The Mamchur Family Massacre

Let me begin this post by saying that sources on this case were deeply conflicted. Names, spellings, and genders varied wildly. I did my best to verify as much information as I could, and I apologize for any inaccuracies. I’ve tried to note differences where I found them.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

On the evening of Wednesday, April 5, 1916, the bells of the Greek Orthodox Church in the middle of a small settlement near Wakaw began to ring, calling members of the community to church to celebrate a religious holiday from their old home in Galicia. (Galicia was the largest and northern most province of the Austrian Empire, located in what is now southeastern Poland and western Ukraine.) What happened at this meeting is unclear. The priest did not arrive, so according to witnesses, they held their own celebration/mass.

Sources differed on when the meeting at the church let out. Some said midnight, others said 11:30, and I saw one article that said as early as 10:30. I don’t think anyone was being purposely untruthful about this, only that no one was exactly sure and they gave their best approximation. Getting clear answers on timelines and everyone’s activities was difficult, as there was a sizeable language barrier. Many in the community didn’t speak English and the police often needed an interpreter. Witnesses agreed, however, that the Mamchur family went straight home after the meeting.

The Mamchur Family

Prokop Mamchur was believed to be about forty-six or forty-seven years old, as was his wife, Mary. (She was listed as Maria on the family tombstone, but in all articles she is referred to as Mary, so that’s what I’ve gone with here.) The couple came to Wakaw a few years after his father, John Mamchur, emigrated to Saskatchewan and they settled on land right next to his, about twelve miles west of Wakaw. A few years later, Prokop’s sister and her husband, Steve Makohn (also saw it spelled Makahone), arrived and set up right next to Prokop. Each house was about three hundred yards from the other.

Prokop Mamchur spoke fluent English and was a recognized leader of the Galician community. He was spoken of as a man of fine character and as one who had the respect and trust of the whole community. Again, sources differed on how many children they had and what genders they were. Their eldest daughter was Pauline (sometimes spelled as Paulena, sometimes as Pawlena, but I’m going with the spelling found on her grave), she was twenty. Their second was Antonia, who was fifteen. (It was also spelled Antoza, Anoso and Antona and they were referenced sometimes as a boy, other times as a girl, but most often as a girl and again, on the grave the name was given as Antonia, so that’s what I’m going with.) The smallest child was two-years-old and initially referred to as Pauline’s, but later when Prokop’s father testified he said the child was Mary’s, so I’m going with that. Her name was Olga.

Living with the Mamchurs was Mary’s brother, John Michayluk (also saw it spelled Mycheluk, and Lylechuk).

The Mamchur’s home was described as a comfortable log house, partly built from stone, partly from wood. It measured about 18 x 35 feet and was plastered inside and out with mud and whitewashed. From the front door, a passageway about 8 feet wide led to the back wall of the house. On each side was a room of about 15×15 feet. To the right was the living room, with a large bed in the northeast corner. A built in davenport of homemade construction ran along two sides of the room and was used as seats during the day and a bed at night. To the left was the stove and kitchen area and a sleeping area for Michayluk.

A Fire

In the early hours of Thursday morning, April 6, 1916, John Mamchur woke up suddenly and saw a reflection through the window. Fire. He got up in a hurry, put clothes on and went out from the house where he saw that the granary, two stables and Prokop’s house were burning. He noticed his son-in-law, Steve Makohn’s barn was burning as well. Knowing Steve was away, he ran there first. All the horses were out except one that had burned to death, so he ran back to his son’s place to help. (He believed at this point it was about half past one, but there’s no way to be sure. I’m sure when he woke up and saw the fire he didn’t think to check the clock.)

Mrs. Steve Makohn, Prokop’s sister, told a similar story. She’d woken up and saw from the house the fire in the granary, which seemed to have started from the ground. She tried to put it out with her coat, then noticed the fire in her barn. She’d rescued all the horses but one.

Back at the house, John Mamchur called out several times, but received no answer. He checked again at Makohn’s place, but his daughter said they weren’t there, then went to the granary, thinking he might find them inside, but it was empty. The roof of the granary and the house were falling in, and he couldn’t go into the house with all the smoke. He saw one of his neighbours, Ivan Sarchuk, on the scene. Sarchuk broke a window and saw someone lying on the bed inside. (The police asked John if one of the panes was already broken before this, and he thought it must have been.) Sarchuk told John he could see Michayluk’s feet hanging over the bed. He climbed in and handed the body out to John. As this point, they didn’t realize that Michayluk was already dead.

In the same room, there was a cellar door, open at the foot of the bed. John closed it with a stick and the two men threw snow on the floor, thinking the rest of the family must be sheltering in the cellar. After the fire burned down, they made a gruesome discovery. They found the body of Mary and two-year-old Olga in the cellar. (In early editions of the paper covering these murders, it was Pauline who was said to be in the cellar holding baby Olga. Later it was usually described as Mary, but it isn’t certain.) Mary had been shot twice in the left arm, the shots going through and piercing the lungs of Olga, whom it appeared she was trying to protect. It looked as though she’d attempted to take refuge in the cellar and had either fallen or been pushed down the stairs. She’d hit her head against a stone step at the bottom and died instantly.

They found a rifle on the floor beside Michayluk’s feet, an empty shell in the chamber, eight loaded shells in the magazine. John Mamchur visited his son once or twice a week and told police that he’d never seen the gun before.

At the other side of the house, they found the remains of Prokop Mamchur, Antonia Mamchur and Pauline Syroishka, all burned beyond recognition.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – April 8, 1916

News spread quickly, and by 11:30AM, RNWMP Constable Dey of Wakaw sent a telegram to Superintendent W.H. Routledge in Prince Albert. “Six people reported dead near here. Murder suspected. If possible send help.” Immediately Corporal Fowell and Constable Williams of Vonda were dispatched, followed by Inspector A.W. Duffus of Saskatoon. The following day they were joined by Detective Sergeant Pryme.

Suspicion immediately fell on Mike Syroishka, son-in-law of Prokop Mamchur and estranged husband of Pauline. (Mike Syroishka’s last name was spelled in so many different ways, I won’t bother to list them. This spelling seemed to be used most often, so that’s what I’ve gone with.) Community rumors and gossip attributed the murders to a family feud. The story was that Mike had beaten and mistreated his wife, so Prokop took her home and refused to let her go back. Some said Mike had suspected Pauline of being unfaithful, with his own brother no less, who was the secretary treasurer of the Rural Municipality of Fish Creek, and that it was these suspicions that had led to the beating that saw Prokop coming to collect his daughter.

Mike Syroishka was farming two miles away from the Mamchur home, where he was staying with his sister, brother-in-law and his mother. Mike had a bad reputation in the district and it was well known that he’d made threats, saying that if his wife didn’t return to live with him, he’d kill everyone in her family.

Police immediately took him into custody and interrogated him for four hours, during which he remained completely calm, stopping to roll cigarette several times while answering questions. He admitted to the threat but that was all.

Neighbours reported that at the examination of the bodies pulled from the wreckage, Syroishka had been one of the most interested observers, although his bearing apparently did not betray the slightest sign of inward excitement.

The post-mortem examinations revealed that John Michayluk had been shot in the chest near the heart and in the head. Prokop, Antonia and Pauline were all shot through the heart. (In other sources, it said they were shot in the head as well as the heart, but I wasn’t able to verify if that was true.) Each shot had been fired in cold blood, with unerring accuracy.

The working theory of the police was that the perpetrator had approached the house by stealth in the early morning hours of Thursday, April 6th. They believed the first shot was fired from the exterior of the house throught the window, and after one man was killed, the murderer shot down the other as they went to the door. They’d killed the two girls as they cowered in a distant corner of the home, by the stove, before shooting Mary, as she fled to the cellar. Next, they had slaughtered the animals in the barn, then coolly and deliberately set fire to the two barns, the granary and the house.

As police looked further into Mike Syroishka, they found that four years ago, Prokop Mamchur had sworn out a warrant against Syroishka. He’d charged him with carrying concealed weapons. Police had fined Syroishka and a revolver was found on his person. It was believed to have been confiscated, but Syroishka later said it wasn’t, but that he’d lost it. At the time, Mamchur stated that Syroishka had threatened on several occasions to shoot his wife and her family.

There was only one problem. Mike Syroishka seemed to have an alibi. When John Mamchur testified at the coroner’s inquest, he told the jury that only Mary, Antonia and Michayluk went to the church meeting. Prokop, Pauline and the baby had stayed home. He reported that he’d seen Mike Syroishka at the meeting and that afterwards, Mike had gone with Michayluk and another man to the home of Mike Serabaska. John Mamchur had gone as well. He didn’t know what time it was when he left, but said he’d asked Michayluk to go home with him. Michayluk had told him he would stay a while yet, so John Mamchur went home alone. He believed it was about midnight when he arrived at his house and went to bed. Apparently, a little while later, Syroishka, Michayluk and another man left together, parting ways to go to their separate homes. Syroishka said he got home at midnight, and in fact knew it was midnight, because when he got there everyone was asleep except for his mother, who asked him what time it was. He looked at the clock and told her it was midnight.

Mike Syroishka testified at the inquest, and said that as he walked home, he heard two shots. After he told his mother the time, he ate some supper. When he was done, he saw the fire in the direction of Mamchur’s and told his mother he’d go see what it was. He walked about 100 yards, but couldn’t figure out exactly where the fire was and decided it was probably only a straw stack and went to bed. In the morning he heard about the fire and he and his sister went to a few neighbours’ houses, where they heard about the murders and eventually made their way to the Mamchur home. The place was still burning when they arrived.

“Did you cry when you saw your wife?” they asked him.

“No, but I felt bad.”

He told them he stayed until the doctor arrived, then left.

When questioned about his marriage to Pauline, he told them they’d had trouble. He said that on several occasions he went to church on Sunday evenings, but told his wife she had to stay home and do the chores. She’d refused and followed him to church. Her father had written him a letter, saying he had no right to stop her from going to church or elsewhere. Syroishka had written back that he had no right to dictate to him. He never mentioned the rumours about an affair, saying only that she’d left him and went home to her father’s.

He told the court he’d gone to see her a few times, but on the last occasion her father had threatened to shoot him like a dog if he ever came on the place again. He hadn’t been back since, but he and Prokop had exchanged words when they met on the road, and at one time he’d run into Pauline. She said she’d go back to live with him as soon as he had a home. That was the year before, but she’d never come back.

When asked about what guns he owned, Syroishka told the court that he had purchased a .22 calibre rifle at Rosthern and a shotgun at Wakaw. He told them that about a month previous he’d traded the rifle to Peter Michayluk, but didn’t get anything in exchange. When pressed, he said he’d received a 32-40 rifle and thirty shells. (I’m not sure if the newspaper screwed up and printed Peter Michayluk when they really meant John Michayluk, or if Peter was a different person who happened to have the same last name.) Syroishka told the court that he’d taken the gun home and put it in the granary.

If Mike Syroishka’s story was true, it didn’t leave a lot of time for him to sneak up to the Mamchur place after Michayluk left, murder the family, shoot the animals, then set fire to all the buildings before returning home for midnight. He let them examine the clothes he wore that night and they found no blood or trace of smoke.

The police asked the doctor to go back and look at the body of John Michayluk one more time. They had another theory.

John Michayluk had made an arrangement with Prokop Mamchur. He’d agreed to work for his brother-in-law for three years, for which he was to received the sum of $700 and some stock. It would appear, however, that Mamchur did not fulfill his part of the agreement. For although the three years had expired some time ago, Mamchur had made no settlement with his brother-in-law. It was well known on the settlement that there had been words between the two, and Michayluk was said to have threatened on several occasions that he’d “clean up the whole Mamchur family” and that he would do it “so quickly that they would think that lightning had struck them.”

The rumors in the settlement were that Prokop Mamchur was holding back payment and had threatened to throw Michayluk from the house, because of the attentions he was paying his daughter, Pauline. It was also rumored that he’d been paying a little too much attention to Steve Makohn’s wife, Prokop’s sister.

Two weeks before the murders, Michayluk purchased the rifle found by his dead body. It was the only rifle of that calibre in the neighbourhood that police had been able to find. Mr. F.J. Johnasik, the hardware merchant in Wakaw, was able to produce the invoice for the winchester rifle of the same number and calibre as the one found by the body, proving that it was indeed the one purchased by Michayluk. John had purchased a box of fifty shells as well. Apparently, he’d kept it in an outbuilding and told no one that he’d bought it. (Although he must have told someone, if they were able to find out where he kept it.) They’d found a nearly empty box of cartridges for it in the sheepskin coat Michayluk had been seen wearing in the house.

Initially, the doctor told police that the chest wound on Michayluk’s body had been enough to kill him instantly. When police asked him to look again, they specifically wanted to know if it was at all possible for the shot to have left him alive. The doctor admitted that it was possible, but unlikely.

The police presented their new theory at the inquest. It was John Michayluk who had perpetrated the horrible crime. He had come home from the meeting, shot the family, then gone out, shot the animals, set the buildings on fire, and returned to the house, setting it on fire before shooting himself in the chest. When it failed to kill him, he shot himself in the forehead, above the eye.

On April 14, 1916, the jury at the coroner’s inquest named John Michayluk as the murderer of the Mamchur family.

But if you thought this was where the story ended, you’d be wrong.

On Saturday, December 7, 1918, Mike Syroishka was arrested for murder.

After the Provincial Police took over for the RNWMP, Detective Sergeant George Harrick, working under the direction of Inspector Collison, the head of the detective department of the Provincial Police, kept Mike Syroishka under surveillance.

It had never sat quite right with the Provincial Police that John Michayluk was named as the murderer. They believed it was a physical impossibility for a man to first shoot himself in the chest, close to the heart, then send a bullet through their own forehead, especially as the rifle was found on the floor with no props and the body was in such a position as to indicate that the shots were fired by another party standing up. The bullets found imbedded in the wall behind him were in a straight line, about five feet from the floor.

Further more, John Michayluk wasn’t wearing shoes or socks. When Mrs. Makohn gave her statement, she’d said the Mamchur home was caving in from the roof being all on fire when she went to save her horses. If John Michayluk had done it, the last fire to be set would have been the house, but given the level of fire in all the buildings, they believed the Makohn stable was the last to be set ablaze.

Mike Syroishka was taken to Wakaw for a preliminary hearing (he’d since moved to the Sokal district), and then was taken to Prince Albert to await trial.

Saskatoon Daily Star – Jan 8, 1919

On June 2, 1919, the murder charge was dropped and replaced with a charge of arson. It seems likely the crown didn’t believe they had enough evidence on the murders, but believed they could get him for starting the fires. Most of the crown’s evidence was circumstantial, showing that the accused was on bad terms with his wife and her family, as well as establishing the threats he’d made before the event and some foolish statements he’d made after the fire.

(I do not know what these statements were. I really wish I did, but alas, the papers did not elaborate.)

There was also the question of his alibi, which was never as strong as the RNWMP believed it to be. Witnesses at the time gave inconsistent statements about the timelines of events and by Mike Syroishka’s own testimony, he had been the one to tell his mother the time, not the other way around. What was to stop him from giving her a false time and securing an alibi?

The jury deliberated for fifteen hours and on July 5, 1919, they found him guilty of two charges of arson. He was sentenced to six years of hard labour on each count, to be run concurrently.

The police stated that in light of the conviction, they would in all likelihood bring a murder charge.

But they never did. Mike Syroishka spent only fifteen months in prison. He was released on parole on Dec 7, 1920. His paltry jail time was attributed to one of the chief witnesses against him, George Worobetz of Wakaw, being convicted on a charge of conspiracy to defraud a grain elevator and sentenced to four years.

And that is the story of the mysterious murders of the Mamchur family. The family was buried together in the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Cemetery in Sokal, Saskatchewan. I was unable to find the location of the grave for John Michayluk.

Photo by DotM on findagrave.com

Information for this post was found in an article written by Carol Baldwin published on SaskToday, and the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Daily Star and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: April 7, 1916, April 8, 1916, April 10, 1916, April 12, 1916, April 13, 1916, April 14, 1916, April 15, 1916, April 17, 1916, Dec 9, 1918, Dec 11, 1918, Dec 17, 1918, Jan 8, 1919, Jan 9, 1919, June 2, 1919, June 5, 1919, June 25, 1919, June 30, 1919, July 5, 1919, Dec 7, 1920

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