In March of 1934, just four miles north of Estevan stood the Bailey Farm, where Percy Bailey and his wife lived with their two daughters, Eileen, who was seventeen, and Ruby, who was nineteen. On March 24, the couple went into town to do some shopping, leaving Eileen and Ruby home alone.
The two girls were in the kitchen cooking when they saw James Nelson Watson drive into the farmyard. Not wanting to talk to him, they latched the storm door and locked the inside door of the house and went upstairs. About a month before, Eileen had told James – who was sweet on her – that she didn’t want to get too serious and returned the various small presents he’d given her. When that didn’t discourage him, Mrs. Bailey told him not to contact Eileen anymore and told both girls to lock the door and not let anyone in when they were alone.
Watson knocked, and when they didn’t answer, broke the lock and forced his way in. Ruby came down the stairs first and was struck in the head with a short club by Watson. Then he went for Eileen, who’d come down the stairs behind Ruby. He slashed at her neck with a curved hunting knife, thrusting it into her throat. Ruby tried to defend her sister, getting struck a few more times in the head. She ran out into the yard for help, but no one was there. When she returned, Watson simply passed by her and left, driving towards Estevan at a leisurely pace. Ruby found her sister lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, dead.
Ruby staggered to the telephone and called the chief of police, A. McCutcheon, who called Sergeant John Molyneux and sent him to the farm. She also phoned her father at a local store and Dr. J. V. Millions, who arrived at the house a few minutes later and took Ruby to the hospital for her injuries.
Percy Bailey, having received the frantic call from Ruby, drove immediately to the farm. On his way, he passed Watson and flagged him down. Watson stopped his truck and Percy asked him what he’d done. Watson looked at him and said, “I’ve done plenty.” At this point, Sgt. Molyneux arrived and Percy left Watson in his custody, rushing home to find Eileen, dead in the kitchen from a throat wound.
Sgt. Molyneux arrested Watson and took him to Estevan. He asked Watson what he’d been doing near the Bailey’s farm and Watson replied, “I killed her.”
Eileen and James had been friends for about two years. He had worked at the Bailey farm the previous fall under the government’s special farm employment plan and the two had also been in a play together. James was twenty two. His father, Harry Watson, upon hearing about the murder was stunned. He knew his son was in love with Eileen, but never thought he’d react with such violence to Eileen’s rejection.
James Nelson Watson went on trial for Eileen’s murder in September of 1934. His defense tried to argue that Watson was insane at the time of the murder and was not fit to stand trial but a jury found him to be sane and the trial went forward.
Included as evidence were the club and hunting knife, which the Baileys testified were not theirs and must have been brought to the farm by Watson, Eileen’s clothes, the trousers and shirt worn by Watson at the time of the murder and cloth cut from the seat cushions in Watson’s truck, all stained with blood. Also included was the smashed lock Watson broke to gain entry.
Numerous psychiatrists testified that Watson was not sane, not at the time of the murder and not since. One doctor diagnosed him as having a fit of epileptic furore – a sudden unprovoked attack of intense anger and violence to which individuals with psychomotor epilepsy are occasionally subject to. He believed that Watson was suffering from psychomotor epilepsy, a form of epilepsy typically limited to the temporal lobe of the brain, resulting in impairment of responsiveness and awareness to one’s surroundings. Patients with this form of epilepsy can act out in a variety of ways while experiencing the seizure and not remember it. His explanation for why Watson had previously shown no signs of the illness was that symptoms might only be exhibited once in many years.
Another witness called to the stand was Della Turner, a friend of the Bailey family. She testified that she got a call from Watson on the day of the murder. He asked her if the Bailey sisters had come into Estevan with their parents and she told him no. Apparently he phoned her every Saturday with the same question.
On September 27, 1934 James Nelson Watson was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang on January 18, 1935. This delay was to allow psychiatrists time to continue monitoring Watson, as there was still a debate over his sanity. His lawyer filed appeals on his behalf and on November 5, 1934, he was granted a new trial. On April 10, 1935 he was found unfit to stand trial and was sent to the North Battleford mental hospital, where he stayed for fifteen years.
It wasn’t until September 13, 1949, when Watson was forty years old that he was found sane enough to be fit for trial and on September 15, 1949 he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Was he sane when he killed Eileen Bailey? The question isn’t really about whether or not he suffered from mental illness, as he clearly wasn’t someone whose mind was functioning in a healthy compacity. The question is whether or not he knew what he was doing was wrong at the time of the murder. I’m inclined to think he did. He phoned Della Turner to make sure the girls would be home alone and brought the weapons with him. But I’m not a doctor and he’s long dead, so we’ll never know for sure.
What we do know is that Eileen’s life was cut brutally short and ended in violence, all because she turned away the advances of a man incapable of dealing with rejection.
Thank you for reading! Please subscribe and share! Information for this post was found in the following issues of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: March 26, 1934, March 27, 1934, Sep 26, 1934, Sep 27, 1934, Oct 6, 1934, Nov 6, 1934, Feb 2, 1935, April 10, 1935, Aug 30, 1949, Sep 13, 1949, Sep 14, 1949, Sep 15, 1949
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At around 3:15 in the afternoon, a few customers gathered at the door of the small general store in Redberry, Saskatchewan to buy stamps. The door was locked, but they weren’t alarmed, assuming the owner and postmaster, Peter Pommereul, would return soon.
Someone went to his daughter’s house nearby and she returned with the spare key to let them in the shop. A few more minutes went by, but still no one was worried. As the customers chatted, one of the men leaned against the counter and saw Peter’s body crumpled on the floor behind it. He was on his knees, his forehead in a pool of blood. The wallet in his right hip pocket was missing, the pocket turned out. On the floor was a single .22 caliber rifle shell.
Outside, footsteps led from the shop across a nearby field to a clump of bushes.
When the doctor examined Peter’s body, he found that the bullet had entered above and behind the left ear, exiting through the right temple. He believed that the shot most likely caught the man unaware and it was likely Peter Pommereul never saw it coming.
The RCMP arrived and began their investigation by retracing the dead man’s steps. Peter was in his mid-fifties, a widower who lived alone, taking his meals with his daughter and son-in-law. On the day in question, he’d gone to his daughter’s for lunch, leaving shortly after to return to his store.
His son-in-law, William Hasse, stopped by at around 2:15 for a short visit before continuing on to his office at the grain elevator. Peter was dead by the time his customers arrived after 3:00.
When Fred Harach heard about the murder the following day he initially didn’t think anything of it. But when he saw the tracks across the field leading from the general store, he got suspicious and decided to do a little detective work.
The previous day, his neighbour, Steve Bohun, had shown up at around noon, asking if he could borrow Fred’s .22 caliber rifle to shoot a pig. Fred was reluctant, he had an expert coming to test out his rifle, but Steve was insistent, saying he only needed the rifle for a short time and would return it quickly. Fred caved and let Steve borrow the rifle.
But Steve didn’t return quickly. Fred waited an hour and a half. At 3:00 when the expert arrived, Steve still hadn’t returned, so Fred walked to his father’s farm to look for him. There was no sign of Steve or the dead pig he was supposed to have shot.
He headed home and was met in the field by Bohun, who came running towards him, excited and red with bloodshot eyes. They fired a few shots from the rifle together, then Fred took the gun and went home.
Fred now went back to that same pasture and examined Bohun’s shoe prints. They looked the same as the shoe prints in the field near Redberry. He told his father and their neighour, who reported it to the police. The investigators took a plaster cast of the shoe prints from both locations and compared them. They were identical.
At 1:30AM, June 14, 1933, they arrested Steve Bohun, waking him from a sound sleep at his girlfriend’s home in Krydor, Saskatchewan. There was a roll of $135 in bills under his pillow. He submitted quietly and was taken to Hafford, Saskatchewan.
Steve Bohun was a nineteen year old man living and working on his father’s farm in Krydor. He was engaged to a seventeen year old girl named Annie Barchuk, who, the day before the murder, had just told him she was pregnant. The next day, June 12th, he went to his father and asked to borrow money for their approaching marriage. His father refused and they’d quarreled, leaving Steve to storm off and ask Fred Harach if he could borrow his rifle.
There were a few key pieces of evidence put forth at Steve Bohun’s trial. First, there were the plaster casts of the shoe impressions, showing the matching shoe print and tread pattern between Steve and the murderer. Second, there were the expelled shells from Fred’s rifle the police had found in the pasture where Steve and Fred had fired the couple of bullets when Steve returned the gun. The shells matched the shell found at the murder scene. There was Fred’s testimony of course, and finally there was Steve’s confession, made to the police while in custody.
Steve denied his confession, saying it was made under threat and torture, that Constable Rudick (one of the RCMP officers on the investigation) “beat him up.” His story was that he’d borrowed the rifle to go hunting and had fallen asleep beside the lake, waking only a few minutes before seeing Fred.
His defense cousel, John G. Diefenbaker, argued against allowing the confession. In court, he confronted Constable Beavan (another officer on the investigation) about it and questioned how it was obtained. Apparently they’d taken Bohun to the scene of the murder at 2:30AM where they’d allegedly shown him the blood stains. Beavan vehemently denied Diefenbaker’s suggestion that Steve was made to put his hand on them. As to the claim that Constable Rudick beat him up, Beavan stated that when Bohun made the accusation he had tried to get a doctor to come and look at him but Bohun had refused.
Diefenbaker also brought in experts to testify on Steve Bohun’s mental state. Seven years before the murder he’d been kicked in the forehead by a horse. Dr. A. O. Rose declared that Bohun’s logical mental processes had been affected. Another expert, S. R. Laycock, professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Saskatchewan, put Bohun’s mental age at about ten years old.
On October 2, 1933, Steve Bohun was found guilty of murder. The jury asked for leniency on account of his age and “inferior mentality.”
On October 7, 1933, he was sentenced to hang on February 24, 1934. He was taken to the Prince Albert jail to await his sentence.
Diefenbaker continued to argue for leniency, trying to get his sentence commuted to life in prison. He succeeded in getting Bohun a two week reprieve, during which Dr. Harvey Clare, an Ontario alienist, visited Bohun in his cell to assess him. In total, five different alienists declared him to be “feeble-minded.”
Bohun’s sentence was not commuted however and he was hung on March 9, 1934 at 6:00AM at the Prince Albert jail. Death was instantaneous with a complete neck fracture and he was pronounced dead nine minutes later.
When his father was informed that his son’s sentence had not been commuted and he would be hanged, he was quoted as saying, “is that so?” When asked, he said he would not see his son before his execution and would not claim the body after.
As for Annie Barchuk and their infant son, Tony, they were expected to reach Prince Albert and spend time with Bohun before his execution, but they never arrived. It was never found out why.
Information for this post came from both The Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, as well as the Edmonton Bulletin and the Nanaimo Daily News. Issue dates included: June 13, 1933, June 14, 1933, June 20, 1933, June 21, 1933, September 27, 1933, September 28, 1933, September 29, 1933, September 30, 1933, October 2, 1933, October 7, 1933, Feb 22, 1934, March 8, 1934 and March 9, 1934.
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This week it will be one year since my sweet girl, Maddie, passed away and since then, a lot of friends have had to say goodbye to their own faithful companions. In the spirit of shared grief and to celebrate the truth that things do get easier, here is a piece I wrote after her passing.
Step 1: Cry
Cry. Cry even though she was old (especially for a great dane), even though you knew it was coming, even though you knew it was time and it would be heartless to keep her around, and even though you still wanted to more than anything. Cry even though you were sure you were at peace with it and it turns out you definitely were not. Cry until your eyes are sore and your heart hurts and you’re so dehydrated you start to look and feel like a husk.
Step 2: Torture Yourself
Torture yourself by reliving the last seconds, minutes and hours of her death whenever your mind finds a quiet moment. When you’re trying to sleep is always good. Replay it in the shower, while driving, doing the dishes, brushing your teeth, peeling vegetables. Constantly ask yourself all of the what if’s and if only’s even though it’s done and she’s gone and she’s never coming back. It doesn’t matter. Send your brain on the hunt for a solution to a problem that only ever had one answer.
Step 3: Clean Up
Clear out all the carpet runners you had to lay on the floors when her elderly feet started to slide on the laminate and she couldn’t walk around the house without them. Haul away the old couch you kept three years longer than you should have, because you weren’t about to banish her to her bed on the floor and get a new one. Package up her leftover food, her nail clippers and bowls to donate. Try at least three times to throw away the sweater your sister crocheted for her when you couldn’t find anything that would fit. Start weeping every time. Eventually give up. Keep her leash and collar. Sniff them endlessly to see if they smell like her. They don’t.
Step 4: Aimlessly Wander the House
Feel restless and uneasy. Wander through every room in the house, pointedly noticing her absence in all the places she used to sleep, each spot pressing painfully on the bruise that is your grief. Pace the same route over and over, like a depressed tiger at the zoo. You know you won’t find her but you can’t stop looking.
Step 5: Feel Slightly Better
Wake up one morning not thinking about it, or find yourself having a laugh with a coworker. Feel guilty immediately. The guilt makes you remember the sadness, which shows up in triplicate. Realize you should have tried to enjoy the brief respite instead of sabotaging it.
Step 6: Try to Distract Yourself
It can’t be with just anything. Turns out comfort movies don’t comfort at all, only wound with their happy endings and sweet words and useless jokes. Instead, binge watch crime shows about murder, with gruesome details and lots of secrets. They’re consuming and everyone in them is miserable. Perfect.
Step 7: Get Strangely Attached to Random Mementos
Find a dog hair in your lunch. Stare at with longing. Place it on your desk and touch it almost constantly. At the end of the day, stick it in your pocket. Feel bereft when you get home and can’t seem to find it.
Step 8: Read Lots of Books
Reality sucks, so disappear into a new one. With a good book, you’re no longer in your body, you are somebody else, living a different adventure. If you’re not here, you don’t have to remember that she isn’t either. Make sure to read before bed, long enough that your eyes refuse to stay open and the plot stays with you as you slip into sleep.
Step 9: Avoid All Music
Avoid all music. Music makes you feel things, and the feelings are never good. Genre is irrelevant. Happy music makes you sad. Sad music makes you sad. Angry music makes you sad. Music about jiggling your booty makes you sad. How can you think about jiggling your booty when she’s not there to eye your dancing with annoyed weariness? No. Music is the enemy. Music is for those who need help feeling. You feel too much already.
Step 10: Have Great Friends and/or Family
Be consistently surprised by the people around you. Receive hugs, thoughtful texts, cupcakes, cheesecake, flowers, ice cream and even a beautiful rose bush you plant in your backyard, where she spent her final moments. You are surprised by their gentleness and compassion. Remember it so you can do it for them when they need it.
Step 11: Pick up her ashes
Pick up her ashes and congratulate yourself on not crying at the vet’s office and for remembering to bring them the thank you card you wrote. Hold the box of ash that was once your sweet girl tight against your chest as you go to the car. Whisper to her, as though she can hear you, even though she can’t. Murmur her name while you clean the kitchen and take out the garbage and water the garden. Think about taking the box to bed with you at night. Decide not to, it’s simply too weird.
Step 12: Sprinkle Her Ashesor Try To
Make a plan to sprinkle her ashes in her memorial rose bush, in the other rose bush in the front yard that you love. To sprinkle her on the nanking cherry bush and in her favourite park. Cry a little. Pray that her ashes don’t kill anything because that would be a huge bummer. When you’re ready, go and get her urn, only to find they’ve glued it shut. Laugh at the insanity of it. Promise her you’ll buy a good solvent.
Step 13: Go On Long Walks
Go on long meandering walks that end with gelato. Feel a pang of jealousy when you see other people out walking their dogs, still able to enjoy their company, followed immediately by a wave of sympathy. You know something horrible waits for them in the future. See friends and stay a little longer at work, you might as well, there’s no one waiting for you at home. Start talking about her, just a little, without feeling so sad. Miss her more, but feel sad less.
Step 14: Redecorate
Paint the house and buy a new couch. Get a large plant the really livens up the living room. Buy more plants. Buy all the plants. Pay a contractor to replace the rotted old windows and start shopping for a new tv stand. She isn’t missing in a room that no longer looks like the one she left.
Step 15: Keep Feeling Better
Each day the spaces between the sadness grow. It still knocks you over sometimes, like you’ve clothes-lined yourself on your own grief, but it’s an ache now, not a gaping wound that leaves you breathless. Fall down rabbit holes of sadness, but no longer be surprised by them. You know they’re temporary. Breathe through them, then keep moving. Realize it’s a process. Realize that the only way to get over it is to wait it out. Wish she could come back. Know that she can’t.
The time has come to talk about the Saskatoon Bungalow Axe Murder. It was a case with an enormous amount of coverage at the time, not surprising given the various mysterious and troubling aspects of the crime, and it remains unsolved to this day. I have my own theories, but before we get into those, I’m going to lay out the facts as I’ve read them, keeping in mind that there are conflicting testimonies of what happened the night of the attack, as well the days surrounding it. All right, let’s get into it.
The Night of the Attack
Between 10:20 and 10:40PM on Christmas Day, 1925, Saskatoon telephone operator Claire Eamer answered the long distance line and heard a voice asking her to send the police to 545 4th Avenue North. When she tried to give the number for the police station, the caller repeated the message, saying “I’m bound, something terrible has happened. Please send the police.” Claire did as she was asked, returning to the long distance line several times afterwards to try and clear it, but the caller never hung up and she could hear the voice saying “oh dear” repeatedly.
Constable Flavelle reported that he got the call to go to the 4th Avenue home at 10:30PM and walked to the house, arriving at approximatey 10:40PM. He stated that there were no lights on that he could see at the front of the house, but could see a light on in the back so he went around the house, stopping to try and peer in a window on his way without success and opened the door to the back veranda/porch, which was unlocked, and knocked on the back door. A voice called for him to come in, so he turned the knob and finding that the back door was also unlocked, went inside.
The back door led straight into the kitchen, where he found a woman standing with her hands behind her back, sobbing and hysterical, dressed in only a nightgown. Her hands were tied in a reef knot with a strip of material, either from a towel or linen.
Constable Flavelle got her hands untied quickly, asking her what had happened. All she could say was that she thought she saw some kind of flash, there was a thud, and then nothing. Later, he said she’d told him something about a man with a flashlight, but it was well over a month later and it was the first time he’d ever reported it.
In the bedroom at the front of the house, Flavelle found her husband, James Eli Johnson, lying on his back in bed, blood covering his face. He went back out of the bedroom and asked Laura Johnson which doctor she wanted, then called the police station, asking them to send more officers, as well as the chief, and to send for Dr. Munroe, Mr. Johnson’s preferred doctor. They’d served in the war together and apparently he’d told Laura if he was ever in an accident to make sure it was Dr. Munroe who looked after him.
Call made, Flavelle returned to Mrs. Johnson, who was sitting in the bathroom. She showed him that her legs were also tied at the ankles with reef knots, the same as her hands, and he untied them as well. He asked her again what happened and she repeated the same story about the flash of light, saying she came to in the living room. She wasn’t sure if she was on the chesterfield or on the floor in front of it, she only remembered being on her knees and struggling to get up. She managed to shimmy her way to the bathroom, where she turned the light switch on with her head, then made her way to the kitchen and got the phone off the hook with her teeth, then trekked back to the bathroom and managed to get a toothbrush clenched between her teeth, went back to the kitchen, and after several tries, managed to dial zero for long distance. (This would have been a rotary phone, for any of my younger readers.) She talked into the receiver and asked the operator to send the police and gave her address.
Sergeant Samuel Quinn arrived next. He knocked at the front door, which was locked, and Constable Flavelle let him in. At this point most of the lights in the house were now on, including the bedroom, and after checking on Mr. Johnson, he also called the police station to see if Dr. Munroe was on his way.
Not long after, Chief G.M. Donald and Dr. Munroe arrived.
Dr. Munroe described going into the small bedroom, its bed pushed tight against the wall on the right side of the room, James lying on his back on the outside half of the bed, the blankets pulled up to his armpits, his hands resting on his stomach. He had eight wounds on his head, five major and three minor. On the left frontal portions of his head were two large wounds, parallel to each other and about 3/4 of an inch apart, stretching from the eyebrow to the vertex of the head. One was about four inches in length, the other about three and a half inches, both oozing brain matter.
Most of the blood was on his forehead and high up on his cheeks. It was black and congealed where it was thick and his features were swollen. There was a cut on Johnson’s lip that started at about the left lobe of the nose and cut clean through the lip, but the gum beneath was completely uninjured. there was a V-shaped laceration on the right side of his head that had fractured the skull, causing a depressed fracture of approximately one and a half inches by one and a half inches.
The pillows were saturated with blood. There was blood on the sheets and blood was splashed right up on the South and West walls, as well as on the dressing table two feet from the bed and there was a small puddle on the floor next to the bed.
Dr. Munroe estimated that the blows were probably struck anywhere from a half hour to an hour and a quarter from when he arrived.
The police did a search of the house and found an axe with what appeared to be a blood smear on the blade in the coal bin in the basement. They also found the family dog shut in the den, where the Johnsons had put him for the night. He never barked. Not when Constable Flavelle arrived, or any of the other police officers, and Mrs. Johnson didn’t recall any noise from him all evening, not before or after they went to bed. According to her, sometimes he was an excellent guard dog, barking at everyone, and at other times he took no notice of people. The rest of the house was orderly and clean, except for a few small changes.
In the main bedroom where the Johnsons had been sleeping, there was a linen closet, on top of which the Johnsons had tossed the clothes they’d been wearing before going to bed that night. Mr. Johnson’s pants had the pockets turned out. Any money that might have been in them was gone, as well as his railway mail service keys. James Johnson was a railway mail clerk. His keys were never located despite extensive searching of his home and his job.
Nothing else was missing, not even a bag of jewelry and cash Mrs. Johnson had stashed under the mattress in the second bedroom, but a drawer was pulled out in the second bedroom, with some linens piled neatly on the floor. Two cushions had been knocked from the chesterfield onto the floor in the living room.
The police questioned Laura Johnson several more times that night but she couldn’t give them much more information. She was at times still hysterical and couldn’t remember seeing anyone.
When Dr. Munroe examined her, she complained of a great deal of soreness in her back as well as on the right side of her head. He didn’t find anything on her head, but on her back there was redness and tenderness upon pressure. The next day when he examined her again, there was bruising and discolouration on her back as well as a small swelling on the right side of her head above her right ear.
The chief of police also examined Mrs. Johnson on the night of the attack, checking her hair and her nightdress for blood but found none. There were a few tiny specks of blood found on the bandages she was tied with.
The Last Days of James E. Johnson
James Johnson was taken immediately to City Hospital where surgery was performed. He was also tested for narcotics, but none showed up in his system. Laura Johnson was not allowed to visit him that night, given the delicate nature of the surgery being performed, but as soon as Dr. Munroe gave the clearance for visitors, she was by his side every day until he passed away at 2:15 in the afternoon of Sunday, Jan 3, 1926. He died from cerebral meningitis contracted from his axe wounds. He never regained consciousness.
Laura Johnson’s Story
According to Laura Johnson, her husband had arrived home on Christmas morning between 8:00 and 9:00AM after working an overnight run. She herself had arrived home at about 7:30AM, after spending the night at her friend’s, Mrs. Shervill. She had a sixteen year old son from her first marriage (her first husband had died in the war), but he was away, celebrating with a friend on a farm in Kenaston.
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson had spent a quiet day together. At one point she went to her sister’s for a short visit, lasting by her estimate no longer than an hour. She didn’t think either of them had left the house other than that and told the coroner at the inquest that her husband had mostly relaxed; reading, playing the piano and the victrola. They had received no visitors and although they had planned to go to a show at the Capital Theater there was a mix up with the tickets and they didn’t go.
At 8:00PM, her husband remarked on the time and said he was tired. They went to bed about an hour later at 9:00PM and both fell asleep very quickly. They’d each had a few beers over the course of the day, Laura Johnson estimated that she’d had four, one in the morning, one at noon, one with supper and one in the evening. According to her, a single beer was enough for her to feel the effects, making her a bit tipsy.
Laura Johnson was not able to offer any details on what happened between going to bed at 9:00 and her coming to on the chesterfield at around 10:30. She had no idea how she got there and didn’t remember seeing anyone or hearing anything, although she vaguely remembered seeing blood on her husband’s face but she wasn’t sure when that was or if she was in bed at the time or not.
She also claimed that she remembered the back doors being open, but Constable Flavelle was sure they were closed.
Friends of the family said they had a very happy, loving marriage. They’d been married for four years.
The Arrest of Laura Johnson
At the end of the inquest on Jan 12, 1926, the coroner, Dr. DesRosier stated that he found Laura Johnson’s evidence to be unconvincing. The police arrested her at her sister’s house after midnight the same night and took her into custody. The police found her inability to remember more of the evening suspicious, specifically that she couldn’t explain how she went from sleeping in bed to coming to on the chesterfield, and according to them, reef knots were very easy knots to get out of and she should have had no difficulty escaping them.
James Johnson also had a number of life insurance policies, all payable to his wife. The total amount being $17, 526.
The Murder Weapon
In Dr. Munroe’s opinion, the weapon used on Mr. Johnson had to be an instrument with a very sharp edge, of considerable weight (the wounds penetrated at least an inch into the head), and also had a dull surface, as the wound on the right side of his head could not have been made with a sharp edge. It was most likely larger than a hatchet, probably a hand axe.
The axe found in the Johnson home was not the murder weapon. It was far too dull to have caused the wound on James’s lip and the blood smear on the blade was tested and found to be that of a chicken, not human.
The Testimony of Benjamin J. Clarke
Benjamin J. Clarke was a fireman for the CNR Railway. He testified at the preliminary hearing that Mrs. Johnson’s claims that her husband hadn’t left the house on Christmas Day were false. He’d seen Mr. Johnson at approximately 2:00/2:30PM. They’d exchanged greetings and he’d gone inside a cafe to buy cigarettes. When he came out, Johnson was still there, talking to two men and invited him to join them for a beer. He agreed to have one beer, as he was due at a friend’s at 3:00PM for dinner, and the party went into an apartment in the Tuxedo Block to have a drink. Johnson never introduced Clarke to the other two men and they left together after one beer. Clarke said he found it very odd at the time that Johnson hadn’t introduced him, but from the way they spoke he took the strangers to be railway men. He told the court that he got the impression that Johnson didn’t really want to have a drink with the men but didn’t want to insult them by turning down an invitation for a Christmas drink. He couldn’t give much of a description of the men, only that one was quite dark and the other about medium, and they were slightly shorter than himself. He also couldn’t be sure of what apartment they’d gone into.
In another testimony, Victor Hayes, a friend of Johnson’s who was also a railway mail clerk, told the court that four days before the attack Johnson had come to him and asked him if any suites at the building where he lived were available. He said that Johnson had voiced a fear of living at the 4th Ave home, but hadn’t given any specifics.
At some point in January of 1926 a series of letters were sent to the newspapers, the police and to Laura Johnson’s defence attorney, Arthur E. Bence. The letters discussed the murder of James E. Johnson, and were intriguing enough for Arthur Bence to put out ads offering a reward for any information on the writer of the letters. The only newspaper that printed their copies of the letter was the Saskatoon Reporter, and I was unable to find any archived copies, so unfortunately I have no idea what they said. The only clue I was able to find as to their contents was when Arthur Bence asked a witness to write out two sentences to see if their handwriting matched his letter. The phrases were: “the bottles are popping” and “the wife’s away”.
Laura Johnson Never Goes to Trial
On September 16, 1926 a stay of proceedings was entered in the murder charge against Laura Johnson. She was allowed to go free without bail, although the murder charge remained. The crown at any time could call her to stand trial, but had entered the stay in light of the need for further investigation. She was never brought to stand trial and moved to British Columbia. She did eventually receive the money from her husband’s life insurance.
I read a lot of newspaper clippings for this post, many of which included transcripts of the court proceedings and honestly? I don’t think Laura Johnson killed her husband. Too much of it doesn’t add up. If she did it, where was the murder weapon? Why was there no blood on her, not even in her hair? If she killed him, she would have had to stash her bloody clothes and clean up before calling the police (not to mention tie herself up) and there simply wasn’t time. In their search of the house, the police checked the furnace and there was nothing in there except coal embers, no evidencce of anything else being burnt.
Also, I think we know a lot more now about what happens when someone undergoes a serious traumatic event and Laura Johnson’s inability to clearly remember what happened makes sense. Either her brain was blocking her from remembering for her own mental health’s sake, or someone knocked her out, causing her to lose her memory of what she was doing beforehand.
And what about the missing railway mail service keys? They were never found. I think someone needed those keys and couldn’t have Johnson telling anyone why someone might have wanted them. Perhaps that someone (or someones) is connected to the men Johnson was seen with on Christmas Day, maybe not. But his refusal to introduce them is odd. Pair that with his nervousness to stay at the 4th Ave home and I think there were a lot of valuable leads that the police could have followed.
But we’ll never know the whole truth. All the witnesses are long since dead and even the house itself, a little brown bungalow, is no more. The lot is now a parking lot next to some apartment buildings. I wonder if the residents know about the gruesome attack that occured next door to them almost a hundred years ago? Probably not. But I am curious to drive by there and see it for myself…
Information for this post came from too many editions of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix to list, ranging from Dec 26, 1925 through to February, 1927, as well as Dec 26, 1935. I also found some information in the archives of the Regina Leader-Post.
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Writing this blog has taught me a lot about myself, mostly about how much I relish investigating old murders. And when I sat down to learn about this week’s case, it became immediately apparent that I need more time. Because it is good. It is so good. And by good, I mean strange, complicated and with a bunch of twists and turns that I need to learn more about. (Don’t worry, I’m aware that murder is bad, Mom.)
Which leaves us with a bit of a gap week. I don’t have a murder story to tell you, all I have is the promise of a better, more complete story next week. I hope you’ll forgive me. I didn’t realize upon beginning my research just how involved the story would get. But I love it and I think you’ll love it too.
If you’re as twisted as I am, that is. You’re here, so you must be. (Love you for that!)
In other news, all of this historical murder research has inspired another project that I’m very excited to share with you, but that also must wait for another day. (I’m full of teasers today I guess. Again, I apologize.) So stay tuned! And if you don’t want to miss a single creepy story, make sure you subscribe. And tell your other twisted friends about me, I want to tell them murder stories too.
See you next week! And in the meantime, here are some other murder stories:
Picture if you will, a seventeen-year-old girl named Julia Wochuko (also saw it spelled Wockuko), living in the Wishart district of Saskatchewan in 1931. She’s young, she’s beautiful, and she’s having problems with her dad. Arguments, that sort of thing. What she really needs is to get away from him and assert her independence.
But how to achieve that in 1931 farming Saskatchewan? Especially when you are, to quote the endlessly resilient Britney Spears, “not a girl, not yet a woman”?
Simple. You marry a thirty-year-old man you don’t really like. At least, that’s what Julia decided to do.
The priest, upon hearing how much Julia disliked her fiancé, tried to convince her to call off the wedding and not go through with it, but Julia was determined. Peter Daday was her way out of her parents’ house and she was taking it.
As one would imagine with a match based entirely on escaping one’s father, Julia found herself unsatisfied.
She was only seventeen, young and beautiful, with a handful of admirers despite her married status. When one remarked that marrying Peter was a huge mistake, and that if she’d only married him instead they could have gone off together and had much more fun (and perhaps still could if she wasn’t married anymore), she decided he was correct.
But what to do about her uninspiring husband, a well to do farmer who was genuinely liked by everyone in the district? If you’ve learned anything about Julia by this point, I’m sure you can guess what she decided.
Simple. You have him murdered.
But don’t do it yourself. Needle and whine and coax your weak-willed brother into doing it for you.
Julia made a plan with her brother, Mike, that they would meet outside the pool hall at the next dance. She slipped away from her husband and gave her brother some home brew (alcohol) and told him to go to their farm and be ready.
(Home brew is never a good sign. And if you don’t believe me, read this.)
Then she went back into the dance. When she and her husband returned home, Mike was waiting, hidden in the yard. He fired a shot at Peter, but missed because “his hand slipped”.
After this failed attempt, he tried to back out again, but Julia coaxed and whined and needled until he finally agreed to do what she wanted.
One the occasion of the next dance, on May 11, 1931, Julia got the hired girl to ask if they could go and the two of them convinced Peter to take them.
Once again, Julia slipped away to ply her brother with home brew courage.
When they got home just before dawn, Mike was once again waiting, hiding in the barn. Julia told Peter she was cold and took the hired girl with her to the house to start a fire, leaving Peter to untether the horses.
While they were in the house, they heard a shot. The hired girl suggested they go look but Julia said she was scared, so they waited fifteen minutes, and when Peter didn’t come in, they opened the door and called for him. When he didn’t answer, the two walked to a neighbour’s and explained the situation. He went back with them and the three found the body of Peter Daday, shot in the back, right through the heart with a single shot gun blast. (A little on the nose, don’t you think? Poor Peter.)
The neighbour went to contact Peter’s parents and Julia and the hired girl walked to a different neighbour’s to contact the RCMP.
Now here’s the crazy part. (I know what you’re thinking. “Um, what? Now is the crazy part?” Yes.) The RCMP couldn’t figure out who’d done it. They thought maybe one of Julia’s jealous admirers had done the deed, but there wasn’t any proof and they all had alibis. The case went cold.
It was a year later, when they arrested Julia’s brother and father for animal cruelty to their horses (I know, this family sucks) that Julia’s brother verbal diarrhea-ed the whole thing. No idea if it was his guilty conscience or if he misunderstood what he was being arrested for (seems unlikely), but he spilled the entire pot of beans. The jig was up.
Julia and her brother were arrested for murder, but they never went to trial. After a few months of observation by a psychiatrist, her brother was deemed unfit to stand trial and Julia was found not guilty by reason of insanity. (The doctor also diagnosed her with having subnormal intelligence, but I have my doubts. She seems more sociopathic to me.) They were both locked away, not in prison, but in mental facilities. And that was how Julia Daday almost got away with murder.
She and Peter were married for only three months.
I got information for this post from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix: May 12, 1931, May 14, 1931, May 15, 1931, May 19, 1931, May 20, 1931, May 29, 1931, June 1, 1931, June 3, 1932, June 4, 1932, June 6, 1932, June 14, 1932, June 15, 1932, June 16, 1932, June 17, 1932, Oct 18, 1932, Nov 10, 1932, Nov 12, 1932 and Nov 16, 1932.
If you go to the very North Westernly corner of Saskatchewan, you will find Lake Athabasca. It’s the largest and deepest lake in both Saskatchewan and Alberta (the lake sits directly on the border between the two provinces), and in 1935, it was the site of a grisly murder.
Experienced trapper, John Harms, decided that June that he would take on a partner, Johnny Anthony. Trapping in the North is an isolated and lonely affair, making a partnership appealing, but it also means being alone together most of the time. They had neighbours, but they were few and far between, usually only visited by dog sled.
On the morning of November 23, 1935, John Harms got up and decided to take the dogsled to visit just such a neighbour. Ira Allen wasn’t home, he was away checking his trap lines, but Harms stayed to visit with his wife, Ann, home with their young son. Around noon, Anthony joined them and they had lunch together.
Anthony had shot a moose earlier and to celebrate Harms had made “home brew”. Basically, a type of homemade beer, which in Harms’s case was made with “salt, sugar fruit, yeast cake, potatoes and rice”. (I do not recommend that you attempt to make any sort of alcohol with his recipe.) He’d brought five bottles with him to the Allen household and had already drunk four of them by the time Anthony arrived.
At one point during the morning, Harms turned to Ann, bitter over a perceived slight when during the summer he’d seen her at Fort Chipewyan and she’d only said hello without stopping to talk, he told her the only reason he didn’t shoot her then was because he didn’t have a gun.
(Not great party talk, friends. As a rule, try not pick fights and tell people that you would have gladly killed them at previous points in the relationship.)
Now his anger turned to Anthony. They had been quarreling over a mink skin that Harms believed should be his. Anthony, sick of Harms arguing with him over the mink, told him to shut up and that he’d talk to him when he was sober. The two left soon after, Anthony driving the dogsled with the drunk Harms inside. Two hours later, Harms was back at the Allen cabin, telling Ann that Anthony had hurt himself and had a fainting fit. He asked Ann to go back with him and see what she could do to help. When she tried to beg off, saying it was getting late and she had her chores to do, he told her: “you’re going to come.”
So she gathered up her son and the three went back to Harms’ shack. All along the way, Harms was acting strange. When they arrived, Harms tried to get Ann to go in first. When she insisted that he lead the way, he opened the door and and she could see Anthony lying on the floor. She asked Harms what was wrong with him and he responded, “this is what you’re going to find out.”
He lit a match and Ann saw blood on Anthony’s face. There was so much blood on the floor that Harms slipped in it as he stepped inside. Ann, obviously terrified, grabbed her son and ran. Harms stepped out of the cabin and shot at her but missed. She kept running, hiding in the bush when Anthony drove by with his dog team. She continued on toward her cabin. When she arrived, Harms was already there, passed out in his dog sled.
She crept by him and locked herself inside, nailing one of the doors closed and wedging two knifes into the other to secure it. When Harms woke up, he tried to gain entry, yelling at her to let him in. Ann kept the cabin dark and hid. He left and returned three hours later to do the same thing before leaving again. In his absence, Ann snuck outside for water and fuel, before locking herself and her son inside again.
In the morning, Harms returned and built a large fire in front of the wood shed, drinking more home brew and camping out in front of the Allen home while Ann hid inside, her own gun ready if he should try to break in again. Two days later, finally sober, he yelled at her that he was going to his cabin on Scorched Dog Island (also saw it called Singed Dog Island, either way not a great name) and told her to send her husband there when he returned to escort him to the police.
When Ira returned home a few hours later, Ann told him what happened. He took her and their child to a neighbour’s and drove on to get a message sent to the RCMP in Fort Chipewyan about the murder and the crazed terrorizing of his wife.
It was no easy task for Sergeant Pat Vernon and his partner Irvin Vilborough to get to Harms. The trek required traveling by dog team with no trail on the ice, making their way past upended drift ice that had piled up several feet high along the north shore. Add to that a sudden blizzard that swept down the lake from the East and obliterated the landscape for a day with sub zero temperatures. As they drew nearer pilot Lewis Leigh found them and flew them to the island.
Harms gave up without a fight, coming out of his cabin when they arrived. He told them he and Anthony had been arguing and Anthony had come at him, threatening to kill him with his bare hands. He’d warned him to stay back, then fired one shot that went through Anthony’s mouth and lodged in the back of his neck. Anthony had fallen and Harms checked for a pulse. He said he didn’t find one and had plenty to drink after that, waking up and thinking at one point he should get help. He didn’t remember terrorizing Ann and couldn’t explain why he’d done it. (Ahem. Home brew.)
He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but was later given a second trial and sentenced to fifteen years for manslaughter. His defense was none other than John G. Diefenbaker.
Information for this post was sourced from the archives of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. The following issues were used: Nov 30, 1935, Dec 2 – 6, 1935, Dec 9, 1935, Dec 10, 1935, Dec 13, 1935, Dec 16, 1935, Dec 26, 1935, Jan 6, 1936, Jan 27, 1936, Feb 3 – 6, 1936, March 3, 1936, March 31, 1936, April 7 1936, April 8, 1936, April 20, 1936, April 21, 1936, and July 3, 1936.
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We’re taking a brief break from historical murders this week so I can fangirl over my new favourite novel in another installment of: The Book I’m Currently Obsessed With. (You can read the previous installment here.)
I know you’re dying to know what it is and I’m dying to tell you, so let’s get right to it.
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
This book hits all my sweet spots, in terms of genre, subject, writing, characters, everything.
First, let’s start with setting. I love contemporary settings with fantastical elements. This book is set in modern day Portland, but in a universe where mythical creatures are real. Gargoyles exist. Sprites, mermaids, sirens and elokos exist. Add to that the complexities of a society that is not only racist towards skin colour, but also towards mythical heritage and the book is already rife with tension from the get go.
Then we have our main characters; Tavia, who is a siren, and Effie, who is… well, she’s not sure exactly. They’re not blood related but they are sisters, having developed a beautiful and unbreakable bond when Effie came to live with Tavia and her parents.
It’s such a captivating story of how sisterhood and love can overcome, and how trust in the people we love can lead us through darkness. It’s also a gripping adventure with a slowly unwinding mystery and hints of romance, so believe me when I say it has it all.
And if you’re wondering if I went out in my garden and had a photo shoot with a book, the answer is yes. I like it that much, okay? So please, do yourself a favour and go out and get it. Because it’s great.
It was a routine Sunday for Herbert Schill on October 16, 1938 in Lebret, Saskatchewan. First church, then lunch with a friend before returning home to his farm where his wife and family waited. In the evening, he changed out of his church clothes and went out to the barn with their farmhand, Stanley Illerbrun, to milk the cows.
About an hour and a half later, Stanley returned to the house and asked Gertrude, Herbert’s wife, if she’d seen her husband. When she said no, obviously confused since they’d gone out to the barn together, Stanley explained that while they were milking the cows, a car had pulled into the yard and a man had come to the barn door and called to Herbert. The two men had gone off together and Herbert never returned to the barn to help finish the milking.
Gertrude was a little worried, but decided to wait. The next morning, when he still wasn’t home, she decided to contact the RCMP and report his disappearance.
It took two more days for the RCMP to come out to the farm. Stanley repeated his story and police dogs were brought in to help with the search. Police and neighbours gathered to check straw piles, granaries, buildings, old wells, bluffs and coulees throughout the valley. No trace of Herbert Schill was ever found.
Thinking it odd that the mysterious stranger would go to the barn without first stopping at the house, the RCMP questioned Stanley again, but he was resolute in his story. Could the man have arranged to meet with Herbert earlier? Did he know enough about Herbert to be so sure of his habits?
The search continued but soon winter came and the area was covered in a blanket of snow. In January, no longer needed as a farmhand, Stanley moved back to his father’s farm at his hometown of Gull Lake.
The people of Lebret never stopped wondering what happened to Herbert Schill and rumours abounded. Most suspected murder of some kind or another. The neighbours, unhappy with the Mounties’ conduct of the search, decided to dig up the ground around Schill’s farm as soon as they finished the spring seeding. The Mounties heard of the plan and sent a detachment of officers, headed by Detective Sergeant Hermanson, to supervise the search.
Under the direction of Hermanson, the group began to dig up the large manure pile behind the barn. They moved about three and a half feet of fresh manure when two neighbouring farmers hit something hard and brittle.
They knew that Schill had a colt that died and had maybe buried it in the manure pile, but as they turned over the pile, it was a farmer’s smock and something round like a skull with black hair the same colour as Schill’s that waited for them.
The Mounties stepped in, and using their hands and a small curry-comb, carefully uncovered the body, lying on its right side. He was still wearing overalls and boots and laying next to the skeleton was Schill’s hat, decayed but recognizable, his watch, its hands stopped at 9:15, and his spectacles, surprisingly unbroken.
An autopsy was performed and a bullet hole with no exit wound was found in the back, right hand side of the skull. There was also a hairline fracture on the right side of the skull most likely made by the course of the bullet, as well as a fracture on the left side of the skull, which the pathologist deemed likely the result of the force of impact from the bullet. Two pieces of lead were found in the brain.
It was at this point that the neighbour’s began to remember some odd behaviour on the part of Stanley Illerbrun. Herbert’s brother, Ed, recalled that whenever Stanley dumped manure on the pile, it was always on the spot where Herbert was buried. Two other farmers told officers that during the initial search, when they started poking around the manure pile, Stanley told them they were needed to help search the bluffs.
RCMP in Gull Lake immediately arrested Stanley for giving a false statement and Det. Sgt. Hermanson went straight down to collect him. When he spoke with the prisoner, Stanley confessed that they’d argued and he’d grabbed the rifle from the barn wall and shot him.
Apparently, Stanley was put out that he hadn’t received the two Sundays off each month that he’d been promised and Herbert was always trying to cut his wages. During the trial it came up that Herbert had also found Stanley in his twenty-one-year-old sister’s room and had forbade Stanley from ever going in there again, but it wasn’t mentioned in the confession.
Stanley was found guilty and sentenced to hang at his trial in October, 1939, but was granted a new trial after his defense argued that the judge had improperly instructed the jury.
At the second trial, in March of 1940, Stanley claimed that it was self defense, that Herbert had come after him and he’d run past the cows and gone through the three foot hole in the horse barn. He said he fired a shot with the rifle without looking, thinking it would make Herbert back off, over a cow’s back and after waiting a few minutes and hearing nothing, he’d come back and discovered Herbert was dead. He’d panicked and buried him in the manure.
But if that was the case, why not mention it in his initial confession?
The jury once again found him guilty and on June 21, 1940, he was hung.
Unfortunately for Stanley, his clever storytelling could only delay the inevitable discovery of Herbert Schill’s body, not prevent it. Hidden so close at hand, beneath the manure, he would have walked by it nearly every day. It must have been a shock for Gertrude to learn that his body had been there the whole time, and the farmhand she trusted to look after her children was behind it. And if Stanley was so very panicked as he claimed, it’s interesting to think of how he managed to hide the body, clean up any mess, come up with his story and finish the milking in only an hour and a half.
If only he’d been clever enough to just quit instead.
Information for this post was gathered from the book, THE PATHOLOGICAL CASEBOOK OF DR. FRANCES MCGILL by Myrna L. Petersen, as well as the following editions of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix: June 8, 1939, June 12, 1939, June 20, 1939, October 25, 1939, October 26, 1939, November 6, 1939, November 16, 1939, November 22, 1938, November 28, 1939, March 13, 1940, March 15, 1940, and March 16, 1940.
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