An important new exhibit recently opened at the Vancouver Police Museum featuring long-standing and historic investigator that worked for the Vancouver Police Department, John Fleming Cullen Brown Vance, aka, John Vance. He was not only the very first forensic investigator in Vancouver, but also in the entire country. In fact, he is often credited for introducing forensic investigation techniques to all of North America through the 1920s, 30s and 40s.
Vance developed many important forensic science techniques right here in Vancouver and worked in the field of forensic investigations for 42 years. He had techniques that had never been used in Canada previously, and a result, his investigative skills were often requested right across the country.
The forensic investigation technology that Vance developed landed him at the scene of many of Vancouver’s most notorious murders in the early and mid 20th century. And while he may have retired 75 years ago, his work is now being honoured and remembered with a dedicated exhibit at the Vancouver Police Museum – in the same building at 240 East Cordova Street where he worked out of in the mid 1900s.
“The John Vance Exhibit honours a man who really did work tirelessly to find the truth in an investigation,” explains Vancouver Police Museum Executive Director, Pamela Roberts. “He was very committed to using forensics to find the truth – more so than getting a conviction. He was nicknamed the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Canada’ by local press, but really there was no intuition involved – it was all science.”
“This exhibition really celebrates John Vance, but also the crucial role forensic science has played in criminal investigations for the last 100 years.”
Thanks to the generosity of Vance’s grandchildren, the Vancouver Police Museum received hundreds of artifacts and records that Vance himself created and kept through his career and into retirement. Newspaper clippings, case notes, photographs and personal journals are just some of the pieces that Vance kept which now help paint a very specific picture of criminal activity in Vancouver almost a century ago. With funding from the Vancouver Police Foundation, the John Vance Exhibit came to life at the Vancouver Police Museum and opened to the public in November 2023.
“Visitors typically spend quite a long time in the exhibit area, taking their time to read excerpts from his diary as well as working through the interactive exhibits to explore the forensics,” adds Pamela. “Many people have been surprised that they had never heard of him before, especially after learning he was so well admired across the world during the time he was working right here in the museum’s building.”
In reading through Vance’s notes and journals, it becomes clear that he was incredibly dedicated to his work, regularly working extremely long hours and for days and weeks on end. In fact, by using his forensic methods, Vance was so successful at solving murders and other heinous crimes, that there were numerous threats to his life over the years. Despite that, he did not slow down his efforts to try to find the truth in every case.
“Vance was a pioneer in the development of forensic techniques with the results of his work having been featured in books such as those of Eve Lazarus,” explains Michael Kluckner, President of the Vancouver Historical Society. “The broad interest in ‘true crime’ is an opportunity for historians to engage the general public in matters beyond the crimes themselves – the invaluable and innovative work of police and scientists throughout the decades.”
After a prolific and ground-breaking career, Vance retired in 1949 after 42 years on the job. He enjoyed life away from work for many years before he passed away in 1964 at the age of 80. Today, his incredible legacy lives on, both in his contributions to the advancement of criminal investigations world-wide, and now in a much-deserved public exhibit aimed to celebrate and honour how truly exceptional he was working as an investigator for the VPD.
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The Vancouver Police Museum and Archives is dedicated to preserving the history and memory of British Columbia’s largest independent municipal agency, the historic City Coroner’s Services and the City Analyst’s Laboratory. It serves as an educational institution, living memorial, cultural anchor, and bridge between Vancouver citizens, visitors and local law enforcement. It is also the oldest police museum in North America.
Guests walk through the museum’s authentic historic spaces and learn about some of Vancouver’s most exciting criminal cases and unsolved murders and find out about the fascinating history of forensic science and policing in Vancouver. The exhibits are educational, captivating, and include authentic photos, archival material and artefacts straight from the source. Admission also gives you direct access to the city’s former morgue and autopsy room.
The Vancouver Police Foundation supports programs and initiatives that fall under one of four pillars: Youth Programs, Mental Health & Addictions, Community Outreach & Engagement, and Technology & Special Equipment. You can help build a safer Vancouver by donating to the Vancouver Police Foundation.