On Saturday afternoon, November 22, 1919, Fred Hanson and his wife got in their automobile and drove into Lemberg from their farm, located about halfway between Lemberg and Abernethy in Saskatchewan. They stayed in town until after supper, then prepared to return home. As they were getting ready to leave, they invited Joseph R. Sullivan to join them and spend Sunday at their farm. He agreed. Sullivan was a grain buyer in Lemberg and had known the Hansons for some time, having lived near them in Wisconsin fourteen years previous.
The group made it about halfway home before they got stuck in a bad place on the road. Unable to get the vehicle moving again, the three decided to walk the rest of the way to the Hanson home, arriving at about 3:00 a.m. At this point, Mrs. Hanson quickly put together a “light lunch” for the two men, which they sat down and ate.
When they were finished, Fred Hanson decided to go to the barn and check on the stock. Sullivan told him he’d help and the two men walked out to the barn. About five minutes later, Sullivan returned to the house, telling Mrs. Hanson that one of the horses had killed her husband and she’d better come out and see. She woke up her eldest son, Alfred, who was only 14, and together they started for the stable with Sullivan following behind.
As Mrs. Hanson stepped into the stable, she saw her husband’s body on the floor and heard him groaning. It’s impossible to say if she had time to process the fact that he’d been shot, not trampled, when she turned to face Sullivan and was immediately shot in the head. She fell to the ground in a heap, leaving only Alfred, who’d been standing in front of her.
Sullivan leveled the revolver again and fired, hitting Alfred in the neck. Alfred ran in front of the horses and hid in the manger, but Sullivan followed and dragged him out. He told Alfred he wouldn’t hurt him further, but told him to keep his mouth shut.
Next, Sullivan went to the house and rounded up the other three children, Florence, who was 18, Clara, who was 16, and Edward, who was 13, and ordered them into the backroom. They huddled together, crying, as he brandished the gun a couple of times, making wild gestures. All of a sudden, he stopped short and ordered them to get out of the house, telling Florence as she left that her parents and brother were dead in the barn.
As the three headed for the barn, they heard a shot from in the house. Florence could hear the sounds of a faint cry and they followed it, finding Alfred, who’d managed to make it to the coulee. She sent her siblings ahead to the neighbour’s and stayed to help her brother, bringing him back to the barn.
Clara and Edward ran to their closest neighbour, Bert Atkinson, and told him what had happened, then headed back without waiting for him. They found Florence and Alfred in the barn, attending to their father, who was still alive.
Florence decided to go and check on what was happening in the house, sneaking up and peering in through the windows. The house was all dark except for a faint light in the bedroom. She crept to the bedroom window, and carefully peeking inside, saw a body on the floor.
At this point, Bert Atkinson arrived and he and Florence went inside the house, where they found Sullivan dead in a pool of blood in the bedroom. There was a hole in his temple, the revolver still tightly clasped in his right hand. It appeared that after ordering the kids from the house, he’d gone and sat down on a chair in the bedroom and shot himself, his body falling forward onto the floor and ending up in a somewhat huddled position.
Bert had called and notified Constable Larocque at Balcarres, Coroner Canopy at Abernethy and Dr. Symes. Fred Hanson did not survive his injuries, but Alfred did, recovering slowly from the gunshot wound in his neck.
Constable Larocque attended the scene with Constable Laight of Melville and Corporal DesRosiers. The police believed the murders had been planned and that Sullivan had waited for an opportunity. The motive was a mystery, although they guessed it was due to some long standing grudge Sullivan had been keeping. As far as the community knew, Sullivan was a friend of the Hansons, and they were described as being on the best of terms.
And that is the story of the mysterious murder of the Hansons.
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Information for this post came from the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and Saskatoon Daily Star: Nov 24, 1919, Nov 26, 1919, Nov 27, 1919, Nov 28, 1919
If you’d like to read more historical true crime from Saskatchewan, give these a try:
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