Saving History: the life’s work of J.F.C.B. Vance, Vancouver’s first forensic investigator

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In July 2016, several large cardboard boxes filled with photographs, clippings, forensic samples, and case notes pre-dating 1950, and thought to be thrown out decades ago, were discovered in a garage on Gabriola Island. They are now with the Vancouver Police Museum and Archives, and form the basis of Blood, Sweat, and Fear: the story of Inspector Vance, Vancouver’s first forensic investigator. 

I first “met” Inspector John F.C.B. Vance when I was writing Cold Case Vancouver. He turned up at a crime scene in Chapter 1, the murder of Jennie Eldon Conroy, a 24-year-old war worker who was beaten to death and dumped at the West Vancouver Cemetery. It turned out that Vance wasn’t actually a police officer–he ran the Police Bureau of Science for the Vancouver Police Department, and his cutting-edge work in forensics solved some of the most sensational cases in the first half of the last century.

Unfortunately, Jennie’s wasn’t one of them.

Blood, Sweat, and Fear
Vance examines a spent bullet through a comparison microscope in 1932. Courtesy Vance family

For most of his career, Vance worked out of 240 East Cordova Street, the building that now houses the Vancouver Police Museum. With their help, I was able to track down a couple of Vance’s grandchildren. Janey and David remembered that J.F.C.B.—as Vance was known in the family—had packed up several cardboard boxes full of photographs, clippings, and case notes from dozens of cases when he retired in 1949. He took them with him when he moved in 1960, but no one had seen them for years, and it was thought that they’d been thrown out. And then, in July 2016, more than half a century after Vance’s death, the boxes were found in another grandchild’s garage on Gabriola Island.

Blood, Sweat, and Fear
Vancouver was the only police department in Canada that had a forensic scientist on staff and one of the few police departments in North America to use forensics in criminal investigations. Forensic samples found in one of the boxes

Incredibly, when Janey opened the first box she found a large, tattered envelope labelled Jennie Eldon Conroy murdered West Vancouver, Dec 28, 1944. Inside there were smaller envelopes marked with the VPD insignia and filled with hair and gravel samples from the crime scene, an autopsy report, crime scene photos, and several newspaper clippings.

Blood, Sweat, and Fear
Vance’s science was so successful that in 1934 there were seven attempts on his life. This was a home made bomb sent to Vance’s lab through the general police mail

Vance was skilled in serology, toxicology, ballistics, trace evidence and autopsy. He was a familiar face at crime scenes and in the courtroom, and was called the Sherlock Holmes of Canada by the international media. Yet few people have heard of him.

Hopefully that will change with the publication of Blood, Sweat, and Fear, but best of all, all those boxes, the crime scene photos, the case notes, even Vance’s personal diary, are now with the Vancouver Police Museum and Archives. They’ll be properly processed, cared for, and eventually made available to the public.

Blood,Sweat, and Fear
Crime scene photo from the murder of two police officers in Merritt, BC in 1934. 

Excited to be taking part in a few events coming up in Vancouver and on the North Shore. I’ll be talking about some of the murders from Blood, Sweat, and Fear; Vancouver’s role in the development of forensics; and of course, our city’s criminal past.

© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.

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  1. Interesting tale of a crime sleuth who presumably didn’t have to carry a gun for his job. Then again, given those reported attempts on his life, maybe J.F.C.B. did pack heat.

    One thing for sure: The extremely sloppy writing on the address of the bomb package was probably a tip off that something dangerous could be inside. If the sender was subsequently caught, he probably cursed his inattention to learning cursive in school. Probably the type of wannabe punk who’d rip pages out of his MacLean Method Of Writing compendium to chew
    into spitballs.

    I wonder if future, ill-starred VPD Chief Walter Mulligan had decent penmanship? The second photo above shows receipt of gravel-and-sand evidence sent to Vance by then Detective Mulligan. A decade or so later, Walter would be famous for all the wrong reasons.

    1. He did have a gun, but I doubt whether he ever came close to using it. Most of the threats were in the form of bombs in the office or in his car. Once his brakes were tampered with. The attacks were in 1934 so not Chief Mulligan, but Vance did think that Chief John Cameron was involved. Your comment about the punk made me laugh!

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