It was Christmas night, 1929, and Antena and Stanley Kropa had been visiting at the home of their friend, J. Philip Mokolyk. Around 5:30PM, Antena took their three-year-old son home to put him to bed and Stanley followed not long after.
They were a young couple, Antena was only twenty-five, and they’d come to Canada just seven months before. Stanley worked as a railway worker and was often away with the railway gang. He was described as young and mild mannered, but unfortunately, it appears Antena was not in love with him. Just a few weeks before Christmas, she’d run off with a man named Alex Wysochan.
On December 11th, Stanley Kropa had gone to the local police chief, Denis Palmer, and appealed to him for help. He’d found out where the two lovers were staying, at a room above a cafe in town. Together they went to the room and found Wysochan sitting on the floor at the foot of the bed, his clothing open. Antena was sitting in a chair, fully dressed.
According to the police chief, Stanley had tried to embrace Antena, but she pushed him away and laughed. It seemed she had no intention of returning to her husband. Stanley took back her suitcase, and when the chief left, the three were at the lunch counter, arguing. The next day, the chief brought along an interpreter and went to Wysochan’s shack with Stanley Kropa, in another attempt to convince his wife to return to him. Chief Palmer testified that he’d done everything he could to get Antena to return to her husband and child, but she just laughed. Eventually, he grabbed Wysochan by the collar and asked him what he intended to do. Wysochan apparently said that he’d let her go home. And she did. Although she rejected further friendly advances from her husband. But, according to Palmer, there were no angry words between the two of them. Antena simply returned home and picked up their child, seeming to accept the reunion.
Which brings us back to December 25, 1929. The young couple had gone back home, and their son was in bed in their bedroom, when, according to Stanley Kropa, he heard a noise outside. He went to see what it was and Alex Wysochan entered their home, brandishing a revolver and appearing quite drunk. He forced the couple into the bedroom, announcing that he was going to shoot Antena and himself and kept them there for several hours.
Stanley Kropa testified that he and his wife made desperate attempts to induce Wysochan to put away the gun and leave, but he wouldn’t go. Nor would he let them leave the bedroom. He said that at one point, he’d considered trying to overpower him, but was afraid of the revolver in Wysochan’s hand. He made a run for the kitchen, but Wysochan blocked him. Stanley said he managed to shove him out and close the door on him, but Wysochan announced through the door to Antena that he was going to shoot her husband like a dog. Terrified, Stanley turned and leapt headfirst through their bedroom window, severely cutting his hands on the glass. He heard shots fired as he ran, he believed four in total, although the fourth sounded muffled.
He returned immediately with neighbours and police.
Chief Palmer and Sergeant Evans of the RCMP got the call at approximately 9:05PM. When they arrived at the home, they found the door locked, so they crawled in through a broken window. They found Antena Kropa and Alex Wysochan tangled up on the floor together, moaning, with a revolver on the floor between them. On the bed, a helpless witness, was the couple’s three-year-old son.
They immediately removed the child and placed Antena on the bed. She had multiple gun shot wounds. Wysochan had faired much better, with only a bullet graze to his chest. A doctor was called and they were both taken to St. Elizabeth hospital. Antena Kropa died a few minutes after her admittance.
Alex Wysochan appeared too drunk to speak, although officers later said they believed he was playing it off worse than it was. They were not able to get a statement out of him until 11:00AM the next morning.
He was formally charged with her murder on January 3, 1930.
The murder trial began on March 18, 1930. Alex Wysochan was defended by none other than John G. Diefenbaker himself, with W. G. Elder assisting. The prosecutor for the crown was R. J. Pratt, whom you may remember from the murder of Lena Faust. He was assisted by K. C. Wilson of Yorkton. It was presided over by Justice H. V. Bigelow.
Wysochan plead not guilty.
One of the key witnesses was, of course, Stanley Kropa. He retold the story of the affair, of Antena agreeing to return home, and the events of Christmas night, when she was murdered.
Dr. W. S. Lindsay, who performed the autopsy on Antena, described her injuries. He believed she’d died from shock and internal bleeding. She’d been shot three times. The first bullet had entered beneath her right breast, struck a rib and passed through ‘the border of her heart’ before lodging in her chest. The second entered her abdomen and was found in the bowels. The third had entered near her right hip. According to Dr. Lindsay, any of the three bullet wounds were sufficient to cause death. She had abrasions on her nose, chin and both knees and a large cut on the ball of her right foot, most likely from the broken glass.
Alex Wysochan took the stand in his own defense. He strongly denied shooting Antena. He told the court that they had met in the railway yards, about a month before Christmas. They both went to get hot water from the locomotive foreman. He carried her water home for her and it seems the attraction was immediate. According to Wysochan, she went to his place whenever Stanley was away working, leaving the child home alone. They had sex often, and at one point he claimed that Stanley had come home and found them undressed together, but didn’t say anything. They decided to elope, running off to the cafe, but were stopped by Stanley and Chief Palmer. He told the court that Stanley took Antena’s valise, which contained the gun found on the night of the murder, cartridges, and a picture of himself and Antena. He insisted that that’s how they came to be in the house that night; he hadn’t brought them.
The two had continued to meet at the post office up until Christmas.
He admitted that he drank a lot on Christmas Day, but couldn’t say what specifically or how much. He said he’d gone to a hotel, where he’d seen Stanley Kropa. Kropa had invited him to have a beer at their house. When he entered, he said he went into the bedroom where Antena was sitting on a trunk, crying. Once there, Kropa attacked him from behind. He testified that Kropa got on top of him and beat him as he lay on the floor. Later, he heard some shots and felt that he’d been injured. He regained consciousness at the hospital.
His defense called one of the doctors who’d examined him to the stand, who testified to finding a lump on the back of his head, but another doctor refuted that, saying he found no injuries on his head.
Stanley Kropa was called back to the stand for rebuttal, and he firmly denied Alex Wysochan’s account of events. He didn’t invite Alex to the house, and he’d found nothing of the sort in Antena’s valise.
According to the RCMP, all the shots fired at Antena occurred at close range. They showed the court bullet holes that they found in Wysochan’s clothing from the night of the crime.
A neighbour corroborated Stanley Kropa’s testimony, saying they heard a window break that night, and when they looked out to see what it was, they saw someone running from the shack before shots were fired.
Everything in the evidence pointed to Antena and Wysochan fighting over the gun, during which Wysochan was injured and Antena was shot several times.
The defense tried to lay the blame on Kropa. They argued that there was no motive for Wysochan to kill Antena. He loved her. Whereas Kropa had ample motive to attack the couple. Diefenbaker told the jury that Kropa’s story of being terrorized by Wysochan didn’t ring true. He reminded the jury that they weren’t there to find Wysochan guilty of ‘immoral behavior’ but to decide if he was guilty of murder.
So, did the jury buy Diefenbaker’s argument?
They most certainly did not.
On March 21, 1930, Alex Wysochan was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang at Prince Albert jail on June 20, 1930. The judge told Alex not to hold out hope for a reprieve, as he would not be recommending clemency.
But was Alex Wysochan worried? Absolutely not. He believed he’d be granted an appeal, and at worst, be deported.
His lawyers filed an appeal for a new trial on the grounds that the judge misdirected the jury and that some evidence shouldn’t have been allowed. It was denied. Undeterred they sought to have his sentence commuted to life in prison.
Two days before his sentence was to be carried out, they received word from the governor general. They’d been denied. His sentence would not be commuted. Up until this point, he had remained resolute, staunchly refusing to believe he’d be hanged.
He spent his last hours with his spiritual advisor, Rev. Father H. J. Baillargeon, sobbingly protesting his innocence. And at 6:00AM on June 20, 1930, Alex Wysochan became the first person to die in the new provincial jail building at Prince Albert.
And that is the story of the love affair that turned to murder.
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Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Dec 26, 1929, Dec 28, 1929, Jan 3, 1930, Jan 4, 1930, Jan 6, 1930, March 18, 1930, March 19, 1930, March 20, 1930, March 22, 1930, May 27, 1930, June 12, 1930, June 18, 1930, June 20, 1930
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It was close to four thirty in the afternoon on Monday, September 30, 1929, when the phone rang in the office of Wadena lawyer and crown attorney Ross Pratt. It was Lena Faust, a widow and dairy farmer in the district. She needed advice, and to be frank, protection. Her recently fired hired man, Emile Plasky, was in her kitchen and they were having an argument over the wages he was owed.
As they were speaking, Ross heard a bang and the sound of a woman’s scream as the phone was dropped. He immediately phoned the RCMP detachment in Wadena and he and Corporal Stevens rushed to her farm about four miles east of town.
As they were coming up the drive, they met John Wilchinski, the fifteen-year-old nephew of Plasky. The shaken teenager told them he’d just seen something awful on the Faust farm. Lena Faust was dead. As the two men made for the house, they heard a shot. They found Plasky in the kitchen, bleeding profusely, his jaw blown away. A doctor was called but he died from blood loss within an hour, never regaining consciousness.
As for Lena Faust, she was found dead in the wheat field about a quarter mile from her house. The contents of two shotgun cartridges had been fired into her face and back.
Given that there was a witness to the murder, it was fairly simple to put together what had happened. On that fateful Monday afternoon, Plasky had taken his nephew and driven out to the farm from town with the intention of picking up his clothes and final wages. He left Wilchinski in the vehicle and went into the house. A quarrel ensued over his wages, prompting the call to Ross Pratt.
While Lena was on the phone, he went to the well house at the rear of the building and returned with her shot gun. He fired on her while she was was still talking, but missed, leaving holes in the wall above the phone.
Faust ran from the house and crouched behind the car Wilchinski was still sitting in. According to his testimony, Plasky followed quickly after her and fired at the car she was hiding behind. She ran into the wheat field, Plasky chasing after. He fired another shot and this time Faust fell to the ground. As she attempted to scramble to her feet and keep running, he leveled the gun at her and pulled the trigger, shooting her in the face.
Wilchinski said that after this, Plasky returned to the car and told him to drive back to Wadena, then entered the farmhouse.
But was it just an argument over wages that prompted the cold-blooded murder of the well-to-do widow? Lena Faust was well known in Wadena. She’d lived there for more than twenty years and was quite prosperous. In addition to the dairy farm, she owned a lot of property. She was survived by two daughters; Mabel, a nurse at the St. Boniface hospital in St. Boniface, Manitoba, and Emma, a teacher in Wadena, as well as a stepson named Arton, who was a prominent merchant in Wadena.
An inquest was held and Albert Halvorson, another hired man, gave testimony, adding another piece to the puzzle. Plasky, a twenty-two-year-old immigrant from Austria, had been employed on the Faust farm during the summer and grown angry when Halvorson was hired on September 26, 1929 and given the job of driving the tractor. According to Halvorson, Plasky offered him $50 to quit. When he refused, Plasky took the oil plugs out of the tractor, draining it of oil and rendering it useless. When Faust confronted him about the sabotage, apparently he threatened her, saying, “I’ll see you some other time alone.” Faust fired him. This was on Friday, September 27th.
Emile Plasky’s brother-in-law, Joe Wilchinski, also testified. He said Plasky appeared “like a man in a dream” both on the day before and the day of the murder.
The jury at the inquest reached a verdict, declaring that Lena Faust came to her death at the hands of Emile Plasky, and that Emile had died by suicide.
And that, my friends, is the story of the murder of Lena Faust.
*A Small Note: I found several different spellings for Emile Plasky. His first name was spelled as both Emile and Emil, and his last name was written as Plapsky, Plaski and Plasky.
Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Oct 1, 1929, Oct 2, 1929 and Oct 3, 1929.
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Let me begin this post by saying that sources on this case were deeply conflicted. Names, spellings, and genders varied wildly. I did my best to verify as much information as I could, and I apologize for any inaccuracies. I’ve tried to note differences where I found them.
On the evening of Wednesday, April 5, 1916, the bells of the Greek Orthodox Church in the middle of a small settlement near Wakaw began to ring, calling members of the community to church to celebrate a religious holiday from their old home in Galicia. (Galicia was the largest and northern most province of the Austrian Empire, located in what is now southeastern Poland and western Ukraine.) What happened at this meeting is unclear. The priest did not arrive, so according to witnesses, they held their own celebration/mass.
Sources differed on when the meeting at the church let out. Some said midnight, others said 11:30, and I saw one article that said as early as 10:30. I don’t think anyone was being purposely untruthful about this, only that no one was exactly sure and they gave their best approximation. Getting clear answers on timelines and everyone’s activities was difficult, as there was a sizeable language barrier. Many in the community didn’t speak English and the police often needed an interpreter. Witnesses agreed, however, that the Mamchur family went straight home after the meeting.
The Mamchur Family
Prokop Mamchur was believed to be about forty-six or forty-seven years old, as was his wife, Mary. (She was listed as Maria on the family tombstone, but in all articles she is referred to as Mary, so that’s what I’ve gone with here.) The couple came to Wakaw a few years after his father, John Mamchur, emigrated to Saskatchewan and they settled on land right next to his, about twelve miles west of Wakaw. A few years later, Prokop’s sister and her husband, Steve Makohn (also saw it spelled Makahone), arrived and set up right next to Prokop. Each house was about three hundred yards from the other.
Prokop Mamchur spoke fluent English and was a recognized leader of the Galician community. He was spoken of as a man of fine character and as one who had the respect and trust of the whole community. Again, sources differed on how many children they had and what genders they were. Their eldest daughter was Pauline (sometimes spelled as Paulena, sometimes as Pawlena, but I’m going with the spelling found on her grave), she was twenty. Their second was Antonia, who was fifteen. (It was also spelled Antoza, Anoso and Antona and they were referenced sometimes as a boy, other times as a girl, but most often as a girl and again, on the grave the name was given as Antonia, so that’s what I’m going with.) The smallest child was two-years-old and initially referred to as Pauline’s, but later when Prokop’s father testified he said the child was Mary’s, so I’m going with that. Her name was Olga.
Living with the Mamchurs was Mary’s brother, John Michayluk (also saw it spelled Mycheluk, and Lylechuk).
The Mamchur’s home was described as a comfortable log house, partly built from stone, partly from wood. It measured about 18 x 35 feet and was plastered inside and out with mud and whitewashed. From the front door, a passageway about 8 feet wide led to the back wall of the house. On each side was a room of about 15×15 feet. To the right was the living room, with a large bed in the northeast corner. A built in davenport of homemade construction ran along two sides of the room and was used as seats during the day and a bed at night. To the left was the stove and kitchen area and a sleeping area for Michayluk.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, April 6, 1916, John Mamchur woke up suddenly and saw a reflection through the window. Fire. He got up in a hurry, put clothes on and went out from the house where he saw that the granary, two stables and Prokop’s house were burning. He noticed his son-in-law, Steve Makohn’s barn was burning as well. Knowing Steve was away, he ran there first. All the horses were out except one that had burned to death, so he ran back to his son’s place to help. (He believed at this point it was about half past one, but there’s no way to be sure. I’m sure when he woke up and saw the fire he didn’t think to check the clock.)
Mrs. Steve Makohn, Prokop’s sister, told a similar story. She’d woken up and saw from the house the fire in the granary, which seemed to have started from the ground. She tried to put it out with her coat, then noticed the fire in her barn. She’d rescued all the horses but one.
Back at the house, John Mamchur called out several times, but received no answer. He checked again at Makohn’s place, but his daughter said they weren’t there, then went to the granary, thinking he might find them inside, but it was empty. The roof of the granary and the house were falling in, and he couldn’t go into the house with all the smoke. He saw one of his neighbours, Ivan Sarchuk, on the scene. Sarchuk broke a window and saw someone lying on the bed inside. (The police asked John if one of the panes was already broken before this, and he thought it must have been.) Sarchuk told John he could see Michayluk’s feet hanging over the bed. He climbed in and handed the body out to John. As this point, they didn’t realize that Michayluk was already dead.
In the same room, there was a cellar door, open at the foot of the bed. John closed it with a stick and the two men threw snow on the floor, thinking the rest of the family must be sheltering in the cellar. After the fire burned down, they made a gruesome discovery. They found the body of Mary and two-year-old Olga in the cellar. (In early editions of the paper covering these murders, it was Pauline who was said to be in the cellar holding baby Olga. Later it was usually described as Mary, but it isn’t certain.) Mary had been shot twice in the left arm, the shots going through and piercing the lungs of Olga, whom it appeared she was trying to protect. It looked as though she’d attempted to take refuge in the cellar and had either fallen or been pushed down the stairs. She’d hit her head against a stone step at the bottom and died instantly.
They found a rifle on the floor beside Michayluk’s feet, an empty shell in the chamber, eight loaded shells in the magazine. John Mamchur visited his son once or twice a week and told police that he’d never seen the gun before.
At the other side of the house, they found the remains of Prokop Mamchur, Antonia Mamchur and Pauline Syroishka, all burned beyond recognition.
News spread quickly, and by 11:30AM, RNWMP Constable Dey of Wakaw sent a telegram to Superintendent W.H. Routledge in Prince Albert. “Six people reported dead near here. Murder suspected. If possible send help.” Immediately Corporal Fowell and Constable Williams of Vonda were dispatched, followed by Inspector A.W. Duffus of Saskatoon. The following day they were joined by Detective Sergeant Pryme.
Suspicion immediately fell on Mike Syroishka, son-in-law of Prokop Mamchur and estranged husband of Pauline. (Mike Syroishka’s last name was spelled in so many different ways, I won’t bother to list them. This spelling seemed to be used most often, so that’s what I’ve gone with.) Community rumors and gossip attributed the murders to a family feud. The story was that Mike had beaten and mistreated his wife, so Prokop took her home and refused to let her go back. Some said Mike had suspected Pauline of being unfaithful, with his own brother no less, who was the secretary treasurer of the Rural Municipality of Fish Creek, and that it was these suspicions that had led to the beating that saw Prokop coming to collect his daughter.
Mike Syroishka was farming two miles away from the Mamchur home, where he was staying with his sister, brother-in-law and his mother. Mike had a bad reputation in the district and it was well known that he’d made threats, saying that if his wife didn’t return to live with him, he’d kill everyone in her family.
Police immediately took him into custody and interrogated him for four hours, during which he remained completely calm, stopping to roll cigarette several times while answering questions. He admitted to the threat but that was all.
Neighbours reported that at the examination of the bodies pulled from the wreckage, Syroishka had been one of the most interested observers, although his bearing apparently did not betray the slightest sign of inward excitement.
The post-mortem examinations revealed that John Michayluk had been shot in the chest near the heart and in the head. Prokop, Antonia and Pauline were all shot through the heart. (In other sources, it said they were shot in the head as well as the heart, but I wasn’t able to verify if that was true.) Each shot had been fired in cold blood, with unerring accuracy.
The working theory of the police was that the perpetrator had approached the house by stealth in the early morning hours of Thursday, April 6th. They believed the first shot was fired from the exterior of the house throught the window, and after one man was killed, the murderer shot down the other as they went to the door. They’d killed the two girls as they cowered in a distant corner of the home, by the stove, before shooting Mary, as she fled to the cellar. Next, they had slaughtered the animals in the barn, then coolly and deliberately set fire to the two barns, the granary and the house.
As police looked further into Mike Syroishka, they found that four years ago, Prokop Mamchur had sworn out a warrant against Syroishka. He’d charged him with carrying concealed weapons. Police had fined Syroishka and a revolver was found on his person. It was believed to have been confiscated, but Syroishka later said it wasn’t, but that he’d lost it. At the time, Mamchur stated that Syroishka had threatened on several occasions to shoot his wife and her family.
There was only one problem. Mike Syroishka seemed to have an alibi. When John Mamchur testified at the coroner’s inquest, he told the jury that only Mary, Antonia and Michayluk went to the church meeting. Prokop, Pauline and the baby had stayed home. He reported that he’d seen Mike Syroishka at the meeting and that afterwards, Mike had gone with Michayluk and another man to the home of Mike Serabaska. John Mamchur had gone as well. He didn’t know what time it was when he left, but said he’d asked Michayluk to go home with him. Michayluk had told him he would stay a while yet, so John Mamchur went home alone. He believed it was about midnight when he arrived at his house and went to bed. Apparently, a little while later, Syroishka, Michayluk and another man left together, parting ways to go to their separate homes. Syroishka said he got home at midnight, and in fact knew it was midnight, because when he got there everyone was asleep except for his mother, who asked him what time it was. He looked at the clock and told her it was midnight.
Mike Syroishka testified at the inquest, and said that as he walked home, he heard two shots. After he told his mother the time, he ate some supper. When he was done, he saw the fire in the direction of Mamchur’s and told his mother he’d go see what it was. He walked about 100 yards, but couldn’t figure out exactly where the fire was and decided it was probably only a straw stack and went to bed. In the morning he heard about the fire and he and his sister went to a few neighbours’ houses, where they heard about the murders and eventually made their way to the Mamchur home. The place was still burning when they arrived.
“Did you cry when you saw your wife?” they asked him.
“No, but I felt bad.”
He told them he stayed until the doctor arrived, then left.
When questioned about his marriage to Pauline, he told them they’d had trouble. He said that on several occasions he went to church on Sunday evenings, but told his wife she had to stay home and do the chores. She’d refused and followed him to church. Her father had written him a letter, saying he had no right to stop her from going to church or elsewhere. Syroishka had written back that he had no right to dictate to him. He never mentioned the rumours about an affair, saying only that she’d left him and went home to her father’s.
He told the court he’d gone to see her a few times, but on the last occasion her father had threatened to shoot him like a dog if he ever came on the place again. He hadn’t been back since, but he and Prokop had exchanged words when they met on the road, and at one time he’d run into Pauline. She said she’d go back to live with him as soon as he had a home. That was the year before, but she’d never come back.
When asked about what guns he owned, Syroishka told the court that he had purchased a .22 calibre rifle at Rosthern and a shotgun at Wakaw. He told them that about a month previous he’d traded the rifle to Peter Michayluk, but didn’t get anything in exchange. When pressed, he said he’d received a 32-40 rifle and thirty shells. (I’m not sure if the newspaper screwed up and printed Peter Michayluk when they really meant John Michayluk, or if Peter was a different person who happened to have the same last name.) Syroishka told the court that he’d taken the gun home and put it in the granary.
If Mike Syroishka’s story was true, it didn’t leave a lot of time for him to sneak up to the Mamchur place after Michayluk left, murder the family, shoot the animals, then set fire to all the buildings before returning home for midnight. He let them examine the clothes he wore that night and they found no blood or trace of smoke.
The police asked the doctor to go back and look at the body of John Michayluk one more time. They had another theory.
John Michayluk had made an arrangement with Prokop Mamchur. He’d agreed to work for his brother-in-law for three years, for which he was to received the sum of $700 and some stock. It would appear, however, that Mamchur did not fulfill his part of the agreement. For although the three years had expired some time ago, Mamchur had made no settlement with his brother-in-law. It was well known on the settlement that there had been words between the two, and Michayluk was said to have threatened on several occasions that he’d “clean up the whole Mamchur family” and that he would do it “so quickly that they would think that lightning had struck them.”
The rumors in the settlement were that Prokop Mamchur was holding back payment and had threatened to throw Michayluk from the house, because of the attentions he was paying his daughter, Pauline. It was also rumored that he’d been paying a little too much attention to Steve Makohn’s wife, Prokop’s sister.
Two weeks before the murders, Michayluk purchased the rifle found by his dead body. It was the only rifle of that calibre in the neighbourhood that police had been able to find. Mr. F.J. Johnasik, the hardware merchant in Wakaw, was able to produce the invoice for the winchester rifle of the same number and calibre as the one found by the body, proving that it was indeed the one purchased by Michayluk. John had purchased a box of fifty shells as well. Apparently, he’d kept it in an outbuilding and told no one that he’d bought it. (Although he must have told someone, if they were able to find out where he kept it.) They’d found a nearly empty box of cartridges for it in the sheepskin coat Michayluk had been seen wearing in the house.
Initially, the doctor told police that the chest wound on Michayluk’s body had been enough to kill him instantly. When police asked him to look again, they specifically wanted to know if it was at all possible for the shot to have left him alive. The doctor admitted that it was possible, but unlikely.
The police presented their new theory at the inquest. It was John Michayluk who had perpetrated the horrible crime. He had come home from the meeting, shot the family, then gone out, shot the animals, set the buildings on fire, and returned to the house, setting it on fire before shooting himself in the chest. When it failed to kill him, he shot himself in the forehead, above the eye.
On April 14, 1916, the jury at the coroner’s inquest named John Michayluk as the murderer of the Mamchur family.
But if you thought this was where the story ended, you’d be wrong.
On Saturday, December 7, 1918, Mike Syroishka was arrested for murder.
After the Provincial Police took over for the RNWMP, Detective Sergeant George Harrick, working under the direction of Inspector Collison, the head of the detective department of the Provincial Police, kept Mike Syroishka under surveillance.
It had never sat quite right with the Provincial Police that John Michayluk was named as the murderer. They believed it was a physical impossibility for a man to first shoot himself in the chest, close to the heart, then send a bullet through their own forehead, especially as the rifle was found on the floor with no props and the body was in such a position as to indicate that the shots were fired by another party standing up. The bullets found imbedded in the wall behind him were in a straight line, about five feet from the floor.
Further more, John Michayluk wasn’t wearing shoes or socks. When Mrs. Makohn gave her statement, she’d said the Mamchur home was caving in from the roof being all on fire when she went to save her horses. If John Michayluk had done it, the last fire to be set would have been the house, but given the level of fire in all the buildings, they believed the Makohn stable was the last to be set ablaze.
Mike Syroishka was taken to Wakaw for a preliminary hearing (he’d since moved to the Sokal district), and then was taken to Prince Albert to await trial.
On June 2, 1919, the murder charge was dropped and replaced with a charge of arson. It seems likely the crown didn’t believe they had enough evidence on the murders, but believed they could get him for starting the fires. Most of the crown’s evidence was circumstantial, showing that the accused was on bad terms with his wife and her family, as well as establishing the threats he’d made before the event and some foolish statements he’d made after the fire.
(I do not know what these statements were. I really wish I did, but alas, the papers did not elaborate.)
There was also the question of his alibi, which was never as strong as the RNWMP believed it to be. Witnesses at the time gave inconsistent statements about the timelines of events and by Mike Syroishka’s own testimony, he had been the one to tell his mother the time, not the other way around. What was to stop him from giving her a false time and securing an alibi?
The jury deliberated for fifteen hours and on July 5, 1919, they found him guilty of two charges of arson. He was sentenced to six years of hard labour on each count, to be run concurrently.
The police stated that in light of the conviction, they would in all likelihood bring a murder charge.
But they never did. Mike Syroishka spent only fifteen months in prison. He was released on parole on Dec 7, 1920. His paltry jail time was attributed to one of the chief witnesses against him, George Worobetz of Wakaw, being convicted on a charge of conspiracy to defraud a grain elevator and sentenced to four years.
And that is the story of the mysterious murders of the Mamchur family. The family was buried together in the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Cemetery in Sokal, Saskatchewan. I was unable to find the location of the grave for John Michayluk.
Information for this post was found in an article written by Carol Baldwin published on SaskToday, and the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Daily Star and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: April 7, 1916, April 8, 1916, April 10, 1916, April 12, 1916, April 13, 1916, April 14, 1916, April 15, 1916, April 17, 1916, Dec 9, 1918, Dec 11, 1918, Dec 17, 1918, Jan 8, 1919, Jan 9, 1919, June 2, 1919, June 5, 1919, June 25, 1919, June 30, 1919, July 5, 1919, Dec 7, 1920
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It was about 5:00AM on Thursday, January 14, 1915 that Michael Penno heard a team come into the yard and went outside to see what was going on. He assumed he’d find his brother-in-law, Henry Jeskie (also spelled Henry Gesky in some articles) and his friend, Andreas Neumann. They’d left the previous morning on the cutter sleigh with the intent of going out to buy some hogs, and at the sound of the team, he figured they’d returned from their errand.
But the team of horses in the yard were pulling an empty sleigh. He found the inside of the box spattered with blood, Neumann’s coat inside, also spattered with blood and a gun that seemed to have been recently discharged. There was blood on the outside of the box and sleigh as well. He called the Royal North West Mounted Police, and the investigation began.
The two friends had left Jeskie’s home in Laird on the morning of Wednesday, January 13th and had stopped briefly at John Klassen’s farm about three miles north of Laird. That was the last anyone had seen of them. Stories differ on who organized and sent out the search parties; some say Constable Kirk of the RNWMP was in charge, others say it was H. D. Epp and Michael Penno. In either case, the search began.
It wasn’t until Saturday evening, January 16, 1915, that a gruesome discovery was made. Two men, Henry Letkeman and a fellow referred to as Jacob M., were getting a load of wood on a quarter section of land (some sources said it was about nine miles southeast of Hague, others said it was north of Laird, given the direction Neumann and Jeskie were headed when they left Laird, the latter seems more likely to be true), when they came across the burnt remains of a body in a partly burned haystack. The body was still burning when they found it, the head wrapped in a horse blanket.
The body was unrecognizable, but given the height differences between Andreas and Henry, it was established that the recovered remains were that of Henry Jeskie. Up until this point, the community believed someone must have murdered both men and taken the money Andreas had for the hogs. But now, they’d discovered the body of Jeskie and Neumann was still nowhere to be found. Police began to suspect that Neumann had committed the murder and fled. Adding to their suspicions was a note found in the pocket of Neumann’s coat, that had been left in the sleigh. It read: “Last words of your son to father and brothers, greetings to all.” It was signed Andreas Neumann. The police interpreted it as a final farewell.
An inquest was held at Rosthern on January 19, 1915 and Andreas Neumann was named as the believed murderer of Henry Jeskie. A warrant was issued for Neumann’s arrest, and his description was sent out across the province. The search for Neumann lasted over two weeks.
He was traced to Saskatoon, then a man was found who recognized Neumann on a train between Saskatoon and Regina. The police intially believed he might have escaped into the United States, but towards the end of January, word reached them that a man answering Neumann’s description had been seen in the vicinity of Lemburg, Saskatchewan. He was arrested at the house of some friends he knew from the old country. He had hired on with a farmer in Lemburg under an assumed named and shaved off his moustache.
Andreas Neumann was commited for trial at a preliminary hearing at Rosthern and taken to Prince Albert.
He admitted that he’d killed Jeskie, but told police it was an accident. He said that he and Jeskie had started out from the Jeskie home to buy hogs that morning, and Jeskie had taken his gun along to shoot coyotes. As they drove across the prairie, they drove into a small flock of chickens. Neumann jumped from the sleigh to take a shot. As he touched the ground, the chickens flew up and circled back over the sleigh where Jeskie sat, holding the team. While watching their flight, Neumann claimed that as the birds passed over Jeskie’s head, the gun was accidentally discharged and the heavy load of bird shot entered Jeskie’s back, killing him almost instantly.
Neumann was terrified and decided to try and conceal Jeskie’s body and make a getaway. He dragged the body to a nearby haystack and set the hay on fire, before fleeing.
The trial began in April of the same year. Several witnesses were called and Neumann took the stand in his own defence. As it turned out, the jury had very little difficulty believing his story. Neumann and Jeskie were good friends and as far as everyone knew, there’d been no quarrel between the two. Of the two of them, Neumann was the one carrying money, while Jeskie had nothing on him, so robbery wasn’t a motive.
After only twenty-five minutes, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty and Andreas Neumann was acquitted.
And that, my friends, is the story of the untimely death of Henry Jeskie.
Please note, I’ve found in my research that this time period was insanely bad for newspapers getting people’s names wrong. For pretty much all the names in this story, I found multiple spellings, and sometimes first names were changed completely. I used my best judgment. This appears to be a product of the times and lack of easy communication, so if any of these names or spellings are not completely accurate, I apologize.
Information for this post was found in the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Saskatoon Daily Star: Jan 18, 1915, Jan 20, 1915, Feb 1, 1915, Feb 2, 1915, Feb 5, 1915, Feb 24, 1915, Feb 27, 1915, April 15, 1915 and April 16, 1915
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On August 15, 1906, Richard Koch, a farmer from Sedley, was driving to Regina with one of his neighbours, Benjamin Dick. As they came upon the farm of Josiah Gilbert, some twelve miles south-east of Regina, they saw a man running towards their buggy, waving his hands and shouting for them to hold on. Behind him ran Josiah Gilbert with what looked like a gun in his hand.
They stopped the buggy near the gateway and the man, covered in blood, ran to them, yelling, “he shot me and will shoot me again. Hold on boys, hold on.” He climbed into the buggy, took hold of the whip and reins and tried to urge the horses ahead. Koch stopped him, and instead got out and waited for Gilbert.
Josiah Gilbert was a man of about sixty-nine to seventy-five-years-old. He was below average height and had a short, bushy grey beard and grey hair. He’d been farming in the district for about twenty-five years and was well known in the neighborhood and in the city of Regina. Koch knew him well and when Gilbert reached the buggy, he asked him if he had a rig at his place to take the shot man to town, as their team wasn’t in a condition to get him there quickly. Gilbert said there was, that the man’s rig was still in his yard.
Benjamin Dick drove into the yard with the injured man, while Koch and Gilbert followed on foot. Gilbert told him the man’s name was Barrett Henderson and that he’d accidentally shot him when the gun had caught and gone off as he was coming out of the barn. Koch said it was funny that Mr. Henderson was so frightened of Gilbert if it had been an accident, to which Gilbert replied that he couldn’t understand it himself, he was trying to help him. When Koch pointed out that it was a mistake to carry the gun so long when Henderson was obviously frightened, Gilbert told him he didn’t know he was still carrying it until he saw them.
They found the buggy standing by the barn, the dashboard covered in blood. They took the buggy and followed Dick, still driving with Henderson, to his own shack, where they transferred him to his own rig and two of his hired men came out to help and take him to the hospital. One of those men, Russell McKinnon, testified that Henderson had seen Gilbert as they were getting into the buggy and he’d cried “don’t let him knife me!” He said Henderson was frightened to death of Gilbert.
Barrett Henderson was taken to Regina and brought to the Victoria Hospital, arriving shortly after noon. Richard Koch, Benjamin Dick and Josiah Gilbert followed behind in Koch’s buggy. As they started out, Gilbert told them his wife was sick at home and he hadn’t checked on her since he’d left the house in the morning and wanted to go home, but they convinced him that he should probably go with them to Regina. They first went to the police, but found it closed, so Gilbert went and put his case in the hands of a lawyer.
Meanwhile, Henderson was in the hospital. He’d been shot in the face, the ragged wound starting at the angle of his mouth on the left side and extending outward in line with the lower lobe of his left ear. He was almost completely drained of blood and a large number of blood vessels and arteries had been destroyed or injured. The wound was described to be of such a nature that one could put one’s fist in it. He was operated on, with three or four slugs removed from his face, but died a little before 3:00PM.
Gilbert voluntarily surrendered himself to police, and by about 5:00PM, he appeared before the magistrate and was charged with murder.
The police spent most of the next day engaged in investigations at the Gilbert farm. Despite searching the entire property, aided by Richard Koch who believed he’d seen where Gilbert had dropped the gun, they were never able to locate the weapon. Inspector Heffernan was in charge of the case, assisted by Sergeant Wilkinson.
If it was indeed murder and not an accident, what was the believed motive for the crime?
Barrett Henderson had left behind a wife and three children near Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and arrived in the district in the spring of 1906. John Boyle of John H. Boyle & Co had negotiated the sale of Josiah Gilbert’s farm to Henderson. The final closing of the Gilbert farm deal had occurred at the farm house on June 26, 1906, when Henderson made his first payment. The next payment was due in sixty days.
Boyle testified that on the day before the shooting Henderson told him that he was going to make his second payment that Friday, an amount of $2480 (that would be over $78,000 today). He also told Boyle that the Gilberts were crazy to get the farm back, that they’d offered him $3000 to sell it back, but he wanted $10,000. Henderson had told him that on account of his wife’s ill health and constant entreaties that he return home, he might take $7000.
On the day of the shooting, Boyle received word that Henderson was asking for him at the hospital. He arrived before the operation and found Henderson still awake. Henderson reached for him, squeezed his hand and said, “goodbye, Boyle. I am out here among strangers.”
Boyle testified that Gilbert himself had never said anything to him about wanting to get out of the deal, it was only Henderson that had mentioned it.
The trial began on November 13, 1906. Representing the prosecution was J. A. Allan and Norman Mackenzie for the defence.
The first day was given entirely to the testimony of the doctors who’d attended Henderson. They described the gun shot wound, the operation in which they’d removed three or four slugs from his face and his subsequent death. Henderson had told them upon arrival that he’d been shot by Josiah Gilbert, who he said had tried to kill him. They believed that the exertion of running from Gilbert had sped up the loss of blood and he was described as being almost completely drained of blood at his autopsy, during which the coroner had found another two slugs.
Richard Koch and Benjamin Dick both testified, retelling the events of that morning.
James Brooks, whose farm was next to Gilbert’s, testified that Gilbert had told him he’d heard that Henderson was going to fail in his payments and asked him what he should do. Brooks told him that a bargain was a bargain and that he had better see a lawyer.
Brooks’ niece, who was staying with him, testified that she heard the shot between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. She looked out toward Gilbert’s farm (apparently the houses were not far apart) and saw two men running between the barn and the granary, the one ahead being a little taller. She told the court that Gilbert had visited her uncle’s on one occasion and she’d hear him say something about “if he could close and take the place back.”
The police testified about being unable to find the gun and about doing experiments with their closest approximation of the gun and ammunition to try and determine the range the shot was fired at. They believed it had to have been less than ten feet. About three feet in front of Gilbert’s barn, they’d found blood marks on the ground. There were blood spots on woodchips about 10 or 11 yards from the barn and they’d found marks made by bloody hands on the east door of the barn.
It was time to hear from Josiah Gilbert.
He took the stand, refusing to sit and instead leaning against the rail while answering questions. He spoke so low, the stenographer sitting next to him often had to ask him to repeat his answers. He told the court he’d sold his farm because he was played out and couldn’t work anymore. His wife’s illness had been another motivating factor. (By the time the trial took place, she’d passed away.) He testified that he was satisfied with the deal and didn’t complain to anyone, denying that he’d ever talked about wanting to close and take the place back. He said that Brooks had told him he was selling too cheaply, but he explained he was played out and his wife was sick. He said that he and Henderson were on friendly terms and had never been otherwise.
On the morning of the shooting, he told the court that he saw Henderson at about 5:00AM and that Henderson had told him he’d be around after breakfast to go round the wheat and see when it would be ready to cut. If Gilbert was ready, he could join him.
Gilbert gathered some ammunition and placed the gun behind the north-east door of the stable, facing the house, intending to take it with them to shoot gophers. He was “petting round the colts”, waiting, when he looked out and saw Henderson driving in the yard. He went out, yelled for him, and Henderson came round to the stable door. Gilbert went into the stable to get the ammunition and the gun, picking it up and holding it just above the trigger. He stumbled at the door sill and said the gun seemed to strike the side of door and went off. The horse gave a jump and Henderson fell out of the buggy.
He told the court he’d dropped the gun, gone and helped Henderson up and left him standing while he went to grab the horse and pull him out of the way. Meanwhile, Henderson walked away. He thought Henderson didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing. He saw Henderson going around the barn, but said he didn’t realize how badly he was hurt. He picked up the gun, he testified, to explain to Henderson how the accident happened. According to Gilbert, it was he who yelled for Koch and Dick to stop, not Henderson. He said he dropped the gun because he was weak and the weight was too much for him.
The jury didn’t buy Gilbert’s story that it was an accident. They found him guilty on November 16, 1906 and he was sentenced to hang on January 18, 1907.
He didn’t though.
Reverend G. C. Hill and Mr. James Balfour went to Ottawa to meet with the Minister of Justice to try and secure a commutation of Gilbert’s death sentence. He was granted a reprieve while an appeal was filed and in March of 1907, his sentence was changed to life imprisonment.
And that, my friends, is the story of the shooting of Barrett Henderson. Was it an accident or was it murder? The only one who ever knew for sure was Josiah Gilbert.
Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Aug 17, 1906, Aug 22, 1906, Oct 24, 1906, Nov 14, 1906, Nov 15, 1906, Nov 16, 1906, Nov 17, 1906, Jan 17, 1907, Feb 23, 1907, Feb 26, 1907 and March 25, 1907.
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On the morning of Monday, June 20, 1904, Frederick L. Stewart was in the fields, doing some ploughing on the homestead of his daughter, Edna Goodpasture, near Eagle Creek, west of Saskatoon. He was not a welcome visitor there.
A few months previous, on April 4th, his wife, Manda Stewart, had separated from him. She was living on her daughter’s homestead with her other two children, Blanche, who was fifteen, and Howard, who was ten. Edna was eighteen. Manda had separated from on account of the abuse she suffered at his hands. He’d knocked her around, kicked her, choked her, and at times, threatened her and the children’s lives. He’d asked her several times to live with him again but she refused.
Since the separation, Frederick had been staying on what was described as the Falkner Place. I’m not sure if that was the homestead of someone named Falkner, a landmark, or something else entirely. The sources I consulted did not elaborate. Two weeks before the day in question, the family met him on their way to town and he declared his intention of pitching his tent on Edna’s homestead. They forbade him, but he said he could do as he damn well pleased. When they returned, the tent was pitched, he’d taken possession of the barn and was gone to town.
They lived together in uneasy company until Monday, June 20th. Edna called Frederick for lunch at about noon, and at two o’clock he returned to the yard. He asked Edna if she called him, to which she replied that she had. He said he hadn’t seen it (they always hung a cloth out to signal meal times), and ate his lunch. Edna and Howard went into the tent, which was pitched in front of the shack, and Manda joined them.
At some point, an Englishman from William Wood’s homestead came down looking for eggs. Frederick visited with him in the shack while Manda gathered the eggs, which she gave to him with a jar of buttermilk. The man left and she went back into the tent to take off the butter she’d churned before lunch. Frederick followed her into the tent and sat down on the trunk, telling her it was ‘a nice lot of butter’ she’d taken off. He told her, “Manda, the next wife I get, I don’t intend she shall work very hard.” Then he asked her, didn’t she think he was good looking enough to catch almost anyone?
It’s unclear if he didn’t like the answer she gave, or she took too long to respond, but at that point he grabbed her by the throat and shoulder and threw her over onto the bed. He wrapped both hands around her throat and put his knee on her chest. He wasn’t choking her very hard, and she was able to tell him, “Fred, I want you to let me up.” When he wouldn’t, she threatened to yell for Blanche, their other daughter, and she did.
Howard, meanwhile, grabbed the butter ladle and started striking his father with it. When that had little effect, he ran for Blanche and told her to come quick. Edna shoved Frederick off her mother, saying she’d ‘had enough of this foolishness.’ He turned on Edna, striking her. Manda was able to get away from him and the two ordered him off the property. It was Edna’s land and she wanted him to take his tent and go.
Obviously, Frederick Stewart did not comply, or give any pretense of complying. Edna began cutting the ropes on his tent and he threatened to smash up her shack. She told him to go ahead. So he did. He picked up an old gun barrel started smashing windows. Done with that, he knocked Edna down and kicked her. Blanche had came out with an axe during this time and was also pulling up the tent ropes. When he struck her sister, she hit him with the axe (it read as though she did not struck him with the blade, but most likely the flat side). He jerked the axe from her grip and knocked her down(with his fist). She got up and ran a short distance from him while he turned and raised the axe over Edna’s head, saying, “I’ll kill you.”
At this point, Manda was between the house and the tent. She looked over, and on the front step of the shack was Howard with a single barrel shot gun, raised to shoot. She ran and caught the gun, but he pulled the trigger, shooting his father in the neck and killing him instantly. In her testimony, Manda stated that the gun was level and aimed low when she grabbed for it, and blamed herself for the shot going higher and catching Frederick in the neck, instead of his legs as the boy intended.
A post mortem was done by Dr. Stewart (no relation as far as I could tell) on June 22, 1904. Howard was allowed to stay home with his family until his trial, which opened at Rosthern on November 14, 1904, with Judge Prendergast residing. After being out for only fifteen minutes, the jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide and Howard Stewart was acquitted.
And that is the story of the shooting of Frederick L. Stewart.
Information for this post came from the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: June 24, 1904, June 29, 1904, July 1, 1904 and Nov 25, 1904.
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On the morning of Tuesday, February 28, 1933, Norman Ballantyne noticed something odd. His neighbour’s farm was mysteriously quiet. Not a soul stirred about the place, and is it was getting on 9:30, he took it upon himself to go investigate.
The farm belonged to William Brady. He’d lived in the Moose Mountain district near Carlyle for many years, and in fact had been one of the area’s pioneer homesteaders. He was about sixty five years old. Also living on the farm was Ernest Bradley and his wife, Violet, who both worked for William. Violet had been his housekeeper for about ten years before marrying Ernest just before Christmas.
A gruesome discovery awaited Norman when he visited the farm. He found the bodies of three people, all dead from gunshot wounds. Norman immediately went to a neighbour’s and phoned the mounted police at Carlyle and the coroner.
When the police arrived, they slowly began to put together the pieces of what had happened the night before.
They found William Brady in the farm house, his body close to the kitchen door that led towards the barn. There was a bullet hole in his head.
Gilbert (Bert) Oakes was found some distance behind the barn. It looked as though he’d been trying to run away and been shot. Sources were conflicted on where he was shot. One said a bullet caught him close to the top of his shoulder and brought him down. Another said he was shot in the head. It’s possible they were both right and he was shot first in the shoulder and then in the head.
The last body was found in the stable. Ernest Bradley had a .303 rifle beside him. A bullet had pierced the his head under the chin and blown part of his head off. A clear case of suicide.
So, where was Violet? In Carlyle, unaware of the horror that had played out on the Brady farm the night before. She’d gone into town on Monday morning and was staying with Joseph Brady, William Brady’s brother. In a double whammy of grief, Violet had lost more than her husband and employer. Bert Oakes was also her brother.
The entire community was in shock. What caused Ernest to shoot down two people and take his own life?
Ernest Bradley and Violet Oakes were married just before Christmas, a few months before. From the start of their marriage, neighbours said there’d been a lot of quarreling going on in the house. And when Ernest and Violet would quarrel, which was often, William Brady would always try and smooth matters over. Apparently, Ernest resented this and saw it as unwarranted interference.
As for Violet’s brother, Bert, he owned a farm in the hills about a mile east of Brady’s and visited his sister often.
On the Sunday night before the murders, there was a violent quarrel between Ernest and Violet. In the morning, Violet asked her brother to drive her into Carlyle. They went to town and later in the day Bert returned to the Brady home. Violet told her husband she wouldn’t be home because of the storm. It’s unclear if this was a phone call, or if she sent this message through Bert. Either way, this was the excuse she gave for not going home that night.
Violet had an agenda. She was meeting with a lawyer to see about getting separation papers from her husband. She told officers that Ernest had no idea that she was taking steps to separate. Aside from the quarreling, which clearly at times became violent, she said that Ernest was very jealous of William Brady and didn’t want her speaking to him.
On the Monday evening, William Brady’s brother, Joseph, and his nephew, Henry, visited at the home, leaving at about 8:00PM. According to them, everyone was in good humor when they left. Late in the evening, neighbours heard shots at the Brady home, but had paid little attention.
Police believed that Ernest fired on Brady first. Their theory was that he must have been threatening them with the rifle and Oakes had made it out the door first and run for the barn. Ernest killed Brady before he could make it to the door, then went out to the barn where he found Oakes hiding behind it. He shot at him, missed, then, according to the tracks they found, he’d managed to shoot Oakes as he was running away. Finally, he’d gone into the stable and shot himself in the head.
Violet Bradley couldn’t give a reason for the shooting. As far as she knew, Ernest didn’t know about the separation. It’s possible her brother accidentally let something slip that tipped Ernest off and sent him into a rage, or it’s possible his long standing resentment of Brady finally boiled over. No one will ever know what happened that night, what events led to Ernest picking up the rifle and shooting his employer, his brother-in-law and himself.
All three men were given funerals and buried on March 2, 1933. They were buried in the Glen Morris Cemetery.
And that is the story of the murder of William Brady and Gilbert Oakes.
I found information for this post in the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Feb 28, 1933, March 1, 1933, March 2, 1933, March 7, 1933 and March 8, 1933.
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On the morning of Monday, May 20, 1935, Mrs. Caroline Fisher went to the home of Frank and Charlotte Smith. She did some work for the Smiths and arrived at their small cottage on the south end of Duck Lake at her usual time of 7:00AM. She knocked on the door, then entered. As she went through to the bedroom, she noticed Mr. Smith was still asleep on his cot, while his wife lay on her own bed, rubbing her head.
As Mrs. Fisher entered the bedroom, Charlotte exclaimed, “oh Caroline, I’ve done a wicked thing!”
“I killed my husband.”
Obviously dumbfounded at this announcement, Mrs. Fisher asked, “how?”
“With a gun,” Charlotte replied. “I shot him.”
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Mary Charlotte Smith had already been married twice by the time she met Frank A. Smith. In fact, she was still married to her second husband, Mr. Oulet, at the time.
It was at the Mansell Ranch at Birch Lake in the winter of 1923. Frank was a forest ranger and one day he came across Charlotte as she was cutting a water hole in the ice for the ranch cattle. He complimented her on her good axemanship, and apparently, the romance blossomed from there. Charlotte obtained a divorce and the two were married in Calgary in either 1925 or 1926 (news articles were conflicted on the date).
They’d been living in Duck Lake for three years.
Needless to say, Mrs. Fisher was not expecting to walk into a crime scene on that fateful morning. She asked Charlotte if she should go to the kitchen and light a fire, and when Charlotte agreed, she immediately left the house and went to notify authorities.
She returned with J. Day, a justice of the peace, Nicholas Henikenne, the town constable, and Joe Morrisay, the night constable. At this point, Mrs. fisher had recovered from her initial shock and when she led authorities to the bedroom, she noticed a rifle lying on the foot of Charlotte’s bed, the gun pointing towards Frank’s body.
Detective Corporal E. J. DesRosiers of the RCMP in Prince Albert arrived at the Smith home at about 9:00AM. He found Mr. Smith’s body on his cot in a normal sleeping position, his face towards the wall. The cot was along the west side of the bedroom, while Mrs. Smith’s bed was larger and at right angles to the cot. There were no signs of violence, except for a bullet hole in the top of his skull, which oozed blood and brain matter.
Dr. Frances McGill, provincial pathologist, arrived at the scene at about 11:00AM. She described finding the body in a natural position, as if asleep. She conducted a post mortem on the body in the house and later testified that the bullet had pierced the brain from top to base. The passage caused a severe hemorrhage in the brain, which resulted in immediate death. In her words, he probably “had not known what hit him.”
Detective Corporal DesRosiers took down Charlotte’s statement and she signed it. She was taken into police custody while they waited for the verdict of the coroner’s inquest.
The inquest was conducted by Dr. F. H. Coppock of Rosthern. Five witnesses were heard, including Mrs. Caroline Fisher, Detective Corporal DesRosiers and Dr. McGill. Charlotte Smith didn’t testify on the advice of her counsel, W. A. Tucker of Rosthern. The inquest returned an open verdict, stating that Smith’s death was caused by a .22 rifle bullet piercing the brain from top to base. Immediately following the verdict, Charlotte was formally charged with the murder of her husband and after a preliminary trial was ordered to stand trial at the next assizes in Prince Albert in the coming fall.
Charlotte’s trial began in October of 1935. Representing the crown was G. W. Salter, with W. A. Tucker for the defense.
It became clear quite early on that their marriage was not a happy one.
Mrs. Mary Arkon, Charlotte’s sister, testified to the strained relationship, telling the court about the trouble arising from expenses, bills and complaints of wastefulness. Frank apparently desired a return to England, but didn’t want to leave his property, while Charlotte, whose relationship with Frank had alienated her from her church, was in conference with her priest, planning a return to her former religious affiliation. It was revealed in court that their marriage was not considered a lawful union.
Several neighbours testified that Frank had been cruel to his wife, beating and cursing her, and that high words and quarrels were frequent; while others found Frank quiet, not quarrelsome or profane and in fact described him as gentlemanly and good company.
F. Schwan, one of their neighbours, told the court that he’d asked Smith if he wanted a ride to Rosthern to see Mrs. Smith, who was in the hospital there at the time. Smith told him, “I don’t want to see the bitch. She is an awful woman to live with. She’s crazy.”
Detective Corporal DesRosiers testified that he’d searched the Smith home and found a letter from the Old Country addressed to Frank Smith in an empty syrup can in the poultry house. It was read in court and contained a reference to £1,000 which was to come to Smith. It suggested that Smith should come to the Old Country before he made any plans.
Several doctors were called to testify on the state of Charlotte Smith’s mental health. Dr. MacNeil, a psychiatrist and superintendent for many years of the Battleford Mental Hospital, told the court he belived Charlotte was subnormal. He described her as a woman so mentally deficient that she had the intelligence of an eight-year-old and was unable to appreciate the charge of murder facing her.
Dr. Nunn of Battleford told the judge and jury that she was an epileptic with a history of mental illness in her family. He’d examined Charlotte while she was held in the Battleford Jail for Women and testified that she’d complained of headaches, organ pains, twitching spells followed by frothing at the mouth and biting of the tongue, sleeplessness and bad dreams.
Her mother had died young from epilepsy. Other relatives were discovered as having delusions. A brother, for instance, talked of headless men on his farm trying to take the title from him.
And while Charlotte appeared intelligent and her command of language was good, Dr. Nunn believed her appreciation of the destruction of life was cloudy. He testified that her shooting of Smith was a way to escape from his torture and abuse and that she didn’t fully grasp the consequences.
Contradicting both of them, Dr. Louchette of Duck Lake completely disagreed in regard to Charlotte’s mental faculties. He told the court that he’d known Charlotte for years and considered her intelligence above average. He recalled that some members of her family appeared a little weak mentally, but in contrast with her sister, he thought Charlotte was particularly bright and intelligent.
Medical practitioners at Duck Lake and Rosthern gave evidence that Mrs. Smith suffered from ill health and that Frank Smith complained often of the expense of her medicine and doctors’ bills.
The Testimony of Charlotte Smith
It was time for Charlotte to take the stand. Her testimony lasted for two and a half hours, during which “the accused woman held the courtroom’s closest attention in a story that outrivalled that of the most lurid magazine article.”
She described domestic quarrels in which Frank had rushed at her with a pitchfork, made threats of gun play, and in one instance, even pulled the trigger. She’s escaped death by striking at the revolver in his hand, causing the bullet to enter the ceiling instead. She told the court of instances of jealous abuse and blows, of hiding bills because he complained constantly that she was an expense to him. At one time she left him, but returned after he patched things up with a truce, which didn’t last long and ended in a violent scene.
His abuse wasn’t limited to her. She told the court about his treatment of Jerry Pocha, an elderly man who was placed in their home for $20 a month. Old Jerry, as she called him, was sickly and required a good deal of attention. Her husband had to carry him about as he was unable to walk. Smith grew tired of the constant care and cursed the old man, calling him vile names. Charlotte testified that Smith kicked Jerry and threw him about and at one time, left him outside until he was almost frozen.
It was this, she believed, that caused Jerry’s death shortly after in late spring. She told the court that she accused Frank of being directly responsible and that he was terrified of the law. She described their difficulty in obtaining a death certificate, as the attending physician had refused to issue one on Jerry after seeing his bruised body. The matter was finally arranged and Smith and a neighbour fashioned a pine coffin and the old man was buried. But according to Charlotte, the fact that she knew the real truth of Jerry’s death continued to be a subject of torture to Smith.
William Brown, secretary of the municipality testified later that Jerry Pocha was indeed placed in the Smith home and that Charlotte had come to him and complained that Frank had whipped the old man and used abusive language with him. But he hadn’t investigated. He’d paid little attention to her, as she was regarded as a little strange and he liked Smith and found him to be good company.
Charlotte’s testimony had come to the night of the murder. She told the court that on Sunday evening, Mrs. Bernard Schwann had called at their home. She and Schwann had been discussing the expense of running a house. When Schwann left, she and Frank got into an argument about money matters. He told her that she was a big expense and threatened to go to the Old Country. The quarrel grew more violent, with threats on the part of Smith to beat his wife as he was allegedly in the habit of doing.
Smith then went to the kitchen and brought out the gun. She tried to take it from him and it fell to the floor under the bed. At this point, Frank went to bed. He laid down on his cot, his back turned to her, although they continued to argue for what she estimated to be about an hour. At that point, Charlotte picked up the rifle, pointed it at her husband and said, “Frank, if you want to get up and fight, I’ll shoot you.”
He laughed at her and said, “go ahead.”
Charlotte pulled the trigger and the gun went off. She claimed she didn’t know it was loaded. Frank didn’t move after she shot him. She left her bed and knelt on the floor beside his cot, saying, “Oh Frank, I didn’t know it would come to this.”
She got up, got into her bed and waited for Mrs. Fisher to come.
Mr. Tucker’s final address to the jury consumed more than an hour, as he carefully covered all of the important points in the story told by Charlotte Smith in the witness box. He told that jury that Mrs. Smith was terrified when she found herself locked in their home with a husband who’d abused her for years and who was in a towering rage, that she shot him in what she thought to be self defense. He described Smith’s vicious temperament, his insane jealousy and his abuse of Jerry Pocha, all of which had been corroborated by other witnesses.
On October 19, 1935 the jury found her guilty of murder, with a recommendation of mercy. On October 21, 1935, she was sentenced to death by hanging, to take place on January 24, 1936.
A New Trial
Mr. Tucker did not stop fighting for Charlotte Smith, and she won new trial at the court of appeals on Dec 11, 1935. The appeal was based on the sanity issue. A jury should have ruled on whether or not Charlotte was fit to stand trial before the trial proceeded. Tucker admitted that the error was his. He told the court that at the time he was not aware of Dr. MacNeil’s opinion that, given her delusions, Charlotte was unable to properly instruct her counsel. He’d followed her wishes and had told the judge that they wouldn’t persue an insanity defense.
On April 28, 1936, a jury was appointed to determine if she was fit to stand trial.
Dr. MacNeil testified again, telling the court that he was firmly convinced she was an epileptic and had the mentality of an average child of eight and a half years. He described her testimony at the previous trial as childish, with a tendency to show off. Not the behavior of a normal person on trial for their life. He had examined her several times since her husband’s murder and placed her under observation in the mental hospital. He found her to be the victim of delusions and hallucinations, saying that she heard voices telling her to do things. He said she described dreams in which a “hairy man” came to her bedside and tried to choke her. He went away when she woke up. She interpreted the dream as Frank interfering with her religion, because he used to curse her and wouldn’t let her pray. He testified that in one of her delusions she saw Frank walking around their home at Duck Lake and would declare that he was not dead.
Dr. L. H. McConnell of Saskatoon was a neuro surgeon and brain specialist. He’d been called upon by Dr. MacNeil to examine Charlotte. He confirmed that she was an epileptic with the mind of a child and insane.
How did he establish this? He did brain surgery on her. He injected air into her brain, which according to him, caused her to act strangely and have an epileptic fit. According to his experience, this only happened in epileptics.
Let’s pause here and talk about brain surgery in the 1930’s. Air being injected into a patient’s cerebral ventricles was a somewhat fairly common practice for the purpose of diagnosis and localization of brain tumors. However, the complications associated with the procedure included convulsions, infections, bradycardia, apnoea and death. So much so, that a large number of doctors felt the risks outweighed the benefits. As a secondary note of interest, on Sep 14, 1936, Walter Freeman and his neurosurgeon partner, James Watts, performed the first ever prefontal lobotomy in the United States. It was a horrific procedure that created permanent loss of function in countless patients. So, not a great time for brain surgery.
Dr. McConnell also testified that he’d found an actual loss of substance in the regions of the brain which “determine things”. He believed Charlotte’s case was well advanced and the shrinkage had been going on for a long time.
Miss Nora McNinch, a nurse, testified that she saw Mrs. Smith have a seizure following Dr. McConnel’s “treatment”. She heard Charlotted mutter in a whimpering manner, “you leave Jerry alone.”
The nurse who attended Charlotte, Miss Eloise Brinson, heard her say, “chase the devils out of my bed”. This was also after her treatment from Dr. McConnell.
Another nurse, Miss Olive Miller, testified that Mrs. Smith kept on repeating, “Frank leave me alone, you’re hurting me.”
Unsurprisingly, Charlotte Smith was declared unfit to stand trial on May 4, 1936 and returned to the mental hospital.
Was she insane or did Mr. McConnell’s procedure damage her brain? Was it both? Did she believe her life was in danger and shot Frank Smith out of fear, or did she find the hidden letter promising him money if he went back to the Old Country and thought he was going to leave her?
We’ll never know for certain.
And that, my friends, is the story of the trial of Mary Charlotte Smith.
Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: May 21, 1935, May 22, 1935, May 23, 1935, Oct 18, 1935, Oct 19, 1935, Oct 21 1935, Oct 22, 1935, Dec 3, 1935, Dec 4, 1935, Dec 11, 1935, Feb 25, 1936, April 28, 1936, April 29, 1936, May 1, 1936, May 4, 1936
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At seventeen years old, Ephraim Jantzen had been a ward of the government since the age of eight, when his father died and his mother, unable to support her seven children, turned them over to the Bureau of Dependent and Neglected Children. He had lived in several homes, but at fifteen he was placed with his half-sister and her husband, John Wurz. John was forty and he and his wife had four children. Ephraim was brought to live with them on their farm, aout 20 miles southwest of Lanigan. He was with them for two years, until the day he died.
On the morning of March 6, 1925, John and Ephraim left the farm with a team of horses and a rack to get straw out of a stack on the neighbouring farm of J. Kincaid. Kincaid had given John the stack on the condition that John would haul two loads out of it for him.
The stack was situated about 547 yards from Kincaid’s house. It was covered in snow and ice that they had to burrow through to get at the straw. According to Wurz, they had laid their overcoats on the snow about 8 yards from the stack, along with a .22 rifle they’d brought in case they saw any rabbits. Ephraim helped John load the rack and steady it for a few yards while John got going, but stayed at the straw stack to continue shoveling while John drove the load up to Kincaid’s barn.
He and Kincaid unloaded the straw. As they finished, a neighbour, Ben Smith, dropped by to pick up his mail. The three men chatted for about five minutes in the house and then John left the two men inside and returned to the straw stack to get the second load. About fifteen minutes later, John rushed in, greatly excited according to the two men, and said his hired man had shot himself.
A reminder here, that Ephraim Jantzen was not John’s hired man. He was supposed to be his foster son.
All three men got on the straw rack and drove back to the stack. Kincaid was about eighty years old and quite deaf, so he was unable to testify as to what was said on the ride back. Smith testified that he asked where the boy had been shot and Wurz said through the heart. Wurz told Smith that he didn’t go into the hole in the stack where the body was, he hadn’t even gotten off the rack. He’d seen the body and immediately driven back to get the others.
They found Ephraim dead inside the burrow, lying on his back with the .22 rifle about six inches away with the trigger guard turned inward to the body and the butt of the rifle practically in line with the feet. His top shirt and undershirt were open and jerked up, as though someone had put their hand in to feel the body. As Smith approached Ephraim’s body, Wurz called to him, asking if his eyes were open. They were closed. Wurz called back that when he’d pulled up, Ephraim’s eyes were open. Which was odd, because Ephraim’s cap was pulled low on his head and his eyes were not visible until the body was closely approached.
The entrance of the burrow faced South and the back of the boy’s head faced North, with his feet at the opening of the burrow.
According to Smith’s testimony, Wurz wanted to move the body. He wanted to remove it from the burrow and take it home with him. Both men refused and told him not to touch it, that it needed to be left as is for the police. They argued for a while until they convinced Wurz to drop them off at farm with a telephone on his way home. On the way, Wurz asked Smith what the police would do to him and was muttering and crying to himself in German. As he dropped the men off, he asked Smith what he was going to tell the police and Smith replied that he’d say young Jantzen was lying shot dead.
Constable William Hill of the Lanigan detachment received word of the tragedy at about 2:30PM. He reached the Kincaid farm at about 5:30PM. Together with the coroner, Dr. Browning, the two walked along the recent sleigh trail down to the straw stack where they found the boy’s body in a hole in the straw. At this point it was coming on dusk. Beside the body lay the rifle, the butt towards the feet, as previously described. Going back up to the house, they met Wurz there in his sled and he helped them bring the body to the granary. According to Constable Hill, Wurz seemed nervous and asked him if he thought he should go to a lawyer.
Checking the boy’s pockets, Hill had found no other shells, only the single empty one near the body and there was no trace of powder marks on the smock he was wearing. An autopsy was performed by Dr. W. Brawley of Guernsey and on March 14, 1925, a Coroner’s Inquest was held by Dr. Browning of Lanigan.
At the inquest, a horrible picture of the life Ephraim had lived at the hands of John Wurz was pieced together. A neighbour, S. Hawes had seen Wurz beat and slash at the boy with a whip used for horses. Another neighbour, A.C. Snider had seen Wurz strike the boy on the back with his fists. And yet another neighbour, E.R. Creswynd told a story of picking Ephraim up in his automobile and giving him a ride to Watrous. Ephraim had told him he was running away because Wurz had threatened to shoot him.
Even worse, was the condition of the body. The undertaker, William Robertson, told the jury that the boy’s body was filthy and had been dressed practically in rags. (During the preliminary trial, the boy’s clothes had to be kept outside of the room when not being examined, due to the overwhelming smell.)
Dr. Brawley testified that there were sores all over the boy’s feet, one of which was the size of a half dollar, all in the process of healing. The tips of his toes were slightly black, and he attributed all of this to frostbite, most likely having taken place about 15 days prior to death and probably from more than one instance of frostbite. He found scars on the nose, mouth, jaw and temple, all minor and all probably caused by frostbite. His lip was swollen and cut, seemingly by the teeth. He found many wounds on the upper part of the boy’s back and abrasions about the hips, apparently the results of “itch”. His abdomen was black. There was severe bruising on the boy’s upper arms. The bullet had entered the body from the left side and pierced the stomach, the heart, the liver and a kidney. He testified that he found Ephraim to have a case of double pneumonia and wouldn’t have given him more than five days to live if he hadn’t been shot. In his opinion, it would have been almost impossible for the boy to have shot himself.
Constable Hill and Detective Sergeant D.C. Shervill of Saskatoon had done some experiments as well. They had cut pieces from Ephraim’s smock and using the same rifle had fired at the cloth in increasing increments of distance, starting at 3 inches and going to 8 inches. At 3 inches powder stains had shown on the fabric. By the time they reached 8 inches no powder marks visible to the human eye were left on the fabric.
The jury at the inquest reached a verdict, stating that Ephraim Jantzen had come to his death from a bullet fired from the rifle in the hands of a person or persons unknown. They added a rider to their verdict, stating that the Bureau of Dependent and Neglected Children had shown considerable laxity in the administration of the affairs of their ward, Ephraim Jantzen. Det. Sgt. Shervill immediately took Wurz into custody and he was held at the provincial police cells at Watrous until his preliminary hearing at Lanigan.
Inspector W.B. Cummings of the Bureau of Dependent and Neglected Children did not take kindly to the Bureau’s being called out in the verdict at the coroner’s inquest. He made a public statement on March 16, 1925 and had this to say in response to the rider: “I feel that the department did everything in its power to help him. I may say, the lad was very unsatisfactory and a hard boy to deal with and gave us all kinds of trouble.”
(I do try to keep my opinions to myself for the most part, but as you can tell by the bold print, I really didn’t like this statement. Ephraim Jantzen didn’t need to be satisfactory. He needed to be taken care of. He was a child. A child whose father had died, mother had given him up and had been separated from all of his siblings.)
The preliminary hearing opened on March 20, 1925 in Lanigan before Justice of the Peace, Cyril Stackhouse. The murder case had drawn a lot of attention in the area and crowds filled the Lanigan town hall for the hearing. They cheered as police evidence was heard, causing Stackhouse to denounce the crowd, declaring that if even a fraction of the interest being shown in the case had been given to the boy a month prior to the tragedy, he might still be alive. He said it was clear that neighbours had been aware of the terrible conditions the boy was living under and none of them had done anything on his behalf.
The murder trial of John Wurz began on April 21, 1925. The crown prosecutor was J.W. Estey, with A.E. Bence (assisted by W.E. Thorneloe and Frank McLorg) for the defence. Another autopsy had been performed by Dr. A.L. Lindsay and Dr. T.W. Walker. They refuted Dr. Brawley’s claims of pneumonia, stating that there’d been the usual after death congestion of the lungs, which is sometimes mistaken for pneumonia. Called to the stand, Dr. Brawley admitted that he’d made several errors in his report and that he might have been mistaken about the pneumonia. He hadn’t done an autopsy in ten years and hadn’t been thrilled at the idea of doing the post mortem.
Grant Lewis, provincial analyst, was called by the prosecution. He testified that he’d examined the bullet hole in Jantzen’s smock under the microscope, comparing it the bullet holes in the pieces of cloth in Constable Hill and Det. Sgt. Shervill’s experiments. In the test pieces, the color had been burnt out of the thread and a deposit of carbon had been left. At up to 7 inches the color was burnt to quite an extent. Under the microscope, the bullet hole in Jantzen’s smock had shown no evidence of scorching, and although there was considerable dirt, the thread had not lost its blue color as it had in the test pieces. In his opinion, the shot was made at a range greater than 7 inches.
Another neighbour, Mike Rostalsky, was also called to the stand. He’d known Wurz for about six years. He stated that he’d never seen Ephraim with the rifle, he’d only ever seen it in the hands of Wurz. Two days before the shooting, he told the court that John and Ephraim had come to his farm to fill a couple of barrels with water. He said that Wurz had ordered the boy around roughly, and as the boy had hauled water Wurz had complained to him about how dirty and smelly the boy was, about his weak condition and how he was thinking he’d send him back to the children’s home. Rostalsky had noticed the boy limping as he worked, and said he was quite lame.
On April 24, 1925, the crown prosecution rested it’s case. In all it had called 23 witnesses. The defence declared they would be calling no witnesses, having based most of their defence in aggressive cross examination of the crown’s witnesses, arguing for the possibility that Jantzen had shot himself.
And that’s when something shocking happened. Justice H.Y. MacDonald sent the jury from the room and asked Estey on what points in the evidence the crown sought a conviction. Estey argued that while suicide was not impossible, he believed the evidence showed it wasn’t practically possible. He felt the circumstances surrounding the death were suspicious, pointing to the lack of shells in the boy’s pockets, the fact that Wurz said he’d left Jantzen at the stack to continue shoveling but that no snow had been shoveled, that Wurz had told Ben Smith that Jantzen’s eyes had been open when he shouldn’t have been able to see the boy’s eyes from the rack. Justice MacDonald disagreed, saying that all of Estey’s evidence was circumstantial and overruled his objection. He brought the jury back in, and at 11:00AM stated that the facts of the case were not such as would warrant a jury to find a verdict of guilty and dismissed the prisoner.
John Wurz walked out of the courtroom with his family. According to reporters, he said, “well, that feels better,” as, smiling, he led his family down the street toward the hotel where his wife and children had been staying. It was reported that on all their visits with him, his children were smiling, healthy and happy looking.
Directly after the discharge of the accused, his lawyer, Mr. Bence, offered to demonstrate for the crowd and reporters how Jantzen might have shot himself by pushing the trigger of the fatal gun with the toe of his rubber boot. His son took a sitting position on the large table in the court and put on the dead boy’s shoes. Bending forward, as if to look into the barrel to see if there was any snow in it, he rubbed the toe of the rubber boot against the trigger of the gun and with no trouble the rifle discharged. The direction coincided with the course the bullet had taken in Ephraim.
There was no mention of any further charges being laid against Wurz for his abuse and mistreatment of Ephraim Jantzen before his death.
Did Ephraim Jantzen accidentally shoot himself, as Mr. Bence demonstrated? Or did Wurz, returning to the stack and finding Ephraim sitting and resting his injured feet instead of shoveling, fly into a rage and shoot him as he’d threatened before? It was not described by the papers whether Bence’s demonstration accounted for the lack of powder marks and scorching on the boy’s clothing, so both are certainly possible. What is clear, is that Ephraim was not treated as a member of the family. Indeed, he wasn’t treated with anything close to human empathy. His frost bitten feet should have disqualified him from helping with the straw. If he’d been allowed to stay home and recover, he wouldn’t be dead. But it appears no justice was sought for Ephraim in this regard.
And that is the story of the shooting of Ephraim Jantzen.
Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Daily Star, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: March 16, 1925, March 17, 1925, March 20, 1925, March 21, 1925, April 22, 1925, April 23, 1925, April 24, 1925 and April 25, 1925.
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Content Warning: The following true crime story deals with the murder of a child. If reading about this will cause you distress, please skip this post.
I’d like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Stephen Scriver and the Wolseley Heritage Foundation Archive, for coming through in a big way when I reached out for help with this story. They provided a lot of information for this post, including newspaper articles and a copy of Stephen Scriver’s column, Trolling for History – Murder Most Foul, in which he gives a write up about the case. Both gave me quite a few details I wasn’t able to find in other news articles.
On the morning of Friday, August 2, 1907, Rosa Mohr went out with her friend, Natalie Hess, to herd cattle for Natalie’s sick uncle, Edward Hess. Rosa was just under seven years old. According to Natalie’s testimony, she and her sister Venda left Rosa with the cattle to go chase off some horses that had wandered into the wheat on the nearby farm of Adam Bieber. When they returned, they couldn’t find Rosa. Natalie and her sister went to all the neighbors trying to find her, but weren’t all that alarmed.
Catherine Mohr, Rosa’s mother, gave inconsistent testimony as to when exactly she found out Rosa was missing. At one point she stated it was in the morning at around 11:00, and at the trial she testified that it was about 4:00 in the afternoon when she was told that Rosa was missing and went out to search for her, looking until about 10:00PM that night. She was sure that she’d seen Rosa in the morning, standing on top of a knoll with a man of about middle size. She did not take it upon herself to go investigate and that was the last time she saw her daughter.
Catherine was on government assistance, collecting sixteen dollars a month. She and her three small children lived with Anna Hess (mother of Venda and Natalie) and her children on her son’s farm south of Wolseley. Catherine was separated from her husband and hadn’t been in contact with him for fifteen years. This of course led to some scandal, as she had three small children, and it’s unclear who the father was of any of them.
A Gruesome Discovery
Rosa’s body was discovered the following morning by George C. Harris, a methodist missionary stationed at the Greenville circuit near Wolseley. He testified that he’d heard the girl was missing at about 7:00AM on Saturday morning, August 3rd. He drove out to look for her, and after meeting with some of the neighbours, he testified that in consequence of what was said, he’d gone into a bluff near his home and there found a grave. According to him, he lifted off some pieces of sod which had been placed on the mound and found Rosa’s body, face down, her legs doubled up under her. He testified that he lifted the body out and laid it on the ground beside the grave, then drove to Wolseley at once to notify the authorities. (In some articles it was reported that Harris had returned the body to its original position, realizing that he shouldn’t have moved it, but it’s unclear if that’s true or not, since he didn’t mention it in his testimony.)
A Coroner’s Inquest was launched, headed by Dr. C. W. Hunt. Dr. Hunt testified that he had removed a cloth from the body, which was otherwise naked except for a chemise and dress, which were tied around her neck. When he removed the chemise and dress, he found a deep stab wound, which had severed the windpipe, gullet and cervical vertebrae. There was a second stab wound in her abdomen about 6-7 inches long, through which the bowels were protruding. Dr. Hunt believed this second wound was inflicted after death. The first stab wound in the neck was the cause of death, and he testified that it would have been immediate, without pain or suffering. He did not find evidence of sexual assault.
On August 5th, the jurymen, Coroner Hunt and Sergeant Dubuque of Indian Head went out to observe the scene where the body was discovered. Newspapers reported that there had been heavy rains and thunderstorms in the district, although it’s unclear if these storms occurred before the murder, after or were ongoing. It was reported that the body was found in terrible condition, and that the gravesite was muddy and filled with water, so at the very least it sounds like it must have rained either in the days leading up to the murder or overnight/into the morning of August 3rd.
At this point, a suspect was already in custody, after several witnesses said they saw him on or around the bluff on the day of the murder, although they all gave conflicting times and testimony as to when exactly they saw him. This man was Sam Prior.
Sam Prior had a homestead near the Hess farm. He was a “Barnardo Boy”, one of more than a 100,000 poor children (some orphaned, some given up by their parents) sent from Great Britain to farms across Canada. Farmers paid a fee and the children worked as indentured servants until they came of age. Some were treated well, most others were abused and left without any education. Sam was known to the district as lacking in his mental capacities, possibly from the lack of schooling during his time as a “Barnardo Boy” or possibly from when he’d been thrown by his horses while working at eight years old. He’d hit his head and was in the hospital for some time. He’d been put in the asylum at Brandon twice, and had just been released the year before.
George Harris testified that he’d seen Prior around the bluff the day of the murder, as did Natalie Hess. Her sister Venda, testified at the inquest that she hadn’t seen him, but later at the trial she said she’d seen Prior, wearing a dark suit and a grey hat, watching them before turning and going to the bluff where Rosa was found. Another farmer said he’d seen Prior going north with a shovel at about 3:00PM on the same day. Prior was arrested shortly after the discovery of the body, despite the fact that the investigation was not completed.
Upon his arrest, it was reported that a knife was taken from Prior, a large, rough cattle knife with two blades.
Sergeant Dubuque gave evidence at both the inquest and at the trial. He told the court that he thought Rosa Mohr’s grave had been dug in a peculiar manner, with the sod turned wrong side up. (How this was established when Harris had testified to removing the sod and taking the body from the grave, I’m not sure.)
He testified that he’d found prints of heavy boots beside the grave and that a quarter mile on the north side of the bluff, the grass and dirt were trampled down, with more prints of heavy boots. From this spot, he said he found a rough mark on the grass that traced for a quarter of a mile south, as if a body had been dragged. He also testified that he’d found a cut in the sod near the grave, as if an instrument such as a shovel had been stuck in the ground. He told the court that he’d searched Prior’s shack and found a pair of heavy boots the same size as the footprints he’d found, some clothing saturated with blood, and a spade, which had a piece missing from the end which made it the perfect size for the cut in the sod he’d found by the graveside.
It was also reported that he’d found a muddy shirt, but it’s unclear if this was found at the grave scene or in Prior’s shack. Sgt. Dubuque testified that he’d found a piece of shirt cuff mixed up with the sod at the grave, which “compared very favorably” with a shirt found in the shack, so it’s possible the reported muddy shirt was actually this piece of shirt cuff.
Finally, Sgt. Dubuque had one last piece of evidence against Sam Prior. He testified that Prior had confessed. According to Dubuque, Sam had started talking to him while in his jail cell, telling him about the trouble he was in. Sam allegedly told him that he’d been digging a well on the fated Friday, but had started for home because he wasn’t feeling well. He’d come upon Rosa, where she was with some cattle, and she’d teased him, calling him a crazy englishman. She’d had a dog with her that tried to bite his dog and he’d given her a smack. Dubuque said that Sam told him he’d killed her and put her in the bluff, then got a shovel and went back and buried her.
All of Sgt. Dubuque’s evidence certainly had things looking quite grim for Sam Prior, but here’s the thing: several people disagreed with him. Amos Smith, who’d been one of the jurymen at the inquest, testified at the trial that he’d been at the grave that day and saw no particular marks about the place. He’d gone over the ground again later with Mr. McPhail and they’d searched carefully for where a struggle might have taken place but found nothing. T.E. Scriver, the editor and publisher of Wolseley had also gone out with McPhail and both had looked very carefully all around the grave for the place where Sgt. Dubuque said he had found the cut in the sod but couldn’t find it.
The trial began on January 22, 1908. The crown prosecutor was Levi Thompson, and the defence was Mr. F.W.G. Haultain.
George Albert Charlton of the Bacteriological Laboratory at Regina testified for the prosecution. He was of the opinion that the blood stains on the clothing submitted into evidence, as well as the knife, were probably human, although he could only state for certain that it was the blood of a mammal. Dr. C.W. Hunt testified that the wounds on Rosa Mohr might have been caused by the knife in evidence, but at the time of the inquest he’d examined it and saw no signs of blood.
Haultain worked hard to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, starting with the witnesses mentioned above, Amos Smith, Mr. McPhail and T.E. Scriver. He also called a number of witnesses to the stand who testified that the bloodied clothes Sgt. Dubuque submitted as evidence were not the ones Sam Prior was wearing on the day of the murder. Arthur Bozen told the court that Prior was wearing dark clothes, not the trousers in evidence. As for the blood, Sam claimed that he got nosebleeds regularly and had been duck hunting. He told police the blood was from that.
Percy Coveraton of Wolseley testified that he’d known Prior on and off since 1901 and that on several occasions he’d known Prior’s nose to bleed. He told the court that Sam had a kindly disposition. John Handly, a grain merchant of Wolseley, testified that a day after the murder he’d told Mat Slainder that Sam Prior was suspected and Slainder had replied, “oh no, no Mr. Handley. I know Sam Prior, the silly foolish, but he is not crazy foolish like that. I saw Sam Prior yesterday while I cut hay and he had a gun and a dog.”
Mat Slainder denied ever saying that.
In his final argument, Haultain told the jury that he’d never seen such a mess of contradictory testimony in all his life. The only thing anyone seemed to be able to agree on, he said, were three things. First, that Rosa was lost at some point during the day on August 2, 1907; second, that she was found some time during the next day; and finally, that the accused was seen during the day of the murder.
On January 24, 1908, the jury found Sam Prior guilty with a recommendation of mercy. He was sentenced to hang on March 26, 1908. This sentence was appealed, and on March 5, 1908, Prior was declared insane and his sentence was changed to life imprisonment.
Was Sam Prior guilty? Did he actually confess? And if he did, and he killed Rosa for making fun of him like Sgt Dubuque said, why did he cut her abdomen after she was dead? With so many conflicting and changing testimonies, we can never be truly certain of what happened to Rosa Mohr on August 2, 1907.
Information for this post was provided by Wolseley Heritage Foundation Archive and the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, the Free Press Prairie Farmer and the Winnipeg Tribune: Aug 6, 1907, Aug 23, 1907, Jan 24, 1908, Jan 25, 1908, Jan 29, 1908 and March 6, 1908.
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