The Mystery in the Well

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Gull Lake, Saskatchewan – October, 1913

J. F. Royer was having a problem. The water in the well adjoining his livery barn didn’t taste very good. The water was becoming more and more putrid until, finally, the horses refused to touch it. So, on Tuesday afternoon, October 14, 1913, he rounded up his men and they set about cleaning the well.

Someone would need to go down into the well, and Bill Christonson was that deeply unlucky fellow. It was 38 feet deep and about 8 feet across with about 15 feet of water in it. As Bill made his way down, he saw what looked like a man in the water. And when he took a stick and managed to turn it over, his suspicion was confirmed. There was a body in the well.

They tied a noose around the dead man’s neck and hoisted him from the well. He was wearing a sweater, overalls, pants and a coat. A torn red sweater was also recovered, which had been wrapped around the man’s head. Despite the gashed up scalp and broken nose, the men were able to recognize enough of the man’s features to identify him as John Burns, a well-to-do homesteader from the Shaunavon district, about 45 miles away. He’d moved to Shaunavon from Carrington, North Dakota and had been at Gull Lake since the spring, working for different people. He was about forty-five-years-old.

The coroner from Maple Creek was called out and he opened an inquiry on Oct 15, 1913. A man named Dr. Gibson performed the post-mortem and testified that in his opinion, John Burns was dead before going into the well. He observed a large scalp wound running backwards from the left eye that was about 5 inches long. There were no injuries to the skull itself but he found clots of blood on the brain that he believed to be due to a concussion from a blow or blows.

The well was thoroughly examined and no blood smears were found anywhere inside to indicate that the scalp injury occurred during a fall into the well, and that, along with the sweater that was allegedly wrapped around Burns’s head, led police to agree with Dr. Gibson’s assertion that John Burns was most likely murdered.

Fred Sinclair had known the deceased and employed him on several occasions. He testified that Burns had come up in the spring with two men, “Hagan and Verpy”, who used to come around the barn and ask for him, but they hadn’t done so since Burns had been missing. Two bartenders from the Lake View Hotel also testified that Burns had stopped showing up around the beginning of August.

People had started noticing John Burns’s absence on August 7th, but he was a bachelor with a homestead 45 miles away and no connections in Gull Lake, so everyone assumed he’d simply gone back to Shaunavon. Police believed that theft might have been a motive, as he was known to carry a considerable amount of money with him and when his body was recovered he was missing sixty dollars believed to have been on his person. Adding to the gossip and mystery, a man employed by the hotel-keeper to haul brick had left town on August 7th without telling anyone where he was going. He had four days pay coming to him but had made no effort to collect. The coroner’s inquiry was adjourned to allow the police time to investigate further and locate the witnesses in question who might know more about the demise of John Burns.

Regina Leader-Post – Oct 18, 1913

And that, unfortunately, is where the trail ends. I could find no follow up articles on whether anyone was ever charged with his murder. It’s unclear if they were ever able to track down “Hagan and Verpy” or the man employed by the hotel-keeper. I contacted the coroner’s office to try and find out the results of the inquiry, but their records only date back to 1918. Was it even murder? It certainly seems that way, but given that forensics and our understanding of decomposition, especially decomposition in water have come a long way since then, it’s possible that Dr. Gibson’s findings weren’t completely accurate. We’ll never know for sure. But that, my friends, is the story of the man found in the well at Gull Lake, Saskatchewan.

I was only able to find two articles about this case. The first was the October 16, 1913 edition of the Swift Current Sun and the second was the October 18, 1913 edition of the Regina Leader-Post. If you have more information about this story, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

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Would you like to read some more historical true crime? Try these:

A Deadly Quarrel: Murder Near Nipawin

The Unsolved Murder of Annie and Metro Zurawell

A Deadly Obsession: The Murder of Myrtle Beckler

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