The Mysterious Dr. Joseph Gervais

The Saskatoon Daily Star – May 16, 1919

On November 15, 1918, James McKay, a bailiff for Sheriff David R. Seath, went out to Steep Creek with a warrant to seize a team of horses. Dr. Joseph Gervais had apparently purchased the horses from a neighbour, but then refused to pay for them. So, McKay hopped in his Ford and drove out to the Gervais farm, which was located about twenty-six miles east of Prince Albert, where the South Saskatchewan river flowed into the Saskatchewan. It was described in the newspapers as a “wild place, without telephone communication, and the roads … unusually bad.”

James McKay didn’t return.

On November 20, 1918, Dr. Joseph Gervais was arrested at his home on the top of the bank. But he wasn’t the only one the police were looking for. Neighbours in the community reported that Gervais had two men working for him, but they hadn’t been at the house. Their names were Victor Carmel and Jean Baptiste St. Germain. There were rumors that Gervais and his men had a series of tunnels and dugouts on the property, but Gervais denied all knowledge of this and pleaded ignorance of any such rumored stronghold.

Police called in the aid of the local C.E.F. battalion (Canadian Expeditionary Force), and together they went back out to the Gervais farm to search for the missing men. As they searched, Corporal Charles Horsley of the C.E.F. came across a trapdoor. When he lifted it, Carmel and St. Germain fired their weapons from inside and Corp. Horsley was shot down. The two men rushed out of the dugout and ran into the bush, managing to evade capture. Corporal Horsley died of his injuries.

Inside the dugout, they found the seat from McKay’s Ford, a satchel and papers, a double-barreled shot gun, and what Sheriff Seath identified as McKay’s portmanteau and coat.

Carmel and St. Germain managed to stay on the run until November 24, 1918, when they were finally captured on the farm of C.W. Young, about six miles east of Prince Albert. They’d been taking refuge in a haystack on the property and had gone to Young’s looking first for water and then returning again for food. Young reportedly hadn’t called the police immediately because he was concerned they were listening near the house and might hear it.

Now, with all three men in custody, police decided to split them up and question them separately. When they wouldn’t talk, the police kept the pressure on, subjecting them to hours of grueling interrogation until they broke. And the stories they told captured the attention of the entire province.

A Very Strange Tale

Dr. Gervais confirmed that James McKay had, as they suspected, been murdered. Not by him, of course, but by Carmel and St. Germain. But McKay was not the first man to be murdered on the property. Adolphe Lajoie had been Gervais’s partner on the farm, and in June of 1917, he’d died. The coroner had ruled it an accidental death after his shack caught fire, but Gervais now admitted that the fire had been started to cover up his murder.

The Saskatoon Daily Star – Nov 23, 1918

According to Gervais, Victor Carmel and Adolphe Lajoie had quarreled. Afterward, Carmel had chosen one of his rifles, loaded it and walked right up to Lajoie. He called him a vile name and shot him in the forehead. Apparently Carmel waited for a few minutes, then threw the body over his shoulder and carried it to Lajoie’s shack, about two miles from Gervais’s house. He carefully placed the body on the bed and put Lajoie’s clay pipe between the springs so that it would look like he’d fallen asleep while smoking and accidentally lit the bed on fire. He doused the premises and Lajoie’s body liberally with coal oil, then started the fire.

Dr. Gervais told police that if they dug up Lajoie, they would find a bullet hole in his forehead.

So they did. And sure enough, he was right. They found a bullet in the center of his forehead.

Meanwhile, Carmel and St. Germain had admitted to shooting James McKay. They told police that they’d arranged to shoot any stranger who came to the place, on the orders of Dr. Gervais. They were draft dodgers and suspicious of anyone they didn’t know. In fact, the reason all three of them had grown beards, according to Carmel, was so that military police officers wouldn’t recognize them. This was apparently suggested by Dr. Gervais. The two men had assumed McKay was an officer coming to arrest them under the Military Service Act and opened fire on him.

But they didn’t assume all the blame. They said that they had no choice, that Gervais had made them do it. They were under his hypnotic spell.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 27, 1918

How It All Began

Dr. Joseph Gervais had been practicing hypnotism in Montreal when he met Carmel and St. Germain at a dance at St. Hyacinthe in Quebec, where he was playing violin. He convinced the two men to move to Montreal, and the three became close. Carmel consulted Gervais about his health, as he suffered from something described simply as ‘tubercular’. Gervais hypnotized him and the pains he suffered from in his chest immediately disappeared. Victor Carmel testified that Gervais then began to use him for “the most disgusting immoral practices”, which continued until the eve of the murder at Steep Creek. Now, the newspapers don’t go into any further details on this, but given the ridiculous levels of homophobia at the time, I take it to mean that the two entered into a sexual relationship. Whether it was willing participation on Carmel’s part or if he felt he’d been manipulated/groomed by Gervais is unclear. He was quite a bit younger than Gervais, so it’s entirely possible that Gervais took some advantage of him.

In August of 1917, all three came to Prince Albert when Gervais told them he could save them from military service. He rented the farm at Steep Creek, where they worked for him without pay. When the Military Service Act came into force, he advised them to go into hiding and helped them dig an underground dwelling in a steep embankment of the river, where they lived throughout the summer of 1918. Only a few of the residents of Steep Creek suspected its existence, as it was protected by forest growth and was mostly hidden from view. Gervais continued to live in his house at the top of the bank and there was an underground exit from his stable leading to a path that ran down the embankment to the dugout. Gervais supplied them with rifles, shotguns and ammunition, telling them to shoot any trespassers.

Carmel and St. Germain claimed that they were entirely under the hypnotic influence of Gervais and that when McKay appeared at the place they’d obeyed Gervais’s hypnotic instructions. When McKay had attempted to gain entry to the stable, they’d fired at him and continued firing shots into his body until Gervais, coming from a neighbour’s, had appeared at the top of the embankment and called them off.

All three men were charged with willful murder.

The Trials

At the preliminary trial, Dr. Gervais tried to get Victor Carmel to take responsibility for the murder of Adolphe Lajoie. He cried out in court, “In the name of God, Victor, tell the truth. You’re going to die.” But Carmel didn’t do as Gervais wanted. He responded, “I didn’t know anything about it until you told me.”

It wasn’t until February of 1919, during the coroner’s inquest into Adolphe Lajoie’s murder that Dr. Gervais admitted he was the one that killed Lajoie. “I shot Adolphe Lajoie, first in the mouth and the second time through the heart.” Alphonse Lajoie, the dead man’s brother, also testified that the coat Gervais had been seen wearing was, in fact, Adolphe’s.

The trial began and prosecutor P. E. Mackenzie worked hard to show that although he didn’t fire any of the shots, Dr. Gervais was equally responsible for the murder of James McKay. Neighbours testified that Gervais was constantly threatening and intimidating everyone in the community, preaching about the ‘horrible consequences’ if they trespassed on his land. He went up and down the countryside, saying not only that he’d shoot, but that his hired men had been instructed to shoot as well.

He and his men had terrorized the community. At one point, Gervais had apparently shot and killed a two-year-old steer belonging to another farmer named Phillipe, then gone to the home of a neighbour, Peter Desmoreaux, and demanded at gun point that he load the steer onto his wagon and take it to the Gervais farm.

Gervais was the mastermind behind all of it, according to prosecutor Mackenzie. He’d found in Carmel and St. Germain, two men with meagre educations and no advantages in life, servants who were willing to work his farm. He shielded them from the authorities and in return they implicitly followed his directions. He formulated the dugout scheme and supplied them with arms and ammunition. To quote Mackenzie, he “excited them until they became like a pair of hungry wolves, ready to fall on anyone who came near.”

When Gervais had returned from the neighbour’s, he hadn’t been alone. Peter Desmoreaux’s son, Joseph, had been with him. Joseph testified that after the murder, Gervais had expressed his approval and ratified the entire affair. He’d even asked St. Germain if there was any money in McKay’s pocketbook. He told Carmel and St. Germain that McKay had gotten what he deserved and that he shouldn’t have come, “poking his nose in where he had no business”.

He’d pressed Joseph into service helping cover up the murder and threatened him with death if he spoke of it. They’d carried McKay’s body down to the ice on the river, tied it to a plank and then shoved it into the current. The automobile was then hacked to pieces and buried. Then Joseph and Gervais had covered up the tracks made by McKay’s automobile.

Gervais’s defense, A. McLean Mathelson, argued that Gervais was not responsible for the murder of McKay. He didn’t pull the trigger. He didn’t give the order. And he’d only helped after the fact because he didn’t want to get dragged into the whole affair. He stated that despite the supposed threats Gervais was charged with making by his neighbours, plenty of people came and went to the farm to employ the doctor’s services. If his threats were really serious, would they have risked it?

Carmel and St. Germain clung to their mind control defense, although the judge would not allow it. So their defense focused on Gervais being the ring leader and mastermind, and they were simply following his directions.

All three were found guilty, and on May 15, 1919, they were sentenced to hang at the Prince Albert jail on September 17th of the same year. They appealed their sentence and were given one month’s reprieve while their case was reviewed. Members of the community were deeply opposed to the reprieve, especially the C.E.F. battalion who’d lost one of their members in the capture of the desperadoes of Steep Creek.

The night before their sentence was to be carried out, word came down that there would be no further reprieves. They were to be hanged. Apparently, Dr. Gervais refused to believe it when he was told. But on the morning of Friday, October 17, 1919, at 7:00AM, all three men were taken from their cells and lined up on the scaffold, side by side. They died at the same time, all three men’s necks broken in the drop.

And that is the story of the three desperadoes of Steep Creek.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Oct 18, 1919

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Daily Star and the Saskatoon Star Phoenix: Nov 21, 1918, Nov 23, 1918, Nov 26, 1918, Nov 27, 1918, Dec 9, 1918, Feb 11, 1919, Feb 19, 1919, May 12, 1919, May 16, 1919, Sep 17, 1919, Oct 14, 1919, Oct 17, 1919, Oct 18, 1919

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