A Bargain is A Bargain: The Shooting of Barrett Henderson

On August 15, 1906, Richard Koch, a farmer from Sedley, was driving to Regina with one of his neighbours, Benjamin Dick. As they came upon the farm of Josiah Gilbert, some twelve miles south-east of Regina, they saw a man running towards their buggy, waving his hands and shouting for them to hold on. Behind him ran Josiah Gilbert with what looked like a gun in his hand.

They stopped the buggy near the gateway and the man, covered in blood, ran to them, yelling, “he shot me and will shoot me again. Hold on boys, hold on.” He climbed into the buggy, took hold of the whip and reins and tried to urge the horses ahead. Koch stopped him, and instead got out and waited for Gilbert.

Josiah Gilbert was a man of about sixty-nine to seventy-five-years-old. He was below average height and had a short, bushy grey beard and grey hair. He’d been farming in the district for about twenty-five years and was well known in the neighborhood and in the city of Regina. Koch knew him well and when Gilbert reached the buggy, he asked him if he had a rig at his place to take the shot man to town, as their team wasn’t in a condition to get him there quickly. Gilbert said there was, that the man’s rig was still in his yard.

Benjamin Dick drove into the yard with the injured man, while Koch and Gilbert followed on foot. Gilbert told him the man’s name was Barrett Henderson and that he’d accidentally shot him when the gun had caught and gone off as he was coming out of the barn. Koch said it was funny that Mr. Henderson was so frightened of Gilbert if it had been an accident, to which Gilbert replied that he couldn’t understand it himself, he was trying to help him. When Koch pointed out that it was a mistake to carry the gun so long when Henderson was obviously frightened, Gilbert told him he didn’t know he was still carrying it until he saw them.

They found the buggy standing by the barn, the dashboard covered in blood. They took the buggy and followed Dick, still driving with Henderson, to his own shack, where they transferred him to his own rig and two of his hired men came out to help and take him to the hospital. One of those men, Russell McKinnon, testified that Henderson had seen Gilbert as they were getting into the buggy and he’d cried “don’t let him knife me!” He said Henderson was frightened to death of Gilbert.

Barrett Henderson was taken to Regina and brought to the Victoria Hospital, arriving shortly after noon. Richard Koch, Benjamin Dick and Josiah Gilbert followed behind in Koch’s buggy. As they started out, Gilbert told them his wife was sick at home and he hadn’t checked on her since he’d left the house in the morning and wanted to go home, but they convinced him that he should probably go with them to Regina. They first went to the police, but found it closed, so Gilbert went and put his case in the hands of a lawyer.

Meanwhile, Henderson was in the hospital. He’d been shot in the face, the ragged wound starting at the angle of his mouth on the left side and extending outward in line with the lower lobe of his left ear. He was almost completely drained of blood and a large number of blood vessels and arteries had been destroyed or injured. The wound was described to be of such a nature that one could put one’s fist in it. He was operated on, with three or four slugs removed from his face, but died a little before 3:00PM.

Gilbert voluntarily surrendered himself to police, and by about 5:00PM, he appeared before the magistrate and was charged with murder.

The police spent most of the next day engaged in investigations at the Gilbert farm. Despite searching the entire property, aided by Richard Koch who believed he’d seen where Gilbert had dropped the gun, they were never able to locate the weapon. Inspector Heffernan was in charge of the case, assisted by Sergeant Wilkinson.

The Regina Leader-Post – Aug 17, 1906

If it was indeed murder and not an accident, what was the believed motive for the crime?

Real Estate.

Barrett Henderson had left behind a wife and three children near Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and arrived in the district in the spring of 1906. John Boyle of John H. Boyle & Co had negotiated the sale of Josiah Gilbert’s farm to Henderson. The final closing of the Gilbert farm deal had occurred at the farm house on June 26, 1906, when Henderson made his first payment. The next payment was due in sixty days.

Boyle testified that on the day before the shooting Henderson told him that he was going to make his second payment that Friday, an amount of $2480 (that would be over $78,000 today). He also told Boyle that the Gilberts were crazy to get the farm back, that they’d offered him $3000 to sell it back, but he wanted $10,000. Henderson had told him that on account of his wife’s ill health and constant entreaties that he return home, he might take $7000.

On the day of the shooting, Boyle received word that Henderson was asking for him at the hospital. He arrived before the operation and found Henderson still awake. Henderson reached for him, squeezed his hand and said, “goodbye, Boyle. I am out here among strangers.”

Boyle testified that Gilbert himself had never said anything to him about wanting to get out of the deal, it was only Henderson that had mentioned it.

The trial began on November 13, 1906. Representing the prosecution was J. A. Allan and Norman Mackenzie for the defence.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 14, 1906

The first day was given entirely to the testimony of the doctors who’d attended Henderson. They described the gun shot wound, the operation in which they’d removed three or four slugs from his face and his subsequent death. Henderson had told them upon arrival that he’d been shot by Josiah Gilbert, who he said had tried to kill him. They believed that the exertion of running from Gilbert had sped up the loss of blood and he was described as being almost completely drained of blood at his autopsy, during which the coroner had found another two slugs.

Richard Koch and Benjamin Dick both testified, retelling the events of that morning.

James Brooks, whose farm was next to Gilbert’s, testified that Gilbert had told him he’d heard that Henderson was going to fail in his payments and asked him what he should do. Brooks told him that a bargain was a bargain and that he had better see a lawyer.

Brooks’ niece, who was staying with him, testified that she heard the shot between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. She looked out toward Gilbert’s farm (apparently the houses were not far apart) and saw two men running between the barn and the granary, the one ahead being a little taller. She told the court that Gilbert had visited her uncle’s on one occasion and she’d hear him say something about “if he could close and take the place back.”

The police testified about being unable to find the gun and about doing experiments with their closest approximation of the gun and ammunition to try and determine the range the shot was fired at. They believed it had to have been less than ten feet. About three feet in front of Gilbert’s barn, they’d found blood marks on the ground. There were blood spots on woodchips about 10 or 11 yards from the barn and they’d found marks made by bloody hands on the east door of the barn.

It was time to hear from Josiah Gilbert.

He took the stand, refusing to sit and instead leaning against the rail while answering questions. He spoke so low, the stenographer sitting next to him often had to ask him to repeat his answers. He told the court he’d sold his farm because he was played out and couldn’t work anymore. His wife’s illness had been another motivating factor. (By the time the trial took place, she’d passed away.) He testified that he was satisfied with the deal and didn’t complain to anyone, denying that he’d ever talked about wanting to close and take the place back. He said that Brooks had told him he was selling too cheaply, but he explained he was played out and his wife was sick. He said that he and Henderson were on friendly terms and had never been otherwise.

On the morning of the shooting, he told the court that he saw Henderson at about 5:00AM and that Henderson had told him he’d be around after breakfast to go round the wheat and see when it would be ready to cut. If Gilbert was ready, he could join him.

Gilbert gathered some ammunition and placed the gun behind the north-east door of the stable, facing the house, intending to take it with them to shoot gophers. He was “petting round the colts”, waiting, when he looked out and saw Henderson driving in the yard. He went out, yelled for him, and Henderson came round to the stable door. Gilbert went into the stable to get the ammunition and the gun, picking it up and holding it just above the trigger. He stumbled at the door sill and said the gun seemed to strike the side of door and went off. The horse gave a jump and Henderson fell out of the buggy.

He told the court he’d dropped the gun, gone and helped Henderson up and left him standing while he went to grab the horse and pull him out of the way. Meanwhile, Henderson walked away. He thought Henderson didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing. He saw Henderson going around the barn, but said he didn’t realize how badly he was hurt. He picked up the gun, he testified, to explain to Henderson how the accident happened. According to Gilbert, it was he who yelled for Koch and Dick to stop, not Henderson. He said he dropped the gun because he was weak and the weight was too much for him.

The jury didn’t buy Gilbert’s story that it was an accident. They found him guilty on November 16, 1906 and he was sentenced to hang on January 18, 1907.

He didn’t though.

Reverend G. C. Hill and Mr. James Balfour went to Ottawa to meet with the Minister of Justice to try and secure a commutation of Gilbert’s death sentence. He was granted a reprieve while an appeal was filed and in March of 1907, his sentence was changed to life imprisonment.

And that, my friends, is the story of the shooting of Barrett Henderson. Was it an accident or was it murder? The only one who ever knew for sure was Josiah Gilbert.

The Regina Leader-Post – March 25, 1907

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Aug 17, 1906, Aug 22, 1906, Oct 24, 1906, Nov 14, 1906, Nov 15, 1906, Nov 16, 1906, Nov 17, 1906, Jan 17, 1907, Feb 23, 1907, Feb 26, 1907 and March 25, 1907.

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The Shooting of Frederick L. Stewart

Tragedy at the Brady Farm

The Trial of Mary Charlotte Smith

The Shooting of Frederick L. Stewart

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On the morning of Monday, June 20, 1904, Frederick L. Stewart was in the fields, doing some ploughing on the homestead of his daughter, Edna Goodpasture, near Eagle Creek, west of Saskatoon. He was not a welcome visitor there.

A few months previous, on April 4th, his wife, Manda Stewart, had separated from him. She was living on her daughter’s homestead with her other two children, Blanche, who was fifteen, and Howard, who was ten. Edna was eighteen. Manda had separated from on account of the abuse she suffered at his hands. He’d knocked her around, kicked her, choked her, and at times, threatened her and the children’s lives. He’d asked her several times to live with him again but she refused.

Since the separation, Frederick had been staying on what was described as the Falkner Place. I’m not sure if that was the homestead of someone named Falkner, a landmark, or something else entirely. The sources I consulted did not elaborate. Two weeks before the day in question, the family met him on their way to town and he declared his intention of pitching his tent on Edna’s homestead. They forbade him, but he said he could do as he damn well pleased. When they returned, the tent was pitched, he’d taken possession of the barn and was gone to town.

They lived together in uneasy company until Monday, June 20th. Edna called Frederick for lunch at about noon, and at two o’clock he returned to the yard. He asked Edna if she called him, to which she replied that she had. He said he hadn’t seen it (they always hung a cloth out to signal meal times), and ate his lunch. Edna and Howard went into the tent, which was pitched in front of the shack, and Manda joined them.

At some point, an Englishman from William Wood’s homestead came down looking for eggs. Frederick visited with him in the shack while Manda gathered the eggs, which she gave to him with a jar of buttermilk. The man left and she went back into the tent to take off the butter she’d churned before lunch. Frederick followed her into the tent and sat down on the trunk, telling her it was ‘a nice lot of butter’ she’d taken off. He told her, “Manda, the next wife I get, I don’t intend she shall work very hard.” Then he asked her, didn’t she think he was good looking enough to catch almost anyone?

“Fred, I want you to let me up.”

It’s unclear if he didn’t like the answer she gave, or she took too long to respond, but at that point he grabbed her by the throat and shoulder and threw her over onto the bed. He wrapped both hands around her throat and put his knee on her chest. He wasn’t choking her very hard, and she was able to tell him, “Fred, I want you to let me up.” When he wouldn’t, she threatened to yell for Blanche, their other daughter, and she did.

Howard, meanwhile, grabbed the butter ladle and started striking his father with it. When that had little effect, he ran for Blanche and told her to come quick. Edna shoved Frederick off her mother, saying she’d ‘had enough of this foolishness.’ He turned on Edna, striking her. Manda was able to get away from him and the two ordered him off the property. It was Edna’s land and she wanted him to take his tent and go.

Obviously, Frederick Stewart did not comply, or give any pretense of complying. Edna began cutting the ropes on his tent and he threatened to smash up her shack. She told him to go ahead. So he did. He picked up an old gun barrel started smashing windows. Done with that, he knocked Edna down and kicked her. Blanche had came out with an axe during this time and was also pulling up the tent ropes. When he struck her sister, she hit him with the axe (it read as though she did not struck him with the blade, but most likely the flat side). He jerked the axe from her grip and knocked her down(with his fist). She got up and ran a short distance from him while he turned and raised the axe over Edna’s head, saying, “I’ll kill you.”

At this point, Manda was between the house and the tent. She looked over, and on the front step of the shack was Howard with a single barrel shot gun, raised to shoot. She ran and caught the gun, but he pulled the trigger, shooting his father in the neck and killing him instantly. In her testimony, Manda stated that the gun was level and aimed low when she grabbed for it, and blamed herself for the shot going higher and catching Frederick in the neck, instead of his legs as the boy intended.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – June 24, 1904

A post mortem was done by Dr. Stewart (no relation as far as I could tell) on June 22, 1904. Howard was allowed to stay home with his family until his trial, which opened at Rosthern on November 14, 1904, with Judge Prendergast residing. After being out for only fifteen minutes, the jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide and Howard Stewart was acquitted.

And that is the story of the shooting of Frederick L. Stewart.

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: June 24, 1904, June 29, 1904, July 1, 1904 and Nov 25, 1904.

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Tragedy at the Brady Farm

The Trial of Mary Charlotte Smith

The Life and Death of Ephraim Jantzen

Tragedy at the Brady Farm

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On the morning of Tuesday, February 28, 1933, Norman Ballantyne noticed something odd. His neighbour’s farm was mysteriously quiet. Not a soul stirred about the place, and as it was getting on 9:30, he took it upon himself to go investigate.

The farm belonged to William Brady. He’d lived in the Moose Mountain district near Carlyle for many years, and in fact had been one of the area’s pioneer homesteaders. He was about sixty five years old. Also living on the farm was Ernest Bradley and his wife, Violet, who both worked for William. Violet had been his housekeeper for about ten years before marrying Ernest just before Christmas.

A gruesome discovery awaited Norman when he visited the farm. He found the bodies of three people, all dead from gunshot wounds. Norman immediately went to a neighbour’s and phoned the mounted police at Carlyle and the coroner.

When the police arrived, they slowly began to put together the pieces of what had happened the night before.

They found William Brady in the farm house, his body close to the kitchen door that led towards the barn. There was a bullet hole in his head.

Gilbert (Bert) Oakes was found some distance behind the barn. It looked as though he’d been trying to run away and been shot. Sources were conflicted on where he was shot. One said a bullet caught him close to the top of his shoulder and brought him down. Another said he was shot in the head. It’s possible they were both right and he was shot first in the shoulder and then in the head.

The last body was found in the stable. Ernest Bradley had a .303 rifle beside him. A bullet had pierced his head under the chin and blown part of his head off. A clear case of suicide.

So, where was Violet? In Carlyle, unaware of the horror that had played out on the Brady farm the night before. She’d gone into town on Monday morning and was staying with Joseph Brady, William Brady’s brother. In a double whammy of grief, Violet had lost more than her husband and employer. Bert Oakes was also her brother.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – February 28, 1933

The entire community was in shock. What caused Ernest to shoot down two people and take his own life?

A Bad Marriage

Ernest Bradley and Violet Oakes were married just before Christmas, a few months before. From the start, neighbours said there’d been a lot of quarreling going on in the house. And when Ernest and Violet would quarrel, which was often, William Brady would always try and smooth matters over. Apparently, Ernest resented this and saw it as unwarranted interference.

As for Violet’s brother, Bert, he owned a farm in the hills about a mile east of Brady’s and visited his sister often.

On the Sunday night before the murders, there was a violent quarrel between Ernest and Violet. In the morning, Violet asked her brother to drive her into Carlyle. They went to town and later in the day Bert returned to the Brady home alone. Violet told her husband she wouldn’t be home because of the storm. It’s unclear if this was a phone call, or if she sent this message through Bert. Either way, this was the excuse she gave for not going home that night.

Violet had an agenda. She was meeting with a lawyer to see about getting separation papers from her husband. She told officers that Ernest had no idea that she was taking steps to separate. Aside from the quarreling, which clearly at times became violent, she said that Ernest was very jealous of William Brady and didn’t want her speaking to him.

On the Monday evening, William Brady’s brother, Joseph, and his nephew, Henry, visited at the home, leaving at about 8:00PM. According to them, everyone was in good humor when they left. Late in the evening, neighbours heard shots at the Brady home, but had paid little attention.

Police believed that Ernest fired on Brady first. Their theory was that he must have been threatening them with the rifle and Oakes had made it out the door first and run for the barn. Ernest killed Brady before he could make it to the door, then went out to the barn where he found Oakes hiding behind it. He shot at him, missed, then, according to the tracks they found, he’d managed to shoot Oakes as he was running away. Finally, he’d gone into the stable and shot himself in the head.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – March 1, 1933

Violet Bradley couldn’t give a reason for the shooting. As far as she knew, Ernest didn’t know about the separation. It’s possible her brother accidentally let something slip that tipped Ernest off and sent him into a rage, or it’s possible his long standing resentment of Brady finally boiled over. No one will ever know what happened that night, what events led to Ernest picking up the rifle and shooting his employer, his brother-in-law and himself.

All three men were given funerals and buried on March 2, 1933. They were buried in the Glen Morris Cemetery.

And that is the story of the murder of William Brady and Gilbert Oakes.

The Regina Leader-Post – February 28, 1933

I found information for this post in the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Feb 28, 1933, March 1, 1933, March 2, 1933, March 7, 1933 and March 8, 1933.

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If you’d like to read more historical true crime stories, try these:

The Trial of Mary Charlotte Smith

The Life and Death of Ephraim Jantzen

Murder in Wolseley: The Killing of Rosa Mohr

The Trial of Mary Charlotte Smith

Duck Lake, Saskatchewan

On the morning of Monday, May 20, 1935, Mrs. Caroline Fisher went to the home of Frank and Charlotte Smith. She did some work for the Smiths and arrived at their small cottage on the south end of Duck Lake at her usual time of 7:00AM. She knocked on the door, then entered. As she went through to the bedroom, she noticed Mr. Smith was still asleep on his cot, while his wife lay on her own bed, rubbing her head.

As Mrs. Fisher entered the bedroom, Charlotte exclaimed, “oh Caroline, I’ve done a wicked thing!”


“I killed my husband.”

Obviously dumbfounded at this announcement, Mrs. Fisher asked, “how?”

“With a gun,” Charlotte replied. “I shot him.”

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Mary Charlotte Smith had already been married twice by the time she met Frank A. Smith. In fact, she was still married to her second husband, Mr. Oulet, at the time.

It was at the Mansell Ranch at Birch Lake in the winter of 1923. Frank was a forest ranger and one day he came across Charlotte as she was cutting a water hole in the ice for the ranch cattle. He complimented her on her good axemanship, and apparently, the romance blossomed from there. Charlotte obtained a divorce and the two were married in Calgary in either 1925 or 1926 (news articles were conflicted on the date).

They’d been living in Duck Lake for three years.

Charlotte’s Arrest

Needless to say, Mrs. Fisher was not expecting to walk into a crime scene on that fateful morning. She asked Charlotte if she should go to the kitchen and light a fire, and when Charlotte agreed, she immediately left the house and went to notify authorities.

She returned with J. Day, a justice of the peace, Nicholas Henikenne, the town constable, and Joe Morrisay, the night constable. At this point, Mrs. fisher had recovered from her initial shock and when she led authorities to the bedroom, she noticed a rifle lying on the foot of Charlotte’s bed, the gun pointing towards Frank’s body.

Detective Corporal E. J. DesRosiers of the RCMP in Prince Albert arrived at the Smith home at about 9:00AM. He found Mr. Smith’s body on his cot in a normal sleeping position, his face towards the wall. The cot was along the west side of the bedroom, while Mrs. Smith’s bed was larger and at right angles to the cot. There were no signs of violence, except for a bullet hole in the top of his skull, which oozed blood and brain matter.

Dr. Frances McGill, provincial pathologist, arrived at the scene at about 11:00AM. She described finding the body in a natural position, as if asleep. She conducted a post mortem on the body in the house and later testified that the bullet had pierced the brain from top to base. The passage caused a severe hemorrhage in the brain, which resulted in immediate death. In her words, he probably “had not known what hit him.”

Detective Corporal DesRosiers took down Charlotte’s statement and she signed it. She was taken into police custody while they waited for the verdict of the coroner’s inquest.

The inquest was conducted by Dr. F. H. Coppock of Rosthern. Five witnesses were heard, including Mrs. Caroline Fisher, Detective Corporal DesRosiers and Dr. McGill. Charlotte Smith didn’t testify on the advice of her counsel, W. A. Tucker of Rosthern. The inquest returned an open verdict, stating that Smith’s death was caused by a .22 rifle bullet piercing the brain from top to base. Immediately following the verdict, Charlotte was formally charged with the murder of her husband and after a preliminary trial was ordered to stand trial at the next assizes in Prince Albert in the coming fall.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – May 23, 1935

The Trial

Charlotte’s trial began in October of 1935. Representing the crown was G. W. Salter, with W. A. Tucker for the defense.

It became clear quite early on that their marriage was not a happy one.

Mrs. Mary Arkon, Charlotte’s sister, testified to the strained relationship, telling the court about the trouble arising from expenses, bills and complaints of wastefulness. Frank apparently desired a return to England, but didn’t want to leave his property, while Charlotte, whose relationship with Frank had alienated her from her church, was in conference with her priest, planning a return to her former religious affiliation. It was revealed in court that their marriage was not considered a lawful union.

Several neighbours testified that Frank had been cruel to his wife, beating and cursing her, and that high words and quarrels were frequent; while others found Frank quiet, not quarrelsome or profane and in fact described him as gentlemanly and good company.

F. Schwan, one of their neighbours, told the court that he’d asked Smith if he wanted a ride to Rosthern to see Mrs. Smith, who was in the hospital there at the time. Smith told him, “I don’t want to see the bitch. She is an awful woman to live with. She’s crazy.”

Detective Corporal DesRosiers testified that he’d searched the Smith home and found a letter from the Old Country addressed to Frank Smith in an empty syrup can in the poultry house. It was read in court and contained a reference to £1,000 which was to come to Smith. It suggested that Smith should come to the Old Country before he made any plans.

Several doctors were called to testify on the state of Charlotte Smith’s mental health. Dr. MacNeil, a psychiatrist and superintendent for many years of the Battleford Mental Hospital, told the court he believed Charlotte was subnormal. He described her as a woman so mentally deficient that she had the intelligence of an eight-year-old and was unable to appreciate the charge of murder facing her.

Dr. Nunn of Battleford told the judge and jury that she was an epileptic with a history of mental illness in her family. He’d examined Charlotte while she was held in the Battleford Jail for Women and testified that she’d complained of headaches, organ pains, twitching spells followed by frothing at the mouth and biting of the tongue, sleeplessness and bad dreams.

Her mother had died young from epilepsy. Other relatives were discovered as having delusions. A brother, for instance, talked of headless men on his farm trying to take the title from him.

And while Charlotte appeared intelligent and her command of language was good, Dr. Nunn believed her appreciation of the destruction of life was cloudy. He testified that her shooting of Smith was a way to escape from his torture and abuse and that she didn’t fully grasp the consequences.

Contradicting both of them, Dr. Louchette of Duck Lake completely disagreed in regard to Charlotte’s mental faculties. He told the court that he’d known Charlotte for years and considered her intelligence above average. He recalled that some members of her family appeared a little weak mentally, but in contrast with her sister, he thought Charlotte was particularly bright and intelligent.

Medical practitioners at Duck Lake and Rosthern gave evidence that Mrs. Smith suffered from ill health and that Frank Smith complained often of the expense of her medicine and doctor’s bills.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Oct 19, 1935

The Testimony of Charlotte Smith

It was time for Charlotte to take the stand. Her testimony lasted for two and a half hours, during which “the accused woman held the courtroom’s closest attention in a story that outrivalled that of the most lurid magazine article.”

She described domestic quarrels in which Frank had rushed at her with a pitchfork, made threats of gun play, and in one instance, even pulled the trigger. She’s escaped death by striking at the revolver in his hand, causing the bullet to enter the ceiling instead. She told the court of instances of jealous abuse and blows, of hiding bills because he complained constantly that she was an expense to him. At one time she left him, but returned after he patched things up with a truce, which didn’t last long and ended in a violent scene.

His abuse wasn’t limited to her. She told the court about his treatment of Jerry Pocha, an elderly man who was placed in their home for $20 a month. Old Jerry, as she called him, was sickly and required a good deal of attention. Her husband had to carry him about as he was unable to walk. Smith grew tired of the constant care and cursed the old man, calling him vile names. Charlotte testified that Smith kicked Jerry and threw him about and at one time, left him outside until he was almost frozen.

It was this, she believed, that caused Jerry’s death shortly after in late spring. She told the court that she accused Frank of being directly responsible and that he was terrified of the law. She described their difficulty in obtaining a death certificate, as the attending physician had refused to issue one on Jerry after seeing his bruised body. The matter was finally arranged and Smith and a neighbour fashioned a pine coffin and the old man was buried. But according to Charlotte, the fact that she knew the real truth of Jerry’s death continued to be a subject of torture to Smith.

William Brown, secretary of the municipality testified later that Jerry Pocha was indeed placed in the Smith home and that Charlotte had come to him and complained that Frank had whipped the old man and used abusive language with him. But he hadn’t investigated. He’d paid little attention to her, as she was regarded as a little strange and he liked Smith and found him to be good company.

Charlotte’s testimony had come to the night of the murder. She told the court that on Sunday evening, Mrs. Bernard Schwann had called at their home. She and Schwann had been discussing the expense of running a house. When Schwann left, she and Frank got into an argument about money matters. He told her that she was a big expense and threatened to go to the Old Country. The quarrel grew more violent, with threats on the part of Smith to beat his wife as he was allegedly in the habit of doing.

Smith then went to the kitchen and brought out the gun. She tried to take it from him and it fell to the floor under the bed. At this point, Frank went to bed. He laid down on his cot, his back turned to her, although they continued to argue for what she estimated to be about an hour. At that point, Charlotte picked up the rifle, pointed it at her husband and said, “Frank, if you want to get up and fight, I’ll shoot you.”

He laughed at her and said, “go ahead.”

Charlotte pulled the trigger and the gun went off. She claimed she didn’t know it was loaded. Frank didn’t move after she shot him. She left her bed and knelt on the floor beside his cot, saying, “Oh Frank, I didn’t know it would come to this.”

She got up, got into her bed and waited for Mrs. Fisher to come.

Mr. Tucker’s final address to the jury consumed more than an hour, as he carefully covered all of the important points in the story told by Charlotte Smith in the witness box. He told the jury that Mrs. Smith was terrified when she found herself locked in their home with a husband who’d abused her for years and who was in a towering rage, that she shot him in what she thought to be self defense. He described Smith’s vicious temperament, his insane jealousy and his abuse of Jerry Pocha, all of which had been corroborated by other witnesses.

On October 19, 1935 the jury found her guilty of murder, with a recommendation of mercy. On October 21, 1935, she was sentenced to death by hanging, to take place on January 24, 1936.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Oct 21 1935

A New Trial

Mr. Tucker did not stop fighting for Charlotte Smith, and she won a new trial at the court of appeals on Dec 11, 1935. The appeal was based on the sanity issue. A jury should have ruled on whether or not Charlotte was fit to stand trial before the trial proceeded. Tucker admitted that the error was his. He told the court that at the time he was not aware of Dr. MacNeil’s opinion that, given her delusions, Charlotte was unable to properly instruct her counsel. He’d followed her wishes and had told the judge that they wouldn’t pursue an insanity defense.

On April 28, 1936, a jury was appointed to determine if she was fit to stand trial.

Dr. MacNeil testified again, telling the court that he was firmly convinced she was an epileptic and had the mentality of an average child of eight and a half years. He described her testimony at the previous trial as childish, with a tendency to show off. Not the behavior of a normal person on trial for their life. He had examined her several times since her husband’s murder and placed her under observation in the mental hospital. He found her to be the victim of delusions and hallucinations, saying that she heard voices telling her to do things. He said she described dreams in which a “hairy man” came to her bedside and tried to choke her. He went away when she woke up. She interpreted the dream as Frank interfering with her religion, because he used to curse her and wouldn’t let her pray. He testified that in one of her delusions she saw Frank walking around their home at Duck Lake and would declare that he was not dead.

Dr. L. H. McConnell of Saskatoon was a neuro surgeon and brain specialist. He’d been called upon by Dr. MacNeil to examine Charlotte. He confirmed that she was an epileptic with the mind of a child and insane.

How did he establish this? He did brain surgery on her. He injected air into her brain, which according to him, caused her to act strangely and have an epileptic fit. According to his experience, this only happened in epileptics.

Let’s pause here and talk about brain surgery in the 1930’s. Air being injected into a patient’s cerebral ventricles was a somewhat fairly common practice for the purpose of diagnosis and localization of brain tumors. However, the complications associated with the procedure included convulsions, infections, bradycardia, apnoea and death. So much so, that a large number of doctors felt the risks outweighed the benefits. As a secondary note of interest, on Sep 14, 1936, Walter Freeman and his neurosurgeon partner, James Watts, performed the first ever prefontal lobotomy in the United States. It was a horrific procedure that created permanent loss of function in countless patients. So, not a great time for brain surgery and any of Dr. McConnell’s conclusions should be taken with a very large helping of salt.

Dr. McConnell also testified that he’d found an actual loss of substance in the regions of the brain which “determine things”. He believed Charlotte’s case was well advanced and the shrinkage had been going on for a long time.

Miss Nora McNinch, a nurse, testified that she saw Mrs. Smith have a seizure following Dr. McConnel’s “treatment”. She heard Charlotted mutter in a whimpering manner, “you leave Jerry alone.”

The nurse who attended Charlotte, Miss Eloise Brinson, heard her say, “chase the devils out of my bed”. This was also after her treatment from Dr. McConnell.

Another nurse, Miss Olive Miller, testified that Mrs. Smith kept on repeating, “Frank leave me alone, you’re hurting me.”

Unsurprisingly, Charlotte Smith was declared unfit to stand trial on May 4, 1936 and returned to the mental hospital.

Was she insane or did Mr. McConnell’s procedure damage her brain? Was it both? Did she believe her life was in danger and shot Frank Smith out of fear, or did she find the hidden letter promising him money if he went back to the Old Country and thought he was going to leave her?

We’ll never know for certain.

And that, my friends, is the story of the trial of Mary Charlotte Smith.

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: May 21, 1935, May 22, 1935, May 23, 1935, Oct 18, 1935, Oct 19, 1935, Oct 21 1935, Oct 22, 1935, Dec 3, 1935, Dec 4, 1935, Dec 11, 1935, Feb 25, 1936, April 28, 1936, April 29, 1936, May 1, 1936, May 4, 1936

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If you’d like to read more historical true crime cases from Saskatchewan, check out these stories below:

The Life and Death of Ephraim Jantzen

Murder in Wolseley: The Killing of Rosa Mohr

The Murder of George White

The Life and Death of Ephraim Jantzen

At seventeen years old, Ephraim Jantzen had been a ward of the government since the age of eight, when his father died and his mother, unable to support her seven children, turned them over to the Bureau of Dependent and Neglected Children. He had lived in several homes, but at fifteen he was placed with his half-sister and her husband, John Wurz. John was forty and he and his wife had four children. Ephraim was brought to live with them on their farm, aout 20 miles southwest of Lanigan. He was with them for two years, until the day he died.

On the morning of March 6, 1925, John and Ephraim left the farm with a team of horses and a rack to get straw out of a stack on the neighbouring farm of J. Kincaid. Kincaid had given John the stack on the condition that John would haul two loads out of it for him.

The stack was situated about 547 yards from Kincaid’s house. It was covered in snow and ice that they had to burrow through to get at the straw. According to Wurz, they had laid their overcoats on the snow about 8 yards from the stack, along with a .22 rifle they’d brought in case they saw any rabbits. Ephraim helped John load the rack and steady it for a few yards while John got going, but stayed at the straw stack to continue shoveling while John drove the load up to Kincaid’s barn.

He and Kincaid unloaded the straw. As they finished, a neighbour, Ben Smith, dropped by to pick up his mail. The three men chatted for about five minutes in the house and then John left the two men inside and returned to the straw stack to get the second load. About fifteen minutes later, John rushed in, greatly excited according to the two men, and said his hired man had shot himself.

A reminder here, that Ephraim Jantzen was not John’s hired man. He was supposed to be his foster son.

All three men got on the straw rack and drove back to the stack. Kincaid was about eighty years old and quite deaf, so he was unable to testify as to what was said on the ride back. Smith testified that he asked where the boy had been shot and Wurz said through the heart. Wurz told Smith that he didn’t go into the hole in the stack where the body was, he hadn’t even gotten off the rack. He’d seen the body and immediately driven back to get the others.

They found Ephraim dead inside the burrow, lying on his back with the .22 rifle about six inches away with the trigger guard turned inward to the body and the butt of the rifle practically in line with the feet. His top shirt and undershirt were open and jerked up, as though someone had put their hand in to feel the body. As Smith approached Ephraim’s body, Wurz called to him, asking if his eyes were open. They were closed. Wurz called back that when he’d pulled up, Ephraim’s eyes were open. Which was odd, because Ephraim’s cap was pulled low on his head and his eyes were not visible until the body was closely approached.

The entrance of the burrow faced South and the back of the boy’s head faced North, with his feet at the opening of the burrow.

According to Smith’s testimony, Wurz wanted to move the body. He wanted to remove it from the burrow and take it home with him. Both men refused and told him not to touch it, that it needed to be left as is for the police. They argued for a while until they convinced Wurz to drop them off at farm with a telephone on his way home. On the way, Wurz asked Smith what the police would do to him and was muttering and crying to himself in German. As he dropped the men off, he asked Smith what he was going to tell the police and Smith replied that he’d say young Jantzen was lying shot dead.

Constable William Hill of the Lanigan detachment received word of the tragedy at about 2:30PM. He reached the Kincaid farm at about 5:30PM. Together with the coroner, Dr. Browning, the two walked along the recent sleigh trail down to the straw stack where they found the boy’s body in a hole in the straw. At this point it was coming on dusk. Beside the body lay the rifle, the butt towards the feet, as previously described. Going back up to the house, they met Wurz there in his sled and he helped them bring the body to the granary. According to Constable Hill, Wurz seemed nervous and asked him if he thought he should go to a lawyer.

Checking the boy’s pockets, Hill had found no other shells, only the single empty one near the body and there was no trace of powder marks on the smock he was wearing. An autopsy was performed by Dr. W. Brawley of Guernsey and on March 14, 1925, a Coroner’s Inquest was held by Dr. Browning of Lanigan.

At the inquest, a horrible picture of the life Ephraim had lived at the hands of John Wurz was pieced together. A neighbour, S. Hawes had seen Wurz beat and slash at the boy with a whip used for horses. Another neighbour, A.C. Snider had seen Wurz strike the boy on the back with his fists. And yet another neighbour, E.R. Creswynd told a story of picking Ephraim up in his automobile and giving him a ride to Watrous. Ephraim had told him he was running away because Wurz had threatened to shoot him.

Even worse, was the condition of the body. The undertaker, William Robertson, told the jury that the boy’s body was filthy and had been dressed practically in rags. (During the preliminary trial, the boy’s clothes had to be kept outside of the room when not being examined, due to the overwhelming smell.)

Dr. Brawley testified that there were sores all over the boy’s feet, one of which was the size of a half dollar, all in the process of healing. The tips of his toes were slightly black, and he attributed all of this to frostbite, most likely having taken place about 15 days prior to death and probably from more than one instance of frostbite. He found scars on the nose, mouth, jaw and temple, all minor and all probably caused by frostbite. His lip was swollen and cut, seemingly by the teeth. He found many wounds on the upper part of the boy’s back and abrasions about the hips, apparently the results of “itch”. His abdomen was black. There was severe bruising on the boy’s upper arms. The bullet had entered the body from the left side and pierced the stomach, the heart, the liver and a kidney. He testified that he found Ephraim to have a case of double pneumonia and wouldn’t have given him more than five days to live if he hadn’t been shot. In his opinion, it would have been almost impossible for the boy to have shot himself.

Constable Hill and Detective Sergeant D.C. Shervill of Saskatoon had done some experiments as well. They had cut pieces from Ephraim’s smock and using the same rifle had fired at the cloth in increasing increments of distance, starting at 3 inches and going to 8 inches. At 3 inches powder stains had shown on the fabric. By the time they reached 8 inches no powder marks visible to the human eye were left on the fabric.

The jury at the inquest reached a verdict, stating that Ephraim Jantzen had come to his death from a bullet fired from the rifle in the hands of a person or persons unknown. They added a rider to their verdict, stating that the Bureau of Dependent and Neglected Children had shown considerable laxity in the administration of the affairs of their ward, Ephraim Jantzen. Det. Sgt. Shervill immediately took Wurz into custody and he was held at the provincial police cells at Watrous until his preliminary hearing at Lanigan.

The Saskatoon Daily Star – March 16, 1925

Inspector W.B. Cummings of the Bureau of Dependent and Neglected Children did not take kindly to the Bureau’s being called out in the verdict at the coroner’s inquest. He made a public statement on March 16, 1925 and had this to say in response to the rider: “I feel that the department did everything in its power to help him. I may say, the lad was very unsatisfactory and a hard boy to deal with and gave us all kinds of trouble.”

(I do try to keep my opinions to myself for the most part, but as you can tell by the bold print, I really didn’t like this statement. Ephraim Jantzen didn’t need to be satisfactory. He needed to be taken care of. He was a child. A child whose father had died, mother had given him up and had been separated from all of his siblings.)

The preliminary hearing opened on March 20, 1925 in Lanigan before Justice of the Peace, Cyril Stackhouse. The murder case had drawn a lot of attention in the area and crowds filled the Lanigan town hall for the hearing. They cheered as police evidence was heard, causing Stackhouse to denounce the crowd, declaring that if even a fraction of the interest being shown in the case had been given to the boy a month prior to the tragedy, he might still be alive. He said it was clear that neighbours had been aware of the terrible conditions the boy was living under and none of them had done anything on his behalf.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – April 22, 1925

The murder trial of John Wurz began on April 21, 1925. The crown prosecutor was J.W. Estey, with A.E. Bence (assisted by W.E. Thorneloe and Frank McLorg) for the defence. Another autopsy had been performed by Dr. A.L. Lindsay and Dr. T.W. Walker. They refuted Dr. Brawley’s claims of pneumonia, stating that there’d been the usual after death congestion of the lungs, which is sometimes mistaken for pneumonia. Called to the stand, Dr. Brawley admitted that he’d made several errors in his report and that he might have been mistaken about the pneumonia. He hadn’t done an autopsy in ten years and hadn’t been thrilled at the idea of doing the post mortem.

Grant Lewis, provincial analyst, was called by the prosecution. He testified that he’d examined the bullet hole in Jantzen’s smock under the microscope, comparing it the bullet holes in the pieces of cloth in Constable Hill and Det. Sgt. Shervill’s experiments. In the test pieces, the color had been burnt out of the thread and a deposit of carbon had been left. At up to 7 inches the color was burnt to quite an extent. Under the microscope, the bullet hole in Jantzen’s smock had shown no evidence of scorching, and although there was considerable dirt, the thread had not lost its blue color as it had in the test pieces. In his opinion, the shot was made at a range greater than 7 inches.

Another neighbour, Mike Rostalsky, was also called to the stand. He’d known Wurz for about six years. He stated that he’d never seen Ephraim with the rifle, he’d only ever seen it in the hands of Wurz. Two days before the shooting, he told the court that John and Ephraim had come to his farm to fill a couple of barrels with water. He said that Wurz had ordered the boy around roughly, and as the boy had hauled water Wurz had complained to him about how dirty and smelly the boy was, about his weak condition and how he was thinking he’d send him back to the children’s home. Rostalsky had noticed the boy limping as he worked, and said he was quite lame.

On April 24, 1925, the crown prosecution rested it’s case. In all it had called 23 witnesses. The defence declared they would be calling no witnesses, having based most of their defence in aggressive cross examination of the crown’s witnesses, arguing for the possibility that Jantzen had shot himself.

And that’s when something shocking happened. Justice H.Y. MacDonald sent the jury from the room and asked Estey on what points in the evidence the crown sought a conviction. Estey argued that while suicide was not impossible, he believed the evidence showed it wasn’t practically possible. He felt the circumstances surrounding the death were suspicious, pointing to the lack of shells in the boy’s pockets, the fact that Wurz said he’d left Jantzen at the stack to continue shoveling but that no snow had been shoveled, that Wurz had told Ben Smith that Jantzen’s eyes had been open when he shouldn’t have been able to see the boy’s eyes from the rack. Justice MacDonald disagreed, saying that all of Estey’s evidence was circumstantial and overruled his objection. He brought the jury back in, and at 11:00AM stated that the facts of the case were not such as would warrant a jury to find a verdict of guilty and dismissed the prisoner.

John Wurz walked out of the courtroom with his family. According to reporters, he said, “well, that feels better,” as, smiling, he led his family down the street toward the hotel where his wife and children had been staying. It was reported that on all their visits with him, his children were smiling, healthy and happy looking.

Directly after the discharge of the accused, his lawyer, Mr. Bence, offered to demonstrate for the crowd and reporters how Jantzen might have shot himself by pushing the trigger of the fatal gun with the toe of his rubber boot. His son took a sitting position on the large table in the court and put on the dead boy’s shoes. Bending forward, as if to look into the barrel to see if there was any snow in it, he rubbed the toe of the rubber boot against the trigger of the gun and with no trouble the rifle discharged. The direction coincided with the course the bullet had taken in Ephraim.

There was no mention of any further charges being laid against Wurz for his abuse and mistreatment of Ephraim Jantzen before his death.

Did Ephraim Jantzen accidentally shoot himself, as Mr. Bence demonstrated? Or did Wurz, returning to the stack and finding Ephraim sitting and resting his injured feet instead of shoveling, fly into a rage and shoot him as he’d threatened before? It was not described by the papers whether Bence’s demonstration accounted for the lack of powder marks and scorching on the boy’s clothing, so both are certainly possible. What is clear, is that Ephraim was not treated as a member of the family. Indeed, he wasn’t treated with anything close to human empathy. His frost bitten feet should have disqualified him from helping with the straw. If he’d been allowed to stay home and recover, he wouldn’t be dead. But it appears no justice was sought for Ephraim in this regard.

And that is the story of the shooting of Ephraim Jantzen.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – April 25, 1925

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Daily Star, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: March 16, 1925, March 17, 1925, March 20, 1925, March 21, 1925, April 22, 1925, April 23, 1925, April 24, 1925 and April 25, 1925.

If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe and share! Want to read more true crime cases in historical Saskatchewan? Try these:

Murder in Wolseley: The Killing of Rosa Mohr

The Murder of George White

The Hitchhiker With the Revolver

Murder in Wolseley: The Killing of Rosa Mohr

Content Warning: The following true crime story deals with the murder of a child. If reading about this will cause you distress, please skip this post.

I’d like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Stephen Scriver and the Wolseley Heritage Foundation Archive, for coming through in a big way when I reached out for help with this story. They provided a lot of information for this post, including newspaper articles and a copy of Stephen Scriver’s column, Trolling for History – Murder Most Foul, in which he gives a write up about the case. Both gave me quite a few details I wasn’t able to find in other news articles.

Wolseley, 1907

On the morning of Friday, August 2, 1907, Rosa Mohr went out with her friend, Natalie Hess, to herd cattle for Natalie’s sick uncle, Edward Hess. Rosa was just under seven years old. According to Natalie’s testimony, she and her sister Venda left Rosa with the cattle to go chase off some horses that had wandered into the wheat on the nearby farm of Adam Bieber. When they returned, they couldn’t find Rosa. Natalie and her sister went to all the neighbors trying to find her, but weren’t all that alarmed.

Catherine Mohr, Rosa’s mother, gave inconsistent testimony as to when exactly she found out Rosa was missing. At one point she stated it was in the morning at around 11:00, and at the trial she testified that it was about 4:00 in the afternoon when she was told that Rosa was missing and went out to search for her, looking until about 10:00PM that night. She was sure that she’d seen Rosa in the morning, standing on top of a knoll with a man of about middle size. She did not take it upon herself to go investigate and that was the last time she saw her daughter.

Catherine was on government assistance, collecting sixteen dollars a month. She and her three small children lived with Anna Hess (mother of Venda and Natalie) and her children on her son’s farm south of Wolseley. Catherine was separated from her husband and hadn’t been in contact with him for fifteen years. This of course led to some scandal, as she had three small children, and it’s unclear who the father was of any of them.

A Gruesome Discovery

Rosa’s body was discovered the following morning by George C. Harris, a methodist missionary stationed at the Greenville circuit near Wolseley. He testified that he’d heard the girl was missing at about 7:00AM on Saturday morning, August 3rd. He drove out to look for her, and after meeting with some of the neighbours, he testified that in consequence of what was said, he’d gone into a bluff near his home and there found a grave. According to him, he lifted off some pieces of sod which had been placed on the mound and found Rosa’s body, face down, her legs doubled up under her. He testified that he lifted the body out and laid it on the ground beside the grave, then drove to Wolseley at once to notify the authorities. (In some articles it was reported that Harris had returned the body to its original position, realizing that he shouldn’t have moved it, but it’s unclear if that’s true or not, since he didn’t mention it in his testimony.)

A Coroner’s Inquest was launched, headed by Dr. C. W. Hunt. Dr. Hunt testified that he had removed a cloth from the body, which was otherwise naked except for a chemise and dress, which were tied around her neck. When he removed the chemise and dress, he found a deep stab wound, which had severed the windpipe, gullet and cervical vertebrae. There was a second stab wound in her abdomen about 6-7 inches long, through which the bowels were protruding. Dr. Hunt believed this second wound was inflicted after death. The first stab wound in the neck was the cause of death, and he testified that it would have been immediate, without pain or suffering. He did not find evidence of sexual assault.

The Regina Leader-Post – Aug 6, 1907

On August 5th, the jurymen, Coroner Hunt and Sergeant Dubuque of Indian Head went out to observe the scene where the body was discovered. Newspapers reported that there had been heavy rains and thunderstorms in the district, although it’s unclear if these storms occurred before the murder, after or were ongoing. It was reported that the body was found in terrible condition, and that the gravesite was muddy and filled with water, so at the very least it sounds like it must have rained either in the days leading up to the murder or overnight/into the morning of August 3rd.

At this point, a suspect was already in custody, after several witnesses said they saw him on or around the bluff on the day of the murder, although they all gave conflicting times and testimony as to when exactly they saw him. This man was Sam Prior.

Sam Prior

Sam Prior had a homestead near the Hess farm. He was a “Barnardo Boy”, one of more than a 100,000 poor children (some orphaned, some given up by their parents) sent from Great Britain to farms across Canada. Farmers paid a fee and the children worked as indentured servants until they came of age. Some were treated well, most others were abused and left without any education. Sam was known to the district as lacking in his mental capacities, possibly from the lack of schooling during his time as a “Barnardo Boy” or possibly from when he’d been thrown by his horses while working at eight years old. He’d hit his head and was in the hospital for some time. He’d been put in the asylum at Brandon twice, and had just been released the year before.

George Harris testified that he’d seen Prior around the bluff the day of the murder, as did Natalie Hess. Her sister Venda, testified at the inquest that she hadn’t seen him, but later at the trial she said she’d seen Prior, wearing a dark suit and a grey hat, watching them before turning and going to the bluff where Rosa was found. Another farmer said he’d seen Prior going north with a shovel at about 3:00PM on the same day. Prior was arrested shortly after the discovery of the body, despite the fact that the investigation was not completed.

Upon his arrest, it was reported that a knife was taken from Prior, a large, rough cattle knife with two blades.

Sergeant Dubuque

Sergeant Dubuque gave evidence at both the inquest and at the trial. He told the court that he thought Rosa Mohr’s grave had been dug in a peculiar manner, with the sod turned wrong side up. (How this was established when Harris had testified to removing the sod and taking the body from the grave, I’m not sure.)

He testified that he’d found prints of heavy boots beside the grave and that a quarter mile on the north side of the bluff, the grass and dirt were trampled down, with more prints of heavy boots. From this spot, he said he found a rough mark on the grass that traced for a quarter of a mile south, as if a body had been dragged. He also testified that he’d found a cut in the sod near the grave, as if an instrument such as a shovel had been stuck in the ground. He told the court that he’d searched Prior’s shack and found a pair of heavy boots the same size as the footprints he’d found, some clothing saturated with blood, and a spade, which had a piece missing from the end which made it the perfect size for the cut in the sod he’d found by the graveside.

It was also reported that he’d found a muddy shirt, but it’s unclear if this was found at the grave scene or in Prior’s shack. Sgt. Dubuque testified that he’d found a piece of shirt cuff mixed up with the sod at the grave, which “compared very favorably” with a shirt found in the shack, so it’s possible the reported muddy shirt was actually this piece of shirt cuff.

Finally, Sgt. Dubuque had one last piece of evidence against Sam Prior. He testified that Prior had confessed. According to Dubuque, Sam had started talking to him while in his jail cell, telling him about the trouble he was in. Sam allegedly told him that he’d been digging a well on the fated Friday, but had started for home because he wasn’t feeling well. He’d come upon Rosa, where she was with some cattle, and she’d teased him, calling him a crazy englishman. She’d had a dog with her that tried to bite his dog and he’d given her a smack. Dubuque said that Sam told him he’d killed her and put her in the bluff, then got a shovel and went back and buried her.

All of Sgt. Dubuque’s evidence certainly had things looking quite grim for Sam Prior, but here’s the thing: several people disagreed with him. Amos Smith, who’d been one of the jurymen at the inquest, testified at the trial that he’d been at the grave that day and saw no particular marks about the place. He’d gone over the ground again later with Mr. McPhail and they’d searched carefully for where a struggle might have taken place but found nothing. T.E. Scriver, the editor and publisher of Wolseley had also gone out with McPhail and both had looked very carefully all around the grave for the place where Sgt. Dubuque said he had found the cut in the sod but couldn’t find it.

The Regina Leader-Post – Aug 23, 1907

The Trial

The trial began on January 22, 1908. The crown prosecutor was Levi Thompson, and the defence was Mr. F.W.G. Haultain.

George Albert Charlton of the Bacteriological Laboratory at Regina testified for the prosecution. He was of the opinion that the blood stains on the clothing submitted into evidence, as well as the knife, were probably human, although he could only state for certain that it was the blood of a mammal. Dr. C.W. Hunt testified that the wounds on Rosa Mohr might have been caused by the knife in evidence, but at the time of the inquest he’d examined it and saw no signs of blood.

Haultain worked hard to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, starting with the witnesses mentioned above, Amos Smith, Mr. McPhail and T.E. Scriver. He also called a number of witnesses to the stand who testified that the bloodied clothes Sgt. Dubuque submitted as evidence were not the ones Sam Prior was wearing on the day of the murder. Arthur Bozen told the court that Prior was wearing dark clothes, not the trousers in evidence. As for the blood, Sam claimed that he got nosebleeds regularly and had been duck hunting. He told police the blood was from that.

Percy Coveraton of Wolseley testified that he’d known Prior on and off since 1901 and that on several occasions he’d known Prior’s nose to bleed. He told the court that Sam had a kindly disposition. John Handly, a grain merchant of Wolseley, testified that a day after the murder he’d told Mat Slainder that Sam Prior was suspected and Slainder had replied, “oh no, no Mr. Handley. I know Sam Prior, the silly foolish, but he is not crazy foolish like that. I saw Sam Prior yesterday while I cut hay and he had a gun and a dog.”

Mat Slainder denied ever saying that.

In his final argument, Haultain told the jury that he’d never seen such a mess of contradictory testimony in all his life. The only thing anyone seemed to be able to agree on, he said, were three things. First, that Rosa was lost at some point during the day on August 2, 1907; second, that she was found some time during the next day; and finally, that the accused was seen during the day of the murder.

On January 24, 1908, the jury found Sam Prior guilty with a recommendation of mercy. He was sentenced to hang on March 26, 1908. This sentence was appealed, and on March 5, 1908, Prior was declared insane and his sentence was changed to life imprisonment.

Was Sam Prior guilty? Did he actually confess? And if he did, and he killed Rosa for making fun of him like Sgt Dubuque said, why did he cut her abdomen after she was dead? With so many conflicting and changing testimonies, we can never be truly certain of what happened to Rosa Mohr on August 2, 1907.

The Regina Leader-Post – March 6, 1908

Information for this post was provided by Wolseley Heritage Foundation Archive and the following editions of the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, the Free Press Prairie Farmer and the Winnipeg Tribune: Aug 6, 1907, Aug 23, 1907, Jan 24, 1908, Jan 25, 1908, Jan 29, 1908 and March 6, 1908.

If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe and share! If you’re interested in reading more Saskatchewan historical true crime stories, try these:

The Murder of George White

The Hitchhiker With the Revolver

A Crimson Coloured Spade: Murder Near Wakaw

And if you’re interested in another ‘Barnardo Boy’ gone wrong:

The Welwyn Massacre

The Murder of George White

Govan, Saskatchewan

In the early morning hours of June 3, 1913, George White was found dead in the neighbourhood stable. He was lying on his stomach with his left hand up by his forehead and his head towards the door, close to the horses’ hooves. Blood pooled beneath his head from what appeared to be two wounds. He was the local drayman, a person who delivers beer for a brewery, and known to be a drinker himself.

His wife, Doris, had been married to him for three years and together they had a small child of about two and a half years old. The two had apparently quarreled almost constantly, and within three days she and their hired man, John Goldspinks, were arrested for his murder.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – June 10, 1913

The preliminary trial took place at Govan and both were committed to stand trial in Saskatoon in the fall.

During her trial, Doris White took the stand and gave her version of events. She told the court of the constant abuse she was subjected to in the two years leading up to the murder, during which she was beaten, choked multiple times, had miscarriages after he ‘trod on her stomach while pregnant’ and while she was convalescing from just such a miscarriage, he set fire to the house while she was inside in bed and locked the door. Their child was also in the house at the time. And he had threated her life multiple times.

On the night in question, she testified that George had come home at about ten o’clock and had been drinking. She was sitting on the chair, holding their two-year-old son when he came in, carrying two bottles, one empty and the other about half full. He offered her a drink and when she declined he told her she might as well be drunk. He had a drink himself and told her, “it’s been on my mind all week, Doris. You will have to give up your life tonight.”

He told her that he was going to kill her and then poison himself and the baby. According to her testimony, she told him that he could kill her but only if he agreed to give the baby to a good home. He refused. She tried telling him that the baby hadn’t done anything wrong and why should he have to die, but George was obstinate. They began arguing, George insisting that she go put the baby down in their bed so he could kill her and she refusing. At some point, they started fighting and Doris put the baby on the bed in the bedroom. She tried to get past him to run to the neighbors, but he grabbed her dress. Goldspinks came in through the front door and George released her. She ran to the bedroom door and yelled for help. Goldspinks retrieved the shotgun from under his bed and came in, handing it to Doris. He grabbed George around the waist and Doris said she remembered hitting him twice in the head with the butt of the shotgun. Goldspinks told her to take the baby to the neighbor’s.

She ran to their neighbor’s home, belonging to Andrew Koch and his wife. The family was asleep, but she managed to knock on the window and wake up Mrs. Koch, who let her in. Andrew Koch testified to this as well, saying that Doris had shown up with the baby, staying only about five minutes. She left the child there with them and went after Goldspinks, who told her George was dead. She told him they needed to call the police and she would take all the responsibility, but according to her, he said not to, that it would bring trouble on both of them.

Goldspinks had carried George’s body out to the kitchen when Victor Koch came to the door, sent by his father, to tell her the baby was crying. She left with him to retrieve the baby. When she returned, Goldspinks had taken the body down the stable. He’d gathered up the sheets, pillows slips and the bedroom rug and buried them in ‘the nuisance ground’. She testified that she spent the night sitting on the bed with the baby, crying, unable to believe that he was dead, thinking that at any moment George was going to come home and go after her.

John Goldspinks denied pretty much all of Doris White’s testimony. According to him, he was in bed when he saw Mrs. White carrying a stick of some kind into the bedroom she shared with George. He heard noises that sounded like blows and jumped up in bed. Mrs. White poked her head through the curtains in the door between the two rooms and said, “I have fixed him this time.” He told the court that he could see George’s feet on the floor but didn’t think anything of it, as he would come home drunk all the time and pass out all over the place. He laid down in bed again and went to sleep. Later, Mrs. White shook him awake and told him they’d have to take the body to the stable. He denied doing anything with the bedclothes or having anything to do with it aside from helping to move the body. He denied handing her the shotgun and insinuated it was an axe handle she’d hit him with, not the butt of a gun. He testified that he was pretty sure the shotgun in question was at the White farm, five miles from Govan, although apparently police did find a rifle under his bed.

So which was it? The police did find an axe covered in bloodstains soaking in a pail of water in a shed on the property, but it was never established if it was human or animal blood on the axe. Andrew Koch and his wife were able to verify the part of Doris White’s story in which she fled with the baby, but as for the rest of the events that night, the only two people who know for sure are Doris White and John Goldspinks. As for Doris’s abuse, that was corroborated by various neighbours in the area, as well as a previous hired man who worked for them. On one occasion George had sent for neighbours, the McKays, after striking Doris with a pitchfork, believing he’d killed her. When they arrived, they found her unconscious on the kitchen floor and it took a while for her to come to. When she did, she had no memory of how she’d ended up there.

On September 27, 1913, Doris White was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in prison. The judge told the jury that there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest she was innocent and killed him in self defense, since according to her testimony Goldspinks had arrived, interrupting the assault, and she could have taken the baby and run to the neighbours.

The Regina Leader-Post – Sep 29, 1913

John Goldspinks was acquitted of being an accomplice but was immediately arrested again, this time on a charge of aiding and abetting after the fact and was found guilty. He was sentenced to five years.

And as for the child? Doris White’s son was put in the care of her parents after her arrest, but during the trial they brought him to the courthouse and asked an officer to take charge of him. The officer called up the authorities in charge of such cases and he was turned over to them.

And that, my friends, is the murder of George White.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Oct 2, 1913

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, the Saskatoon Daily Star and the Regina Leader-Post: June 10, 1913, June 18, 1913, June 20, 1913, Sep 29, 1913, Sep 30, 1913, Oct 2, 1913 and Oct 3, 1913.

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The Hitchhiker With the Revolver

A Crimson Coloured Spade: Murder Near Wakaw

The Mystery in the Well

The Hitchhiker With the Revolver

Winnipeg, 1938

It was around 8:30PM on November 9, 1938 that sixteen-year-old Bert Taylor and his mother noticed a strange car parked in front of their house at 672 Furby Street. It was an attractive, 1938 Chrysler grey coupe. They contacted the police about it but were told it hadn’t been reported stolen. The next day, when it was still there, they contacted police again. This time, they sent officers to look at the car, but when Bert pointed out that there was blood on the running boards of the vehicle, the police wrote it off as hunting season and left.

The following night, on November 11th, their neighbour, James Stewart from 678 Furby Street, noticed two men go to the car, unlock it, climb in and drive away.

The car was finally recovered on November 12th, at 754 Garwood Street, Fort Rouge, Winnipeg, when Mrs. R. Aldiss called in about a car parked in front of her house that didn’t belong. The police began looking into it and found out that the car belonged to a man named J. A. Kaeser, a sixty-five-year-old Moosomin farmer who’d been in Regina for the past few weeks and had left for home on November 9th, traveling alone in his car. With the car now in Winnipeg and Kaeser missing, all indications pointed to foul play.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 21, 1938

The Investigation Begins

Kaeser had been traveling with two club bags. One was dark brown leather with a smooth finish and the initials J.A.K. on it. The other was smaller with well-worn dark leather. Neither bag was in the vehicle when it was recovered. They knew Kaeser had left Regina on November 9th and had stopped that same morning at Balgonie to see Mrs. Delia M. Scharif and deliver some groceries that her son had sent along for her. Delia confirmed that he was alone when he visited. This was the last time anyone had seen Kaeser.

RCMP had men out on the No. 1 highway searching sloughs, outbuildings, clumps of trees and bushes from Regina to Winnipeg. On November 14th, they released a broadcast with a description of Kaeser and his car.

Mrs. Percy Trout heard the broadcast and remembered that five days before, a car like Kaeser’s had driven up a side road near their farm, just two miles east of Sintaluta. She’d seen a man get out and walk around the car, although she couldn’t see what he was doing, and after about fifteen minutes it pulled away again. She sent her husband to call the RCMP and went along the road to investigate. There, in a clump of willows near a slough, she noticed a boot. As she got closer, she saw the ankle and the cuff of a man’s pants. It was Kaeser, his body covered with a blanket and left in the willows. It looked as though someone had emptied his left trouser pocket.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 16, 1938

The post mortem examination was conducted by Dr. Frances McGill, the provincial pathologist. She found four bullets in his body, plus an injury to his elbow that may have been from a fifth bullet, or caused by one of the previous four. The bullets were from a .38 caliber revolver, fired at close range. One had entered through his left temple, another through his forehead. Two were found in his back above the waistline, one hitting the spinal column.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 16, 1938

Kaeser was known to carry cash and pick up hitchhikers. It was believed that when he left Regina he had about $200 in cash on his person that was now missing, the equivalent today being between $3500-$3700. The RCMP believed Kaeser had most likely picked up a hitchhiker and been robbed. They started canvasing every filling station between Balgonie and Winnipeg, while police in Winnipeg continued their own investigation.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 17, 1938

A name and description emerged through their investigation and on November 15th, the RCMP quietly issued a warrant for the arrest of a twenty-four-year-old man named Harry Heipel. But Heipel was no longer in Canada. He’d crossed into the States from Emerson, Manitoba on a 48 hour visitor’s permit, telling the border officials he was going to Crookston, Minnesota to buy a radio for his mother. He was traced to Illinois, where police believed he was headed to his mother’s place in Myrtle. He was caught in Oregon and arrested by Sheriff Delos Blanchard, who’d seen the warrant and knew him as a former convict of the Joliet Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois where he’d served fifteen months for forgery and been released the previous March.

Harry Heipel was promptly returned to Canada and taken to Regina to face the murder charge of J. A. Kaeser.

Harry Heipel

Harry Heipel was born in Manitoba in 1914 to Mr. and Mrs. John Henry Heipel. His parents divorced when he and his brother Jack were young, and the two boys ended up living with neighbours or relatives for most of their childhood. Henry and Jack had sold newspapers on Winnipeg streets when they were between ten and thirteen to help make ends meet.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 21, 1938

After his stint in Joliet Penitentiary, Harry had been deported back to Canada and was working on his uncle’s farm (R. J. MacFarlane) at Arcola. However, he’d left on October 29, 1938 and gone to Estevan. He hoped to get a job working on a government dam there, but found out he’d need to apply at Regina. While at Estevan, he tried with several acquaintances to sell a .38 revolver, one he claimed to have received from his uncle but was later proven to have been stolen from a neighbour. Unable to sell the revolver, Harry set out for Regina on November 7, 1938 and managed to hitch a ride. He left Regina on the 8th or 9th, heading East.

When arrested, Harry told police that he had no idea who Kaeser was, and didn’t have anything to do with the murder. He said he’d been hitchhiking and found the coupe on the highway with the keys in it and taken it.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 23, 1938

However, that didn’t explain the human blood stains they found on his coat, and when the police talked to his brother Jack and his friend Arnold Graham, they heard a different story.

When Heipel arrived in Winnipeg, he immediately joined Jack where he was staying. Jack told police Harry had two bags with him, one marked J. A. K., and a pocketbook with J. A. Kaeser printed on it. Jack had learned years ago not to ask a lot of questions, but Arnold was more nosey. He asked Heipel how he got to Winnipeg and Heipel told him by car, adding with a laugh that he’d stolen it. Arnold asked Heipel if he could borrow the car and Heipel reluctantly agreed, handing over the keys and giving them the address on Furby Street where he’d parked it. Jack and Arnold went and got the car and were driving around in it when they noticed bloodstains all over the inside of the car and on the seat. There was even a wrench with specks of blood on it. Nervous, Arnold threw the wrench out the window and asked Jack to let him out. He walked back to their rooms while Jack parked the coupe on Garwood. Arnold immediately asked Harry about the bloodstains and he said he was picked up hitchhiking and had hit the driver on the head with the wrench and dragged him to the side of the road.

The police recovered the wrench in Winnipeg, based on Arnold’s testimony of where he’d thrown it and indeed found blood on it, although it’s unclear whether it was from blood spatter during the gun shots or if it was used to strike Kaeser at some point during the attack. Kaeser did have an abrasion on his head, but Dr. McGill attributed it to his head hitting the dashboard rather than from a wrench.

Further adding to suspicion, Heipel had been identified by a number of people at filling stations and cafes along the route to Winnipeg, driving Kaeser’s coupe. James Woodland, another hitchhiker from McGregor, Manitoba, picked Harry Heipel out of a line up as the man driving a coupe just like Kaeser’s that had picked him up at Brandon and taken him to Winnipeg on November 9, 1938. He’d also noticed the blood in the car at the time and when he asked about it, Heipel had told him he’d been hunting, but Woodland hadn’t seen any evidence of hunting; there were no animal remains or rifle.

The Trial

Heipel went on trial on January 17, 1939. Every day the courtroom was packed, with people being turned away to wait outside for news. The court heard testimony from Dr. Frances McGill, Mrs. Percy Trout, James Woodland, and although the revolver hadn’t been recovered, a gun expert testified that bullet casings recovered on the road near Kaeser’s body matched the casings provided by Heipel’s neighbor in Arcola, from whom the revolver had been stolen. They even heard testimony from a young boy from Arcola, who used to help out Harry Heipel with chores. Heipel had shown him the revolver numerous times. And the description given by the boy matched those of acquaintances in Estevan he’d tried to sell it to. Jack Heipel and Arnold Graham also testified.

The defense argued that Harry hadn’t killed Kaeser at all, but had been picked up in the coupe by the real murderer and had then struck him on the head with the wrench and stolen the car, taking with him the bags and J. A. Kaeser’s billfold.

It was a weak story and the jury was out for only nine hours before they found Harry Heipel guilty on Jan 21, 1939. He was sentenced to death by hanging.

The Regina Leader-Post – April 25, 1939

Despite appeals, his sentence was carried out on April 26, 1939 at the Regina jail.

Just two and a half months later in July, 1939, Heipel’s revolver was recovered, found hanging in a tree near Fleming. After he’d been found guilty and was waiting on his execution, he’d admitted to police that he’d thrown the revolver out of the car near where it was found. It matched the description given by the boy from Arcola and the people in Estevan he’d tried to sell it to.

And that my friends, is the story of the murder of J. A. Kaeser.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Nov 16, 1938

Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: Nov 16, 1938, Nov 17, 1938, Nov 19, 1938, Nov 21, 1938, Nov 23, 1938, Nov 24, 1938, Dec 1, 1938, Dec 7, 1938, Dec 8, 1938, Dec 9, 1938, Jan 6, 1939, Jan 17, 1939, Jan 18, 1939, Jan 19, 1939, Jan 20, 1939, Jan 21, 1939, Jan 23, 1939, Feb 8, 1939, April 25, 1939, April 26, 1939 and July 25, 1939.

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If you’re itching for more historical Saskatchewan true crime, give these a try:

A Crimson Coloured Spade: Murder Near Wakaw

The Mystery in the Well

A Deadly Quarrel: Murder Near Nipawin

A Crimson Coloured Spade: Murder Near Wakaw

Content Warning: The following true crime story deals with the murder of a child. If reading about this will cause you distress, please skip this post.

In researching this story, one thing became clear. Reporting in 1913 was not always the best. Multiple variations of names emerged over the course of the articles I read and I was unable to verify which ones were correct. In the case of the murder victim, her name was given as Julia Genik, Julian Janiks and Julia Jennings. I went through every death certificate on the Saskatchewan Genealogy website for 1913 but was unable to find her. So, we’ll refer to her as Julia Jennings, as that was the name used during the news coverage of the trial.

Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

Julia Jennings was a young girl of eight or nine, living on her family’s farm west of Wakaw. On the evening of June 21, 1913, she didn’t return home as expected. Her family, obviously worried, launched a search for her. They found her body the following morning in a clump of bushes, the injuries to her head and face horrific in their violence. There was a deep gash across her forehead, her nose was broken, the right side of her face beaten to a pulp and her skull was fractured. It appeared one hand must have been raised to try and ward off blows, as it had several deep gashes and broken bones.

Who could have committed such a horrific act against a child?

Sergeant Thomas of the Mounted Police left Saskatoon on Tuesday, June 24, 1913 and arrived at Wakaw the same night. He met with Constable Cook, who was stationed at Wakaw, and the two immediately went to work on the case. After gathering evidence they were soon able to make an arrest and by noon the next day they had their suspect in custody. As with Julia, the newspapers published multiple versions of her name (Kate Simon, Katherine Simons, Kathleen Olka Simon), but I’ll go with the name published during her trial, which was Kathleen Olga Simon. She was approximately thirteen years old and only spoke a smattering of English.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – June 27, 1913

It didn’t take her long to confess. During the preliminary trial, she told the court through an interpreter that on the morning of Saturday, June 21, 1913, she left her father’s farm and walked towards Preston’s farm about a mile and a half northeast to pick Seneca roots. Passing the Jennings’ farm, she saw Julia out with her grandfather herding cattle and invited her to come along and dig roots. They arrived at the Preston’s place at around 9:30 and began digging. They continued digging until about 11:00, when Julia, either out of teasing or malice, threw a dead chicken at Kathleen. She also started throwing sticks and chunks of earth at her. Kathleen, enraged, rushed at the girl and grabbed the spade Julia had been using. She knocked Julia down and beat her savagely with the spade until she was dead.

Perhaps even more upsetting, after murdering her companion, Kathleen went back to digging roots. She returned home at about 5:00 with nearly three and a half pounds of them and said nothing of what had happened. When asked in court why she didn’t say anything sooner, she said she’d forgotten all about it.

Along with her confession at the preliminary trial, two pieces of evidence were introduced. Kathleen’s blood stained skirt that she’d been wearing the day of the murder, and the “crimson coloured spade” found near Julia’s body. Kathleen was committed to stand trial at the next session in Prince Albert.

The Regina Leader-Post – Nov 29, 1913

At her trial in November of 1913, the argument was made that Kathleen committed the murder during a moment of insanity, but the jury didn’t buy it. On Dec 6, 1913, she was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years at the Prince Albert Penitentiary. Justice Brown, who presided over the trial, told the court at sentencing that he had thought at first of committing her to the reformatory, but concluded that given the level of violence in the case (Julia’s face was described as nearly chopped away), it would be inadvisable to have her among other young girls, especially since they would at times be unsupervised.

An appeal was made to the Minister of Justice by the Attorney-General of Saskatchewan to have her formally committed to the care of the Superintendent of Neglected Children, S. Spencer Page. If granted, she’d be placed in an institution.

It’s unclear whether it was on the basis of the above mentioned appeal, or a later one, but after approximately one year, Kathleen was paroled and sent to a children’s home in Winnipeg. The timeline of how long she was at the children’s home is unclear, but it couldn’t have been more than a month or two, when one day, while walking with the matron, Kathleen managed to give her the slip and escaped.

She was on the lam for at least three months. At one point, she was found destitute and starving by a kindly older couple who took her in and nursed her back to health. She convinced them to take her to the countryside where their son lived on a farm north of Winnipeg, but it proved to be her undoing. While working on the farm a visitor recognized her and wrote to Ottawa about her whereabouts. They sent an official to bring her into custody, but he must not have read the part in her file about how she’d already escaped custody once. He informed her that she was under arrest and very calmly, she told him she’d go get her things. While he waited she escaped again.

She was caught five days later when hunger forced her to go to a farmhouse in the area, where she was immediately recognized and held to be taken back to prison. The family she worked for immediately made a strong plea for her release, asking for her to be paroled into their custody.

It’s unclear whether the request was granted. I couldn’t find any follow up articles on what happened to Kathleen Simon, whether she was returned to prison, sent to an institution, or paroled to the family who pleaded for her freedom. For now, her story ends there. But if anyone knows more about her, I hope they’ll reach out.

Thank you for reading! Please subscribe and share.

Information for today’s post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Daily Star, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, the Regina Leader-Post, the Edmonton Journal and the Sunday Telegram from Clarksburg, West Virginia: June 26, 1913, June 27, 1913, June 28, 1913, Nov 29, 1913, Dec 6, 1913, Dec 10, 1913, Dec 11, 1913, Dec 19, 1913, May 10, 1915 and May 23, 1915

If you’re interested in more historical true crime stories from Saskatchewan, give these a read:

The Mystery in the Well

A Deadly Quarrel: Murder Near Nipawin

The Unsolved Murder of Annie and Metro Zurawell

The Mystery in the Well

Photo by Filipe Delgado on Pexels.com

Gull Lake, Saskatchewan – October, 1913

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regina Leader-Post – Oct 18, 1913

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

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

Thanks for reading! Please subscribe and share!

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

A Deadly Quarrel: Murder Near Nipawin

The Unsolved Murder of Annie and Metro Zurawell

A Deadly Obsession: The Murder of Myrtle Beckler