The Knifing of William James Brown

In the very early morning of December 29, 1916, Sergeant Mackey of Saskatoon was called to the John East foundry on the city’s west side, at the behest of the night watchman there. When he arrived, he found two women, “scantily dressed”, one of them barefoot. They told him they’d been attacked by their housemate, James Brown, and that while one had run off for help, the other (the young lady with the bare feet) had been forced to stab the man before fleeing the house.

Together, Sergeant Mackey and the shoed woman, whose name was May Hunter, walked back to the house on 115 Avenue C North. They found Brown lying on the bed in his underclothes, blood running from his side. He’d been stabbed in the left side, just above his tenth rib.

The Saskatoon Daily Star: Dec 30, 1916

The man was rushed to St. Paul’s hospital and the two women were taken to the police station. At approximately 3:30 a.m. on December 31, 1916, James Brown died from his injury.

The police held May Hunter as a witness, and her friend, Manilla Huston, on a charge of murder.

The Saskatoon Daily Star – Jan 6, 1917

A Coroner’s Inquest was held on January 2, 1917 and a preliminary hearing on January 3, 1917. Manilla was committed to stand trial, which began not long after on January 10, 1917 before Justice Elwood.

The star witness was May Hunter. She’d met Manilla in a cafe where she worked and had invited her to come and live at her house with her and her boyfriend, William James Brown. Hunter testified that she’d risen early on the morning of December 29th and while she was making the fire, Brown had brought a bottle of whiskey into the dining room and opened it with a knife, which he then left on the table. The knife was an 11 inch carving knife and very, very sharp.

Hunter felt that Brown had already been drinking too much and upon seeing it said, “another dirty bottle of whiskey in the house!” When he went back into the bedroom, she took the bottle and emptied it into the slop pail.

Learning what she’d done, Brown went into a violent fury, dragging her around the house before throwing her on the bed and choking her. Hunter cried out for Manilla, who was in another room, and she came in quickly to help. As soon as she entered the bedroom, Brown released Hunter and attacked Manilla instead. Hunter ran out, grabbed an axe and threw it at Brown, but it went over the heads of the struggling pair and fell near the stove. She rushed out again to find help. As she was returning she found Manilla lying in the snow in front of the John East foundry. She helped her friend inside the building, at which point Manilla told her, “I had to knife Jim.”

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Jan 4, 1917

The defense’s main job was to convince the jury that Manilla Huston had killed James Brown in self defense. She took the stand and told the jury that she hadn’t meant to kill him, only to hurt him enough so that he’d let her go and stop hitting her. “The knife was the only thing I could find to defend myself. He was stronger than I was and kept on hitting me ’til I got away. He was very drunk the night before.”

She went on to say, “I thought he was going to kill me. I picked the knife off the table and jabbed it into him.”

The knife was indeed very sharp, and it was explained that it would take very little effort for it pierce as deep as it did, six inches. Manilla Huston was only 20-years-old and Brown was admitted to be a heavy drinker, eating little and often asking May Hunter for money to get alcohol.

The defense argued that Manilla had no motive to harm Brown, she’d only responded to the call for aid by her friend. She did what she had to do, to defend herself from being killed or grievously injured.

Unfortunately, the jury didn’t see it that way and on January 10, 1917 she was found guilty of manslaughter with a recommendation for mercy. On January 12, 1917, despite the arguments on her behalf by her lawyer, who revealed that she was pregnant and shouldn’t be required to have her baby in prison, she was sentence to one year in the gaol.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Jan 11, 1917

The Children’s Aid Society took up her cause and sent appeals to the Minister of Justice in Ottawa, asking that her sentence be temporarily suspended until she gave birth. On May 17, 1917, word came that she’d been given a reprieve and had been sent to a detention home in Winnipeg. It’s unclear if she had to return to prison after having the baby, but I certainly hope not.

And that’s the story of the knifing of William James Brown in the westside of Saskatoon in 1916.

The Saskatoon Daily Star – May 17, 1917

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Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Daily Star and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: Dec 30, 1916, Jan 1, 1917, Jan 2, 1917, Jan 3, 1917, Jan 4, 1917, Jan 6, 1917, Jan 10, 1917, Jan 11, 1917, Jan 12, 1917, Jan 15, 1917, Feb 20, 1917, May 17, 1917

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

A Wedding and A Murder: The Killing of Jacob Schabaga

A Case for Mittens: The Shooting of Solomon Maddock

The Suspicious Death of Thomas Gore

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