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One man’s kindness resulted in horrible injuries at Princeton’s Cook’s store

Perley Russell was ‘never the same’ after a vicious attack with a hammer
Perley Russell was a revered member of the Princeton community. Photo 1895, contributed.

When he died in 1951, the Similkameen Star newspaper printed a multi-page obituary to honour him even though he was no longer living in British Columbia.

Many said he was Princeton. Born James Perley Russell in New Brunswick on June 19, 1869, Perley spent much of his life in Princeton.

Perley worked in the Phoenix-Greenwood camps and Similkameen road works before arriving at Granite Creek in the 1890’s. While at the gold town, he worked in F.P. Cook’s store.

By 1908, Russell was managing Cook’s new store in Princeton. It seemed that Perley knew everyone. It would be impossible to count how many times he was a pallbearer for locals who passed. He was a member of almost every group in Princeton from the Masons to the Oddfellows. If there was a governing board, it was likely Perley was on it.

His home was at Castle Rock. Bachelor Perley usually wore a soft hat and working clothes. He was described as honest and trustworthy. One person said of him, “he was the soul of kindness, and his word was his bond.”

On Nov. 24, 1938, his life changed. After supper that evening, Perley returned to the store to feed his cats. It was dark as he entered, and he heard a noise. He felt intense pain as he was struck multiple times in the back of his head. When he came to, Perley dragged himself to the Tulameen Hotel for help. The doctor said Russell had five severe scalp wounds and was in a daze for several days. He lost 40 lbs. after the attack. While Perley eventually recovered from his physical injuries, he was never the same.

Police scoured Princeton and quickly found the culprit.

Ex-convict, Gordon McKenzie, 25 years old, was apprehended. During the trial, it was learned that McKenzie had robbed two other businesses earlier on. He stole $30 from the Princeton Brewery and $5 from The Light & Power Co. He had been casing Cook’s store and entered it twice that night. Upon his first entry, McKenzie got 50 cents from the till; however, he noticed the safe and decided to come back with a hammer to break into it. As he was working on the safe, Perley entered the store and McKenzie attacked him with the hammer. McKenzie stole $60 from Perley’s pockets and left.

In the scuffle, McKenzie’s watch fell off and it was a valuable piece of evidence against him. After hiring a lawyer, McKenzie pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to three years in jail. Locals were furious.

When asked how he felt about the punishment, Russell commented that if he had committed the crime he would have been hanged.

But there is more to this strange tale…..

Before arriving in Princeton, Gordon McKenzie lived in Vancouver with his wife and three children. Mrs. McKenzie (22 years old) killed their three-month-old baby by dropping it from the Burrard bridge into False Creek. She went to the police afterwards and stated that she had intended to commit suicide but lost her nerve. While she stood, dazed on the bridge, she dropped her child. She was released on $1,000 bond. At the inquest, the coroner’s jury released her from blame.

The couple and their two remaining children left for Princeton and arrived claiming to be destitute. When Perley heard of their plight, he found a job for Gordon McKenzie which was to begin a few days after the attack.

Perley eventually went back to work at the Cook store but in 1945, at the age of 76, he decided to go back to New Brunswick. He never returned to Princeton, although he did correspond with his friends. News of his passing left Princeton residents in mourning. His life was beautifully summarized in a quote from his obituary:

“To most of us Perley was not in Princeton but of it – a sort of human Castle Rock, the Castle Rock of an eternal September twilight, where time stood still; true and friendly, close but somehow distant; and very much a personality, a landmark.”

Andrea DeMeer

About the Author: Andrea DeMeer

Andrea is the publisher of the Similkameen Spotlight.
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