The Welwyn Massacre

A short note before we begin. Although true crime stories are, as a rule, upsetting, this story is especially so and includes the murder of children. Please consider this a content warning and skip this post if that’s something that will bring you distress.

Newspapers from this era were a little harder to come by, so while I did find a few articles, I relied on some more recent news articles for information. Specifically, a 1994 article about historian and journalist Lorna James, who documented the crime. She was born and raised in Welwyn and her grandfather lived on the same section of land as the McArthur family. He was one of the neighbours who assisted at the scene that night. Secondly, an interview with David Brindle published in 2000. Dave Brindle is a journalist who researched this case and actually traveled to Ottawa and read the case files and inquest transcripts kept at the Canada Archives. The research and information shared in both of those articles was invaluable. Finally, this blog post by Glen’s Travels shared information as well as a few news articles I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Okay, let’s get into it.

Welwyn, Saskatchewan 1916 – photo credit: prairie-towns.com

Alexander McArthur and his wife, Sarah, moved to the Prairies from Ontario in the late 1800s. At the time, Saskatchewan was not yet a province and was considered part of the Northwest Territories. They settled on land about a kilometer southeast of the village of Welwyn, just north of Moosomin. Alexander immediately become the postmaster for the town, running the operation from his house.

For the next eighteen years, he and Sarah worked the land, tended the local Presbyterian Church and had seven children. Alexander became a prize-winning stock breeder, served on the first town council and was respected throughout the community as a “progressive” man.

In 1895, the McArthurs hired John Morrison to work as a labourer on their farm. Morrison was a Barnardo boy, shipped to Canada at four to be raised where there were more opportunities. His father was living in Glasgow at the time and sent Morrison to Canada after his mother died. Barnardo boys were often raised on farms and were supposed to be given a full education, however some farmers were more interested in the free labour than making sure the boys got an education and many Barnardo boys ended up as permanent farm labourers. John was one of the unlucky ones, being unable to read or write.

John Morrison and the McArthurs seemed to get along quite well. John described Sarah McArthur as ‘like a mother to him’. He worked on the McArthur farm for five years, until the evening of June 8, 1900. He played with the children for a while, then went to a farm four miles away where he and some friends played football (soccer). No one thought he was acting strangely that night. He didn’t seem angry or despondent with his employer or his life. No one could have known that before he’d gone out he’d spent some time in the barn, sharpening his axe.

He left for home around eleven, jogging back to the McArthur farm where he found his revolver and tucked it into his pants. He picked up his axe, and just after midnight, entered the small, two-storey farmhouse. A light on the kitchen table still burned, shining into the bedroom just off the kitchen where Mr. McArthur slept on one bed with their son, two-year-old Henry. Across the room, Sarah slept with the two-week-old baby, Elville Scott, and their younger daughter, Mary Elizabeth (Mae).

Morrison attacked the father first, striking him on the right side of the head with the axe, fracturing his skull. There are differing accounts of who was attacked next. John told police that at first, he only intended to kill Alexander, but as he hit him with the axe, Sarah started to wake up so he went for her. The newspapers, however, reported that after striking Alexander, he went after Henry. If we assume Morrison was telling the truth, then Sarah was the second target of his rage. She was struck over the right eye and was killed. Next, Morrison went after the children, hitting the baby, two-year-old Henry and Mae with his axe.

Leaving the bedroom, he went into the living room, where four-year-old Russell was asleep on either a cot or the couch (accounts differ). He struck Russell with what they believe to be the broad side of the axe, rather than the sharpened blade, bludgeoning him. He climbed the stairs and went into the bedroom he shared with eleven-year-old Dempsey. He struck Dempsey in the back of the head as he lay in bed, killing him and leaving a horrible gash in the back of his head. Later, neighbours found marks on the ceiling from when the axe was raised over Morrison’s head.

Finally, he went into the bedroom that fifteen-year-old Margaret (Maggie) shared with her eight-year-old brother Charlie. It’s unclear if Charlie awoke and tried to get away, or was sleeping on the floor. He was found face down on the floor, his face resting on his palm with ghastly holes in the top of his head. At some point during the attack, Morrison drove the axe right through the floor.

This is when Maggie woke up. Morrison sat down on the bed, playing with his revolver, and told her he’d killed the rest of her family, saying that he loved her and she’d been very cool towards him lately. (Please note, he was twenty seven. She was fifteen.) He tried to rape her, but was physically unable to. He picked up the revolver, put it to her head and pulled the trigger. It just clicked, refusing to fire. He put the revolver to his own head and again, it refused to fire.

Morrison left Maggie then, running down to the barn and getting the double barreled shotgun. He placed a stick through the trigger, put the muzzle against his heart and used his feet to fire the weapon.

Maggie heard the shot ring out and ran through the house, taking in the grim attacks on her parents and siblings before running to a nearby farm for help.

John Morrison didn’t die. Only one barrel discharged, missing his heart and tearing up the left side of his chest, leaving him gravely injured, but alive. They found him in the barn with the shotgun, the revolver and bloodied axe at his side.

A gruesome sight awaited them in the farmhouse. Blood spattered the walls and ceiling in each room of the attacks, the beds and bedding saturated with blood. Alexander McArthur had deep wounds in his head, his skull fractured and brain protruding. He was still alive, but unconscious. Sarah was dead, but Mae, Henry and the baby were all still alive. Russell was alive, but unconscious. Dempsey and Charlie were dead.

Within days, Alexander and Russell also died, bringing the total murdered to five. The other three children remained at the hospital in grave condition. The baby, Elville Scott was brain damaged from the attack. Most accounts say he died at eight, but the grave found by Glen’s Travels has him passing away at sixteen. Henry and Mae survived, living to eighty seven and eighty five. Maggie, although physically unscathed during the attack, only lived to twenty seven, having moved to the west coast where she got married and had a son. Her son perished shortly before she did, the cause of death for both unknown.

John Morrison, despite his injuries, survived. He plead guilty to the murders and was sentenced to death. He was taken to the Regina jail and on Jan 17, 1901, he was hung on the scaffold used to execute Louis Riel, some fourteen years earlier.

At the time of the murders, John had recently been away, although no one knows where, and had spent hundreds of dollars. Dave Brindle said in his interview that he suspected Morrison might have tried to enlist to fight in the Boer War, but was rejected and went on a drinking binge before returning to the McArthur farm. We’ll never know. What we do know, is that after his arrest, Morrison told police that as he was cutting scrub in the hot sun a few days before the murders, he started thinking about all the work he had to do, about the small amount he was paid and decided to kill himself. As he continued to cut away at the scrub with his axe, he decided that if he was going to die, “he might as well have his way with Maggie”, whom he had an unhealthy obsession with. But first, he would need to do away with her father; he couldn’t have him getting in the way. So he made his plan.

Find a Grave – photo added by Alison

The McArthur house is long gone, the property returned to farmland. The family grave in the Moosomin graveyard is in disrepair and all that’s left to tell the tale is an inscription on a pulpit in the Welwyn United Church and a roadside sign outside of Welwyn. But as Lorna James told the reporter in her interview (she passed away shortly after, in November of the same year), she didn’t believe the crime, or the McArthurs should be pushed aside like a footnote in history. And it seems she’s right, people have continued to stumble across the story and share it. All parts of our history, no matter how gruesome, need to be remembered.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, sources for this post came from recent interviews as well as original news articles. The original articles were from the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, the Moosomin World and the Winnipeg Daily Tribune: June 11, 1900, June 14, 1900, June 28, 1900 and Jan 17, 1901.

*Side note: I have also seen these murders referred to as the Moosomin Massacre, given Welwyn’s proximity to Moosomin. In 2018, Welwyn gave up its village status and became a special service area in the Rural Municipality of Moosomin.

Thank you for reading! If you found this post interesting, please subscribe and share! If you’d liked to read about more true crime in historical Saskatchewan, then the posts below are a great place to start.

Confession at the North Battleford Mental Hospital

Murder in Moose Jaw: The Heroism of Margaret Regan

The Shooting of Rosie Schmidt

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