The Life and Death of Ephraim Jantzen

At seventeen years old, Ephraim Jantzen had been a ward of the government since the age of eight, when his father died and his mother, unable to support her seven children, turned them over to the Bureau of Dependent and Neglected Children. He had lived in several homes, but at fifteen he was placed with his half-sister and her husband, John Wurz. John was forty and he and his wife had four children. Ephraim was brought to live with them on their farm, aout 20 miles southwest of Lanigan. He was with them for two years, until the day he died.

On the morning of March 6, 1925, John and Ephraim left the farm with a team of horses and a rack to get straw out of a stack on the neighbouring farm of J. Kincaid. Kincaid had given John the stack on the condition that John would haul two loads out of it for him.

The stack was situated about 547 yards from Kincaid’s house. It was covered in snow and ice that they had to burrow through to get at the straw. According to Wurz, they had laid their overcoats on the snow about 8 yards from the stack, along with a .22 rifle they’d brought in case they saw any rabbits. Ephraim helped John load the rack and steady it for a few yards while John got going, but stayed at the straw stack to continue shoveling while John drove the load up to Kincaid’s barn.

He and Kincaid unloaded the straw. As they finished, a neighbour, Ben Smith, dropped by to pick up his mail. The three men chatted for about five minutes in the house and then John left the two men inside and returned to the straw stack to get the second load. About fifteen minutes later, John rushed in, greatly excited according to the two men, and said his hired man had shot himself.

A reminder here, that Ephraim Jantzen was not John’s hired man. He was supposed to be his foster son.

All three men got on the straw rack and drove back to the stack. Kincaid was about eighty years old and quite deaf, so he was unable to testify as to what was said on the ride back. Smith testified that he asked where the boy had been shot and Wurz said through the heart. Wurz told Smith that he didn’t go into the hole in the stack where the body was, he hadn’t even gotten off the rack. He’d seen the body and immediately driven back to get the others.

They found Ephraim dead inside the burrow, lying on his back with the .22 rifle about six inches away with the trigger guard turned inward to the body and the butt of the rifle practically in line with the feet. His top shirt and undershirt were open and jerked up, as though someone had put their hand in to feel the body. As Smith approached Ephraim’s body, Wurz called to him, asking if his eyes were open. They were closed. Wurz called back that when he’d pulled up, Ephraim’s eyes were open. Which was odd, because Ephraim’s cap was pulled low on his head and his eyes were not visible until the body was closely approached.

The entrance of the burrow faced South and the back of the boy’s head faced North, with his feet at the opening of the burrow.

According to Smith’s testimony, Wurz wanted to move the body. He wanted to remove it from the burrow and take it home with him. Both men refused and told him not to touch it, that it needed to be left as is for the police. They argued for a while until they convinced Wurz to drop them off at farm with a telephone on his way home. On the way, Wurz asked Smith what the police would do to him and was muttering and crying to himself in German. As he dropped the men off, he asked Smith what he was going to tell the police and Smith replied that he’d say young Jantzen was lying shot dead.

Constable William Hill of the Lanigan detachment received word of the tragedy at about 2:30PM. He reached the Kincaid farm at about 5:30PM. Together with the coroner, Dr. Browning, the two walked along the recent sleigh trail down to the straw stack where they found the boy’s body in a hole in the straw. At this point it was coming on dusk. Beside the body lay the rifle, the butt towards the feet, as previously described. Going back up to the house, they met Wurz there in his sled and he helped them bring the body to the granary. According to Constable Hill, Wurz seemed nervous and asked him if he thought he should go to a lawyer.

Checking the boy’s pockets, Hill had found no other shells, only the single empty one near the body and there was no trace of powder marks on the smock he was wearing. An autopsy was performed by Dr. W. Brawley of Guernsey and on March 14, 1925, a Coroner’s Inquest was held by Dr. Browning of Lanigan.

At the inquest, a horrible picture of the life Ephraim had lived at the hands of John Wurz was pieced together. A neighbour, S. Hawes had seen Wurz beat and slash at the boy with a whip used for horses. Another neighbour, A.C. Snider had seen Wurz strike the boy on the back with his fists. And yet another neighbour, E.R. Creswynd told a story of picking Ephraim up in his automobile and giving him a ride to Watrous. Ephraim had told him he was running away because Wurz had threatened to shoot him.

Even worse, was the condition of the body. The undertaker, William Robertson, told the jury that the boy’s body was filthy and had been dressed practically in rags. (During the preliminary trial, the boy’s clothes had to be kept outside of the room when not being examined, due to the overwhelming smell.)

Dr. Brawley testified that there were sores all over the boy’s feet, one of which was the size of a half dollar, all in the process of healing. The tips of his toes were slightly black, and he attributed all of this to frostbite, most likely having taken place about 15 days prior to death and probably from more than one instance of frostbite. He found scars on the nose, mouth, jaw and temple, all minor and all probably caused by frostbite. His lip was swollen and cut, seemingly by the teeth. He found many wounds on the upper part of the boy’s back and abrasions about the hips, apparently the results of “itch”. His abdomen was black. There was severe bruising on the boy’s upper arms. The bullet had entered the body from the left side and pierced the stomach, the heart, the liver and a kidney. He testified that he found Ephraim to have a case of double pneumonia and wouldn’t have given him more than five days to live if he hadn’t been shot. In his opinion, it would have been almost impossible for the boy to have shot himself.

Constable Hill and Detective Sergeant D.C. Shervill of Saskatoon had done some experiments as well. They had cut pieces from Ephraim’s smock and using the same rifle had fired at the cloth in increasing increments of distance, starting at 3 inches and going to 8 inches. At 3 inches powder stains had shown on the fabric. By the time they reached 8 inches no powder marks visible to the human eye were left on the fabric.

The jury at the inquest reached a verdict, stating that Ephraim Jantzen had come to his death from a bullet fired from the rifle in the hands of a person or persons unknown. They added a rider to their verdict, stating that the Bureau of Dependent and Neglected Children had shown considerable laxity in the administration of the affairs of their ward, Ephraim Jantzen. Det. Sgt. Shervill immediately took Wurz into custody and he was held at the provincial police cells at Watrous until his preliminary hearing at Lanigan.

The Saskatoon Daily Star – March 16, 1925

Inspector W.B. Cummings of the Bureau of Dependent and Neglected Children did not take kindly to the Bureau’s being called out in the verdict at the coroner’s inquest. He made a public statement on March 16, 1925 and had this to say in response to the rider: “I feel that the department did everything in its power to help him. I may say, the lad was very unsatisfactory and a hard boy to deal with and gave us all kinds of trouble.”

(I do try to keep my opinions to myself for the most part, but as you can tell by the bold print, I really didn’t like this statement. Ephraim Jantzen didn’t need to be satisfactory. He needed to be taken care of. He was a child. A child whose father had died, mother had given him up and had been separated from all of his siblings.)

The preliminary hearing opened on March 20, 1925 in Lanigan before Justice of the Peace, Cyril Stackhouse. The murder case had drawn a lot of attention in the area and crowds filled the Lanigan town hall for the hearing. They cheered as police evidence was heard, causing Stackhouse to denounce the crowd, declaring that if even a fraction of the interest being shown in the case had been given to the boy a month prior to the tragedy, he might still be alive. He said it was clear that neighbours had been aware of the terrible conditions the boy was living under and none of them had done anything on his behalf.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – April 22, 1925

The murder trial of John Wurz began on April 21, 1925. The crown prosecutor was J.W. Estey, with A.E. Bence (assisted by W.E. Thorneloe and Frank McLorg) for the defence. Another autopsy had been performed by Dr. A.L. Lindsay and Dr. T.W. Walker. They refuted Dr. Brawley’s claims of pneumonia, stating that there’d been the usual after death congestion of the lungs, which is sometimes mistaken for pneumonia. Called to the stand, Dr. Brawley admitted that he’d made several errors in his report and that he might have been mistaken about the pneumonia. He hadn’t done an autopsy in ten years and hadn’t been thrilled at the idea of doing the post mortem.

Grant Lewis, provincial analyst, was called by the prosecution. He testified that he’d examined the bullet hole in Jantzen’s smock under the microscope, comparing it the bullet holes in the pieces of cloth in Constable Hill and Det. Sgt. Shervill’s experiments. In the test pieces, the color had been burnt out of the thread and a deposit of carbon had been left. At up to 7 inches the color was burnt to quite an extent. Under the microscope, the bullet hole in Jantzen’s smock had shown no evidence of scorching, and although there was considerable dirt, the thread had not lost its blue color as it had in the test pieces. In his opinion, the shot was made at a range greater than 7 inches.

Another neighbour, Mike Rostalsky, was also called to the stand. He’d known Wurz for about six years. He stated that he’d never seen Ephraim with the rifle, he’d only ever seen it in the hands of Wurz. Two days before the shooting, he told the court that John and Ephraim had come to his farm to fill a couple of barrels with water. He said that Wurz had ordered the boy around roughly, and as the boy had hauled water Wurz had complained to him about how dirty and smelly the boy was, about his weak condition and how he was thinking he’d send him back to the children’s home. Rostalsky had noticed the boy limping as he worked, and said he was quite lame.

On April 24, 1925, the crown prosecution rested it’s case. In all it had called 23 witnesses. The defence declared they would be calling no witnesses, having based most of their defence in aggressive cross examination of the crown’s witnesses, arguing for the possibility that Jantzen had shot himself.

And that’s when something shocking happened. Justice H.Y. MacDonald sent the jury from the room and asked Estey on what points in the evidence the crown sought a conviction. Estey argued that while suicide was not impossible, he believed the evidence showed it wasn’t practically possible. He felt the circumstances surrounding the death were suspicious, pointing to the lack of shells in the boy’s pockets, the fact that Wurz said he’d left Jantzen at the stack to continue shoveling but that no snow had been shoveled, that Wurz had told Ben Smith that Jantzen’s eyes had been open when he shouldn’t have been able to see the boy’s eyes from the rack. Justice MacDonald disagreed, saying that all of Estey’s evidence was circumstantial and overruled his objection. He brought the jury back in, and at 11:00AM stated that the facts of the case were not such as would warrant a jury to find a verdict of guilty and dismissed the prisoner.

John Wurz walked out of the courtroom with his family. According to reporters, he said, “well, that feels better,” as, smiling, he led his family down the street toward the hotel where his wife and children had been staying. It was reported that on all their visits with him, his children were smiling, healthy and happy looking.

Directly after the discharge of the accused, his lawyer, Mr. Bence, offered to demonstrate for the crowd and reporters how Jantzen might have shot himself by pushing the trigger of the fatal gun with the toe of his rubber boot. His son took a sitting position on the large table in the court and put on the dead boy’s shoes. Bending forward, as if to look into the barrel to see if there was any snow in it, he rubbed the toe of the rubber boot against the trigger of the gun and with no trouble the rifle discharged. The direction coincided with the course the bullet had taken in Ephraim.

There was no mention of any further charges being laid against Wurz for his abuse and mistreatment of Ephraim Jantzen before his death.

Did Ephraim Jantzen accidentally shoot himself, as Mr. Bence demonstrated? Or did Wurz, returning to the stack and finding Ephraim sitting and resting his injured feet instead of shoveling, fly into a rage and shoot him as he’d threatened before? It was not described by the papers whether Bence’s demonstration accounted for the lack of powder marks and scorching on the boy’s clothing, so both are certainly possible. What is clear, is that Ephraim was not treated as a member of the family. Indeed, he wasn’t treated with anything close to human empathy. His frost bitten feet should have disqualified him from helping with the straw. If he’d been allowed to stay home and recover, he wouldn’t be dead. But it appears no justice was sought for Ephraim in this regard.

And that is the story of the shooting of Ephraim Jantzen.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – April 25, 1925

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Daily Star, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: March 16, 1925, March 17, 1925, March 20, 1925, March 21, 1925, April 22, 1925, April 23, 1925, April 24, 1925 and April 25, 1925.

If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe and share! Want to read more true crime cases in historical Saskatchewan? Try these:

Murder in Wolseley: The Killing of Rosa Mohr

The Murder of George White

The Hitchhiker With the Revolver

3 thoughts on “The Life and Death of Ephraim Jantzen

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: