by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Tymko was told by his father, Simeon Czuby, to go with Michael Samborsky and help neighbour, Wasyl Bojeczko, put up the hay that the two men had cut the day before. Before they began their assigned chore, Simeon said the boys were to go to Bojeczko’s farmhouse and tell him to help them with the hay. Since the10-year-old boys were accustomed to hard labour and helping out a neighbour, they quickly obeyed their instructions and set out for Bojeczko’s Stuartburn-area home.
Once at the farmhouse, Michael, thinking they were expected, opened the door, and Tymko followed him in.
Tymko would later testify at a coroner’s inquest that the house was dark when they entered, and that he nearly slipped on “somebody’s head.”
Peering into the darkness and observing a faintly-outlined form on the floor, Michael said, “There is someone sleeping here.”
When Tymko gazed downward, he saw a deep cut to the sleeping man’s head.
Michael’s complexion paled, and Tymko heard him exclaim, “Uncle, do not scare us!”
Before him, laying just inside the doorway of the house, was Bojeczko, whom Michael knew was dead. Beside the body, he saw what appeared to be a bloody axe.
Frightened, the two boys fled the scene and rushed to the Czuby farmhouse.
“Some one has killed Wasyl,” they told Tymko’s father.
The boys’ fathers and Jacob Pawlowski, who was visiting the Czuby farm when the two lads arrived with their chilling news, went with the elder Czuby to investigate.
Inside the house, on Saturday, October 15, 1898, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, they encountered an horrific sight — blood was splattered about the walls and floors of the home. Bojeczko was lying on the floor with one arm under his head that had nearly been severed from his neck by someone wielding the axe that was laying beside the motionless man. They found the bodies of three-year-old Eurka, five-year-old Runka, eight-year-old Hanka and 10-year-old Petro (other reports give the names as Peota, Dowka, Anna and Turko) — two boys and two girls — laying dead and face down on a bed. The brutality of the crime was evident by the victims having been struck numerous times with an axe blade, which inflicted great gashes to their heads.
A messenger was also sent to neighbour Bill Craig, who, accompanied by Theodosy Wachna, an interpreter and immigration agent who came from Ukraine to Philadelphia in 1894 and arrived in Manitoba in 1897, bore witness to the ghastly murders in the one-room Bojeczko home located 10 kilometres northwest of Stuartburn.
As they took in the horror before them, Czuby was heard to be muttering that “Indians” were probably responsible for the brutal murders.
In newspapers, the crime scene was described as resembling a “slaughterhouse,” where “butchery” had taken place.
Wachna sent the following letter to Stuartburn magistrate, J.W. Yeo: “Wasyl Bocehko (sic), N.E. of 2,3,5 was murdered this day. Her children, four, all dead.”
The misspelling of the family name was the result of newspapers being unfamiliar with translating Ukrainian into English. Even the last name, Czuby, was first written as Chubey or Chuby in the first reports about the murders coming out of Stuartburn. A major problem for newspaper editors of the day was that Ukrainian was written using the Cyrillic alphabet, which means there is first a transliteration from Cyrillic to English letters and then a translation into the English language.
Wachna’s use of the pronoun “her” may have simply been a reference to the children’s mother, rather than the father.
The Manitoba Free Press on October 17,1898, reported on the “awful fate of Wasyl Bocehko, a Galician, and his four children at Stuartburn: cruelly hacked to death while they slept.”
The Morning Telegram on the same day, carried the headline, A Galician Murder.
It was the first mass murder since the province was formed in 1870. Because of the horrendous nature of the crime, Manitobans voiced wildly imaginative theories, regardless of how farfetched, in order to find some explanation for an unprecedented act of such hideous magnitude.
Suspicion first fell on Bojeczko’s wife, Acerna, who was the second wife of the 50-year-old immigrant (other newspaper articles claimed he was 54 or around 55). Bojeczko’s first wife refused to accompany him to Canada and so he had remarried.
Gossip making the rounds in the community was filled with speculation that the wife was having an affair with a neighbour. Other rumours in circulation claimed that she had multiple lovers.
But Mrs. Bojeczko had an ironclad alibi, which was revealed at an inquest into the murders on October 17. According to testimony at the inquiry, which was headed by coroner Dr. S.J. Elkin and held in the Stuartburn home of Magistrate Yeo, Acerna Bojeczko was out looking from work in order to supplement the family’s meagre savings when the murders had occurred. Before she left on Saturday morning, the wife had baked enough bread to feed her family for a week. Then she walked to Wachna’s house, asking the interpreter for a letter of introduction to potential employers, since she could neither speak nor write a “word” of English. She also sought out Magistrate Yeo and received a similar letter from him.
Mrs. Bojeczko had walked eight kilometres from her house to Wachna’s and another five kilometres to Yeo’s home. Later she would make her way to Dominion City, albeit by a somewhat circuitous route after she became lost on the prairie. She was away for a week and didn’t return home from Dominion City, which is 32 kilometres directly west of Stuartburn, until Sunday, October 16. While at a neighbour’s farmhouse that day, she first heard about the slaughter of her family.
At the inquest, it became evident that greed was a potential motive for the heinous crime. Specifically, Mrs. Bojeczko testified that her husband had $60 on his person that was to be used toward the purchase of a cow. The Czubys sought the animal as a valuable source of milk and cream for their children, as well as butter for the family. To secure enough money to buy the cow, according to Mrs. Bojeczko’s testimony, it became necessary for her to obtain a job as a domestic in Dominion City.
In the meantime, her husband’s small hoard of cash became common knowledge in the community. It seems that Mrs. Bojeczko had told a number of neighbours about their plans to buy a cow.
The English-language newspapers claimed that the lure of dollar bills was too great a temptation for Ukrainian immigrants, many of whom had arrived in Stuartburn with few funds in their pockets. The newspapers further alleged that the Ukrainian settlers were in such dire straits that they were willing to commit any crime, regardless of how horrific, to improve their financial situation.
The Free Press commented on October 20 that murder was quite common “among these people in Austria (Galicia was then a province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while another Austrian province contributing Ukrainian immigrants was Bukovina. Ruthenians was also a commonly used name for Ukrainians . Ukraine and Ukrainian only came into widespread use after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918), and this makes it all the more imperative that the perpetrators be brought speedily to justice, and such an example made of the offenders as will effectively impress the other members of the colony with the fact that in Canada crime is not permitted.”
According to the newspaper, an unnamed resident of Dominion City had urged the death penalty when the offenders were found, and that “every Galician in the settlement should be compelled to be present” during the execution.
The same article alleged that the sum of $60 was “paltry to an Englishman,” but “among the Galicians” it “is considered a very large sum.”
The Telegram, an extremely partisan Conservative Party newspaper, on October 19 contained an editorial criticizing federal Interior Minister and Liberal Brandon MP, Clifford Sifton, who was also responsible for immigration to Western Canada, for bringing “Galicians” to the prairies and thus stimulating an increase in criminal activity.
“Of course it would be unjust to endeavor to create the impression that every Galician must be a cut-throat because this wholesale murder has occurred in a Galician community,” continued the editorial. “But it is nevertheless a fact that these people as a class are more prone to crime and hold human life in lighter regard than the English speaking people amongst whom they are settled.”
The editorial claimed that Sifton, a member of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government in Ottawa, who sought out hard-working farmers — “peasants in sheep-skin coats” — from Eastern Europe as the ideal settlers for the prairies, had been “warned of the nature of these people.
“He was informed that the Austrian government was deporting them because of their bad character ...
“Perhaps when we have a few more awful tragedies such as that at Stuartburn he will begin to realize that this is not the class of settlers the people of this country are anxious to have the vacant prairie lands filled up with.”
The newspaper accused the Ukrainian settlers of “being poor, ignorant, superstitious, filthy and pest-stricken.”
Another commentary in the same newspaper on October 22 accused Galicians of being “murderers, perjurers, thieves, adulterers; brutal, crafty, ignorant, avaricious and poor. In addition to all this, the public knows them to be filthy, and to have introduced small-pox and other epidemics into the country.”
Among many English-speaking residents of Manitoba, the highly-biased and prejudicial remarks in the newspaper were acknowledged as being a true description of the immigrants. Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans became convenient scapegoats for any crime committed in the province. In Brandon, an innocent Ukrainian man was nearly lynched in 1899, because the real murderer — Hilda Blake, a young woman originally from England — said she saw a “Galacian tramp” shoot her employer’s wife. The man, who was eventually released from jail, turned out to be a railway worker returning from a job in Medicine Hat and waiting to catch a train in Brandon for Dominion City so that he could visit with his family in Stuartburn.
The reality of the situation was that it was extremely difficult for anyone at the time, regardless of “class,” with modest means to eke out a living growing crops on the rock-strewn and rather poor soil surrounding Stuartburn. Yet, the Ukrainian immigrants were quite resourceful, and were able to grow enough cabbage, beets, corn and other vegetables to feed their families during a harsh Manitoba winter.
Hard currency to obtain other essentials, such as flour, was another matter, so Ukrainian men frequently had to hire themselves out as farm labourers, while their wives and children stayed behind to till the soil on their own farms. In the vast majority of instances, the immigrant farm labourers were praised by their employers for their willingness to endure hard work without complaint.
In the eight months since their arrival in Canada, the Bojeczkos had cut and carried the poles to provide a framework and filled the gaps in the walls with mud that was then plastered, resulting in the construction of a snug, although small, one-room house.
In the context of Stuartburn and the commonality of poverty, Bojeczko would have been considered an exceptionally wealthy man since he had a nest egg of $60.
The jury empanelled for the coroner’s inquest, none of whom were Ukrainians, toured the crime scene before hearing testimony from witnesses.
“The sight that met their eyes in that little hut was one that they will never forget,” reported the Free Press on October 20, 1898. “It was more horrible than a nightmare. In the middle of the floor, in a pool of blood, lay the almost naked body of Bocehko (sic), while the blood bespattered heap of corpses on the bed was enough to drive the strongest men from the place with sickening nausea. A smell of blood pervaded the place, even three days after the deed had been done. The bed was stiff with blood, which had flowed as freely that it had soaked through and formed a black pool on the ground below.”
The first person to be questioned during the inquest was Simeon Czuby, who testified: “I saw Bocehko last on Friday, when we cut grass together about twenty steps apart. Next morning, I sent my boy Tim with cows to the bush, and they came and told me that they had been at Wasyl’s house, and saw him laying dead near the door. The boys said Wasyl’s head was cut with an axe.”
When Czuby went to Bojeczko’s house with the others, he said that he saw the man’s body “lying near the floor near the door, dead, and the children in bed all dead.”
Czuby told the inquest jury that he hadn’t known that Bojeczko was carrying $60 in a leather belt around his waist.
As it turned out, Czuby was playing fast and loose with his testimony, which was a complaint that police investigators levelled against many of those living in the Stuartburn area. But the greatest problem the investigators faced was that they were unable to speak Ukrainian, which led to many misunderstandings.
In a great leap of questionable logic, the Free Press was quick to report that “Galicians are very clever liars,” despite being “ignorant people.”
The jury’s conclusion was that Bojeczko and his four children “came to their death at the hands of some person or persons unknown.”
Even as the inquest was being held, Manitoba Provincial Police (MPP) were continuing their investigation into the murders. Soon after the crime became known, Winnipeg Police detective Archie Munro and Winnipeg-based private dectective J.A. McKenzie were commissioned by Chief E.J. Elliot of the Manitoba Provincial Police (MPP) to investigate the murders in Stuartburn. At the time, Elliott had the authority to swear in “fee constables,” who were then paid by the province to work outside their communities.
In addition, Pinkerton detectives Lafonte and Philip Seel (sometimes referred to as Seal in newspapers) from Chicago were hired. Both men were fluent in Ukrainian, which gave them an advantage when investigating the crime. According to newspaper accounts, one of the Pinkertons was soon recognized as a detective — Lafonte (first name unknown) — but Seel, under the pretext of being a prospective settler seeking land, succeeded in gaining the confidence of the community.
“By a strong secret and incontrovertible chain of evidence,” according to a Telegram summary of the case on May 29, 1899, “the (Pinkerton) detective traced his man and hunted him down.”
It was Seel who suspected Czuby of being involved in the mass murder in Stuartburn. Under grilling by Seel, Czuby signed a confession to the crime and was then arrested by MPP detective Cox and sent to Winnipeg.
Before arriving in Winnipeg, Czuby fashioned a rope from his clothes aboard the train from Letellier and attempted to commit suicide in the “watercloset.” As a result, Czuby was closely watched and once in Winnipeg “confined in the iron cage at the (Vaughan Street) provincial jail, the usual place of confinement for those awaiting trial on serious crimes.”
On December 20, Czuby was arraigned on the charge of murder at the city’s police court. After the charge was read by the court clerk, Czuby confessed, “It is all true.”
When being charged, Czuby was described by the December 21 Free Press as: “A man of about fifty-five years of age, and is about five feet eight inches in height. In build he is remarkable for any divergence from the usual type of the Galician. He wore a loose faded grey coat, with the big sleeves affected by all his countrymen. His trousers were of canvas, dirty and patched in several places. The national long boots were conspicuous by their absence. He appeared to be utterly worn out and his eyes wore a weary, hunted look.”
According to the testimony of Regina Francis Yeo, the daughter of Stuartburn magistrate Yeo, during the preliminary hearing at the Winnipeg Police Court on December 28, Czuby had come to her father’s house on December 16 and asked to talk to her since she was fluent in Ukrainian. At the kitchen table, Czuby said he bought a revolver from Wasyl Guszczak, which was used in addition to the axe to murder the family.
When she asked Czuby why his clothes had no blood on them when he was seen after the bodies were discovered, Czuby replied that he had burned his bloody shirt and trousers and then changed into clean garments.
Czuby said he concealed the revolver and stolen money in his house.
After she promised to protect him from Seel, Czuby volunteered his confession to the authorities and was arrested on December 18. Apparently, Seel had been rather forceful when he had earlier questioned Czuby about the murder.
The front page headline in the December 30, 1898, Free Press, asserted that Czuby Springs a Sensation. During the preliminary hearing at the police court, “Czuby surprised even the prosecutor by telling an entirely new version of the tragedy,” when he accused Wasyl Guszczak, who had been a witness at the inquiry, of participating in the murders.
“There is reason to believe that Czuby would have remained silent and accepted the full onus of the crime had not Guszczak, in his eagerness to clear himself, told too many lies about the revolver.” In fact, the evidence Guszczak offered about the history of revolver and its whereabouts continually changed throughout his testimony.
According to the Telegram summary of the crime on May 29, 1899, Czuby eventually named Guszczak as an accomplice in the crime, as he “did not mind being called a murderer, but objected to being referred to as a liar.”
The role of a revolver in the crime was revealed during the coroner’s inquiry at Stuartburn immediately following the murders.
MPP Police Chief Elliot told the inquiry that he had noticed a bullet hole in the cheek of one of the children. A .32-calibre bullet was found lodged in the child’s mouth. It was subsequently determined that two of the children had been shot in the head.
As well, Mackenzie told the inquiry that he discovered a .32-calibre brass casing at the murder scene.
With the absence of the actual weapon, the shell casing and the bullet found in the child’s mouth were entered as evidence at the police court inquiry to prove that a revolver, although still undiscovered, had also been employed during the murders. On the other hand, the axe described as a “hatchet type with a straight wooden handle about three foot in length,” and discoloured by blood stains, was available for use as evidence in Winnipeg (Telegram, December 29, 1898). There was still “blood and hair” visible on the axe blade.
Guszczak testified that he bought the revolver six weeks before the murders took place at the request of Czuby, and denied any involvement in the crime.
But the true history of the revolver, who actually owned it and used it to commit the crime depended entirely upon who was testifying.
Ivan Pistenczuk testified he saw Guszczak with the revolver while they stood outside “a French store” in Stuartburn. Two weeks before the preliminary inquest, according to the witness, Gusczcak had come to his house and told him not to mention the revolver to anyone.
Gusczcak testified that he bought the revolver for $2.50 from a man named Nikolai who was working with him on a Plum Coulee farm owed by a man called Peter.
Gusczcak claimed he sold the revolver to Czuby for $2.50, receiving a 50-cent down payment and the remaining $2 five weeks before the preliminary inquest.
In addition, the witness testified that Czuby had told him about having blood on his pants.
“I told the prisoner (Czuby) at Yeo’s store on Tuesday (following the discovery of the bodies) that he, the prisoner, was a murderer. The prisoner had called me a murderer first and I then called him a murderer because he had hidden the revolver and would not give it up ...
“I knew he had murdered the man because at the time he paid me the $2” for the revolver.