His story as an officer of the Canadian Police truly reads as “stranger than fiction”. The son of a Canadian fishing schooner captain, but born in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1863, he enjoyed childhood and young manhood experiences that any adventurous kid would envy. Long before he was out of school he was “just as safe in or out of the water as we were on land”. School vacations were times for Grand Banks fish trawling in the days of sail, life-saving from wrecks on “The Graveyard of the Atlantic”, near shipwreck in gales when every part of the ship was enclosed in ice. At eight years of age John, working along with the men, earned the first money he ever had — sixty dollars.
When they moved to Canada, the Nicholson boys had already learned how to handle a whale boat, alone — skill that was useful later on and enabled him to become an off-shore fisherman for fish, lobster and crabs.
A stint as a cook on a speedy schooner gave the boy some experience of the wrong side of the law. The Hattie E. Collings was a rumrunner smuggling liquor, cigars and tobacco from St. Pierre off the coast of Newfoundland along the Nova Scotia and Cape Breton coasts. Although she was often searched by the revenue officers, nothing was ever found. Being wise to the secrets of law-breakers may have been one form of education for his real life work with the R.C.M.P. and Alberta Provincial Police.
Before that came about, Nicholson worked on ships chartered to the De Lesseps company who were building the Panama Canal and which made several trips along the South American coast and up the Amazon. On returning to Canada, their ship was chartered to carry relief supplies up the frigid Newfoundland and Labrador, then off to France with a cargo of Canadian apples. Finally they visited York Factory, Churchill and other points along the Hudson’s Bay. Nicholson survived many near-wrecks.
There, for reasons he did not state, he joined the North West Mounted Police in 1885, when the prairies still had mail stagecoaches, “bad” Indians and American rustlers and outlaws. Injuries hastened his leaving the Force, so next he was off as a cavalryman to the Boer War. On return he rejoined the Mounted Police and volunteered for northern duty for a while, then he was appointed as a plain-clothes investigator. In 1916 the Alberta government phased out the NWMP and established a Provincial Police Force. Nicholson became an Assistant Superintendent. Except for one brief interlude with the Attorney General’s Department, he served until 1927 — a police career spread over forty-two years. He was then sixty-two.
But he couldn’t be idle. Soon he was found prospecting in northern Manitoba. Like a character in fiction, sure enough he discovered great deposits of minerals. Soon he was barging 20 tons of supplies down the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie Rivers to Great Bear Lake, where his boat was first to arrive where huge deposits of pitchblende and silver, and later gold was discovered at Beaverlodge on Lake Athabasca in 1934.
Now he changed occupations again, by forming a new mining company of which he as President, holding eighty thousand shares. He was in the first rush to Yellowknife.
When war broke out in 1939 the R.C.M.P. was short handed. This versatile business executive, aged seventy-six, offered his services and was accepted! He served until 1942 when he again retired on the eve of his eightieth birthday.
While J.D. Nicholson was attached to the Alberta Attorney General’s Department, he appeared in the Peace River Country, where two Provincial Policeman had been attempting to maintain law and order in a territory 250 miles long and 100 miles wide.
The Grande Prairie area produced two “firsts” in the history of Canadian crime. The “Perfect Crime” which was never solved and the first conviction of a man for murder in which the body was never found. These two stories are to be found in Nicholson’s reminiscences, On The Side of the Law.