by Bruce Cherney (part 5 of 5)
On May 27, 1899, hangman John Radcliffe pulled the lever and the trap door swung open. The ropes became taut and Wasyl Guszczak and Simeon Czuby were hanged for the brutal murders of Wasyl Bojeczko and his four young children — Peter, Domka, Anna and Jurko — at Stuartburn, Manitoba, on October 14, 1898.
But somehow the rope had slipped on Guszczak’s neck. It wasn’t until 17 minutes after they had dropped through the trap door that both men were pronounced dead by coroner Dr. J.O. Todd and Dr. Edward Benson, the jail’s physician. The Manitoba Free Press on May 29, 1899, reported it took 15 minutes for Guszczak’s heart to stop beating and 17 minutes for Czuby’s heart to cease beating.
In a subsequent interview with the Winnipeg Tribune, Radcliffe claimed the hangings went off without a hitch: “The arrangements in the jail were splendid; it is seldom I see anything so well arranged. There was none of the usual crowding and my task was comparatively easy. If all sheriff’s and governors were as careful and thoughtful as yours in Winnipeg, things would be all right, and the executioner would have nothing to complain about. As for the hanging, the men never moved after the drop and I consider the work a success.”
He made no reference to the bungled execution with Guszczak’s noose slipping.
It was possible that Czuby was not the actual murderer as he claimed while on the scaffold. Guszczak had purchased the revolver and all the witnesses at the hearings and subsequent trials placed the weapon solely in Guszczak’s hand prior to the actual crime. But it is just as probable that Czuby was an accomplice in the crime by accompanying Guszczak to Bojeczko’s home where the murders took place. Although he later recanted his confessions, he initially freely admitted to having stolen the money while Guszczak shot the father and his children and then hacked at them with an axe.
Under the law, Czuby, by being present and stealing the $60, was just as guilty as Guszczak of the murders. It was this technicality that Czuby may not have grasped when claiming the murders were all Guszczak’s doing.
Still, Czuby’s first confession may have been obtained under the threat of physical harm by detective Seel. He may not have ever been present at Bojeczko’s. Since Guszczak, the proverbial liar, admitted to stealing the money from Czuby, there remains the question of whether or not he had been the true thief rather than Czuby. In fact, the money was never found in Czuby’s possession, nor was the revolver that was only recovered after Guszczak showed the Manitoba Provincial Police (MPP) where he had hid it.
As Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Albert Clements Killam said at Czuby’s trial, he would not accept anything said by Guszczak as being anything but a lie. In addition, Killam asserted that he “would not consider it safe to hang even a dog on the testimony of such a villain.” The justice further told the jury that there was insufficient evidence to convict Czuby.
Guszczak had even implicated his uncle Ivan Pistenczak in the crimes, but there were too many witnesses indicating he couldn’t have been present when the crime was perpetrated, so Crown Attorney H.M. Howell had no other option than to free Pistenczak.
Guszczak possessed the stronger personality and was the more clever of the two convicted men. Czuby appears to have been dominated by the man who was 30 years his junior and his closest friend. The only chink in their friendship appeared when Guszczak testified against Czuby and claimed the older man had purchased the revolver from him before the murders were committed. At this point, Czuby objected to being called a liar and implicated Guszczak in the murders, alleging that Guszczak had shot the children and their father and then chopped them up with the axe.
There was no actual physical evidence that Czuby had been present when the crime was committed. Even two small alleged blood spots on a linen shirt worn by Czuby turned out to be simply rust stains, according to the testimony of detective J.A. Mackenzie. The revolver, matching shell casing found at the Bojeczko home and the .32-calibre bullets recovered from the victims implicated just Guszczak, as all witnesses had insisted that they only saw the gun in his possession, not Czuby’s.
The three contradictory confessions made by Czuby were the only basis for his guilt, as was the testimony of 16-year-old Lizzie Yeo that Czuby had admitted to committing the crime to her, and the testimony of fellow accused, Guszczak.
An alleged threat made four weeks prior to the murders may have also swayed the jury. Nakifer Klym told the court in March that during a conversation with Czuby in which it was remarked that Bojecko had a good farm, the defendant had asserted, “I will see that Bojeczko does not remain on the farm.”
Czuby’s daughter-in-law, Katherine Czuby, testified at a police inquiry in Winnipeg prior to his trial that Czuby had come home as usual for supper on the Friday evening of the murders and then went to bed. During the evening, she had not heard any unusual sounds suggesting that Czuby had left the house.
But she did say that on one evening in some month — she wasn’t sure which month — Czuby had woken her and taken her child outside with him. She was not pressed to tell for how long they had been outside the house, as the prosecution quickly determined that her testimony was not helping the Crown’s case against Czuby.
For his part, Czuby refused to have anything to do with his own attorney, Thomas Metcalfe, as the prisoner was under the impression that the lawyer was a detective sent to secure evidence against him (Free Press, March 22, 1899). With Czuby refusing to talk to him, it made it extremely difficult for Metcalfe to adequately prepare a defence for his client.
Metcalfe could only claim that his client’s confessions — the only actual evidence that could be used against him by the Crown, besides Guszcak’s accusations — had been elicited by fear, “or under circumstances that rendered them unsafe for guidance.”
Metcalfe told the jury that uncorroborated evidence from an alleged accompliance was extremely unreliable and dangerous, which was an opinion also expressed by Justice Killam.
Yet, the jury obviously did not believe there was any “reasonable doubt” and thus convicted Czuby. And despite Justice Killam’s warning that there was insufficient evidence to prove Czuby’s guilt, he didn’t hesitate in sentencing the man to death by hanging once the jury in a “fair” trial pronounced him guilty.
As it turned out, the Crown was successful in basing their cases primarily upon circumstantial and heresay evidence and the confessions of the two men.
The Winnipeg Telegram on May 29, 1899, commented that the case “was wrapt in such dark and unscrutable mystery, and was so long in being solved that excitement reached fever heat before the patient efforts of the detectives were awarded with success and an arrest was made. Probably never has a case been more carefully handled by the agents of justice than this one.”
The fact that it was only when the children and their father were being buried on October 19, 1898, and quite by accident — a bullet hole was found in a child’s cheek when the bodies were being moved — that it was found that a revolver had also been used to commit the crime. The accidental discovery shows how sloppily, rather than “carefully handled by agents of justice,” the initial examination of the bodies was performed. Of course, it was a particularly horrendous and bloody crime with several axe blows delivered to each victim, but that does not excuse the absence of more care being taken when first examining the bodies.
After being told about the bullet hole, the coroner found a slug embedded in the mouth of the child. Once the police knew about the .32-calibre bullet, they searched the house and found a brass shell casing matching the calibre of the bullet.
Amazingly, it wasn’t until February 1, 1899, months after the murders, that more bullets were recovered from the bodies, including those fired by Guszczak into Bojeczko’s head, during a second post mortem examination by Emerson coroner Dr. James Elkin. He was the same doctor who first examined the bodies on October 16, 1898.
The Telegram on May 29, 1899, accused Czuby of lying and shifting “the burden of his crime on the shoulders of some other person” to “save his miserable neck.”
But the newspaper did admit that it was owing to Czuby “that Guszczak was brought to justice and though this is a point on which Winnipeg must be thankful to Czuby for enabling the law to lay its grasp on the vile criminals who had a hand in the nauseating brutalities that are attached to the murder, yet there is always a certain ‘honor among thieves,’ and to find that Simeon Czuby was utterly lacking in this, the mere spark of decency and honor, is only to render contempt more profound, and relief at his ultimate fate more heartfelt.”
Guszczak confessed that he had hidden in the bushes and watched where Czuby stashed the money and then stolen it, so who was the more honourable among the thieves?
What the newspaper seems to have used as their basis to condemn Czuby more than Guszczak was that he didn’t face his impending execution with “bravado” in the manner of an “Englishman” as had Guszczak.
The Telegram went on to compare the crime committed by Czuby and Guszczak to those of Jack the Ripper, the murderer and mutilator of prostitutes who had created fear throughout the London, England, district of Whitechapel in 1888. The newspaper said their memory may not be as “hated and feared as that of Jack the Ripper, but it will be a word of loathsome remembrance, and rightly or wrongly will be the indirect means of branding the Galician race with a mark of infamy and perpetrating the unsavory reputation which the record of their doings have evoked.”
With such prejudicial sentiments expressed in a leading Winnipeg newspaper, it is no wonder that F. Handel, a Ukrainian interpreter, said the people of Stuartburn were quite indifferent to the fate of their two countrymen. Not unreasonably, as “Galician” settlers in Canada, they did not want to be “branded” with the stigma attached to their “race” by the infamous crime. Above all, they had come to Canada to share in the promise made to all immigrants by the federal government, regardless of their country of origin, of free land and the rights of Canadian citizenship.
Since they valued these promises so highly, they weren’t about to allow themselves to be closely associated with what was a horrific crime, and so distanced themselves from those who had perpetrated the first mass murders in Manitoba’s history as a province of Canada.
In should be noted that the vast majority of history books about the Ukrainian settlement of Manitoba and Western Canada make no reference to the Stuartburn murders. When the history books do make a comment, it’s usually just a brief statement that the community was “deeply shocked,” or some other words to that effect. Yet, there is no doubt that for years, the memory of the grisly murders in some form or other affected the relationship Ukrainian settlers had with Anglo-Saxon Manitobans.
Subsequent actions against Ukrainians, such as internment in camps as “enemy aliens” during the First World War and deportation following the war and the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, could not have been possible without pressing the case that Ukrainians were unsuitable Canadian settlers. Hostile English-language newspapers, such as the Telegram, claimed that Ukrainians were a race of “murderers, perjurers, thieves, adulterers,” which was a view reinforced in the minds of quite a few Manitobans by the grisly crime committed in Stuartburn.
“When the war is over, when peace is restored, and when we come to normal life, when we shall send out immigration agents to Europe again as we did before, do you believe that our Canadian immigration agents, when they go among the Galicians, Bukovinians (Ukrainians), that these different races will be disposed to come to this country, when they know that Canada has not met its pledges and promises to these people, who have settled in our midst ... if it be said in Canada that the pledges which we have given to immigration when inviting them to come to this country to settle with us, can be broken with impunity, that we will not trust these men, and that we will not be true to the promises which we made to them, then I despair for the future of this country ...,” said Sir Wilfred Laurier, the former prime minister of Canada, when he registered his protest on September 10, 1917, in the House of Commons against the continued mistreatment of so-called “enemy aliens.”
It was during the Laurier administration (1896-1911) that Ukrainians were encouraged to settle in Western Canada.
One who became an outcast in the community as a result of the mass murder was the wife of murder victim, Bojeczko. She was the initial suspect, but was subsquently shown to be innocent of any involvement in the crime. But unfortunately for her reputation, Mrs. Bojeczko admitted during questioning to having had affairs with two neighbours. Marital infidelity was something not so easily forgotten in the community.
In 2005, family members erected a wooden cross above the spot where it is believed the five murdered Bojeczkos were buried. In 1898, all five Bojeczkos were interred in a single grave outside their Stuartburn-area home, “in three coffins, of rough boards, the children being put into two coffins (two in each and their father in one), and the coffins piled one on top of the other” (Free Press, October 20, 1898.)