Murder at Lake Athabasca

Photo by Nikolai Ulltang on

If you go to the very North Westernly corner of Saskatchewan, you will find Lake Athabasca. It’s the largest and deepest lake in both Saskatchewan and Alberta (the lake sits directly on the border between the two provinces), and in 1935, it was the site of a grisly murder.

Experienced trapper, John Harms, had decided that June that he would take on a partner, Johnny Anthony. Trapping in the North is an isolated and lonely affair, making a partnership appealing, but it also means being alone together most of the time. They had neighbours, but they were few and far between, usually only visited by dog sled.

On the morning of November 23, 1935, John Harms got up and decided to take the dogsled to visit just such a neighbour. Ira Allen wasn’t home, he was away checking his trap lines, but Harms stayed to visit with his wife, Ann, home with their young son. Around noon, Anthony joined them and they had lunch together.

Anthony had shot a moose earlier and to celebrate Harms had made “home brew”. Basically, a type of homemade beer, which in Harms’s case was made with “salt, sugar fruit, yeast cake, potatoes and rice”. (I do not recommend that you attempt to make any sort of alcohol with his recipe.) He’d brought five bottles with him to the Allen household and had already drunk four of them by the time Anthony arrived.

At one point during the morning, Harms turned to Ann, bitter over a perceived slight when during the summer he’d seen her at Fort Chipewyan and she’d only said hello without stopping to talk, he told her the only reason he didn’t shoot her then was because he didn’t have a gun.

Now his anger turned to Anthony. They had been quarreling over a mink skin that Harms believed should be his. Anthony, sick of Harms arguing with him over the mink, told him to shut up and that he’d talk to him when he was sober. The two left soon after, Anthony driving the dogsled with the drunk Harms inside. Two hours later, Harms was back at the Allen cabin, telling Ann that Anthony had hurt himself and had a fainting fit. He asked Ann to go back with him and see what she could do to help. When she tried to beg off, saying it was getting late and she had her chores to do, he told her: “you’re going to come.”

Photo by Spencer Selover on

So she gathered up her son and the three went back to Harms’ shack. All along the way, Harms was acting strange. When they arrived, Harms tried to get Ann to go in first. When she insisted that he lead the way, he opened the door and and she could see Anthony lying on the floor. She asked Harms what was wrong with him and he responded, “this is what you’re going to find out.”

He lit a match and Ann saw blood on Anthony’s face. There was so much blood on the floor that Harms slipped in it as he stepped inside. Ann, obviously terrified, grabbed her son and ran. Harms stepped out of the cabin and shot at her but missed. She kept running, hiding in the bush when Anthony drove by with his dog team. She continued on toward her cabin. When she arrived, Harms was already there, passed out in his dog sled.

She crept by him and locked herself inside, nailing one of the doors closed and wedging two knifes into the other to secure it. When Harms woke up, he tried to gain entry, yelling at her to let him in. Ann kept the cabin dark and hid. He left and returned three hours later to do the same thing before leaving again. In his absence, Ann snuck outside for water and fuel, before locking herself and her son inside again.

In the morning, Harms returned and built a large fire in front of the wood shed, drinking more home brew and camping out in front of the Allen home while Ann hid inside, her own gun ready if he should try to break in again. Two days later, finally sober, he yelled at her that he was going to his cabin on Scorched Dog Island (also saw it called Singed Dog Island, either way not a great name) and told her to send her husband there when he returned to escort him to the police.

December 26, 1935 – Saskatoon Star Phoenix

When Ira returned home a few hours later, Ann told him what happened. He took her and their child to a neighbour’s and drove on to get a message sent to the RCMP in Fort Chipewyan about the murder and the man’s crazed terrorizing of his wife.

It was no easy task for Sergeant Pat Vernon and his partner Irvin Vilborough to get to Harms. The trek required traveling by dog team with no trail on the ice, making their way past upended drift ice that had piled up several feet high along the north shore. Add to that a sudden blizzard that swept down the lake from the East and obliterated the landscape for a day with sub zero temperatures. As they drew nearer pilot Lewis Leigh found them and flew them to the island.

Harms gave up without a fight, coming out of his cabin when they arrived. He told them he and Anthony had been arguing and Anthony had come at him, threatening to kill him with his bare hands. He’d warned him to stay back, then fired one shot that went through Anthony’s mouth and lodged in the back of his neck. Anthony had fallen and Harms checked for a pulse. He said he didn’t find one and had plenty to drink after that, waking up and thinking at one point he should get help. He didn’t remember terrorizing Ann and couldn’t explain why he’d done it. (Ahem. Home brew.)

He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but was later given a second trial and sentenced to fifteen years for manslaughter. His defense was none other than John G. Diefenbaker.

December 6, 1935 – Saskatoon Star Phoenix

Information for this post was sourced from the archives of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. The following issues were used: Nov 30, 1935, Dec 2 – 6, 1935, Dec 9, 1935, Dec 10, 1935, Dec 13, 1935, Dec 16, 1935, Dec 26, 1935, Jan 6, 1936, Jan 27, 1936, Feb 3 – 6, 1936, March 3, 1936, March 31, 1936, April 7 1936, April 8, 1936, April 20, 1936, April 21, 1936, and July 3, 1936.

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The Murder of Herbert Schill

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