I fought the law and the law won: Big John Kirkup replaces “Miner’s Law” with “Kirkup’s Law”

Allyson Kenning
By Allyson Kenning
February 22nd, 2011

By 1896, Rossland was considered a cosmopolitan town, a “premiere camp”, and it had a reputation as being a fairly orderly place despite all the riffraff who were flowing in from all over. There were dozens of saloons and Sourdough Alley was a hub of debauchery, gambling, and prostitution, but incidents of violent crime were quite low. That is, until someone spoiled it for everyone one night in Sourdough Alley in March 1896.


During a drunken fight, a man named Jimmy Westgate brutally hacked to death Hugh MacLachlin with an axe. Westgate was arrested, taken to Nelson, tried, found guilty, but only sentenced to 11 months in prison. This incident caught the attention of the powers that be in Victoria, who were all of a sudden worried that Rossland might turn into another example of the lawless mining camps that were so prevalent in the States. The Brits had a reputation for keeping things well-run and under control, and the murder of Hugh MacLachlin was a sign that perhaps Rossland needed some formal law enforcement around town.

Enter 6-foot, 3-inch, three hundred pound John Kirkup. Born in Kemptville, ON, in 1855, Kirkup started out in life as an innocuous carriage-maker’s apprentice, and at 21 he migrated west to Winnipeg to take advantage of the construction boom there. He only stayed a year before moving Victoria, where carriage-making must have seemed less romantic than becoming a police officer, for in 1881, Kirkup joined the provincial police. Off he went to Yale for the building of the CPR, and on January 1, 1891, he got married to Margaret Susan Kerr, a woman 11 years his junior.

Kirkup had a reputation for not getting along with local politicians. This reputation would haunt his career from time to time and eventually force him to resign from the provincial police force in 1894. However, in 1896, after the Hugh MacLachlin murder, the province re-hired him to oversee law and order in Rossland.

He was known for unorthodox methods that became known around Rossland as “Kirkup’s Law.” Packing heat became prohibited, and when arriving in town, people were required to put their sidearms in safekeeping. Kirkup himself was known for carrying a Colt revolver, but when in charge of Rossland, he cast it aside in favour of a lead-weighted billy club reputedly acquired from an Idahoan criminal.

One well-documented story exemplifying Kirkup’s methods took place in Sourdough Alley when a squatter built a crude shack right near a stream, which was a big no-no. Kirkup came along to take a look at the situation. After a brief verbal encounter with the squatter that went nowhere, Kirkup simply put his shoulder to the shack and pushed the building to the ground.

Another story had Kirkup breaking up a poker game that was getting out of control in a Spellman’s Saloon. When shots were fired from forbidden sidearms, Kirkup barrelled his way into the saloon and began wielding his heavy billy club. When all was said and done Kirkup had confiscated the prohibited guns and sent the gamblers packing.

Yet another story tells of the time Kirkup intimidated an infamous Idaho gunman named Jack Lucy out of town purely by grasping the man’s shoulder, staring him down, and uttering a pleasantly-worded threat.

Kirkup liked to crack heads together when people weren’t behaving. Another legend has him tying drunken adversaries to big trees for the night in order to give them an opportunity to sort out their differences.

However he went about keeping law and order in Rossland, Kirkup was well-respected by the folks in town, and he was known to be a pretty nice guy with a great sense of humour. However, his methods didn’t sit well with everyone. When long-time local politician Colonel Robert Scott was elected Rossland’s first mayor in 1897, he let Kirkup know his days as the law were numbered, and indeed, in July of that year, after only 16 months on duty, Kirkup once again lost his job for being unpopular with local politicians. The provincial government, however, kept Kirkup in Rossland, appointing him Government Agent and Gold Commissioner.

He and Margaret had two sons in Rossland and remained in town until the end of 1912, when the family moved to Vancouver Island so that Kirkup could take a position as Government agent first in Port Alberni, and then in Nanaimo. He died from complications of diabetes in 1916 and is buried in Nanaimo.

Though long gone, Big John Kirkup definitely left his mark. In 1950 one of our local peaks was named after him, and the story goes that John Wayne used him as a model to help create his movie persona. One of Wayne’s signature movie moves was to club opponents with the butt of his pistol; this was also something Kirkup was famous for.

Not a bad run for a carriage-maker from Kemptville.



West Kootenay: The Pioneer Years, by Garnet Basque

Roaring Days, by Jeremy Mouat

Rossland History in Song & Story: http://www3.telus.net/ridgerecords/index.html

First History of Rossland, B.C : with sketches of some of its prominent citizens, firms and corporations, by Harold Kingsmill, found online at http://www.ourroots.ca/e/toc.aspx?id=1260

BC Integrated Land Management Bureau archives


Photo credit: Rossland History in Song and Story (http://www3.telus.net/ridgerecords/index.html)


Other News Stories