On the evening of November 24, 1937, there was a dance at the home of John Btkaik*, a farmer ten miles south of Forget, Saskatchewan. The night proved to be a raucous affair, as tempers flared more than once among the partygoers, but it wasn’t until shortly after midnight that things turned really ugly, when Theodore Hartenberger** was found badly battered near the barn.
He was unconscious, having been beaten and struck with a blunt instrument. A man named John Burns took Hartenberger to the home of Harry Trapps, who in turn took him to the hospital in Lampman. He was admitted by a nurse and Dr. Corrigan, who soon discovered that Hartenberger had a skull fracture. An operation was performed by Dr. Corrigan and Dr. C. B. Stone of Arcola, but it made little difference. Theodore Hartenberger died of his injuries without regaining consciousness on November 26, 1937. He was approximately forty five years old.
Police believed they already knew the culprit responsible for Hartenberger’s injuries, and took him into custody immediately. John Btkaik, the forty-four-year-old homeowner who’d thrown the party. He’d already reported the fight he’d had with Hartenberger that night to the police. The morning after the party, he’d asked his friend, W. W. Osborne to take him to the doctor for a cut on his forehead and a bruised leg, and had asked him to telephone the police.
Btkaik told Constable Hare of Fillmore that Hartenberger had hit him with an eight inch bolt. Hare searched Btkaik’s home and had located a pair of bloodstained trousers, shirt and underwear. He’d also secured Hartenberger’s trousers.
The inquest into Hartenberger’s death opened on Tuesday afternoon, December 14, 1937, and was presided over by Dr. Stapleford, the coroner of Carlyle. Twenty six witnesses were heard before its conclusion on December 15th. The jury returned an open verdict, stating that Hartenberger had died of injuries received on the head from a blunt instrument in the hands of a person or persons unknown.
On December 16, 1937, a preliminary hearing was done before magistrate J. C. Martin of Weyburn and John Btkaik was committed to stand trial at the next assizes at Arcola. Approximately fifty witnesses gave evidence at the hearing. Btkaik was taken to the Regina jail to await his trial.
On April 16, 1938, Btkaik was given mental tests to check for insanity. He was found mentally fit and on May 3, 1938, the murder trial opened.
Bloodstained boards, stones and a neckyoke found at the spot where the alleged fight between Btkaik and Hartenberger took place were identified in court by the police. A piece of bloodstained iron, pieces of skull bone and a skull were also entered as exhibits.
The prosecution, W. G. E. Campbell of Arcola, had his work cut out for him. While the party had been very well attended, no one had actually seen the fatal blow delivered that killed Hartenberger. In fact, there had been multiple fights that night during the celebration.
Witness Manlay Hall told the court that during the party a fight had started between Louis Ertman Jr. and Bill Kreiger. Hartenberger had interfered and told Kreiger to leave Ertman alone. (This was confirmed by Ertman.)
Herbert Hopka testified that he saw Hartenberger assault Bkaik. Kreiger, Gerald Valley and Hopka had stopped the fight, but they’d started fighting again and Kreiger and Hopka had had to stop them a second time.
Louis Silk confirmed the above story, testifying that he’d seen the two fights between Btkaik and Hartenberger. He also said he saw Hartenberger come from the barn with a neckyoke and heard him say he was going to “fix” Btkaik and Linda Duke.
Linda Duke testified to hearing Btkaik say “Run girls, I am going to shoot” and that Hartenberger had handed her a neckyoke. Her sister, Ella, confirmed this, as did Edna Hartenberger. William Duke told the court that he heard Btkaik say to Hartenberger as he passed his buggy, “are you going to steal my neckyoke?”
(If it’s sounding as though this party was utter chaos, that is a fair assessment.)
Finally, Otto Lucht testified that he saw Btkaik’s shirt covered with blood and empty bottles in the yard the next morning.
On May 6, 1938, after deliberating for an hour and fifteen minutes, John Btkaik was acquitted. While there was evidence of fighting between the two men, there was no solid proof tying Btkaik to the fatal blow that killed Hartenberger. No one had seen it and the police couldn’t say for certain what weapon was used. He was free to go.
And that’s the story of the unfortunate murder of Theodore Hartenberger.
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Information for this post came from the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: Dec 7, 1937, Dec 15, 1937, Dec 16, 1937, Dec 20, 1937, Dec 21, 1937, April 18, 1938, May 4, 1938, May 5, 1938, May 6, 1938, May 7, 1938
*Also saw it as Mtkaik
**Also saw it as Thomas Hartenberger
If you want to read more historical true crime stories, give these a try:
The Mysterious Dr. Joseph Gervais
Good Fences Make Good Neighbours: The Murder of George Legebokoff
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