The Unsolved Murder of James Eli Johnson

The time has come to talk about the Saskatoon Bungalow Axe Murder. It was a case with an enormous amount of coverage at the time, not surprising, given the various mysterious and troubling aspects of the crime, and it remains unsolved to this day. I have my own theories, but before we get into those, I’m going to lay out the facts as I’ve read them, keeping in mind that there are conflicting testimonies of what happened the night of the attack, as well the days surrounding it. All right, let’s get into it.

The Night of the Attack

Between 10:20 and 10:40PM on Christmas Day, 1925, Saskatoon telephone operator Claire Eamer answered the long distance line and heard a voice asking her to send the police to 545 4th Avenue North. When she tried to give the number for the police station, the caller repeated the message, saying “I’m bound, something terrible has happened. Please send the police.” Claire did as she was asked, returning to the long distance line several times afterwards to try and clear it, but the caller never hung up and she could hear the voice saying “oh dear” repeatedly.

Constable Flavelle reported that he got the call to go to the 4th Avenue home at 10:30PM and walked to the house, arriving at approximatey 10:40PM. He stated that there were no lights on that he could see at the front of the house, but could see a light on in the back so he went around the house, stopping to try and peer in a window on his way without success and opened the door to the back veranda/porch, which was unlocked, and knocked on the back door. A voice called for him to come in, so he turned the knob and finding that the back door was also unlocked, went inside.

The back door led straight into the kitchen, where he found a woman standing with her hands behind her back, sobbing and hysterical, dressed in only a nightgown. Her hands were tied in a reef knot with a strip of material, either from a towel or linen.

Constable Flavelle got her hands untied quickly, asking her what had happened. All she could say was that she thought she saw some kind of flash, there was a thud, and then nothing. Later, he said she’d told him something about a man with a flashlight, but it was well over a month later and it was the first time he’d ever reported it.

In the bedroom at the front of the house, Flavelle found her husband, James Eli Johnson, lying on his back in bed, his face covered in blood. He went back out of the bedroom and asked Laura Johnson which doctor she wanted, then called the police station, asking them to send more officers, as well as the chief, and to send for Dr. Munroe, Mr. Johnson’s preferred physician. They’d served in the war together and apparently he’d told Laura if he was ever in an accident to make sure it was Dr. Munroe who looked after him.

Call made, Flavelle returned to Mrs. Johnson, who was sitting in the bathroom. She showed him that her legs were also tied at the ankles with reef knots, the same as her hands, and he untied them as well. He asked her again what happened and she repeated the same story about the flash of light, saying she came to in the living room. She wasn’t sure if she was on the chesterfield or on the floor in front of it, she only remembered being on her knees and struggling to get up. She managed to shimmy her way to the bathroom, where she turned the light switch on with her head, then made her way to the kitchen and got the phone off the hook with her teeth, then trekked back to the bathroom and managed to get a toothbrush clenched between her teeth, went back to the kitchen, and after several tries, managed to dial zero for long distance. (This would have been a rotary phone, for any of my younger readers.) She talked into the receiver and asked the operator to send the police and gave her address.

Sergeant Samuel Quinn arrived next. He knocked at the front door, which was locked, and Constable Flavelle let him in. At this point most of the lights in the house were now on, including the bedroom, and after checking on Mr. Johnson, he also called the police station to see if Dr. Munroe was on his way.

Not long after, Chief G.M. Donald and Dr. Munroe arrived.

Dr. Munroe described going into the small bedroom, its bed pushed tight against the wall on the right side of the room, James lying on his back on the outside half of the bed, the blankets pulled up to his armpits, his hands resting on his stomach. He had eight wounds on his head, five major and three minor. On the left frontal portions of his head were two large wounds, parallel to each other and about 3/4 of an inch apart, stretching from the eyebrow to the vertex of the head. One was about four inches in length, the other about three and a half inches, both oozing brain matter.

Most of the blood was on his forehead and high up on his cheeks. It was black and congealed where it was thick and his features were swollen. There was a cut on Johnson’s lip that started at about the left lobe of the nose and cut clean through the lip, but the gum beneath was completely uninjured. there was a V-shaped laceration on the right side of his head that had fractured the skull, causing a depressed fracture of approximately one and a half inches by one and a half inches.

The pillows were saturated with blood. There was blood on the sheets and blood was splashed right up on the South and West walls, as well as on the dressing table two feet from the bed and there was a small puddle on the floor next to the bed.

Dr. Munroe estimated that the blows were probably struck anywhere from a half hour to an hour and a quarter from when he arrived.

The police did a search of the house and found an axe with what appeared to be a blood smear on the blade in the coal bin in the basement. They also found the family dog shut in the den, where the Johnsons had put him for the night. He never barked. Not when Constable Flavelle arrived, or any of the other police officers, and Mrs. Johnson didn’t recall any noise from him all evening, not before or after they went to bed. According to her, sometimes he was an excellent guard dog, barking at everyone, and at other times he took no notice of people. The rest of the house was orderly and clean, except for a few small changes.

In the main bedroom where the Johnsons had been sleeping, there was a linen closet, on top of which the Johnsons had tossed the clothes they’d been wearing before going to bed that night. Mr. Johnson’s pants had the pockets turned out. Any money that might have been in them was gone, as well as his railway mail service keys. James Johnson was a railway mail clerk. His keys were never located despite extensive searching of his home and his job.

Nothing else was missing, not even a bag of jewelry and cash Mrs. Johnson had stashed under the mattress in the second bedroom, but a drawer was pulled out in the second bedroom, with some linens piled neatly on the floor. Two cushions had been knocked from the chesterfield onto the floor in the living room.

Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Dec 26, 1925

The police questioned Laura Johnson several more times that night but she couldn’t give them much more information. She was at times still hysterical and couldn’t remember seeing anyone.

When Dr. Munroe examined her, she complained of a great deal of soreness in her back as well as on the right side of her head. He didn’t find anything on her head, but on her back there was redness and tenderness upon pressure. The next day when he examined her again, there was bruising and discolouration on her back as well as a small swelling on the right side of her head above her right ear.

The chief of police also examined Mrs. Johnson on the night of the attack, checking her hair and her nightdress for blood but found none. There were a few tiny specks of blood found on the bandages she was tied with.

Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Jan 4, 1926

The Last Days of James E. Johnson

James Johnson was taken immediately to City Hospital where surgery was performed. He was also tested for narcotics, but none showed up in his system. Laura Johnson was not allowed to visit him that night, given the delicate nature of the surgery being performed, but as soon as Dr. Munroe gave the clearance for visitors, she was by his side every day until he passed away at 2:15PM on Sunday, January 3, 1926. He died from cerebral meningitis contracted from his axe wounds. He never regained consciousness.

Laura Johnson’s Story

According to Laura Johnson, her husband had arrived home on Christmas morning between 8:00 and 9:00AM after working an overnight run. She herself had arrived home at about 7:30AM, after spending the night at her friend’s, Mrs. Shervill. She had a sixteen year old son from her first marriage (her first husband had died in the war), but he was away, celebrating with a friend on a farm in Kenaston.

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson had spent a quiet day together. At one point she went to her sister’s for a short visit, lasting by her estimate no longer than an hour. She didn’t think either of them had left the house other than that and told the coroner at the inquest that her husband had mostly relaxed; reading, playing the piano and the victrola. They had received no visitors and although they had planned to go to a show at the Capital Theater there was a mix up with the tickets and they didn’t go.

At 8:00PM, her husband remarked on the time and said he was tired. They went to bed about an hour later at 9:00PM and both fell asleep very quickly. They’d each had a few beers over the course of the day. Laura Johnson estimated that she’d had four, one in the morning, one at noon, one with supper and one in the evening. According to her, a single beer was enough for her to feel the effects, making her a bit tipsy.

Laura Johnson was not able to offer any details on what happened between going to bed at 9:00 and her coming to on the chesterfield at around 10:30. She had no idea how she got there and didn’t remember seeing anyone or hearing anything, although she vaguely remembered seeing blood on her husband’s face but she wasn’t sure when that was or if she was in bed at the time or not.

She also claimed that she remembered the back doors being open, but Constable Flavelle was sure they were closed.

They’d been married for four years and friends of the family said it was a very happy, loving marriage.

The Arrest of Laura Johnson

At the end of the inquest on January 12, 1926, the coroner, Dr. DesRosier stated that he found Laura Johnson’s evidence to be unconvincing. The police arrested her at her sister’s house after midnight the same night and took her into custody. The police found her inability to remember more of the evening suspicious, specifically that she couldn’t explain how she went from sleeping in bed to coming to on the chesterfield, and according to them, reef knots were very easy knots to get out of and she should have had no difficulty escaping them.

James Johnson also had a number of life insurance policies, all payable to his wife. The total amount being $17, 526 (worth about $280,000 in today’s money). However, it was noted that Laura Johnson was a woman of her own means and had no need of the insurance money.

The Murder Weapon

In Dr. Munroe’s opinion, the weapon used on Mr. Johnson had to be an instrument with a very sharp edge, of considerable weight (the wounds penetrated at least an inch into the head), and also had a dull surface, as the wound on the right side of his head could not have been made with a sharp edge. It was most likely larger than a hatchet, probably a hand axe.

The axe found in the Johnson home was not the murder weapon. It was far too dull to have caused the wound on James’s lip and the blood smear on the blade was tested and found to be that of a chicken, not human.

Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Jan 19, 1926

The Testimony of Benjamin J. Clarke

Benjamin J. Clarke was a fireman for the CNR Railway. He testified at the preliminary hearing that Mrs. Johnson’s claims that her husband hadn’t left the house on Christmas Day were false. He’d seen Mr. Johnson at approximately 2:00/2:30PM. They’d exchanged greetings and he’d gone inside a cafe to buy cigarettes. When he came out, Johnson was still there, talking to two men and invited him to join them for a beer. He agreed to have one beer, as he was due at a friend’s at 3:00PM for dinner, and the party went into an apartment in the Tuxedo Block to have a drink. Johnson never introduced Clarke to the other two men and they left together after one beer. Clarke said he found it very odd at the time that Johnson hadn’t introduced him, but from the way they spoke he took the strangers to be railway men. He told the court that he got the impression that Johnson didn’t really want to have a drink with the men but didn’t want to insult them by turning down an invitation for a Christmas drink. He couldn’t give much of a description of the men, only that one was quite dark and the other about medium, and they were slightly shorter than himself. He also couldn’t be sure of what apartment they’d gone into.

In another testimony, Victor Hayes, a friend of Johnson’s who was also a railway mail clerk, told the court that four days before the attack Johnson had come to him and asked him if any suites at the building where he lived were available. He said that Johnson had voiced a fear of living at the 4th Ave home, but hadn’t given any specifics.

Mysterious Letters

At some point in January of 1926 a series of letters were sent to the newspapers, the police and to Laura Johnson’s defence attorney, Arthur E. Bence. The letters discussed the murder of James E. Johnson, and were intriguing enough for Arthur Bence to put out ads offering a reward for any information on the writer of the letters. The only newspaper that printed their copies of the letter was the Saskatoon Reporter, and I was unable to find any archived copies, so unfortunately I have no idea what they said. The only clue I was able to find as to their contents was when Arthur Bence asked a witness to write out two sentences to see if their handwriting matched his letter. The phrases were: “the bottles are popping” and “the wife’s away”.

Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Jan 18, 1926

Laura Johnson Never Goes to Trial

On September 16, 1926 a stay of proceedings was entered in the murder charge against Laura Johnson. She was allowed to go free without bail, although the murder charge remained. The crown at any time could call her to stand trial, but had entered the stay in light of the need for further investigation. She was never brought to stand trial and moved to British Columbia. She did eventually receive the money from her husband’s life insurance.

My Theories

I read a lot of newspaper clippings for this post, many of which included transcripts of the court proceedings and honestly? I don’t think Laura Johnson killed her husband. Too much of it doesn’t add up. If she did it, where was the murder weapon? Why was there no blood on her, not even in her hair? If she killed him, she would have had to stash her bloody clothes and clean up before calling the police (not to mention tie herself up) and there simply wasn’t time. In their search of the house, the police checked the furnace and there was nothing in there except coal embers, no evidence of anything else being burnt.

Also, I think we know a lot more now about what happens when someone undergoes a serious traumatic event and Laura Johnson’s inability to clearly remember what happened makes sense. Either her brain was blocking her from remembering for her own mental health’s sake, or someone knocked her out, causing her to lose her memory of what she was doing beforehand.

And what about the missing railway mail service keys? They were never found. I think someone needed those keys and couldn’t have Johnson telling anyone why someone might have wanted them. Perhaps that someone (or someones) is connected to the men Johnson was seen with on Christmas Day, maybe not. But his refusal to introduce them is odd. Pair that with his nervousness to stay at the 4th Ave home and I think there were a lot of valuable leads that the police could have followed.

But we’ll never know the whole truth. All the witnesses are long since dead and even the house itself, a little brown bungalow, is no more. The lot is now a parking lot next to some apartment buildings. I wonder if the residents know about the gruesome attack that occured next door to them almost a hundred years ago? Probably not. But I am curious to drive by there and see it for myself…

Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Dec 26, 1935
Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Dec 26, 1935

Information for this post came from too many editions of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix to list, ranging from Dec 26, 1925 through to February, 1927, as well as Dec 26, 1935. I also found some information in the archives of the Regina Leader-Post.

Need more murder? You might like these posts as well:

The Unfortunate End of Peter Daday

Murder at Lake Athabasca

The Murder of Herbert Schill

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