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Murder Mystery from 100 Years Ago

Part 1

This tale is not being retold to sensationalize a terrible event that happened in our community’s past, but rather as historical occurrence which demonstrates how, no matter what time period we are in, evil lives in the heart of man. In many of the different reports that I have found relating to this event the names are spelled in a variety of ways. I believe that the correct spellings are likely the ones found in our own archives and will be using them.

It was 1916 and the world was still in the grips of World War I and the winter was slowly coming to an end on the prairies. The year previous farmers in the area between Wakaw and St. Julien had suffered a devastating blow when a hail storm wiped out the crops and according to the report filed by NWMP Superintendent Routledge, only two of the thirty farmers affected had insurance. On April 6th, 1916 at 11:30 a.m., RNWMP Constable Dey, the officer in command of the Wakaw detachment sent a telegram to Superintendent W.H. Routledge in Prince Albert: “Six people reported dead near here. Murder suspected. If possible send help.” In his annual report on the activities of the officers operating under his command, Superintendent Routledge reported that the case could “undoubtedly be classed as one of the most diabolical crimes in the annals of the province.”

Inspector Duffus and Detective Staff Sgt. Pryme were immediate dispatched to the crime scene to investigate and Cpl. Fowell and Cst. Williams were brought in from other areas to assist in the investigation. Cst. Dey met them at the farm of 46 year old Prokop Mamchur where the house and barn had been destroyed by fire. Inside the charred remains of the house officers discovered the remains of the five members of the Mamchur family: Prokop, his wife Mary, daughters Paulena aged 20 and Antoza 15, and 2 year old Olga. Lying in the snow close to the house was Prokop’s brother-in-law, John Michayluk. All the victims had been shot, but Mary appeared to have died from falling while trying to escape into the cellar. The investigation would be difficult since there were no living witnesses and the investigators were forced to rely on interpreters since the local people either did not speak English or were not fluent enough to understand fully what they were being asked, and the police were not able to understand the language of the people describing them as being of a “foreign element”.

One wall of the house was still standing after the fire and embedded in the plaster police discovered a bullet which they were able to retrieve. This later proved to match the ones which had killed the Mamchur family. After sifting through the debris in what was once the house, investigators were able to find empty shell casing which matched those still in the chamber of the rifle found with the body of John Michayluk. A sheepskin coat that John Michayluk had been seen wearing prior to the tragedy, was found to have have in its pocket a nearly empty box of cartridges for the .32 Winchester rifle found at the scene. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Michayluk had purchases the rifle and box of shells in Wakaw at the store run by J.F. Johanesik, who later produced the counter check to corroborate this.

According to a book written by Art Downs called Law and the Lawless: Frontier Justice on the Canadian Prairies, the police at first apprehended two men, on April 8th, one of them being Mike Syroishka, the estranged husband of Paulena, on suspicion of murder. Paulena had returned to her family’s home after only a couple years of marriage after a dispute with her husband and Syroishka had reportedly threatened to kill the family if they did not allow Paulena to return. Another version claims that he threatened to kill her. The second man apprehended was Metro Stefaniuk. Syroishka was linked with Stefaniuk as his brother-in-law and as the home where Syroishka resided.

As the investigation continued statements were made about the nature of the relationship between Michayluk and Prokop Mamchur. It was no secret that the two had frequent quarrels. Mary Mamchur was sister to Michayluk and this explains why Michayluk lived with the family. Just as Mike Syroishka lived with his sister and brother-in-law, so to did Michayluk, as was common in the early days of this province. The resentment between Michayluk and Mamchur though was more than just an ‘in-law’ tension. Mamchur owed John Michayluk a significant amount of money and was threatening to kick him out without paying him and this could have been on account of the possible relationship that had developed between Michayluk and Paulena Syroishka. Contrary rumours circulated at the time that the improper relationship was between Prokop Mamchur and his daughter. Following one violent argument between the two men approximately two weeks prior to the murders, Michayluk was reported to have said that if he ever got the Mamchurs “into one corner something would happen to them that like the world had never seen before.”

On April 12, 1916 a funeral mass was held for the victims of the grisly events of the week previous. In the Archives de Bellevue archival collection is found: “The Paroisse St. Isidore parish registry entries made by Father J. H. Chauvin include Mary, Prokop, Antony, and Olga Mamszur, Paulina Seroiska and John Mikaylink ; all deceased, April 5, 1916, burial, April 12, 1916.”

[ to be continued next week…]