimes of the last century,” Lazarus explains. “(Vance) was so leading edge in so many ways and put Vancouver on the map forensically – and yet no one’s ever heard of this guy.”

Although Vance was Canada’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, his work in forensics up until now has gone mainly unexplored by the larger population.

Lazarus says she first came across Vance when she was working on her last book, Cold Case Vancouver, which examined some of Vancouver’s most befuddling unsolved murders.

One of those unsolved murders involved 24-year-old Jennie Conroy, who was murdered in West Vancouver in 1944. Vance was called to the case.

“I got really fascinated,” Lazarus says. “I thought, ‘I had no idea they had forensics back in the ’40s.’ I started looking into him and went to the police museum to find out what I could and then found out he was actually looking at forensics way earlier than that and was one of the only people in Canada, if not North America, that was actually doing forensics.”

The Conroy case is one that might have got away from Vance – but for more than four decades that was a rare outcome.

His rise to prominence in his field was serendipitous, according to Lazarus.

He originally worked as a city analyst for the City of Vancouver in 1907, ensuring that food, water, alcohol and pretty much anything for public consumption was safe and regulated.

But on April 3, 1914, Vance was called to the West End home of Charles and Clara Millard. Clara had gone missing and Vance was tasked with taking samples of some recently discovered red “stains” found at the home in order to determine their origin. Clara, it was later determined, had been murdered, her body dismembered and disposed of.

Determining that the blood was Clara’s helped police prove who committed the murder. And Vance’s life and career were never the same.

“From then on, we see him appearing at more and more crime scenes and then testifying at court,” Lazarus explains.

In 1914, the Vancouver Police Department moved into its new building at 240 East Cordova St., better known today as the Vancouver Police Museum. Vance’s lab was on the top floor.

By 1932, Vance was in charge of the police department’s newly founded bureau of science and he was given the title of honourary inspector.

Described as a quiet individual, Lazarus suggests that for Vance it was never about finding someone guilty or not guilty for a crime – his obsession was with the evidence itself.

“It was about finding the evidence that would either prove someone was guilty or exonerate them completely,” Lazarus says. “He loved being on the crime scene and finding the answer to things.”

Vancouver itself – the grittier side, at least – also has a starring role in Lazarus’ book.

Expect to see the narrative jump around to many of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods during the first half of the 20th century, including the anti-Asian riots that swept through much of the city in 1907, to the crime-ridden Depression era and throughout the two world wars.

“It was just this seething mass of corruption in Vancouver and Vance lived through it all,” Lazarus says.

Vance and his family lived for many years on Cumberland Street in North Vancouver before moving to the Kerrisdale neighbourhood in the 1930s.

If his life wasn’t exciting enough, in 1934 there was seven separate attempts on his life by individuals – criminals, mainly – whose lives had been turned upside down because of Vance’s evidence gathering, forensic work and testifying in court.

“I think he was in the press a lot, and it’s interesting because he disappears from the media after that,” Lazarus explains.

She says he continued working carefully and thoroughly until his retirement in 1949. During retirement, he bought some land up in B.C.’s Cariboo region and the family spent a lot of time there.

When Lazarus first started researching Blood, Sweat and Fear she connected with Vance’s surviving family members, which included many grandchildren.

In 2016, several old boxes that had belonged to Vance containing photographs, clippings and case notes from his illustrious career were rediscovered in a grandchild’s garage on Gabriola Island.  

Lazarus describes finding these items as a “researcher’s dream.”

Scattered among the case notes, it was discovered that Vance had brought with him into retirement pieces of trace forensic evidence concerning the Conroy case, as well as a multitude of photographs and notes.

Even in retirement, it seems, Vance was just as obsessive and determined to uncover the truth as he was in his professional life.

“That to me said it was one that he just couldn’t let go of and, of course, it remains unsolved today,” Lazarus says.

Lazarus will be speaking about and reading from Blood, Sweat and Fear at the Vancouver Police Museum on Thursday, June 8, at 7 p.m. and at the Capilano library in North Vancouver on Wednesday, June 14, at 7:30 p.m.

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