Deep empathy, steel resolve: the Mary Steinhauser story

More than 40 years after a hostage taking ended with the death of her sister, Margaret Franz explores Mary Steinhauser’s life and legacy

Margaret Franz was back home after burying her older sister when she agreed to an interview.

It was the summer of 1975. Reporters wanted to know about the hostage taking, the prisoners with their knives and the guards with their guns. Andy Bruce. Albert Hollinger. And, of course, they wanted to know about Mary.

Franz thought she was ready.

First question: “Was Mary an inmate groupie?”

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Decades later, Franz still thinks about that question and its unstated implication that her sister was some frivolous fool partially responsible for her own killing. And if she was smitten with this prisoner and complicit in his escape attempt, well, then the guard who shot her was absolved and the entire incident became something regrettable, something awful certainly, but not quite a tragedy.

Back in 1975, Franz didn’t know what to say.

“I was so shocked I could hardly answer,” Franz remembers.

Reporters shuffle outside B.C. Penitentiary during an inquest into Mary Steinhauser’s death. photo supplied City of New Westminster Archives

Vienna: 1938

Nazis had begun a campaign of riot and murder that came to be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.

Wanting to get his family as far from Europe as possible, a Jewish father in Vienna sent his wife, two girls and their nanny to Canada.

The nanny was named Johanna Reisner. Once in B.C. she met August Steinhauser. The couple had two girls: Mary and Margaret.

The family settled in the West Kootenays and it’s there, in the village of Burton, B.C., that Mary Steinhauser’s story begins.

Today, Burton’s official slogan is: “On the way to exactly nowhere . . .”

Nestled on the east shore of Lower Arrow Lake, Franz remembers cold water drawn from the well. The glow of coal oil lamps. She didn’t flick a light switch until she was eight years old.

The Steinhauser farm had acres of apple and cherry trees on one side of the house and lowing cattle and workhorses on the other.

“You would call us poor,” Franz reflects. Then she laughs. “It was a fabulous life for kids.”

The girls went to a two-room schoolhouse. It was in that school that Franz first realized there was something different about her sister, both the depths of her compassion and the steeliness of her resolve. For Steinhauser, injustice was a personal affront.

In Grade 8 social studies, Mary was so horrified to learn that Indigenous people were robbed of their lands that her teacher threatened to kick her out of class.

“I guess she talked too loudly, too much, too frequently,” Franz muses.

When the schoolboys teased Mary for putting on a little weight (mom baked fabulous pastries, Franz explains) she tried to become a boxer.

“I was a strong character, too,” Franz reflects. “But not nearly as strong as she was.”

There was more to Mary, Franz explains. There was bravery.

Arrow Lake flooded every year back then. The current would breach its banks and roll over uneven meadowland leaving ponds, puddles and swimming holes behind.

The swimming holes were wonderful, Franz remembers, except you couldn’t see bottom.

Franz invited her friend Amy and her sister to go for a dip. Amy said yes. Mary said she might join them later.

There were no swimming lessons back then, not in Burton. But Franz had taught herself to dog paddle. Amy couldn’t swim.

The two girls braved a mosquito cloud and slipped into the swimming hole. It was up to their knees. It was hot out and the water felt good. They waded farther. Waist-high now.

“Suddenly, Amy sort of dropped out of sight.”

Then the ground fell away under Franz’s feet.

Amy bobbed to the surface, sputtering. “Margaret!”

Amy was a little bigger than she was, Franz remembers.

“She was hanging onto me,” she says. “I kept trying to push her away because I thought: we’re both going to drown.”

Margaret dog-paddled to the edge of the swimming hole.

“I had absolutely no strength or will to go back in. I thought, ‘If I do, she’ll pull me down and I’m dead.’”

Her friend was struggling.

The nearest farm was a half-mile away.

Franz screamed.

Her friend was panicked, thrashing. Soon, she would sink.

Mary burst through the bushes.

Franz tried to point to Amy. Only she couldn’t. Amy had slipped beneath the brackish water and all Franz could do was point out where her friend had been.

“I just kind of pointed in the direction that I’d last seen her.”

Steinhauser didn’t hesitate. “Not for one minute.”

She plunged into the water like a salvage diver and latched onto Amy.

In a few minutes she plunked the unconscious girl on the shore. Amy’s face was blue. Lips purple. Strands of seaweed criss-crossed her face. The sisters thought the worst. There had been other drownings, Franz knew, parents who buried their children. Steinhauser felt Amy’s pulse.

Mary turned her over and did an old-fashioned resuscitation technique to stimulate Amy’s lungs.

Franz guesses that it was 10-15 minutes before Amy coughed and spat dark water.

Steinhauser had saved a life. It was natural she would study nursing at Essondale (later Riverview and today səmiq̓wəʔelə).

“That’s when I really realized how brave my sister was.”

Asked why Mary was the way she was, Franz is at a rare loss.        

“I came from the same family and I certainly did not have that,” Franz notes.

From that day forward, Franz knew what her sister was willing to do.

“What happened later in her life . . . it did not come as a surprise.”

Andy Bruce

You’ve probably seen something like it, turned your head and hurried by. Decided to catch another bus, maybe. What else are you supposed to do?

The story was that there was an older man touching himself and then waving a can of pepper spray by a bus stop near Broadway and Kingsway.

Andy Bruce was arrested again in 2016. It was 46 years after he was first sentenced to life in prison.

Bruce was a residential school survivor and the victim of physical and sexual abuse.

Speaking to a Vancouver Sun reporter in 1978, his brother Chuck Bruce remembers that, out of 13 siblings, Andy was the only one who got in trouble with the law. But he also remembers his brother looking out for him.

They were walking home from St. Edmund’s parish school in North Vancouver. They saw something on the seat of a parked car. Bruce wanted to steal it.

“You go on ahead,” Bruce said. “I don’t want you mixed up in this.”

Bruce’s adult criminal record began long before he was an adult. There was indecent assault, an escape from custody, auto theft. He was out of prison in May 1969. In 1970, around the same time Steinhauser was earning a master’s degree in social work from UBC, Bruce was a contract killer.

He murdered a Vancouver go-go dancer in front of her child, for the price of an ounce of heroin.

Chuck, who worked in Port Coquitlam, says he never went to visit his brother. “I was brought up to be scared of the law.” 

Andy ended up in B.C. Penitentiary where he was placed in solitary confinement.

The solitary cell was 11 feet by 6.5 feet, according to a description from Justice Behind the Walls. Three concrete walls. A steel door with a five-inch square window. Cold in winter. Hot in summer. Only cold water. There was one razor for shaving shared by every prisoner on the tier.

The bed was four-inches of foam over plywood and cement. Prisoners were forced to sleep with their head next to the toilet bowl to allow for quick inspections.

There was a 100-watt bulb that was dimmed to 25 watts at night.

“You never get used to the light,” Bruce said. It was always too dim during the day and too bright at night.

For 30 minutes the prisoners got out of their cells but not outside, just into a corridor.

There was a radio with two channels. Bruce once gave evidence that the radio was left on for hours with nothing but static.

That’s where Steinhauser reported to work.

“Her very first job, after she got her masters of social work, she was brand new . . . was at the B.C. Penitentiary,” Franz says.

To Steinhauser, the status quo was untenable.

“If the inmates cannot go out, I think we should invite people in,” she decided.

She worked with prisoners to organize gatherings with ministers, friends and family members. One of the prisoners she worked with was Bruce.

“She thought he could be a leader in the Indigenous movement,” Franz says.

Her attempts to reform the prison culture was supported by prison warden Dragan Cernetic, Franz says. However, that support was not unanimous, she adds.

“I guess the guards were all aghast,” she says. “They did not like these newfangled ideas that Mary and her colleagues were espousing.”

Albert Hollinger

Around the time Andy Bruce was in residential school and Mary Steinhauser was considering a career in nursing, Albert Hollinger was already a military veteran and a former stunt motorcycle driver for a travelling carnival.

Maybe you had somebody in your neighbourhood who knew what was wrong with your motorcycle after hearing it start up. The kind of guy who might give you the part to fix your bicycle it if he had it kicking around his garage somewhere. Judging from the accounts of the people who knew him in the last years of his life, that’s the kind of guy Albert Hollinger was.

Along with his neighbourly kindness and philanthropy, his obituary noted that he was a gunsmith and a Field Combat Shooting Champion (rifle and pistol).

Originally from Montreal, Que., Hollinger worked for a community police station where his duties ranged from traffic detail to explosive expert. In 1975, he was senior supervisor at B.C. Penitentiary.

Hollinger died in 2015.

A newspaper article about him mentions, almost in passing, that “Hollinger was involved in a hostage taking.”

History of The Pen

  • 1905: Bill Miner, the notorious train and stagecoach robber better known as the Grey Fox, did one year of a 25-year sentence at BC Penitentiary before escaping.
  • 1913: Joseph Smith was the first and last prisoner hanged at the New Westminster prison.
  • 1934: Convicts “went on a rampage, destroying prison property,” after demanding to be paid for their work. In his book, the History of Metropolitan Vancouver, Chuck Davis writes: “It was the first disturbance of any note at the prison, but it would not be the last.”
  • 1963: Prisoners trussed prison guard Patrick Dennis in copper wire as they attempted to escape. They planned to use heavy electric wire to scale the wall. A guard saw them and fired. A prisoner’s gasoline bomb exploded, searing his face and body.

Jack Webster, the popular radio host, left his West Vancouver home and headed to New Westminster, tape recorder in hand.

One prisoner told Webster that, after being sentenced to solitary confinement, he’d slashed himself 300 hundred times with a razor blade, “to ‘prove’ he was insane and thus get out of the hole,” Webster wrote.

41 hours in Room 9

Three men. Bruce, Dwight Lucas and Claire Wilson. All prisoners in their 20s, all facing long sentences and each fearful of being stuffed back into solitary confinement.

It was June 9, 1975. At around 8 a.m., they hid knives, flashed forged passes and walked into the prison’s classification offices where Steinhauser worked, Franz recounts.

There were 15 classification officers. Fourteen were herded into the vault. Bruce asked them who wanted to be the main hostage.

“I will,” Steinhauser told him.

Looking back on it, Steinhauser’s volunteering seems almost inevitable. “It was typical Mary,” Franz says.

The standoff lasted for 41 hours.

The prisoner’s demands ranged from transport out of the country to hot water in solitary, painkillers and yard privileges.

For Lucas, who was later described as “unfit for rehabilitation,” it was a chance to revisit the horrors of solitary confinement on someone else.

“I had fun terrorizing those people – I liked it, you know – they had been terrorizing me all my life. What they went through they call terror, but they don’t know what terror is,” he said, according to an article in The Province written by reporter Chuck Poulsen.

The events of 1 a.m. change depending on who’s doing the telling.

CKNW’s Gary Bannerman reported that a hostage grabbed a tripod and attacked Lucas.

A few reports erroneously stated Steinhauser was stabbed in the melee that followed, prompting the guards to burst in on the hostages.

“[The guards] came barreling down the hallways with their guns drawn and started shooting,” Franz says.

Paramedic George High, who was in a nearby trailer with a paramedic and prison guards, later testified that amid the shouting and fighting, he distinctly heard a guard say, “Kill her, kill her.”

Bruce would later testify that Hollinger killed Steinhauser.

“His superiors had given him the right to fire that gun and by Christ someone was going to get themselves shot . . . That it was Mary and me just made it all the better. They didn’t like Mary, and they – especially Hollinger – hate me with a passion,” he said, as quoted by Poulsen.

Bruce was shot twice in the jaw. He survived.

Steinhauser was shot twice. One bullet ripped through her shoulder. The other bullet pierced her heart and lung and lodged beneath her ribs, according to the coroner. She was 32.

This courtroom sketch by Peter Lynde attempts to capture Steinhauser’s last moments. image supplied

Following the raid, Hollinger had the guns removed from the room and cleaned.

He did this, purportedly, to keep the guns from falling into the hands of the inmates; an explanation that a judge rejected as an “insult to intelligence,” according to a 1976 Vancouver Sun article.

Some of the spent cartridges went missing for a week, according to an account published in The Province. It was deemed impossible to tell which gun or guns fired the bullets that hit Bruce and killed Steinhauser.

Three days earlier

Shortly after Steinhauser’s death, a newspaper out of Eugene, Ore. carried a brief interview with a Los Angeles schoolteacher named Nat Hickerson.

A friend of Steinhauser’s, Hickerson said they’d chatted about her job when she saw him off at the airport. She was planning to quit, Hickerson said. She even joked about the possibility of being taken hostage by an inmate named Andy Bruce.

Margaret Franz tells her sister’s story in Between Blade & Bullet: the Mary Steinhauser Story. photo supplied


Thinking back to that question, the one about Steinhauser possibly being an inmate groupie, Franz knows what that question is now.

“It’s a silencing. It’s a shaming.”

In 1980, B.C. Penitentiary was phased out as part of a decentralization plan. But the issues of Steinhauser’s life, the need for mental health treatment, remain acute, Franz notes.

Franz has lived in Port Coquitlam a long time now, long enough to remember when bush was cleared and trees were chopped to make room for Coquitlam Centre.

She’s wanted to write this book since then but the idea ended up sitting on a shelf until she retired from her teaching job at Kwantlen.

“Time did give me some perspective,” she reflects. “I thought, ‘I’m going to pick up my story again.’”

The resulting book is both biography and a memoir.

Between Blade & Bullet also features letters from inmates who knew Steinhauser. One man, sentenced for armed robbery, describes the prison as hellish and himself as a young, stupid angry young man. “Mary came to my rescue and made it possible for me to move on,” he writes. “To this day I strive to be half the person Mary was.”

The book is a profile in courage.

“I’m in quite a rare category ,” Franz remarks. “I’m a woman writing about a woman in history.”

Then Franz says something else, something both obvious and all-important.

“My voice is in there,” she says.

Teaching the next generation

The book was selected to become required reading for Kwantlen Polytechnic Univer criminology students in professor Greg Jenion’s 1100 class.

“How do you get the local, personal, historical thing across to students?” he asks. “I think that that’s where this book fits in.”

For students who have never heard of Essondale or B.C. Pen it’s a chance to show them the historical landscape, explains Jenion. However, the book is also a window into what it can be like to work in law enforcement, corrections or psychiatric nursing.

“Mary’s life to me . . . she struck me as an individual that really was unique in that she cared,” Jenion says. “She was able to keep that care in professions that are brutal.”

The book devotes several chapters to the rush of confusion and gunfire that ended the hostage taking. For Jenion, it’s crucial to have students reflect on how they might act in a similar situation.

“If this book can get kids down the road to just pause in those moments that they may face . . . where human life hangs in the balance, then it’s worth it to me.”

Franz says she’s “over the moon” to have her book taught at Kwantlen.

She says she hopes her book will stir criminology students to take a hard look at recidivism rates as well as institutional racism in the criminal justice system. She also hopes they will understand what her sister was trying to do.

Mary Steinhauser believed in the importance of mental health but she also had a natural propensity to look for the good in people, Franz says.

“She’s a wonderful model for anybody thinking of working in criminal justice.”

The book doesn’t include much in the way of academic jargon, Franz notes, which is why she think students might appreciate Between Blade & Bullet.

“It’s not a textbook. . . . It’s a story,” Franz notes. “You hardly ever forget a really good story.”

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