On the morning of September 16, 1928, Fred D. Ross, a farmer near Lockwood, Saskatchewan, woke up to things feeling a bit strange. It was 10:30 a.m. and even though it was a Sunday, he was still a little surprised to see that no one was about.
He got up and made himself some breakfast, then went out to do the chores. As he entered the feed yard, he came upon a horrific sight. The body of Vera Pengelly, one of his employees, was lying by an oat stack. A rifle was resting loosely in her arms, her hands growing stiff around it, with the muzzle resting close to one ear. There was a bullet hole in her forehead, as well as another wound on her face above the gun shot.
Ross immediately went back to the house and got his two farmhands, Bob Smale and Vera’s husband, Albert (also saw his name listed as Borge and Borze). He took them down to see what had happened, then the three returned to the house to call the authorities.
The death was labeled a suicide and Mrs. Vera Pengelly was buried without an inquest. But her parents, Mr. and Mrs. I. E. Inger, were suspicious. To them, it didn’t sound like a suicide. They pushed for an investigation and on January 23, 1929, an exhumation of the body was ordered.
Vera Pengelly had been laid to rest in a cemetery in Foam Lake, near her parents. Her body was exhumed and on January 31, 1929, Dr. W. S. Lindsay performed an autopsy.
A Coroner’s Inquest was formerly opened on February 5, 1929.
Fred Ross testified, taking the jury through his waking late on that Sunday morning to finding the body and telling Mr. Pengelly. He said that when he told Pengelly about his wife, Pengelly did not show much distress or excitement, which he found odd. After Vera died, Pengelly left Ross’s employ and moved to Foam Lake.
Albert Pengelly of course testified as well. He and Vera had married in 1927 and were employed shortly after by Ross on his farm, eight miles from Lockwood. On the day in question, he and Smale got up at 5:00 a.m. to go duck hunting. They took shotguns, but it was too cold and they didn’t find any birds, so they gave up and returned to the farmyard at about 6:15 a.m. They did the chores, then returned to bed, some time on or about 6:35 a.m.
Pengelly and his wife shared their room in the farm house with Vera’s sister, Ethel. (In some articles, Ethel was listed as Albert’s sister, not Vera’s). When Albert returned to bed, Ethel remained asleep but Vera woke up. The couple talked about visiting some neighbours that day and as he started to fall back asleep, he noticed Vera sitting up as if she were about to get up. He coaxed her into going back to sleep with him and the last thing he remembered was that she seemed to be about to get up and had kissed him. The next thing he knew, Ross was waking him up to tell him about finding Vera’s body. He told the jury that he’d gone to the body and thrown himself before it, touching the arms.
He could give no reason for her suicide, but did mention that they’d lost a baby several months ago.
Bob Smale also testified, saying that Pengelly did not seem excited or emotional when informed of his wife’s death. He’d noticed blood on Vera’s face and left hand.
Ethel, Vera’s sister, had slept through everything. She testified that Vera had not been feeling well since the death of her baby. She said she often heard Vera saying that “if she did not care for Bert, her husband, so much, life would not be worth living.”
A neighbour, John Howat, testified. He said that when he arrived, the rifle barrel was about three inches from the woman’s chin. An eye was black. There was a bullet wound in the forehead and another wound as well. He said there was blood on both hands, and to him, it looked as though it had been rubbed there. There was blood on both arms, on her hair and her sweater. According to John, the scene felt wrong and he didn’t want to touch anything.
Dr. Hicks had been the first doctor to arrive at about 12:15 p.m. and confirmed that there was blood on her hands and that it looked as if it were rubbed there. There was a wound on the forehead and another on the back of the head under the hair, both of which seemed to have been caused by a sharp instrument but didn’t penetrate the skull. He and the other doctors believed these wounds occurred while she was still alive, but couldn’t say if they were before the gunshot or afterward as she fell.
The rifle that had killed Vera was a .22 caliber and belonged to Ross. Vera had used it before, when she went rabbit hunting with her husband. The police had found two plunger marks on the spent cartridge, indicating that the first attempt to fire the rifle had failed.
Dr. Lindsay testified as well, and stated that because there was a noted absence of powder marks anywhere on Vera or her clothes, he didn’t believe it was possible that she was the one who fired the weapon.
With all this information, the jury at the Coroner’s Inquest ruled the death a murder and the police began investigating.
There wasn’t a lot for the police to go on. There were some rumors of a frightful row at the farm that morning, but Ross and Smale said they’d never seen Pengelly and his wife argue. A man named Godfrey Thompson had been at the farm that morning and refused to go with the other men to see the body, because he didn’t want to get caught up in the matter. This rubbed some people the wrong way, and it was labeled as suspicious.
Despite the verdict at the inquest, the police never really believed that it was anything other than suicide, and by October 31, 1929, they admitted to reporters that due to the lack of evidence, they were no longer working on the case and had labeled it a suicide.
And that is the story of the mysterious death of Mrs. Vera Pengelly. Was it murder? Or did Mrs. Pengelly succumb to the grief over her lost child? Only she will ever know.
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Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: Feb 6, 1929, Feb 7, 1929, Feb 8, 1929, Feb 9, 1929, Feb 11, 1929, Feb 16, March 2, 1929, Oct 31, 1929
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