A Fire Near Tisdale: The Suspicious Deaths of William Robson and Mary Swanson

It was a quiet Thursday evening on May 24, 1928 near Tisdale, when Joe Morrell decided to visit a nearby neighbour. He left the home of his employer, William Robson, between 7:30 and 8:00PM. When he started the walk home at about 11:30PM, he noticed flames issuing from the top story of the house.

Alarmed, he ran home and called for Robson, but received no reply. As he went to open the door, the top story caved in, crashing out two of the walls. He retreated to the nearby storehouse and set to work rescuing its contents in case the fire spread. He was joined by the hired man of one of the neighbours, and when they finished Morrell spent the night at their place. He returned early the following morning, the house burned to the ground, and discovered the bodies of William Robson and the housekeeper, Mrs. Mary Swanson.

They were not in their beds, which had been on the second story of the house and after the collapse were found in the cellar. Instead, Robson’s body was found lying on Morrell’s cot, which had been in the corner of the living room, with Swanson at one end, her head also lying on the cot.

Dr. M. A. Mackay, coroner of Tisdale, investigated the deaths and decided no inquest was necessary, believing they were most likely caused by fire. But Constable Jennings of the Provincial Police didn’t agree. Some ugly rumors had been circulating in the Pontrilas district where Robson’s estranged wife was living and those rumors led Jennings to arrest a man named Ernest Olson on the night of May 28th, four days after the fire.

The Regina Leader-Post – May 30,1928

In light of the arrest, an inquest was held on May 30, 1928. Dr. McQueen of Tisdale made an examination of the bodies, but they were so badly burned and so little was left of them that he could offer no clue to the cause of death, aside from fire. The inquest was put on hold until June, so that the Provincial Police could continue their investigation.

With no physical evidence pointing to murder, aside from the odd location of the bodies, Constable Jennings relied on Ernest Olson’s history with the Robsons, and the testimony of Nellie Robson, William Robson’s estranged wife. Ernest Olson had previously worked for Robson, but two years ago he was fired after he “became too friendly” with Mrs. Robson. After he lost his job, Mrs. Robson left her husband, taking the children with her, eventually ending up in Pontrilas where she worked as a housekeeper.

When the inquest resumed on June 13, 1928, she testified that on the evening of May 28, 1928, Ernest Olson had confessed the murder to her. According to Mrs. Robson, Olson told her that on the evening of the fire he’d gone to the house and waited there until the hired man left, then went and knocked on the door. Robson came down from upstairs and he hit him with an axe. Apparently hearing the noise, Mrs. Swanson came running downstairs screaming. “What was I to do then?” he told Nellie. So he killed her too. He put them on the hired man’s cot in the living room, poured coal oil over them and over the beds upstairs and set them on fire. He thought he heard someone outside so he ran away.

The Regina Leader-Post – June 14, 1928

The whole time Mrs. Robson testified, Olson stared at her in amazement. He vehemently denied her statement and said that on the night of the fire he left the home of his employer, Roy Snider, just after 9:00PM and went north a short distance for a walk. Then he turned east and after walking for a short while he went back to the Snider farm, stopping at the stable before going to bed.

The jury at the inquest returned an open verdict, listing the cause of death for both Robson and Swanson as at the hands of a person or persons unknown. Ernest Olson was sent for a preliminary hearing and committed to stand trial for murder, but only of William Robson.

The Saskatoon Daily Star – June 15, 1928

His trial opened on October 30, 1928 in the town hall of Melfort, which was converted to a courtroom for the occasion. The seriousness of the situation was slightly undercut by the decorated lights and Hawaiian lagoon pictured on the back of the stage.

The prosecution built its case almost entirely on the testimony of Nellie Robson. She’d married William Robson on October 1, 1919 when she was only fifteen years old and he was forty seven. She and her husband had not gotten along well and he’d often abused her. In 1924 she’d had him arrested for abuse but nothing much had come of it. In 1926, she’d separated from him and gone to keep house for Olson at his shack in Nipawin. She denied having more than ordinary friendship with Olson. Once, in January of 1927, Robson had gone to Nipawin and asked her to return to him but she refused.

She kept house for Olson until March of 1928. She quit, she said, because he wasn’t paying her the $15 per month that was supposed to be her wages and there often wasn’t enough food in the house. He drank a lot and she didn’t approve. After leaving Olson, she went to work for Albert Knuth as his housekeeper in Pontrilas.

Nellie Robson testified that on Sunday, May 27th, Olson met her and Albert Knuth while they were driving in a buggy. He’d said good morning and told her that he was going to Ridgedale. He asked her if the police had been to see her and she told him that Constable Jennings had. She asked him the same and he said yes. When she asked him where he was that night he told her “up and down the road from Snider’s.” Knuth remarked that unless he could explain where he was, he’d put his foot in a trap.

The next day, she saw Olson again at Knuth’s. He pleaded with her to come back to him and be his housekeeper, but she told him she “was through”. A little later, when she was standing with a few other people, he tapped her on the shoulder and said he wished to speak to her alone. At that point he gave his confession. She told Knuth the following morning and the police were called.

In addition to this alleged confession, the crown produced a witness, George A. Clark, who told of a conversation he’d had with Olson in which Olson said he’d get even with Robson for some statements he’d made about him, saying he’d “clean up” William Robson.

Albert Knuth also testified, stating that on May 27th, he’d talked with Olson and Olson told him that he knew more about the fire than Knuth expected.

Finally, a man named William Hill was put on the stand. He testified that on May 26th Olson offered him money to say that he was at his place on the night of the fire. He refused. He stated out right that he didn’t like Olson. He didn’t respect a man who would go around another man’s wife. (Although I guess his moral outrage didn’t go so far as to condemn a forty-seven-year-old man for marrying a child.)

Roy Snider testified that on the night in question he’d seen Olson leave at about 9:30, headed north. At about 11:00, his wife made him go see if Olson was back yet. She felt as though something was perhaps wrong. He went to the barn to see if Olson had taken a horse, but they were all there and everything was in order. His bed had not been slept in and he wasn’t home. When they got up at 5:00AM the next morning, Olson was back, doing the chores.

(This also confirmed Olson’s story of going out after 9:00PM, which conflicted with Nellie Robson’s testimony that he’d gone to the house and waited for the hired man to leave, who’d left between 7:30 and 8:00PM.)

Joe Morrell also testified, telling the story of the night of the fire. When asked if he’d seen anyone else that night, he said he noticed Nicholas Stranchuk, a woodcutter, going to the house with a little pail and a stone jug. Stranchuk was called to the stand and he explained that he was scrubbing for Robson some distance away and had called for water and milk. He’d found Robson and the housekeeper downstairs and all seemed to be well.

Had the prosecution effectively proven that Ernest Olson committed the murders? Had they even proven the murders occurred at all?

On October 31, 1928, the jury left the courtroom at 3:00PM and returned at 5:20PM. They found Olson guilty of murder and he was sentenced to hang on February 15, 1929. On hearing his sentence, Olson trembled violently, nearly tottering over. His sandy hair was in wild disorder, his face an ashen grey. He protested multiple times that he was innocent.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Nov 1, 1928

He was thirty-one-years-old. He’d immigrated to the U.S. at five and did not attend school beyond grade two. He’d come to Canada in 1910.

On November 2, 1928 he was taken to Prince Albert to await his sentence. An appeal was filed and on February 1, 1929, his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

And that is the story of the (maybe) murder of William Robson and Mary Swanson.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Feb 1, 1929

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Information for this post came from the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Saskatoon Daily Star: May 26, 1928, May 29, 1928, May 30, 1928, May 31, 1928, June 7, 1928, June 13, 1928, June 14, 1928, June 15, 1928, Oct 31, 1928, Nov 1, 1928, Nov 2, 1928, Nov 7, 1928, Nov 29, 1928, Feb 1, 1929, Feb 2, 1929

If you’d like to read more historical true crime from Saskatchewan give these a try:

A Brief History of the Cecil Hotel in Moose Jaw

Beneath the Horses’ Hooves: The Murder of Ralph Warwick

Murder at Elstow

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