The Mystery in the Well

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Gull Lake, Saskatchewan – October, 1913

J. F. Royer was having a problem. The water in the well adjoining his livery barn didn’t taste very good. The water was becoming more and more putrid until, finally, the horses refused to touch it. So, on Tuesday afternoon, October 14, 1913, he rounded up his men and they set about cleaning the well.

Someone would need to go down into the well, and Bill Christonson was that deeply unlucky fellow. It was 38 feet deep and about 8 feet across with about 15 feet of water in it. As Bill made his way down, he saw what looked like a man in the water. And when he took a stick and managed to turn it over, his suspicion was confirmed. There was a body in the well.

They tied a noose around the dead man’s neck and hoisted him from the well. He was wearing a sweater, overalls, pants and a coat. A torn red sweater was also recovered, which had been wrapped around the man’s head. Despite the gashed up scalp and broken nose, the men were able to recognize enough of the man’s features to identify him as John Burns, a well-to-do homesteader from the Shaunavon district, about 45 miles away. He’d moved to Shaunavon from Carrington, North Dakota and had been at Gull Lake since the spring, working for different people. He was about forty-five-years-old.

The coroner from Maple Creek was called out and he opened an inquiry on Oct 15, 1913. A man named Dr. Gibson performed the post-mortem and testified that in his opinion, John Burns was dead before going into the well. He observed a large scalp wound running backwards from the left eye that was about 5 inches long. There were no injuries to the skull itself but he found clots of blood on the brain that he believed to be due to a concussion from a blow or blows.

The well was thoroughly examined and no blood smears were found anywhere inside to indicate that the scalp injury occurred during a fall into the well, and that, along with the sweater that was allegedly wrapped around Burns’s head, led police to agree with Dr. Gibson’s assertion that John Burns was most likely murdered.

Fred Sinclair had known the deceased and employed him on several occasions. He testified that Burns had come up in the spring with two men, “Hagan and Verpy”, who used to come around the barn and ask for him, but they hadn’t done so since Burns had been missing. Two bartenders from the Lake View Hotel also testified that Burns had stopped showing up around the beginning of August.

People had started noticing John Burns’s absence on August 7th, but he was a bachelor with a homestead 45 miles away and no connections in Gull Lake, so everyone assumed he’d simply gone back to Shaunavon. Police believed that theft might have been a motive, as he was known to carry a considerable amount of money with him and when his body was recovered he was missing sixty dollars believed to have been on his person. Adding to the gossip and mystery, a man employed by the hotel-keeper to haul brick had left town on August 7th without telling anyone where he was going. He had four days pay coming to him but had made no effort to collect. The coroner’s inquiry was adjourned to allow the police time to investigate further and locate the witnesses in question who might know more about the demise of John Burns.

Regina Leader-Post – Oct 18, 1913

And that, unfortunately, is where the trail ends. I could find no follow up articles on whether anyone was ever charged with his murder. It’s unclear if they were ever able to track down “Hagan and Verpy” or the man employed by the hotel-keeper. I contacted the coroner’s office to try and find out the results of the inquiry, but their records only date back to 1918. Was it even murder? It certainly seems that way, but given that forensics and our understanding of decomposition, especially decomposition in water have come a long way since then, it’s possible that Dr. Gibson’s findings weren’t completely accurate. We’ll never know for sure. But that, my friends, is the story of the man found in the well at Gull Lake, Saskatchewan.

I was only able to find two articles about this case. The first was the October 16, 1913 edition of the Swift Current Sun and the second was the October 18, 1913 edition of the Regina Leader-Post. If you have more information about this story, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

Thanks for reading! Please subscribe and share!

Would you like to read some more historical true crime? Try these:

A Deadly Quarrel: Murder Near Nipawin

The Unsolved Murder of Annie and Metro Zurawell

A Deadly Obsession: The Murder of Myrtle Beckler

A Deadly Quarrel: Murder Near Nipawin

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In January of 1934, RCMP officers made their way out to a lonely trapper’s cabin about thirty miles north of Nipawin. It was bitterly cold, the temperatures in the minus forties, as they began their investigation. They’d been called out by Albert Yager, a shopkeeper who had a store about two miles away. He was concerned that the cabin’s owner, Oskar Schwab, had met with foul play.

Oskar Schwab, a young man of twenty-eight, had been trapping in the area every winter since the fall of 1928. He’d erected the little log cabin in a small valley near the river, returning each year after working as a farm labourer in the Bruno district during the summers. In November of 1932, he’d returned, bringing a man named Thomas Kisling with him as a trapping partner. Thomas Kisling was a forty-four-year-old farmer, married with six children. The two appeared to be good friends.

But as winter progressed, Yager saw signs of discord begin to appear. On visits to Yager’s store, each would complain about the other, both believing their partner to be lazy. Petty grievances were common in the thinly populated bush country, isolated as they were during the winter, so Yager didn’t think much of it. That is, until June, when Kisling appeared in Yager’s shop to settle up their grocery bill. He told Yager that he was going back to Bruno and that Schwab had already left for Flin Flon. Included in the money he paid Yager, there was a German coin, one that Yager had seen in Schwab’s possession as a keepsake. Yager was immediately suspicious, especially since Schwab had never left without stopping by the store to say his goodbyes.

Yager did some investigating, and when he could find no trace of Schwab in Flin Flon or elsewhere, and when he failed to return in the fall, he took his story to the RCMP in Nipawin.

The officers examined every corner of the tiny log cabin, checking the bark and moss covered log walls for bullet holes, looking for signs of foul play. Their search was quickly rewarded when they found clotted blood in the straw at the head of the bunk. Near the blood stain was a bullet hole in the log wall, as though someone had fired from the side of the bed, exactly where someone’s head would be when they were sleeping. On the bullet they removed from the wall they found blood and what appeared to be human hair.

Things were not looking good for Oskar Schwab.

The RCMP arrested Kisling on his farm near Bruno on February 16, 1934 and charged him with forging cheques. Since leaving the cabin in June, Kisling had tried to cash two cheques allegedly from Schwab, one for forty one dollars and another for a hundred. He was successful with the first one but not the second. The signatures didn’t match. Kisling had spelled Oskar’s name with a ‘c’ not a ‘k’ and the bank rejected it. He tried going back, this time with a letter from Schwab apologizing for the difficulty and a new cheque but again, the signature didn’t match, thanks to the misspelling.

The RCMP didn’t play around with Kisling. They told him that they would be adding a murder charge to the forgery. Kisling denied the forgery and the murder, stating that they had nothing on him. Then, a few hours later he told them he wished to make a statement to explain the thing, but it was filled with inconsistencies and obvious lies so the RCMP rejected it and sent him back to his cell. Finally, late in the evening, he gave them another statement, this one with the distinct ring of truth, although it’s unlikely he was completely honest. His story changed numerous times after. He told them that on the night of June 9, 1933 he had had words with Schwab, the two of them quarreling over the settlement of money earned during the winter. Schwab refused to make the settlement and told Kisling he could walk home. As things got heated Schwab made a motion for his .22 rifle. Kisling, scared, left the shack and spent the night in the woods. At dawn he returned and looked in through the window to see Schwab asleep in his bunk. He crept inside, went to the west side of the bunk and shot Schwab where he lay. He took Schwab’s purse, two money orders and forged the two cheques.

They took Kisling out to the cabin the next day, Yager meeting them on their arrival. He turned to Kisling and asked straight out, “where’s Oskar?” Kisling pointed mutely to an area behind the cabin, not more than two feet from the building. The officers began digging, and although the temperature had warmed to minus twenty, it was still slow going. It took two hours of breaking through the frozen surface of the ground to make the grim discovery; the badly decomposed body of Oskar Schwab, wrapped in a blanket but otherwise naked, the back and part of the top of his head blown off.

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Feb 23, 1934

A coroner’s inquest was held and an autopsy performed by Dr. Frances McGill, the provincial pathologist. She testified that death was caused by a shot which penetrated the scalp near the base of the skill and shattered the cranium into many pieces. Based on the level of decomposition, she believed he’d been buried in the summer. Kisling was committed to stand trial at the spring assizes.

During the trial, Schwab’s former partner, Paul Hippel, testified that Schwab could have a bad temper and at one point had pointed a rifle at him. Kisling took the stand and painted a very different picture from his initial confession, saying that he hadn’t meant to shoot Schwab, only strike him, but the gun caught on a small table and went off. The jury didn’t buy his new version of events and Kisling was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Despite appeals by his defense, he was hung on Aug 10, 1934 at Prince Albert jail.

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Aug 10, 1934

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Feb 23, 1934, Feb 26, 1934, Feb 27, 1934, March 2, 1934, March 23, 1934, May 8, 1934, May 9, 1934, May 10, 1934, May 11, 1934, May 12, 1934, July 4, 1934, Aug 10, 1934

Thanks for reading! If you enjoy historical true crime, please subscribe and share.

Can’t wait until next week? Read these:

The Unsolved Murder of Annie and Metro Zurawell

A Deadly Obsession: The Murder of Myrtle Beckler

The Conflicting Accounts of the Death of Adolph Ibenfeldt

The Unsolved Murder of Annie and Metro Zurawell

The Home of Annie and Metro Zurawell – Regina Leader-Post April 13, 1938

November 12, 1933

It was Sunday, and much like every other Sunday, Mrs. Annie Dutcheshen got her children ready and took them to visit her parents, Annie and Metro Zurawell, on their farm about five and a half miles south of Veregin, Saskatchewan.

A gruesome sight awaited them. The farmyard was eerily quiet on their arrival and when Mrs. Dutcheshen entered the small farmhouse she found her parents dead, lying on the floor in the kitchen. Metro was on his back, shot in the head and chest, Annie was face down and seemed to have made an effort to get to the door before she died from her own gunshot wound to the chest. The house had been ransacked, including a trunk in the bedroom, and someone had attempted to set the house on fire. The bed was burnt, coal oil from a lamp having been used as an accelerant, but the fire had burned itself out instead of consuming the house as planned. The bed was still smouldering when Mrs. Dutcheshen and her kids arrived.

The motivation appeared to have been robbery. Annie Zurawell’s daughter from a previous marriage told police that the couple kept about $300 in the bedroom trunk, but after a search of the home the only money found was about eighty cents.

Regina Leader-Post – November 13, 1933

A coroner’s inquest was held and on November 29, 1933, the jury brought in a verdict of murder by wounds from a shotgun in the hands of a person or persons unknown, on the night of November 11, 1933.

At the inquest, Steve Dutcheshen, the 21-year-old grand-nephew of the Zurawells, testified that on November 8th or 9th he’d been at Mike Kindiak’s house and Mike had given him an agreement to read over. The agreement was between Mike Kindiak, his wife Irene, who was one of the Zurawell’s daughters, and Metro Zurawell. The agreement, made in 1930, transferred a quarter of land to the Kindiaks in return for them giving 1/3 of the crop to Metro each year for as long as he lived. Steve stated that Mike Kindiak had told him that if Metro Zurawell didn’t have his copy of the agreement he wouldn’t be able to collect his share, and if Steve was willing to steal the paper, he’d pay him $25 for it. Irene added that the paper would either be in the old house or in a trunk in the new house. Steve testified that he’d refused the offer, and when Mike Kindiak took the stand he denied having ever made it in the first place.

As for other suspects, Mike Dutcheshen testified that he’d picked up a stranger on his way to Verigin on that fateful Sunday the 12th, when he was driving to notify the police, but it wasn’t mentioned in his two previous statements. There were also two men reportedly seen tramping from home to home in the area, looking for marriageable women in the days leading up to the murders. They were reported as wanted for questioning but it’s unclear whether the RCMP ever tracked them down, or the supposed man Mike Dutcheshen had given a ride to. They did, however, bring in Pete Papyrka, a local man who’d worked for the Zurawell’s and was found with a decent amount of money on him, but he had an alibi.

Complicating matters further, there’d also been a recent string of robberies in the district. Two or three farmers known to have money had been held up.

There were three clues found in the home. Two spent shells were catalogued on the scene, as well a man’s thumbprint on the lamp chimney in the bedroom. They believed that whoever lit the bed on fire had removed the lamp’s chimney to do so and left the thumbprint behind. They fingerprinted every person in the district, including the investigating police force, but no match was found. They sent the print to the FBI in the United States and the fingerprint section in Ottawa, to be compared against every fingerprint on file, but still no match. An enormous search for the murder weapon was undertaken, but after searching the countryside and comparing the spent shells to every rifle and shotgun in the area, no match was found and the search turned up nothing.

The burnt remains of the Zurawell’s bed, the trunk and the lamp chimney where they found the thumbprint in the foreground. Regina Leader-Post – April 13, 1938

Unfazed, the police investigated the actions and whereabouts of hundreds of people, everyone known to have passed through or worked in the area, even going so far as to track down people who had moved back to Poland, but still no solid leads were found.

The newspapers kept the story alive, publishing updates every few years until 1948, when fifteen years had past without any new leads or clues. Despite the dogged pursuit, the murders were never solved and the slayer of Annie and Metro Zurawell was never revealed. Was it planned? Opportunistic? Was it connected to the string of robberies in the district or the agreement between Mike Kindiak and Metro Zurawell? We’ll never know, but that is the story of the unsolved murder of Annie and Metro Zurawell.

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Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Nov 13, 1933, Nov 15 1933, Nov 17, 1933, Nov 30, 1933, April 13, 1938, Nov 16, 1943, Sep 11, 1945, and Nov 23, 1948

Thanks for reading! Please subscribe and share!

If you’d like to read more stories of true crime in Saskatchewan, try these:

A Deadly Obsession: The Murder of Myrtle Beckler

The Conflicting Accounts of the Death of Adolph Ibenfeldt

The Welwyn Massacre

Christmas Murder Mysteries – Week Four

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We’ve come to the end, the final week of reading Christmas murder mysteries. And for our final selection, I’ve chosen something great. Get ready for…

The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay

This is your classic, country-house Christmas murder mystery. It has a menagerie of odd and secretive family members, a crusty old patriarch, the threat of a will being changed and of course, Santa. It also gives the perspective of multiple characters, which I love, each giving you a piece to the mystery.

It’s a great story to close out our month of classic Christmas murders. I’ve loved reading these books with all of you and I hope its helped bring a little bit of coziness and fun to your own holiday season. I’m off next week, so you won’t see anything from me until the new year, when I return with more horrifying tales of historical true crime. Until then, take care and if your family is driving you crazy, read don’t kill.

Happy New Year!

Thanks for reading! Below are the rest of the Christmas Murder Mystery selections!

Christmas Murder Mysteries – Week Three

Christmas Murder Mysteries – Week Two

Murder for Christmas

Christmas Murder Mysteries – Week Three

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Welcome to week three of Christmas murder mysteries. How is everyone feeling? Are we in the holiday spirit yet? Eager to solve another murder? Then let’s get on with it! Week three’s selection is…

Murder For Christmas by Francis Duncan

Murder For Christmas by Francis Duncan

It’s Christmas time and our retired hero, Mordecai Tremaine, has been invited to an acquaintance’s for Christmas. But the invitation had a concerning note at the end and everything at the Christmas party feels… a little off. Everyone seems happy, but secrets abound and when someone gets murdered… well, Mordecai will need to figure out whose secret was worth killing to protect.

This one was FUN. It’s starts out slow, the murder doesn’t happen until near the halfway point, but there are a lot of twists and you know a good mystery needs lots of secrets, which this one has in spades.

My hope for all of you is that by the time Christmas arrives, you’re looking at all your neighbours and family members with suspicion as possible murder suspects. Because isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Thank you for reading! If you want to give me an early Christmas present, then subscribe and share! See you next week!

Murder for Christmas – Christmas Murder Mysteries Week 1

Christmas Murder Mysteries – Week 2

Christmas Murder Mysteries – Week Two

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It’s week two of our Christmas Murder Mystery Book Club and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m not going to lie, I agonized over which book to choose for the unenviable position of having to follow the incredible Agatha Christie and her masterpiece, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. (Did you miss last week? Read it here.) I narrowed it down to two choices and finally decided on:

A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer

A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer

Now, a small disclaimer. I figured out who the murderer was and how they’d done it pretty quickly. But I didn’t mind, because I really liked the cast of characters and watching it all play out. My favourite character, by far, was Maud. I think you’ll get it when you read it. It’s just really fun. It’s like any ridiculously mismatched family having the usual Christmas dramatics, but there’s murder. And honestly, I really want to see if you’ll solve it too. (No shame if you don’t! It’s more fun that way anyway.)

So grab a blanket, a nice cup of tea (or whisky. No judgment!) and curl up with this week’s story of holiday murder. Can’t wait to hear what you think!

If you’re enjoying our Christmas read along, please subscribe and share! And if you’re longing for more holiday content, check these out:

How to Wrap a Present (Another Yuletide Adventure)

Christmas Movies That Have Nothing To Do With Christmas

Thanks for reading!

Murder for Christmas

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I know what you’re thinking, that’s a great title for a true crime story, and it is! But alas, I’m not talking true crime today. (Yes, the title is a bit misleading. Forgive me, I still wanted you to come read it. But I promise it’s murder related.) December is upon us, that twinkly-light-filled time of year when we make and eat enormous amounts of baked goods and try to put up with our relatives.

I’m not much for Christmas, but this year I’m trying to embrace the bits I do enjoy, like the aforementioned twinkly lights and baked goods. As part of my holiday celebration, I decided that I’m going to read some Christmas books. No, not A Christmas Carol, The Christmas Box or The Gift of The Magi. In keeping with my interests, they will all be murder themed. Yes, that’s right. It’s a Christmas murder mystery extravaganza!

Starting with…

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – Agatha Christie

Oh yes, you know I had to start with the queen herself, Agatha Christie. My God, can that woman write a mystery. I literally read this all in one sitting yesterday and within the first chapter I was like, “oh yeah! I’ve read this one!” and although I knew who the killer was, I couldn’t remember how they were caught, so I kept on reading and damn! Even on a second run it was fantastic. It’s like rewatching The Sixth Sense for the first time, when you know the solution and now you get to see that all the clues were there! Agatha Christie, that genius, gives you everything you need to solve the mystery as you read. She doesn’t cheat and hold back something important. No, she gives you everything the detective, Hercule Poirot, knows and then some, all while writing an engaging story with interesting characters.

So, read it! Because every week I’m going to be reading and reviewing a new Christmas murder mystery and I hope you’ll read along with me. Think of it as a low stress, Christmas book club. We’ll all cozy up, read a good holiday themed murder and practice a little self care during this high stress time. And come the new year, I promise I’ll get back to telling you some horrifying stories of true crime in Saskatchewan.

Thank you for reading! If you feel like doing me a solid, subscribe and share!

And if you’re really missing that dose of historical true crime, here are some of the murders I’ve covered, winter themed for your holiday enjoyment.

The Haunted Skull of the Kerrobert Courthouse

Shootin’ Rabbits by Moonlight: The Murder of Hans Pederson

Murder at Lake Athabasca

A Deadly Obsession: The Murder of Myrtle Beckler

March 27, 1931

It was Friday night in Beechy, Saskatchewan and an old-time dance was being held at the village hotel. Harry Payne, a local butcher, was in attendance with his wife, as well as one of their boarders, eighteen-year-old Myrtle Beckler. She’d come to Beechy only two months before, having just finished high school and then shorthand school in Saskatoon. Myrtle had gotten a job as the stenographer at the local Bank of Nova Scotia and was already popular among the villagers with her sunny disposition and sweet personality.

At midnight, Mervin Elliot arrived. He was a teller at the same bank, and had recently been promoted to ‘the cage’. He didn’t care for old-time dances, he was there to see Myrtle. He found her and the pair left the dance, walking to Myrtle’s residence at the Payne home about two blocks away.

When they arrived, Miss Frances Isley, another boarder, was still awake, reading her book in the sitting room. She later said that Elliot seemed normal. He spoke to her about the book she was reading, although he did not talk to Myrtle. After a while, she went to her bedroom to turn in. She could hear the two of them talking in low tones and then she heard Elliot leave. Myrtle walked to her room and started getting ready for bed, taking off her rings and placing them on the dresser. Just as Miss Isley was dozing off, she heard a knock at the door. Myrtle answered it and she could hear Myrtle and Elliot in conversation in the sitting room, but couldn’t hear what was being said, until suddenly Myrtle exclaimed, “Mervin, Mervin you don’t dare.”

The words barely made it past Myrtle’s lips before three shots rang out in quick succession. A fourth followed a moment later. Miss Isley sat up in bed, too terrified to leave her room. At the back of the house, the two Payne children were fast asleep, undisturbed by the gun shots. Edwin Taylor, who’d been sitting up with the children, ran into the sitting room and found Elliot and Myrtle lying on the floor. He ran to the hotel where the dance was still in full swing and sounded the alarm.

When Harry Payne got home, he found Myrtle dead. Elliot was lying on the floor, having crashed against the radio, which had crushed through the wallpaper. There was a bullet lodged in the wall and a Scott & Webley .38 revolver on the floor.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – March 28, 1931

Harry’s father and overseer of the village, George Payne, took charge of the scene immediately and posted guards at the entrances of the house to keep the throngs of people from the dance from trampling through the scene. He notified the RCMP and sent his son to fetch the coroner from Lucky Lake. Upon Coroner Leckle’s arrival, a jury was empanelled to view Myrtle’s body and an inquest was set for the following Monday afternoon.

Myrtle had been shot three times by Elliot with one of the bullets going right through her heart. She was dead almost instantly. Elliot, after murdering her, had placed the muzzle against the right side of his head and pulled the trigger. The bullet had passed right through and lodged in the wall. He was shockingly not dead, but didn’t survive very long. He was taken to hospital and died late Saturday afternoon, with his sister by his side, never regaining consciousness.

The Bank Manager, Mr. Bell, identified the revolver as one belonging to the bank. It was kept in the middle drawer of his desk and he was positive it had been securely locked. The only key he knew of was the one he carried on his person. In fact, Mr. Bell had ordered that the revolvers be kept under lock and key because Mervin’s attitude toward life made him uneasy, especially since Mervin’s older brother, Hervey had shot himself the previous July.

Too bad that caution didn’t keep Mr. Bell from saying yes when Mervin came to him the Sunday before the murder and asked for permission to practice shooting with the revolver. He’d been given the gun and some ammunition to use, but Mr. Bell argued that the gun had been safely returned.

Eager to find out what had caused Mervin Elliot to viciously murder Myrtle Beckler, they went through his trunk. There was a bible, a mass of clippings about the John Schumacher arrest for the murder of Scotty McLachlan, which had recently scandalized the district (you can read about it here), a news story about a suicide at The Pas, and a poem. Mervin, as they would find out, wrote a lot of poetry. All of it lovesick and delusional, painting himself as an unending victim of unrequited love. This particular poem ended with the line: “my heart is getting used to this, I wonder who will break it next?”

In the teller’s drawer at the bank, the manager found another poem, this one ending with “I don’t know why I feel this way, but I’ve always been the same, there’s always trouble on my mind, I’m really not to blame.”

Finally, at the murder scene, was a hastily scrawled note with a stub of pencil addressed to Edward Taylor, another accountant at the bank and fellow boarder of Mervin at another local home. It read: “Dear Ed, this is goodbye for Myrtle and myself. God bless them all.”

On the back was yet another typed poem by Elliot, titled “My Sorrow”.

Elliot, despite only knowing Myrtle for two months, believed he was in love with her and had become obsessed. Everyone at the bank could see that Elliot was very fond of Myrtle, but she’d been clear from the start that she did not have romantic feelings for him and considered him a friend. By all accounts, she was a very good friend to him as well, but instead of returning the friendship, Mervin clung to his delusion.

And on the night of the dance it seemed he had already made up his mind to retrieve the revolver and kill Myrtle, proving that he never really cared about her to begin with. If he did, it never would have crossed his mind to hurt her, especially since she hadn’t actually done anything aside from being kind to him. She was merely a prop in the tragic delusion he’d created for himself, where he was the long suffering, misunderstood hero.

The Regina Leader-Post – April 1, 1931

Myrtle Beckler’s family lived in Lucky Lake, which is where they held her funeral. Hundreds turned out for her funeral, with a multitude of floral tributes being sent to the church. Her old schoolmates were her pallbearers. She was buried in the Vera Cemetery just south of Lucky Lake. On her tombstone it reads, “God alone understands”, a testiment to the pain and disbelief her senseless killing must have caused to those who loved her.

And that is the story of the senseless murder of Myrtle Beckler in Beechy, Saskatchewan.

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe! And if you know someone else who’s fascinated by true crime, send it their way.

If you’d like to read more historical true crime stories of Saskatchewan, start here:

The Conflicting Accounts of the Death of Adolph Ibenfeldt

The Welwyn Massacre

Confession at the North Battleford Mental Hospital

The Conflicting Accounts of the Death of Adolph Ibenfeldt

There is only one thing known for certain about the death of Adolph Ibenfeldt, and that is that on the morning of Oct 8, 1925, he was shot by his employer, Colin Feader. As to the how and why, well that’s where the stories begin to differ.

Colin Feader was a prosperous and well known farmer of the Fleming district near Moosomin. He and his family had been farming there for thirty years and he was held in very high regard by his neighbours. His labourer, Adolph Ibenfeldt, had been working for him since August 23, 1925 and was known as a good worker, likeable and not at all quarrelsome.

And yet, in the early hours of Oct 8th, Mrs. Feader told the court that she heard a shot. She called outside for her husband, and getting no response, called a doctor. Dr. Keyes arrived at the farm shortly before 8:00AM and found Adolph lying on the floor with gunshot wounds. Colin Feader was not there. He’d jumped on his horse and started riding north. Dr. Keyes assessed the wounds of Adolph Ibenfeldt and had him taken to the hospital in Moosomin. Meanwhile, two of Feader’s neighbours had tracked the horse and rider and found him five miles up the road. They told him to come back to the farm and he did so willingly.

Regina Leader-Post – Oct 8, 1925

Dr. Keyes was still at the farm when Colin Feader returned. He testified later that Feader seemed indifferent about what had happened, that maybe he didn’t fully understand what had occurred. He asked, “did he attack you, Colin?” To which Feader replied, that no, he hadn’t. Dr. Keyes asked him if he was crazy when he shot Ibenfeldt.

“I certainly must have been.”

Dr. Keyes asked Feader if he’d give him a statement, but Feader refused. “No, I’ll see a lawyer,” he told him.

Meanwhile, Adolph Ibenfeldt, while seriously injured and at death’s door, was quite conscious and being interviewed by the police. Afterward, he gave an interview to a reporter as well and this is the story he told both.

He said that at about 6:30 in the morning he and Feader had gone down to the stable together. Both were in a good mood, laughing and joking. Adolph began to milk the cows and when he’d finished milking the first one, he walked across the stable and emptied the milk into a larger pail. As he was walking back, he was shot in the right side of his chest. He crawled on hands and knees across the stable floor and dragged himself out of the building. A moment later, he turned and saw Feader standing near the stable, laughing at him. He said that Feader grabbed him by the coat collar and dragged him back to the door, then stepped back about 9 feet and shot him again. Feader then struck him three times over the back with the gun, breaking it. Laughing, he got on his horse and rode away. Ibenfeldt crawled across the yard to the house and lay sprawled on the doorstep, until the doctor arrived and he was taken away to the hospital. He told police and reporters that Colin was a good man and a good boss, and up to that point they’d never quarreled.

Colin Feader was taken into custody and brought to Moosomin where he was charged with attempted murder, until later that same night, the charge was upgraded to murder. Adolph Ibenfeldt had died of his injuries, leaving a widow and three children in Norway. He was thirty-three-years-old.

A search of the farm was done by the provincial police and Constable Gathercole found the 12 gauge shotgun in a manger in the cow barn. It had two exploded shells and was broken at the breech, as Adolph had described.

Regina Leader-Post – Oct 19, 1925

A preliminary hearing was held on Oct 18, 1925. Colin Feader was committed to stand trial at the next sitting of the Court of King’s Bench at Moosomin in November. The trial opened on November 20, 1925. It included testimony from Feader’s neighbours, attesting to his good character, as well as labourers who worked with Ibenfeldt, attesting to his.

Dr. Keyes took the stand and described the injuries to Ibenfeldt that led to his death. According to the doctor, Ibenfeldt was shot from behind as well as when an assailant stood over him. He said the pellets had entered the right side of the deceased, fracturing some of his right ribs, passing through his right lung, his right kidney and his liver. One pellet had penetrated the bowel. The trajectory was from the right armpit diagonally through the abdomen. He believed that when the second shot was fired, Ibenfeldt must have had his arm raised in the air, because there were no pellets in his arms. He described abrasions on the right shoulder blade, the left shoulder and the left forearm.

All of this seemed to support Ibenfeldt’s description of events. But Colin Feader took the stand and told a very different story. Through tears and sobbing, he described how Ibenfeldt had attacked him, coming after him with a pitchfork. He said that he’d tried to flee but couldn’t get the barn door open, so he grabbed the shotgun, trying to scare Ibenfeldt into backing off. The gun went off by accident he said, that he’d never meant to shoot Ibenfeldt. They tusseled and Colin had managed to get away, which was when he’d jumped on his horse and fled. When the prosecution asked why he’d left his children and wife behind at the mercy of Ibenfeldt, he said that he wasn’t worried about them, because Ibenfeldt had no quarrel with them.

The defence argued that Ibenfeldt’s statement was full of discrepancies and that he wasn’t in any condition to give a true statement, due to the pain medication he was given by doctors.

The jury seemed to believe the defence, and Colin Feader was only found guilty of manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to five years at the Prince Albert pentitentiary, saying that he’d given him such a light sentence because of all the evidence given to support his ‘outstanding character’.

The only ones who know what truly happened on the morning of October 8, 1925 are Colin Feader and Adolph Ibenfeldt. The evidence seems to support the story told by Ibenfeldt, but as we know, the truth is often somewhere in the middle. Did Colin Feader go momentarily insane after thirty years of being so highly regarded? Was there an argument that neither would admit to? We’ll never know.

But that is the story of the murder of Adolph Ibenfeldt and the differing accounts of what led to his death.

The Winnipeg Tribune – Nov 28, 1925

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Information for this post came from the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Daily Star and the Winnipeg Tribune: Oct 8, 1925, Oct 9, 1925, Oct 16, 1925, Oct 19, 1925, Nov 21, 1925, Nov 26, 1925 and Nov 28, 1925.

Interested in more historical Saskatchewan true crime? You’re in luck. Try these:

The Welwyn Massacre

Confession at the North Battleford Mental Hospital

Murder in Moose Jaw: The Heroism of Margaret Regan

The Welwyn Massacre

A short note before we begin. Although true crime stories are, as a rule, upsetting, this story is especially so and includes the murder of children. Please consider this a content warning and skip this post if that’s something that will bring you distress.

Newspapers from this era were a little harder to come by, so while I did find a few articles, I relied on some more recent news articles for information. Specifically, a 1994 article about historian and journalist Lorna James, who documented the crime. She was born and raised in Welwyn and her grandfather lived on the same section of land as the McArthur family. He was one of the neighbours who assisted at the scene that night. Secondly, an interview with David Brindle published in 2000. Dave Brindle is a journalist who researched this case and actually traveled to Ottawa and read the case files and inquest transcripts kept at the Canada Archives. The research and information shared in both of those articles was invaluable. Finally, this blog post by Glen’s Travels shared information as well as a few news articles I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Okay, let’s get into it.

Welwyn, Saskatchewan 1916 – photo credit: prairie-towns.com

Alexander McArthur and his wife, Sarah, moved to the Prairies from Ontario in the late 1800s. At the time, Saskatchewan was not yet a province and was considered part of the Northwest Territories. They settled on land about a kilometer southeast of the village of Welwyn, just north of Moosomin. Alexander immediately become the postmaster for the town, running the operation from his house.

For the next eighteen years, he and Sarah worked the land, tended the local Presbyterian Church and had seven children. Alexander became a prize-winning stock breeder, served on the first town council and was respected throughout the community as a “progressive” man.

In 1895, the McArthurs hired a young man in his twenties, John Morrison, to work as a labourer on their farm. Morrison was a Barnardo boy, shipped to Canada at four to be raised where there were more opportunities. His father was living in Glasgow at the time and sent Morrison to Canada after his mother died. Barnardo boys were often raised on farms and were supposed to be given a full education, however some farmers were more interested in the free labour than making sure the boys got an education and many Barnardo boys ended up as permanent farm labourers. John was one of the unlucky ones, being unable to read or write.

John Morrison and the McArthurs seemed to get along quite well. John described Sarah McArthur as ‘like a mother to him’. He worked on the McArthur farm for five years, until the evening of June 8, 1900. He played with the children for a while, then went to a farm four miles away where he and some friends played football (soccer). No one thought he was acting strangely that night. He didn’t seem angry or despondent with his employer or his life. No one could have known that before he’d gone out he’d spent some time in the barn, sharpening his axe.

He left for home around eleven, jogging back to the McArthur farm where he found his revolver and tucked it into his pants. He picked up his axe, and just after midnight, entered the small, two-storey farmhouse. A light on the kitchen table still burned, shining into the bedroom just off the kitchen where Mr. McArthur slept on one bed with their son, two-year-old Henry. Across the room, Sarah slept with the two-week-old baby, Elville Scott, and their younger daughter, Mary Elizabeth (Mae).

Morrison attacked the father first, striking him on the right side of the head with the axe, fracturing his skull. There are differing accounts of who was attacked next. John told police that at first, he only intended to kill Alexander, but as he hit him with the axe, Sarah started to wake up so he went for her. The newspapers, however, reported that after striking Alexander, he went after Henry. If we assume Morrison was telling the truth, then Sarah was the second target of his rage. She was struck over the right eye and was killed. Next, Morrison went after the children, hitting the baby, two-year-old Henry and Mae with his axe.

Leaving the bedroom, he went into the living room, where four-year-old Russell was asleep on either a cot or the couch (accounts differ). He struck Russell with what they believe to be the broad side of the axe, rather than the sharpened blade, bludgeoning him. He climbed the stairs and went into the bedroom he shared with eleven-year-old Dempsey. He struck Dempsey in the back of the head as he lay in bed, killing him and leaving a horrible gash in the back of his skull. Later, neighbours found marks on the ceiling from when the axe was raised over Morrison’s head.

Finally, he went into the bedroom that fifteen-year-old Margaret (Maggie) shared with her eight-year-old brother Charlie. It’s unclear if Charlie awoke and tried to get away, or was sleeping on the floor. His body was found face down on the floor, his face resting on his palm with ghastly holes in the top of his head. At some point during the attack, Morrison drove the axe right through the floor.

This is when Maggie woke up. Morrison sat down on the bed, playing with his revolver, and told her he’d killed the rest of her family, saying that he loved her and she’d been very cool towards him lately. (Please note, he was twenty seven. She was fifteen.) He tried to rape her, but was physically unable to. He picked up the revolver, put it to her head and pulled the trigger. It clicked, refusing to fire. He put the revolver to his own head and again, it refused to fire.

Morrison left Maggie then, running down to the barn and getting the double barreled shotgun. He placed a stick through the trigger, put the muzzle against his heart and used his feet to fire the weapon.

Maggie heard the shot ring out and ran through the house, taking in the grim attacks on her parents and siblings before running to a nearby farm for help.

John Morrison didn’t die. Only one barrel discharged, missing his heart and tearing up the left side of his chest, leaving him gravely injured, but alive. They found him in the barn with the shotgun, the revolver and bloodied axe at his side.

A gruesome sight awaited them in the farmhouse. Blood spattered the walls and ceiling in each room of the attacks, the beds and bedding saturated with blood. Alexander McArthur had deep wounds in his head, his skull fractured and bits of brain protruding. He was still alive, but unconscious. Sarah was dead, but Mae, Henry and the baby were all still alive. Russell was alive, but unconscious. Dempsey and Charlie were dead.

Within days, Alexander and Russell also died, bringing the total murdered to five. The other three children remained at the hospital in grave condition. The baby, Elville Scott was brain damaged from the attack. Most accounts say he died at eight, but the grave found by Glen’s Travels has him passing away at sixteen. Henry and Mae survived, living to eighty seven and eighty five. Maggie, although physically unscathed during the attack, only lived to twenty seven, having moved to the west coast where she got married and had a son. Her son perished shortly before she did, the cause of death for both unknown.

John Morrison, despite his injuries, survived. He plead guilty to the murders and was sentenced to death. He was taken to the Regina jail and on Jan 17, 1901, he was hung on the same scaffold used to execute Louis Riel, some fourteen years earlier.

At the time of the murders, John had recently been away, although no one knows where, and had spent hundreds of dollars. Dave Brindle said in his interview that he suspected Morrison might have tried to enlist to fight in the Boer War, but was rejected and went on a drinking binge before returning to the McArthur farm. We’ll never know. What we do know, is that after his arrest, Morrison told police that as he was cutting scrub in the hot sun a few days before the murders, he started thinking about all the work he had to do, about the small amount he was paid and decided to kill himself. As he continued to cut away at the scrub with his axe, he decided that if he was going to die, “he might as well have his way with Maggie”, whom he had an unhealthy obsession with. But first, he would need to do away with her father; he couldn’t have him getting in the way. So he made his plan.

Find a Grave – photo added by Alison

The McArthur house is long gone, the property returned to farmland. The family grave in the Moosomin graveyard is in disrepair and all that’s left to tell the tale is an inscription on a pulpit in the Welwyn United Church and a roadside sign outside of Welwyn. But as Lorna James told the reporter in her interview (she passed away shortly after, in November of the same year), she didn’t believe the crime, or the McArthurs should be pushed aside like a footnote in history. And it seems she’s right, people have continued to stumble across the story and share it. All parts of our history, no matter how gruesome, need to be remembered.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, sources for this post came from recent interviews as well as original news articles. The original articles were from the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, the Moosomin World and the Winnipeg Daily Tribune: June 11, 1900, June 14, 1900, June 28, 1900 and Jan 17, 1901.

*Side note: I have also seen these murders referred to as the Moosomin Massacre, given Welwyn’s proximity to Moosomin. In 2018, Welwyn gave up its village status and became a special service area in the Rural Municipality of Moosomin.

Thank you for reading! If you found this post interesting, please subscribe and share! If you’d liked to read about more true crime in historical Saskatchewan, then the posts below are a great place to start.

Confession at the North Battleford Mental Hospital

Murder in Moose Jaw: The Heroism of Margaret Regan

The Shooting of Rosie Schmidt