Content Warning: The following true crime story deals with the murder of a child. If reading about this will cause you distress, please skip this post.
I’d like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Stephen Scriver and the Wolseley Heritage Foundation Archive, for coming through in a big way when I reached out for help with this story. They provided a lot of information for this post, including newspaper articles and a copy of Stephen Scriver’s column, Trolling for History – Murder Most Foul, in which he gives a write up about the case. Both gave me quite a few details I wasn’t able to find in other news articles.
On the morning of Friday, August 2, 1907, Rosa Mohr went out with her friend, Natalie Hess, to herd cattle for Natalie’s sick uncle, Edward Hess. Rosa was just under seven years old. According to Natalie’s testimony, she and her sister Venda left Rosa with the cattle to go chase off some horses that had wandered into the wheat on the nearby farm of Adam Bieber. When they returned, they couldn’t find Rosa. Natalie and her sister went to all the neighbors trying to find her, but weren’t all that alarmed.
Catherine Mohr, Rosa’s mother, gave inconsistent testimony as to when exactly she found out Rosa was missing. At one point she stated it was in the morning at around 11:00, and at the trial she testified that it was about 4:00 in the afternoon when she was told that Rosa was missing and went out to search for her, looking until about 10:00PM that night. She was sure that she’d seen Rosa in the morning, standing on top of a knoll with a man of about middle size. She did not take it upon herself to go investigate and that was the last time she saw her daughter.
Catherine was on government assistance, collecting sixteen dollars a month. She and her three small children lived with Anna Hess (mother of Venda and Natalie) and her children on her son’s farm south of Wolseley. Catherine was separated from her husband and hadn’t been in contact with him for fifteen years. This of course led to some scandal, as she had three small children, and it’s unclear who the father was of any of them.
A Gruesome Discovery
Rosa’s body was discovered the following morning by George C. Harris, a methodist missionary stationed at the Greenville circuit near Wolseley. He testified that he’d heard the girl was missing at about 7:00AM on Saturday morning, August 3rd. He drove out to look for her, and after meeting with some of the neighbours, he testified that in consequence of what was said, he’d gone into a bluff near his home and there found a grave. According to him, he lifted off some pieces of sod which had been placed on the mound and found Rosa’s body, face down, her legs doubled up under her. He testified that he lifted the body out and laid it on the ground beside the grave, then drove to Wolseley at once to notify the authorities. (In some articles it was reported that Harris had returned the body to its original position, realizing that he shouldn’t have moved it, but it’s unclear if that’s true or not, since he didn’t mention it in his testimony.)
A Coroner’s Inquest was launched, headed by Dr. C. W. Hunt. Dr. Hunt testified that he had removed a cloth from the body, which was otherwise naked except for a chemise and dress, which were tied around her neck. When he removed the chemise and dress, he found a deep stab wound, which had severed the windpipe, gullet and cervical vertebrae. There was a second stab wound in her abdomen about 6-7 inches long, through which the bowels were protruding. Dr. Hunt believed this second wound was inflicted after death. The first stab wound in the neck was the cause of death, and he testified that it would have been immediate, without pain or suffering. He did not find evidence of sexual assault.
On August 5th, the jurymen, Coroner Hunt and Sergeant Dubuque of Indian Head went out to observe the scene where the body was discovered. Newspapers reported that there had been heavy rains and thunderstorms in the district, although it’s unclear if these storms occurred before the murder, after or were ongoing. It was reported that the body was found in terrible condition, and that the gravesite was muddy and filled with water, so at the very least it sounds like it must have rained either in the days leading up to the murder or overnight/into the morning of August 3rd.
At this point, a suspect was already in custody, after several witnesses said they saw him on or around the bluff on the day of the murder, although they all gave conflicting times and testimony as to when exactly they saw him. This man was Sam Prior.
Sam Prior had a homestead near the Hess farm. He was a “Barnardo Boy”, one of more than a 100,000 poor children (some orphaned, some given up by their parents) sent from Great Britain to farms across Canada. Farmers paid a fee and the children worked as indentured servants until they came of age. Some were treated well, most others were abused and left without any education. Sam was known to the district as lacking in his mental capacities, possibly from the lack of schooling during his time as a “Barnardo Boy” or possibly from when he’d been thrown by his horses while working at eight years old. He’d hit his head and was in the hospital for some time. He’d been put in the asylum at Brandon twice, and had just been released the year before.
George Harris testified that he’d seen Prior around the bluff the day of the murder, as did Natalie Hess. Her sister Venda, testified at the inquest that she hadn’t seen him, but later at the trial she said she’d seen Prior, wearing a dark suit and a grey hat, watching them before turning and going to the bluff where Rosa was found. Another farmer said he’d seen Prior going north with a shovel at about 3:00PM on the same day. Prior was arrested shortly after the discovery of the body, despite the fact that the investigation was not completed.
Upon his arrest, it was reported that a knife was taken from Prior, a large, rough cattle knife with two blades.
Sergeant Dubuque gave evidence at both the inquest and at the trial. He told the court that he thought Rosa Mohr’s grave had been dug in a peculiar manner, with the sod turned wrong side up. (How this was established when Harris had testified to removing the sod and taking the body from the grave, I’m not sure.)
He testified that he’d found prints of heavy boots beside the grave and that a quarter mile on the north side of the bluff, the grass and dirt were trampled down, with more prints of heavy boots. From this spot, he said he found a rough mark on the grass that traced for a quarter of a mile south, as if a body had been dragged. He also testified that he’d found a cut in the sod near the grave, as if an instrument such as a shovel had been stuck in the ground. He told the court that he’d searched Prior’s shack and found a pair of heavy boots the same size as the footprints he’d found, some clothing saturated with blood, and a spade, which had a piece missing from the end which made it the perfect size for the cut in the sod he’d found by the graveside.
It was also reported that he’d found a muddy shirt, but it’s unclear if this was found at the grave scene or in Prior’s shack. Sgt. Dubuque testified that he’d found a piece of shirt cuff mixed up with the sod at the grave, which “compared very favorably” with a shirt found in the shack, so it’s possible the reported muddy shirt was actually this piece of shirt cuff.
Finally, Sgt. Dubuque had one last piece of evidence against Sam Prior. He testified that Prior had confessed. According to Dubuque, Sam had started talking to him while in his jail cell, telling him about the trouble he was in. Sam allegedly told him that he’d been digging a well on the fated Friday, but had started for home because he wasn’t feeling well. He’d come upon Rosa, where she was with some cattle, and she’d teased him, calling him a crazy englishman. She’d had a dog with her that tried to bite his dog and he’d given her a smack. Dubuque said that Sam told him he’d killed her and put her in the bluff, then got a shovel and went back and buried her.
All of Sgt. Dubuque’s evidence certainly had things looking quite grim for Sam Prior, but here’s the thing: several people disagreed with him. Amos Smith, who’d been one of the jurymen at the inquest, testified at the trial that he’d been at the grave that day and saw no particular marks about the place. He’d gone over the ground again later with Mr. McPhail and they’d searched carefully for where a struggle might have taken place but found nothing. T.E. Scriver, the editor and publisher of Wolseley had also gone out with McPhail and both had looked very carefully all around the grave for the place where Sgt. Dubuque said he had found the cut in the sod but couldn’t find it.
The trial began on January 22, 1908. The crown prosecutor was Levi Thompson, and the defence was Mr. F.W.G. Haultain.
George Albert Charlton of the Bacteriological Laboratory at Regina testified for the prosecution. He was of the opinion that the blood stains on the clothing submitted into evidence, as well as the knife, were probably human, although he could only state for certain that it was the blood of a mammal. Dr. C.W. Hunt testified that the wounds on Rosa Mohr might have been caused by the knife in evidence, but at the time of the inquest he’d examined it and saw no signs of blood.
Haultain worked hard to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, starting with the witnesses mentioned above, Amos Smith, Mr. McPhail and T.E. Scriver. He also called a number of witnesses to the stand who testified that the bloodied clothes Sgt. Dubuque submitted as evidence were not the ones Sam Prior was wearing on the day of the murder. Arthur Bozen told the court that Prior was wearing dark clothes, not the trousers in evidence. As for the blood, Sam claimed that he got nosebleeds regularly and had been duck hunting. He told police the blood was from that.
Percy Coveraton of Wolseley testified that he’d known Prior on and off since 1901 and that on several occasions he’d known Prior’s nose to bleed. He told the court that Sam had a kindly disposition. John Handly, a grain merchant of Wolseley, testified that a day after the murder he’d told Mat Slainder that Sam Prior was suspected and Slainder had replied, “oh no, no Mr. Handley. I know Sam Prior, the silly foolish, but he is not crazy foolish like that. I saw Sam Prior yesterday while I cut hay and he had a gun and a dog.”
Mat Slainder denied ever saying that.
In his final argument, Haultain told the jury that he’d never seen such a mess of contradictory testimony in all his life. The only thing anyone seemed to be able to agree on, he said, were three things. First, that Rosa was lost at some point during the day on August 2, 1907; second, that she was found some time during the next day; and finally, that the accused was seen during the day of the murder.
On January 24, 1908, the jury found Sam Prior guilty with a recommendation of mercy. He was sentenced to hang on March 26, 1908. This sentence was appealed, and on March 5, 1908, Prior was declared insane and his sentence was changed to life imprisonment.
Was Sam Prior guilty? Did he actually confess? And if he did, and he killed Rosa for making fun of him like Sgt Dubuque said, why did he cut her abdomen after she was dead? With so many conflicting and changing testimonies, we can never be truly certain of what happened to Rosa Mohr on August 2, 1907.
Information for this post was provided by Wolseley Heritage Foundation Archive and the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, the Free Press Prairie Farmer and the Winnipeg Tribune: Aug 6, 1907, Aug 23, 1907, Jan 24, 1908, Jan 25, 1908, Jan 29, 1908 and March 6, 1908.
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