The Yorkton Hammer Murder

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June 4, 1933

It was a typical Sunday on the Steberl farm, just 12 miles northeast of Yorkton near Rhein, Saskatchewan. Gustav Steberl and his wife Rosie had gone into Rhein that day with their hired man, Henry Suppes, before returning to the farm around supper time.

Earlier that day Henry and Gustav had gotten into a minor argument about the horses. Gustav didn’t like how fast Henry was driving them. But it hadn’t lasted long and both men seemed to have forgotten about it.

After supper, Gustav sat on the front steps of the house, nursing the baby, while Rosie milked some cows nearby. He’d only recently been released from the hospital and was still convalescing at home. Hearing a sudden noise and the crying of the baby, Rosie turned and saw Henry Suppes standing behind Gustav, striking him over the head with a hammer. She screamed and ran to her husband. Suppes dropped the hammer (later found to be a blacksmith’s hammer) and ran into the bushes.

Gustav, even though he’d been attacked, hadn’t dropped the baby. Instead his unconscious form had slumped over the infant. Rosie grabbed the baby from his arms and ran to the neighbour’s farm, belonging to Amos Burkell. They called for medical assistance and notified the RCMP.

Constable M. V. Novakowski of the Yorkton detachment went straight to the Steberl farm. After learning of the seriousness of Gustav’s injuries, he called Corporal Charles Harvey to let him know what had happened on the farm and went to Henry Suppes’ home near Rhein and arrested him.

Gustav Steberl was taken to the Yorkton hospital at 11:15PM. He died three hours later, having never regained consciousness.

Photo by Barron Stricker on Find A Grave

Henry Suppes, Hired Man

A coroner’s inquest was opened the following day on June 5, 1933, led by Coroner C. J. Houston. Henry Suppes was charged with murder the same day. The jury viewed Gustav’s body and adjourned for one week before returning a verdict on June 12, 1933 finding Suppes responsible for Gustav’s death. Suppes was taken to Regina by Constable J. Timmerman on June 6, 1933.

The preliminary hearing was held on June 13, 1933, before magistrate W. B. Scott of Regina. Rosie Steberl was the first to testify. Henry Suppes also testified on his own behalf. He’d only been working for the Steberls since May 12, 1933, not even a full month. He told the court that on June 4th he’d been to Rhein with the Steberls and when they returned he’d unhitched the horses. After putting them in the barn he suddenly became tired of farm work and decided to quit, so he left and walked to his home at Rhein. He denied striking his employer with the hammer and told the court he hadn’t even held a hammer that day. He was committed to stand trial at the next court of the king’s bench, to be held in Regina.

June 13, 1933 – Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

But he never stood trial. In the early morning of Tuesday, July 25, 1933, Henry Suppes was found dead in his cell. He’d ripped his bedsheet in half, wound it into a cord, tied one end around his neck and suspended himself from the grating near his window.

An inquest into Suppes death began at 6:30PM on July 26, 1933. Dr. C. E. McCutcheon viewed the body at Speers funeral home the night before, where it was being held pending completion of funeral arrangements. The post-mortem was performed by Dr. J. G. Wright.

W. Watson, the guard on duty that night, testified that he’d made his usual rounds of the jail at midnight and 1:00AM and reported everything in order to Alex Bruce, the night-keeper. At 2:00AM, Alex Bruce made the rounds and at about 2:20AM he found the suspended body of Suppes in his cell.

No heartbeat or pulse was found and efforts at resuscitation had no effect. Bruce immediately notified Charles Gleadow, the warden, and arrangements were made to notify relatives.

Suppes had been in the Regina Jail since June 13th and at all times the warden described him as a quiet, model prisoner. He caused no trouble. Even the prisoners near his cell reported that they hadn’t heard anything unusual during the night of his death.

The verdict of the coroner’s inquest was as follows: “That the deceased came to his death from strangulation by hanging by his own hand between 2:00 and 2:30AM at Regina Jail on July 25, 1933.”

None of Henry Suppes’ relatives claimed his body. Services were held for him at 4:00PM on July 27, 1933 at Speers funeral chapel, officiated by Reverend H. Kroeger of the Lutheran Church. He was interred at the Regina Cemetery.

Both men were in their early thirties.

July 25, 1933 – Regina Leader-Post

Thank you for reading! Please subscribe and share!

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: June 5, 1933, June 6, 1933, June 7, 1933, June 13 1933, June 14, 1933, June 16, 1933, July 25, 1933, July 26, 1933 and July 27, 1933

If you’re interested in more Saskatchewan historical murder cases, please give these a read:

The Haunted Skull of the Kerrobert Courthouse

Shootin’ Rabbits by Moonlight: The Murder of Hans Pederson

The Disappearance of Richard Arthur Hudson

Happy Blog-iversary!

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Greetings everyone. It is my very first blog-iversary, which is like an anniversary, only embarrassing.

Telling people you have a blog is like telling people you’re starting a podcast, only worse. Blogs reached the end of their heyday a solid decade ago, whereas podcasts may have a fully overstaturated market, but at least are still popular.

When I tell people I have a blog, (and by ‘tell’ I mean hurriedly whisper it confession style before changing the subject) one of two things will happen. Either they go completely blank in a ‘please don’t give me any details’ expression, or they break into a barely contained smirk that screams prepare to be roasted. Because telling people you have a blog is basically the same as wearing a shirt that says I want attention.

I don’t. (Yes I do.) But I did want an excuse to produce a (mostly) finished piece of writing every week and prove to myself that I could stick to a schedule.

And here I am! A year in, never missed a week, still in a pandemic and basically still functionally sane. (Debatable.) And writing this blog has taken me down roads I never thought it would.

I never saw myself researching historical murders (although I should have, it’s very on brand for me), and I definitely didn’t see myself doing multiple radio interviews. I figured I’d write a blog that nobody read and that would be that.

(You’re not nobody, Mom. I didn’t mean it like that.)

But here you are and here I am and it turns out murder abounds in this province, so aren’t we lucky? (Don’t answer that.) Seriously though, I’m grateful for each and every one of you and I hope you’ll stick with me for another year of murder stories, book recommendations and demented humor. Because who knows what that will bring?

Thanks for reading and happy blog-iversary! (I’m not saying I need a cake, but I’m also not saying I wouldn’t eat a cake, should I be presented with one.)

Photo by Mohammad Danish on Pexels.com

Still here? Love it! These are a few of my favourite posts from the past year:

The Haunted Skull of the Kerrobert Courthouse

The Unsolved Murder of James Eli Johnson

The Murder of Herbert Schill

The Corpse Bride of Sokal, Saskatchewan

Full Slug

Why I’ll Never Be a Fashion Blogger

The Boring One at the Party

The Haunted Skull of the Kerrobert Courthouse

Kerrobert Court House (Kerrobert, Saskatchewan) photo by cmh2315fl on Flicker

As those of you who’ve been reading along already know, my fall down the rabbit hole of Saskatchewan murder started with the Kerrobert Courthouse. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, take a moment and read this. Don’t worry, we’ll wait for you.

Done? Okay, great.

As I was saying, it was nearly a year ago that I began hunting for the owner of the mysterious skull said to be kept in the basement evidence room of the courthouse. And I was having absolutely no luck.

Until now.

When CBC Radio reached out to interview me last week (a very surreal moment for this little nerd), they were able to give me a new lead. Their associate producer had much better luck getting in touch with the town of Kerrobert than I had (I believe that’s what you call ‘pull’), and sent me a scan of a Kerrobert history book that gave a few more details about the haunting and the skull that was allegedly to blame.

According to the history book, the skull kept in the evidence vault came from a Beechy murder, and was used as evidence in the homicide case of R.V. Schumacher. The case was never tried at the Kerrobert Courthouse (hence why I had no luck in tying it to the Kerrobert haunting) and was also not defended by John G. Diefenbaker.

The name Schumacher rang a bell, and as soon as I started digging, I knew why. It was one of the first cases I came across when I started investigating the skull, and the only reason I didn’t write about it then (it’s a fascinating case), was because it had already been written about, so I figured the internet didn’t need me adding my thoughts as well. Well, now that I know that this is the skull, you better believe I’m going to tell you the story.

Prepare yourselves for the Beechy Murder.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

The Beechy Murder

On the evening of December 10, 1930, Professor Henry Gladstone “Mind Reader” was doing a show in a little theatre in Beechy, Saskatchewan. A former Vaudeville headliner, he was travelling around Saskatchewan doing performances.

During the show, Gladstone pointed at a member of the audience, a man named William Taylor, and said, “The man you are thinking of was murdered. There was foul play and the body will soon be found.”

The audience was in shock. William Taylor admitted he’d been thinking about his friend, James ‘Scotty’ McLachlan, who’d been missing for almost three years. Constable Charles E. Carey of the Beechy RCMP detachment was also in the audience. He reached out to Detective Corporal Wood, who agreed to allow Gladstone to consult on the case.

The Missing Man

James Stewart McLachlan, known to his friends as “Scotty” had moved to the district with his wife fourteen years before his disappearance. She’d died six years later and their two children became wards of a family named Moore in the Herbert district, although they later moved to Swift Current.

Scotty lived alone and continued to work the farm, but it was not prosperous. He was described as well liked in the community, but as his fortunes continued to worsen he became more and more quick to anger, especially if he’d been drinking. The farm was eventually put up for sale for taxes and was bought by Olaf Evjen, who allowed Scotty to stay on as a renter.

In the spring of 1927, McLachlan took on John F. Schumacher as a partner on a crop share basis. When winter arrived, Olaf Evjen approached Schumacher and told him that he’d decided to cancel McLachlan’s lease in favour of giving it to Schumacher, who appeared much more able to turn a profit than McLachlan. After he’d spoken to Schumacher, Olaf told McLachlan, who was, of course, pissed.

In mid-January, 1928, Scotty went to a neighbour’s and made arrangements to be driven to Herbert later in the week. He stayed the night and set out on foot for home the following day. A few days later Schumacher told the neighbours that Scotty had up and left, selling his equipment to Schumacher. He told them Scotty had most likely headed for British Colombia, where he’d gotten work before. No word was heard from Scotty and the community, although suspicious, carried on.

The next year’s crop did well and Schumacher, only in his early twenties, got married and had a baby.

A Prediction

A few days after the show, Constable Carey, along with a plain clothes officer and Professor Gladstone, went out to the farm of John F. Schumacher. Schumacher wasn’t home, but his young brother-in-law was. They told him they were water finders and asked if they could look around.

With the brother’s permission, they checked out the property. As they took a look around in the barn, Gladstone stopped, sniffed the air and said, “there’s been a killing here and the body is nearby.”

On their way back from the farm, they were almost sent into the ditch by a truck coming down the road with no lights. Carey turned the car around and pulled it over, only to find that it was Schumacher behind the wheel. They asked him to return to town and answer some questions about McLachlan.

Corporal Wood and Constable Carey questioned Schumacher for a while, with Gladstone mostly watching except for the odd question. They weren’t getting very far, when Gladstone flicked his fingers and said, “the barn. Yes, I’ve got it. Now, gentlemen, I’m going to tell you just what took place out there.”

Gladstone told them that there’d been a fight in the barn. McLachlan was struck over the head and was killed. He’d been buried nearby, most likely near an old well.

John Schumacher said nothing for a few minutes, then broke down and started crying, saying, “oh my wife, oh my baby, will they hang me?” Gladstone left the room and Schumacher, still sobbing, made his confession.

According to Schumacher, Scotty had come home from the neighbour’s while he was in the kitchen, eating. They’d spoken a bit and he’d finished up and gone out to the barn to clean out the stalls. After a short time, Scotty had come out to the barn and started an argument, hurling abuse at the young man before picking up a shovel and going after him with it. Schumacher told the officers that he’d been holding a pitchfork and when Scotty came at him with the shovel he’d swung it once, as hard as he could, out of fear. Scotty had chased him once before with a frying pan, and once at a party had chased another man with a knife, only stopping when Schumacher stopped him and led him away.

He’d run back to the house in a panic, not sure what to do. After about an hour to an hour and a half, he’d gone back out to the barn to find Scotty laying as he’d left him, dead. Fearing that he’d be hanged for murder because no one was there to witness the argument and still in a panic, he’d dragged Scotty out of the barn and down the slope out to a spot near the well. He’d covered him with straw and then manure, adding to it from time to time.

December 16, 1930 – Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

The Body

The next day, Dec 14, 1930, the officers took Schumacher back out to the farm, where he was kept under guard in the house while a group of volunteers began to dig. Schumacher had told them where the manure pile was, but after an hour of digging in the snow they brought him down from the house and he pointed to the spot in the manure pile where they would find Scotty.

And find him they did. He was lying with an arm by his side, the other folded across his chest, wearing a waistcoat, khaki shirt, heavy breeches, woolen underwear and four pairs of socks on each foot. The left side of his skull was broken into 12 fragments and he had a broken rib. His remains were no longer recognizable, but his neighbours immediately identified him thanks to his Mackinaw pants. He was the only man in the district who wore them.

Dr. W. S. Lindsay, pathologist from the University of Saskatchewan, performed the autopsy and further identified it as Scotty. The body belonged to a man between forty and sixty, who was five foot, five inches tall and had an old, healed ankle fracture. Scotty was five foot, five, about forty eight years old, and had a previous ankle fracture.

The Trial

The trial began on March 24, 1931 in Kindersley, Saskatchewan. A multitude of witnesses were called, including Professor Gladstone.

Gladstone couldn’t explain his gift for mind reading, saying only that it was “nothing magical, but merely a highly-developed sensibility to thought transference.” This wasn’t the first time he’d predicted the location of a body. In 1924 he’d been in Red Deer River, Alberta and predicted that the body of Alexander McDonald, an old miner who’d disappeared six months previous would be found at the bottom of the river. Investigators had floated bars of soap down the river and followed them to an eddy where they found the body.

Testimony from Dr. Lindsay, as well as Dr. Frances McGill, Provincial Pathologist, stated that McLachlan had been killed by an extremely heavy blow to the left side of the skull. Neither had seen a skull so badly fractured outside of shell explosion wounds. The skull was indeed produced as evidence in court, as well as a plaster replica of an intact skull, and jury members were shown all of the injuries. It was agreed that the damage, both to the skull and the rib, could have been done with a single blow of a four prong pitchfork, given the strength of Schumacher, who was over six feet tall and well over two hundred pounds, especially if one accounted for him being in fear for his life.

John Schumacher also took the stand, telling the court about how he kept a succession of young men working at the farm because he was scared to stay there alone. He’d been afraid to leave and afraid to stay, knowing what lay beneath the manure pile on the farm. He swore he didn’t murder McLachlan, but had only acted out of fear for his own life.

He was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years of hard labour.

John Schumacher – December 15, 1930, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

The skull of James ‘Scotty’ McLachlan was kept in the basement evidence vault at the Kerrobert Courthouse until 1996, when it was interred with the rest of his remains in Beechy. It’s certainly understandable why some would believe the courthouse is haunted. The whole thing is reminiscent of Sleepy Hollow. I picture the restless spirit of Scotty McLachlan wandering the courthouse, looking for his missing head.

And that, my friends, is the story of the haunted skull of the Kerrobert Courthouse. And although my hunt has reached its end, please let me reassure you that I am now completely hooked and will continue to bring you the fascinating tales of murder in historical Saskatchewan.

If you don’t want to miss out out, make sure you subscribe so you never miss a story. And if you’ve only just stumbled upon my little blog, you have a lot of interesting stories to catch up on. I suggest you start here:

Shootin’ Rabbits by Moonlight: The Murder of Hans Pederson

The Disappearance of Richard Arthur Hudson

The Murder of Eileen Bailey

Thanks for reading!

Shootin’ Rabbits by Moonlight: The Murder of Hans Pederson

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Murder Most Foul

On the morning of December 29, 1931, the Tilks brothers, Albert and Kenneth, were driving to Ardath when they saw something in the snow near the main road into town. It was the frozen body of Hans Pederson, a twenty-two year old Danish immigrant who worked as a farmhand on the farm of F.R. Young, two miles north of Ardath. He was found lying face down in the snow, just 200 yards from his shack.

The brothers went immediately to his employer, who notified authorities. When RCMP came to collect his body, it was assumed that he died of exposure, frozen to death in the snow, but when they examined him they found something shocking. There was a bullet hole in Pederson’s clothing and a single faint spot of blood on his underclothing. Hans Pederson had been murdered.

An investigation of his shack soon revealed more troubling clues. Someone had attempted to burn down the shack. The bedclothing on Pederson’s bed was burnt, the burner of a lamp laying on the bed. The lamp itself and chimney were found on a table in another room. The flames had not left the bed, but the woodwork on a nearby window was scorched.

A heavy snow fell on the day Pederson’s body was found, obscuring any chance for footprints.

Constable R.M. Wood of the Rosetown detachment of the RCMP was put in charge of the investigation, assisted by two constables from Saskatoon.

An autopsy was conducted in Ardath by Dr. W. S. Lindsay, a pathologist at the University of Saskatchewan. He found that Pederson had been shot at short range, the bullet entering his abdomen. Death had probably occurred within about five minutes from internal hemorrhage. The bullet he extracted from Pederson was from a .22 rifle.

Constable Wood’s theory was that someone had gone into the shack and shot Pederson from the bedroom doorway as he was sleeping. Pederson had woken up, thrown on some clothes and rushed out of the house, possibly in pursuit of his attacker, possibly searching for help, only to fall exhausted in the snow and bleed to death internally. His outer clothes had been put on loosely, without being buttoned up and the bullet holes were only in his shirt and underclothes.

During his examination of the body and crime scene, Wood found fingerprints on the lamp glass, which he sent to the RCMP fingerprint expert. On January 5, 1932, he issued a warrant for the arrest of Paul Schudwitz.

Jan 6, 1932 – Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

Paul Schudwitz

Paul Schudwitz and Hans Pederson had actually been friends. The year before they’d both worked on the Young farm and had lived together in Pederson’s shack. But at some point bad blood had arisen between the two, although no one knew what it was about. Schudwitz was said to be a sullen, brooding type, the opposite of Pederson, who was friendly and well liked by everyone in the district. The community remembered Schudwick as being unusually preoccupied and suffering from some grievance, whether real or imagined, on Pederson’s part.

He had gone to John Sabine on the day of the murder and requested the loan of his .22 rifle, claiming he needed it to shoot some rabbits. John had previously lent the rifle to a man named Erle Halliwell, so he told Schudwitz that he’d have Halliwell meet him at the local restaurant, a Chinese cafe, to deliver it.

Donald White, the last man to see Schudwitz that night, told RCMP that he and Schudwitz had left the cafe at around 9:00PM, when Schudwitz told him he intended to “shoot rabbits by moonlight”. On White’s way home, he noted a light on at Pederson’s residence, as usual.

Jan 5, 1932 – Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

Schudwick had recently received a substantial payment in wages. Police were worried he might attempt to leave the province. His photo and description were released to the papers, in hopes someone would recognize him and notify police.

As it turned out, the manhunt was not needed. On January 8th, 1932, Hector Torgerson, a farmer in the Gledhow district 29 miles away, sent his young son, Herman, out on horseback to see if the cattle had broken into the granary, which contained a quantity of barley. The granary lay on a hill west and above the farm at the far end of the Pike Like Valley.

Herman entered the granary and found the frozen body of Paul Schudwitz, covered with a rime of heavy frost, a .22 rifle in his left hand and a bullet wound in his head from his left temple to his right. He hurried home and told his father. They didn’t have a telephone, so a trip was made to the neighbour’s to notify authorities.

The next day the roads had become impassable to automobiles and travel was difficult even for horses. Constable S. Baskin from the RCMP in Delisle set out for the granary with coroner Dr. H.A. Cameron. The 28 mile journey took the entire day to make it there and back. They removed the body to another building on the farm and locked it, pending further investigation.

Given the level of frost on the remains, it was likely the body had been in the building for several days. The RCMP believed Schudwick must have walked along the river ice after he killed Pederson, reaching the granary in the early hours of December 29th where he’d taken his own life.

Jan 11, 1932 – Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

The .22 rifle and the bullets removed from Pederson and Schudwitz were sent to Constable B.J.O. Strong, the ballistics expert for the RCMP. He test fired bullets from the rifle and compared them to the bullets found in Pederson and Schudwitz. They’d all come from the same gun. Schudwitz’s fingerprints matched the ones found on the lamp used to burn Pederson’s bed.

On January 14 1932, a coroner’s jury found that Hans Pederson had been killed by a shot fired from a .22 rifle by Paul Schudwitz, who later turned the gun on himself. The source of their disagreement died with them, never to be revealed.

Jan 14, 1932 – Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

Thank you for reading! Information for this post was gathered from the following issues of the Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: Dec 31, 1931, Jan 2, 1932, Jan 4, 1932, Jan 5, 1932, Jan 6, 1932, Jan 9, 1932, Jan 11, 1932, Jan 14, 1932

If you don’t want to miss another murder, please subscribe! And if you know someone who likes true crime or Saskatchewan history, feel free to share.

Want to read more about murder in historical Saskatchewan? Start with these:

The Disappearance of Richard Arthur Hudson

The Murder of Eileen Bailey

Murder in Redberry, Saskatchewan

The Disappearance of Richard Arthur Hudson

June 4, 1932 – Regina Leader-Post

On May 4, 1934, twelve-year-old George Roe was headed towards Crooked Creek on his father’s farm in the Spring Creek district just south of Moosomin. As he was walking, he came upon a clump of willows and noticed something odd. A man’s boot protruded from the soil next to the willow trees. The boy went home and told his dad, R. E. Roe, who notified Constable B. F. Harvey in the Moosomin RCMP detachment.

Constable Harvey went out to the farm to investigate and found the badly decomposed body of a man buried in a shallow grave of only about a foot deep.

The body was removed to Moosomin, where Mr. Roe recognized the sweater-smock and identified the body as Richard Arthur Hudson, a farmhand who’d gone missing two years previous.

May 5, 1934 – Regina Leader-Post

Hudson had left the home of Thomas Fry, his employer, on horseback on April 11, 1932. When the horse returned riderless later that evening, a search was mounted but Hudson was never found. Now, two years later, his body had been discovered on the Roe farm just a short distance from the Fry property.

Provincial Pathologist, Dr. Frances McGill conducted the post mortem and testified at the coroner’s inquest. She believed Hudson had suffered a violent death, testifying that vertebrae in both his back and neck had been broken, “as if by some instrument”.

The verdict given by the coroner’s jury on May 18, 1934 was that Hudson had died at the hands of some person or persons unknown, but suspicion was heavily pointed towards William Ritchie, another farmhand in the Spring Creek district, as being the perpetrator.

No trial would ever be held for William Ritchie, however. Because William Ritchie was dead. His body was found seven weeks after Hudson’s disappearance.

June 3, 1932 – Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

On May 27, 1932, William Sheane, Ritchie’s employer, said he saw Ritchie in the evening before going to bed. The next morning he was told that Ritchie had left early and gone away and that was the last anyone saw of him until May 31st, when John Metcalfe, a farmer south of Moosomin, was out looking for a few stray cows and happened upon the badly decomposed body near a bluff on his farm.

An autopsy was performed and samples were sent to the university laboratory. The samples tested positive for formalin and the inquest came to the conclusion that Ritchie had died by suicide, from drinking formaldehyde.

Why did suspicion fall on William Ritchie for the murder of Richard Hudson? There were rumours of a love triangle and Hudson and Ritchie were said to be at odds over remarks Richard allegedly made about a woman Ritchie was interested in.

No further investigation was made into the death of Richard Hudson, the evidence collected enough to satisfy the coroner’s jury that it was most likely William Ritchie who’d ended his life and the community moved on. With both men dead, there was no way to find out exactly how Hudson was murdered, whether it was planned, with Ritchie lying in wait, or if they’d crossed paths and an argument had broken out. Did Ritchie end his life out of guilt seven weeks later? Or was it completely unrelated? And did Ritchie actually kill Hudson?

We’ll never know.

Tombstone of Richard Arthur Hudson, photo taken by Dean Weckman

Thanks for reading! Please subscribe and share!

Resources for this post came from the following issues of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and Regina Leader-Post: June 3, 1932, June 4, 1932, June 10, 1932, May 5, 1934, May 8, 1934 and May 19, 1934.

Interested in more historical Saskatchewan murder cases? Start with these:

The Murder of Eileen Bailey

Murder in Redberry, Saskatchewan

The Unsolved Murder of James Eli Johnson

The Murder of Eileen Bailey

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.

James Nelson Watson – March 27, 1934, Regina Leader-Post

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.

March 26, 1934 – Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

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.

Picture taken by Craig B on findagrave.com

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

Want to read about more murder in Saskatchewan? Start with these:

Murder in Redberry, Saskatchewan

The Unsolved Murder of James Eli Johnson

The Unfortunate End of Peter Daday

Murder in Redberry, Saskatchewan

Redberry Lake Regional Park – Image by Kathy RosenKranz, found on Tourism Saskatchewan

June 12, 1933

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, looked over, 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.

June 13, 1933 – Saskatoon Star Phoenix

The Investigation

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

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.

The Trial

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.

The Verdict

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.”

March 8, 1934 – Saskatoon Star Phoenix

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.

March 9, 1934 – Nanaimo Daily News

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.

Thanks for reading! Please subscribe and share! If you’d like to read about more strange Saskatchewan murders, check these out:

The Unsolved Murder of James Eli Johnson

The Unfortunate End of Peter Daday

Murder at Lake Athabasca

How to Get Over the Death of Your Dog

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.

Maddie as a baby

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.

Maddie

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.

Maddie

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.

Maddie


Step 12: Sprinkle Her Ashes or 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.

I want to hold your hand

The Unsolved Murder of James Eli Johnson

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, his face covered in blood. 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 physician. 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.

Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Dec 26, 1925

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.

Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Jan 4, 1926

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 2:15PM on Sunday, January 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.

They’d been married for four years and friends of the family said it was a very happy, loving marriage.

The Arrest of Laura Johnson

At the end of the inquest on January 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 (worth about $280,000 in today’s money). However, it was noted that Laura Johnson was a woman of her own means and had no need of the insurance money.

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.

Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Jan 19, 1926

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.

Mysterious Letters

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”.

Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Jan 18, 1926

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.

My Theories

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 evidence 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…

Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Dec 26, 1935
Saskatoon Star Phoenix – Dec 26, 1935

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.

Need more murder? You might like these posts as well:

The Unfortunate End of Peter Daday

Murder at Lake Athabasca

The Murder of Herbert Schill

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Ten Things I Hate About Self-Imposed Deadlines

1. They always arrive. Rude.

2. I can’t get mad at anyone because I made them. I did it to myself.

3. Past me always vastly overestimates my work ethic and scheduling abilities.

4. I’m not as worried about disappointing myself as I am about disappointing others.

5. Probably because I’m not particularly hard on myself when I don’t make them. To quote every parent ever, “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”

6. When I do miraculously meet a deadline, no one throws me a party. I at least deserve a present. And no, a sense of pride and self accomplishment is not a present.

7. Avoiding tasks required to meet said deadline is far too easy. I have the willpower of a… well, me. Which is not good.

8. Why do the tasks not associated with the deadline become infinitely more appealing? I cleaned my bathroom, y’all. My bathroom.

9. Completing my task, on deadline, would be greatly beneficial to me, therefore it is repugnant.

10. Let’s be real. If a self-imposed deadline is completed and no one else knows about it, did it even happen?