The Saskatchewan Axe Murders

This will be different than my usual blogs. If you’ve read any of my previous blogs you will know that I typically use them to showcase images of old buildings, schools and churches, and then I add a little background history so that you can view the images in the proper context. Today’s blog is more about an event than a building. This blog begins like most with a trip to somewhere and in this case it was to southeast Saskatchewan. We travelled there to bring some things to our son who found work in that area. My wife and I decided to extend the trip and combine the visit with our son with a photo road trip. I had a lot of interesting places already selected to photograph and expected to find more photo sites as we drove along the backroads. In that respect the trip went very much as planned, although we did have to delay it by one day due to a snow squall (a short but ferocious burst of heavy snow and strong winds) that closed many roads in both southern Saskatchewan and Alberta. The one day delay meant that we missed the worst effects of that storm. After that storm the weather was just fine. I took so many photos on our Saskatchewan trip that it will take me several weeks to fully process, keyword and catalogue them. All in all it was a fun, productive but exhausting trip.

What Happened Here in 1900?

We stopped at a quiet roadside corner in Saskatchewan where we noticed a number of information signs but no obvious buildings or scenic vistas. Curious as to what all the signs were for, we stopped there to check it out and see what was here. The signs were mostly about the community of Welwyn, Saskatchewan. We had a lot of traveling to do that day so I didn’t plan to stay long but then my eyes caught something very unexpected. It pertained to Alexander McArthur who was an early homesteader from Scotland, the postmaster, an operator of a stopping house and an all around town booster. On June 9, 1900 tragedy struck the McArthur family at their homestead (the signs list two locations for the homestead so Alexander McArthur must have moved a short distance to another homestead after he married Sarah Colville). I’ll quote directly from the sign.

Shortly after midnight, June 9, 1900, tragedy struck. A brutal axe attack on the McArthur family left the parents and three of their seven children dead, and three others of their children severely injured. Only the eldest, 15 year old Maggie, was spared in the attack.

The murderous act was performed by the hired man, John Morrison. He then attempted suicide. Maggie alerted neighbors of the attack. Authorities were notified. Morrison, seriously wounded, was found in the barn. He was taken in to Moosomin for treatment. Later he was tried, found guilty of murder, and hanged at Regina jail on January 17, 1901.

The murder victims were buried in Moosomin North Cemetery. The injured, initially cared for by doctor and neighbors, were taken by relatives. Only Henry lived beyond childhood. Maggie lived in the United States with relatives.

Matt Colville, brother of Mr. McArthur, took over the store and post office. Life continued at Welwyn.

Source: The right sign shown below.

The Rest of the Story

It says on the sign above that both Mr and Mrs McArthur were murdered that night by their employee of 6 to 8 years. Also killed and died immediately were; Alexander Russel aged 5, Charles Colville aged 10, and Peter Dempsey aged 12. Elville Scott was an infant at the time of the murders but lived to the age of 16 with relatives in Ontario. John Henry was two at the time of the murders but he recovered and lived to serve his county in WWI. John Henry then served as a member of the Vancouver police for 33 years and died at the age of 86. Margaret was 15 at the time of the attack. She moved to Vancouver, but died at the age of 27 shortly after her child died. Mary Elizabeth “Mae” lived in California where she died in 1978 at the age of 84.

There are numerous minor discrepancies in this story between the articles in the Winnipeg Tribune, the Regina Leader, the sign by the road, and the information at the Find a Grave website. These discrepancies are mainly regarding the birthdates and ages of the victims. For example if the unharmed girl was Margaret, she would indeed have been 15 at the time of the attack but Margaret only lived to age 27 (suggesting that old wounds prevented her from living a long life) and died in Vancouver. It was Mary Elizabeth “Mae”, not Margaret, who was raised by relatives in the United States and indeed the cemetery records show her as living to 84 in California.

Ultimately it’s understandable that the media might get the information wrong at the time of the incident. What is important is that only one child was unharmed and only one wounded child survived – John Henry -to live to a normal old age.

If you would like to read all the details of the crime and the final punishment of the hanging of John Morrison, I have downloaded the information from the two newspapers and provided it below.

The axe murders took place very close to the Manitoba border in southern Saskatchewan. between Rocanville and Moosomin. This was before Saskatchewan was even a province.

The image below only shows part of the article in the The Winnipeg Daily Tribune. I have provided a transcript of the full article further down.

The article in The Winnipeg Daily Tribune, June 11, 1900, is difficult to read from the clipping and is split over different columns and pages. To make it easier to read, I have downloaded a transcript of the article which is identical, right down to the colloquial use of English at the time.

Monday June 11, 1900

The Tragedy at Welwyn.

Father and Mother and Three Sons Are Now Dead – Two Others Dying.

The Brute who Committed the Crime is Likely to Recover.

Motive for the Deed is not Known – Community Feel the Shock Keenly.

Moosomim, June 11 – Mr. McArthur has died since the dispatch of The Tribune on Saturday.  The dead now are Mr. and Mrs. McArthur and their three sons.   Two other children are not expected to live.  The girl aged 15 was left by the fiend, but why, only he knows.  The five dead are to be buried today in Moosomin.  The murderer has a severe wound in his left side.  He evidently intended the shot for the heart.  He is doing well and is likely to recover.   His motive for the deed is not known, although the police are in possession of certain facts which may show the villain a veritable brute.   The community feel the shock  keenly.   The people are grief stricken  that such a family should be so foully dealt with.

STORY OF THE MURDERS

The correspondent of a city paper describes the murder as follows:

Moosomin, Assn., June. – One of the most horrible and shocking tragedies in the annals of western Canada was enacted about 14 miles from this town about 12 or 1 o’clock Saturday morning, when Alexander McArthur, postmaster of Welwyn, and eight members of his family were brutally butchered.  Mrs. McArthur and two boys were killed outright.   Mr. McArthur and Russell McArthur have since died and three other members of the family lie at the point of death.  The eldest daughter, a girl of some 15 years, escaped.   The story of the murders is as follows:

The hired man, one John Morrison, confesses to have done the act.  Friday evening he was playing football some four miles from the place he was working at, and left for his home at McArthur’s at half past eleven.  It would seem as though he made up his mind to kill the family, as he took off his boots outside of the entrance to the house, and when he entered the house had an axe with him.

From the porch he entered into a kitchen.  On the northwest corner of the house is a double bedroom, with beds in the northwest corner and southwest corner leaving a space between the two beds of some five feet, in which was a cot.

Mr McArthur occupied the bed in the northwest corner, and was apparently lying on the right side. In bed with him was a little boy of some 4 or 5 years.  The other bed was occupied by Mrs. McArthur and her babe of almost two weeks, and at the foot of the same bed slept a little girl of about 7 years.   On the cot before mentioned slept a little boy of about 3 years.

From all appearances he never moved after being struck.   Whether Mrs. McArthur or the little boy was his next victim matters not, but the little boy who slept with his father was struck over his left eye and from ugly gash left must have been struck with the sharp part of the axe.   This little fellow cannot recover.  Mrs. McArthur received four blows.  The right ear was partially cut.  There is a gash on the head; another over the right eye, and a deep cut on the skull, as though done with the  blade of an axe. The blow at the baby was not very well aimed, as there is a cut about two Inches long above the temple and partly through the skull.  Neither was the blow aimed at the little girl sleeping with her mother very exact, as from the marks left it would appear as though he intended to strike with the blade of the axe, but, miscalculating the distance, the blade over-reached its mark, and she was struck with the handle of the axe on the neck. From these he seems to have gone to the little boy on the cot. There was no open wound on the child, but the whole side of the face is black and bruised, and apparently was struck with the flat of the axe. The murderer thought six of his witnesses were now dead, and yet he was not satisfied, for he went upstairs, where the members of the family were sleeping. Upstairs, turning to the left and immediately to the right, are two other bedroom. In the first room sleeps the oldest boy of the family, about 13 years, and Morrison’s bed mate. He was found lying on his face with a gash about four inches long and one Inch deep near the middle of the head. Off this room was another occupied by the eldest girl of the family, about 11 years. The boy was Morrison’s last victim, and was found lying on the floor with his face resting on his hand. On the back of the head was a deep hole, likely made with the corner of the blade of an axe.

Miss McArthur’s life was spared. There are two stories going the rounds as to how the girl was awakened. One is that she woke by hearing the groans of her little brother; the other that the murderer awakened her, telling her that he had killed all the rest of the family, but she could go as he would not kill her, but would shoot himself, which he afterwards did. When Miss McArthur got up she apparently went from room to room, and met nothing but the ghastly sight of loved ones slain, going back to her own room she dressed herself and fled to a neighbor’s for aid. She aroused Mr. William Jamieson, living at a distance, of about a mile and a half away. Here she told her sad tale, and he came to town and notified the police. It was not long before the police were on the road, to the scene of the tragedy, and with Mr. A. E. Hart, Amos Kinsey, and Dr. Rutledge, coroner,  were the first from here to reach the scene of the awful murder.

Mr. Hart, when Interviewed by your correspondent, said he had read of murders, and pictured deeds of all descriptions, but he never thought it possible that such a scene as that presented would ever meet his eyes. Mr. McArthur died of his Injuries at 7 o’clock Saturday night, and Russell McArthur, one of the injured, died today, Sunday, at 11 a. m.

THE MURDERER.

The murderer, Morrison, has been living for some six or eight years in the district, and was considered a good and and faithful servant. He was always of a quiet disposition, and a good-natured young fellow. He is of Scottage (sic) parentage, coming to the Territories with Messrs. Gordon Brothers, cattle dealers, of Winnipeg, some six or eight years ago, or thereabouts. When the police reached the place they began to search for the murderer, and found Morrison in a stable, with a bad flesh wound, as he had tried to carry out his previous intention of self-destruction. Beside him was a revolver, with three cartridges, and hammer raised, a double barrelled shot gun, with the right barrel discharged, and the axe with which he had done his bloody work. His recovery is doubtful, but he was able to be moved, and was taken to Moosomin in charge of Sergt. McGinnis, and lodged at the barracks.

Questioned as to his motive, Morrison replied that he had no reason for doing it.  He said he was not crazy, and never had been, and talked quite freely as to his condition.  Out of a family of nine, five are killed, thee are horribly mutilated, and will probably die, and one is left to tell the sad story.

Mr. McArthur and family could not be more highly thought of.  The husband occupied a leading place among the farmers of the Welwyn district. During last March he was one of the delegates who Interviewed the Manitoba government, and Mr. Whyte, of the C.P.R., with regard to the new railroad wanted for their district.  Besides being a postmaster, he was also a member of the school board. He has a brother living In Winnipeg and two other brothers in British Columbia, who were notified of the occurrence. When the news reached town, it seemed incredible that such a deed should be committed only about 12 miles from this usually peaceful district. A post mortem will be held on Tuesday at 10 a.m., though the jury were formally sworn in on Saturday. The funeral will probably take place on Monday to the Moosomin cemetery.

C. P. R. SPECIAL.

Moosomin, June 9. – The police returned from the scene of the murder at Welwyn, 12 miles north of here, this evening, bringing with them John Morrison, aged 27, the man who did the awful deed. The murder was committed about 12:30 on Saturday morning. The following are the dead:

Mrs. A. McArthur,

Demsey McArthur, aged 12,

Charles McArthur, aged 8,

Mr. A. McArthur, and Russell McArthur, aged 4 years, are dying.

Mamie McArthur, aged 6, Henry McArthur, aged 2, and Baby McArthur, three weeks old, are badly wounded. In fact, Henry and the baby cannot recover.

John Morrison, the murderer, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, lived In Ontario previous to coming here eight years ago, most of which time he was employed by Mr. McArthur. No motive has been given for the crime, which was all done with an axe.


The image and transcript below are from The Leader, Regina’s newspaper for January 17, 1901. It deals more with the murderer, Morrison and how that matter was dealt with.

The transcript below is the same article as in the newspaper above but is much easier to read. What would we do without OCR technology (Optical Character Recognition) which can view an image and turn it into editable text.

MORRISON THE MURDERER

Pays the Penalty this Morning for Murdering Five Persons at Moosomin.

This (Thursday) morning John Morrison, the Moosomin murderer pays the extreme penalty for his terrible crime by being hanged at Regina jail. The murder committed by the young man was of huge atrocity. Early in the morning of Saturday, 9th June, 1900, Morrison entered the house of a respectable farmer, Mr. Alexander McArthur, postmaster of Welwyn, and going where Mr. McArthur near Moosomin, and his son of five years old were sleeping, he murdered them both by striking them on the head with an axe. Mrs. McArthur, who was in another bed, with a two-weeks old babe, was similarly killed, as was also the infant. In another room a son of Mr. McArthur’s was brutally attacked in the same manner but recovered from his injuries. The murderer then visited another bedroom where slept Miss McArthur, aged 11, and a little brother aged eleven. The insatiate homicide at once killed the lad; and then quietly told the girl he had murdered all the family, but would allow her to escape, and would shoot himself.

After this fearful and sickening tragedy Morrison proceeded to a stable to carry out his threat. When found he had a deep flesh wound. A double-barrelled shot gun with one barrel discharged was by his side, and he had also a loaded revolver in his possession. He was not expected to live, and was removed to Moosomin. However, he recovered, and as soon as he was in a fit condition he was brought to Regina on a Coroner’s warrant, charged with the murders. In due course he was brought up for trial at Moosomin, when he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death by Judge Wetmore. Morrison was then brought back to Regina jail and has remained in the condemned cell ever since. The Dominion Government sent Dr. Bell, the specialist, to examine into the man’s sanity, but that expert did not see any reason why the law should not take its usual course, and accordingly Morrison hangs this morning.

During the whole of the time Morrison has been under sentence of death he has exhibited the utmost indifference, he has not been callous or flippant, but has simply appeared insensible of or unconcerned about everything and everybody. When spoken to he has answered quickly and intelligently, but has shown no desire to talk. He cannot read, and therefore, has not been able to pass the time with books. He has simply sat and done nothing.

Once he did say he could not understand why they did not hang him at once instead of keeping him so long. He has too, shown some emotion when visited by the Salvation Army, has sank on his knees and prayed with them, and occasionally has shed tears. He has requested that the Rev. J. A. Carmichael should attend him in his dying moments. With these exceptions Morrison has simply sat silent all along. He has slept well, ate heartily, has had good health, indeed has grown stout.

The scaffold was erected by Mr. Thos. Barton. It is the same scaffold that has been used at every execution in the capital of the North-West. It is completely boxed in, and the drop is eight feet, a pit having been dug in the jail yard to effect this. The first execution in Regina was in 1884 when the brothers, Jno. and Geo. Stevenson were hanged for the murder of an old man named John McCarthy, of Troy, by striking him with an axe during a very ordinary quarrel. Both the men acknowledged their guilt. It is somewhat curious that the first execution at Calgary was the same week, when Jesse Williams was hanged for the murder of Jno. A. Adams, also a case of striking a man with an axe. The next at Regina was the case of Jno. Connor, who murdered, once again with an axe, a man named Henry Muluski. Then came the most celebrated one of all, Louis Riel who was hanged on the 16th of Nov. 1886. In June 1888 Gaudy and Racette, two half-breeds, paid the extreme penalty ; while the last one was on the 10th May, 1897, when was hanged Antonio Lucianio, a Jewish peddler, who murdered and robbed an Italian scissors grinder whose name has never been discovered. The crime took place on the C.P.R. track, near Grenfell. There was another man mixed up in the affair named Engedio. but the royal clemency was extended to him. Lucianio died protesting his innocence. The execution of Morrison, therefore, will be the eighth that has taken place at the capital of the North-West Territories.

Radclive, the hangman, has been in Regina for several days, making free with whomsoever sought his acquaintance. He says he has hanged over 100 murderers, representing fourteen different nationalities. All the preparations for the terrible ordeal were completed by Tuesday and there’ is no probability of any hitch in inflicting upon the young criminal the extreme penalty for his atrocious conduct.

It’s nearly impossible to read the grave marker from the image and it’s very difficult to read it when actually standing there. This part of the Moosomin North Cemetery is quite old and hidden by trees on both sides. Unfortunately this has resulted in some vandalism such as knocked over tombstones. It’s also possible that this was caused by the 2014 flood that damaged roads and buildings all over southeast Saskatchewan.

The above list is a screen clip from Find a Grave. It shows the mother and father plus three sons. All five individuals died at the scene of the crime or very shortly thereafter.

To the right is a complete list of the McArthur children. Here you can see that Margaret and Elville Scott died 12 and 16 years after the crime respectively. Elville Scott was the infant sleeping with his mother on that night when their family was taken from him. We don’t know the actual cause of death but it’s implied that he eventually did succumb to the wounds inflicted on him by the axe. The newspaper article states that Margaret was unharmed that night.

Elville Scott McArthur was sent to live in Simcoe County, Ontario, with relatives of Mrs. Sarah Colville McArthur. Based on the age of Mary Colville Elliot she was likely Sarah’s sister and offered to take in the wounded infant, who would therefore be her nephew.

Margaret McArthur was 15 years of age at the time of murders, the eldest child in the house. She died in BC at the age of 27 after having married. I found one child on record for Margaret; the child’s name was Charles H. Gadsden. Margaret’s son died on February 14, 1912 and Margaret died on July 12, 1912, just five months later. I couldn’t locate the date of birth of Charles Gadsden. I also couldn’t find the cause of death for Margaret.

The Takeaway

So what can we take away from this tragic piece of history. Here are some some things that came to mind but you might have a whole different list.

  • The early pioneers to the Canadian prairies had an even tougher life than I previously imagined. Not only did they have to deal with all the usual things that we know of such as poverty, the hard work of homesteading, pandemics such as what we typically call the Spanish Flu, and of course the Great War, they also experienced very serious crime.
  • Mass killings are not just a product of the modern age, they did happen in those early days and in places as unlikely as a tiny settlement in the sparsely populated prairie of south east Saskatchewan.
  • History is rarely 100% accurate. In this case there is some uncertainty as to the names and ages of the family members. Even on some of the memorials at the Find a Grave site someone else has questioned the age on the grave marker.
  • Those signs on the side of quiet rural roads can contain some very surprising information. If you have time to stop and read them you may be shocked at what you will read there.
  • No matter how bad your day or situation may be, you would not likely trade places with the McArthur family of 1900.
  • Finally, the McArthur family were robbed of many lives. They didn’t have an opportunity to meet their grandchildren and watch them grow. Who will remember them? In the time you took to read today’s blog you remembered them. That is their legacy and now you are a part of it.

References:

  • The first source of information that contributed to this story are the signs by the side of the road in Saskatchewan near Moosomin.
  • The Winnipeg Tribune and Regina Leader were used, word for word, in this blog.
  • Find a Grave information was very useful in gathering the family names together so that I could visualize the whole large family and what happened to who and when.

Note that the feature image at the top of the page, and below, is not, to the best of my knowledge, a grave marker for any of the McArthur family. It is however from the same Moosomin North Cemetery and very close to the McArthur family gravesite. I selected it because the wooden marker shows how old some the graves are in this cemetery. Also I already have used an image of the McArthur grave marker in the blog.

The old section of Moosomin North Cemetery

9 thoughts on “The Saskatchewan Axe Murders

  1. Very interesting story, Glen. Again, I always appreciate how you dig into all of the details. What an unfortunate tragedy. So many questions and so few answers as to why these things happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Rebecca. The motive will probably forever be a mystery. It’s very puzzling.

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      1. Yes, unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like the murderer was very forthcoming with information. A very strange situation indeed.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing some
    Canadian history!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are welcome Jadyn, thank you for commenting.

      Like

  3. A gruesome story, but as you say, pioneer life was hard for many reasons.
    My father-in-law told stories about the graves on farms near his. Sometimes the people who died were babies and sometimes they were people who took their own lives. A non-denominational cemetery was not built until 1933 – perhaps that provided an option for suicide burials that might not have been allowed in church graveyards – though I don’t know if that is true or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that is true Margy. I just read a book about the dry area of southeast Alberta. It mentions the hardships and the resulting suicides as well as murders. It was a hard and lonely life for some.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Once again, a more than fascinating read Glen. You have done an amazing amount of research on a very horrible tragedy. Sure leaves me wondering what would have been going through his mind to do such things and why he would spare the daughter. Was there perhaps some type of unrequited love involved…did he love her and the father told him no. Makes me wonder.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Mary Anne. I also think that there was a connection between the oldest daughter and the man who committed the crime. I don’t know how far that connection went but it’s possible that her death at the a young age of 27 (and shortly after her son died) may also be connected. Perhaps someday someone will gain access to the police files and discover the answers.

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