On August 15, 1906, Richard Koch, a farmer from Sedley, was driving to Regina with one of his neighbours, Benjamin Dick. As they came upon the farm of Josiah Gilbert, some twelve miles south-east of Regina, they saw a man running towards their buggy, waving his hands and shouting for them to hold on. Behind him ran Josiah Gilbert with what looked like a gun in his hand.
They stopped the buggy near the gateway and the man, covered in blood, ran to them, yelling, “he shot me and will shoot me again. Hold on boys, hold on.” He climbed into the buggy, took hold of the whip and reins and tried to urge the horses ahead. Koch stopped him, and instead got out and waited for Gilbert.
Josiah Gilbert was a man of about sixty-nine to seventy-five-years-old. He was below average height and had a short, bushy grey beard and grey hair. He’d been farming in the district for about twenty-five years and was well known in the neighborhood and in the city of Regina. Koch knew him well and when Gilbert reached the buggy, he asked him if he had a rig at his place to take the shot man to town, as their team wasn’t in a condition to get him there quickly. Gilbert said there was, that the man’s rig was still in his yard.
Benjamin Dick drove into the yard with the injured man, while Koch and Gilbert followed on foot. Gilbert told him the man’s name was Barrett Henderson and that he’d accidentally shot him when the gun had caught and gone off as he was coming out of the barn. Koch said it was funny that Mr. Henderson was so frightened of Gilbert if it had been an accident, to which Gilbert replied that he couldn’t understand it himself, he was trying to help him. When Koch pointed out that it was a mistake to carry the gun so long when Henderson was obviously frightened, Gilbert told him he didn’t know he was still carrying it until he saw them.
They found the buggy standing by the barn, the dashboard covered in blood. They took the buggy and followed Dick, still driving with Henderson, to his own shack, where they transferred him to his own rig and two of his hired men came out to help and take him to the hospital. One of those men, Russell McKinnon, testified that Henderson had seen Gilbert as they were getting into the buggy and he’d cried “don’t let him knife me!” He said Henderson was frightened to death of Gilbert.
Barrett Henderson was taken to Regina and brought to the Victoria Hospital, arriving shortly after noon. Richard Koch, Benjamin Dick and Josiah Gilbert followed behind in Koch’s buggy. As they started out, Gilbert told them his wife was sick at home and he hadn’t checked on her since he’d left the house in the morning and wanted to go home, but they convinced him that he should probably go with them to Regina. They first went to the police, but found it closed, so Gilbert went and put his case in the hands of a lawyer.
Meanwhile, Henderson was in the hospital. He’d been shot in the face, the ragged wound starting at the angle of his mouth on the left side and extending outward in line with the lower lobe of his left ear. He was almost completely drained of blood and a large number of blood vessels and arteries had been destroyed or injured. The wound was described to be of such a nature that one could put one’s fist in it. He was operated on, with three or four slugs removed from his face, but died a little before 3:00PM.
Gilbert voluntarily surrendered himself to police, and by about 5:00PM, he appeared before the magistrate and was charged with murder.
The police spent most of the next day engaged in investigations at the Gilbert farm. Despite searching the entire property, aided by Richard Koch who believed he’d seen where Gilbert had dropped the gun, they were never able to locate the weapon. Inspector Heffernan was in charge of the case, assisted by Sergeant Wilkinson.
If it was indeed murder and not an accident, what was the believed motive for the crime?
Barrett Henderson had left behind a wife and three children near Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and arrived in the district in the spring of 1906. John Boyle of John H. Boyle & Co had negotiated the sale of Josiah Gilbert’s farm to Henderson. The final closing of the Gilbert farm deal had occurred at the farm house on June 26, 1906, when Henderson made his first payment. The next payment was due in sixty days.
Boyle testified that on the day before the shooting Henderson told him that he was going to make his second payment that Friday, an amount of $2480 (that would be over $78,000 today). He also told Boyle that the Gilberts were crazy to get the farm back, that they’d offered him $3000 to sell it back, but he wanted $10,000. Henderson had told him that on account of his wife’s ill health and constant entreaties that he return home, he might take $7000.
On the day of the shooting, Boyle received word that Henderson was asking for him at the hospital. He arrived before the operation and found Henderson still awake. Henderson reached for him, squeezed his hand and said, “goodbye, Boyle. I am out here among strangers.”
Boyle testified that Gilbert himself had never said anything to him about wanting to get out of the deal, it was only Henderson that had mentioned it.
The trial began on November 13, 1906. Representing the prosecution was J. A. Allan and Norman Mackenzie for the defence.
The first day was given entirely to the testimony of the doctors who’d attended Henderson. They described the gun shot wound, the operation in which they’d removed three or four slugs from his face and his subsequent death. Henderson had told them upon arrival that he’d been shot by Josiah Gilbert, who he said had tried to kill him. They believed that the exertion of running from Gilbert had sped up the loss of blood and he was described as being almost completely drained of blood at his autopsy, during which the coroner had found another two slugs.
Richard Koch and Benjamin Dick both testified, retelling the events of that morning.
James Brooks, whose farm was next to Gilbert’s, testified that Gilbert had told him he’d heard that Henderson was going to fail in his payments and asked him what he should do. Brooks told him that a bargain was a bargain and that he had better see a lawyer.
Brooks’ niece, who was staying with him, testified that she heard the shot between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. She looked out toward Gilbert’s farm (apparently the houses were not far apart) and saw two men running between the barn and the granary, the one ahead being a little taller. She told the court that Gilbert had visited her uncle’s on one occasion and she’d hear him say something about “if he could close and take the place back.”
The police testified about being unable to find the gun and about doing experiments with their closest approximation of the gun and ammunition to try and determine the range the shot was fired at. They believed it had to have been less than ten feet. About three feet in front of Gilbert’s barn, they’d found blood marks on the ground. There were blood spots on woodchips about 10 or 11 yards from the barn and they’d found marks made by bloody hands on the east door of the barn.
It was time to hear from Josiah Gilbert.
He took the stand, refusing to sit and instead leaning against the rail while answering questions. He spoke so low, the stenographer sitting next to him often had to ask him to repeat his answers. He told the court he’d sold his farm because he was played out and couldn’t work anymore. His wife’s illness had been another motivating factor. (By the time the trial took place, she’d passed away.) He testified that he was satisfied with the deal and didn’t complain to anyone, denying that he’d ever talked about wanting to close and take the place back. He said that Brooks had told him he was selling too cheaply, but he explained he was played out and his wife was sick. He said that he and Henderson were on friendly terms and had never been otherwise.
On the morning of the shooting, he told the court that he saw Henderson at about 5:00AM and that Henderson had told him he’d be around after breakfast to go round the wheat and see when it would be ready to cut. If Gilbert was ready, he could join him.
Gilbert gathered some ammunition and placed the gun behind the north-east door of the stable, facing the house, intending to take it with them to shoot gophers. He was “petting round the colts”, waiting, when he looked out and saw Henderson driving in the yard. He went out, yelled for him, and Henderson came round to the stable door. Gilbert went into the stable to get the ammunition and the gun, picking it up and holding it just above the trigger. He stumbled at the door sill and said the gun seemed to strike the side of door and went off. The horse gave a jump and Henderson fell out of the buggy.
He told the court he’d dropped the gun, gone and helped Henderson up and left him standing while he went to grab the horse and pull him out of the way. Meanwhile, Henderson walked away. He thought Henderson didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing. He saw Henderson going around the barn, but said he didn’t realize how badly he was hurt. He picked up the gun, he testified, to explain to Henderson how the accident happened. According to Gilbert, it was he who yelled for Koch and Dick to stop, not Henderson. He said he dropped the gun because he was weak and the weight was too much for him.
The jury didn’t buy Gilbert’s story that it was an accident. They found him guilty on November 16, 1906 and he was sentenced to hang on January 18, 1907.
He didn’t though.
Reverend G. C. Hill and Mr. James Balfour went to Ottawa to meet with the Minister of Justice to try and secure a commutation of Gilbert’s death sentence. He was granted a reprieve while an appeal was filed and in March of 1907, his sentence was changed to life imprisonment.
And that, my friends, is the story of the shooting of Barrett Henderson. Was it an accident or was it murder? The only one who ever knew for sure was Josiah Gilbert.
Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Aug 17, 1906, Aug 22, 1906, Oct 24, 1906, Nov 14, 1906, Nov 15, 1906, Nov 16, 1906, Nov 17, 1906, Jan 17, 1907, Feb 23, 1907, Feb 26, 1907 and March 25, 1907.
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