We started down the path of writing this article quite innocently enough as we were compiling interesting stories for explorestrathconacounty.com. Intrigued by discovering that the former Fort Saskatchewan jail cemetery was reputedly haunted, of course we wanted to learn more. We had no idea how far down this creepy path we were about to venture. Let’s start at the beginning…
THE DEATH SENTENCE IN CANADA
A rather macabre piece of Canadian history, the death sentence. If you committed murder, rape or treason in Canada in 1869, it was “off to the gallows” for you – the method of execution was always hanging. By 1870, most executions took place in private, behind prison walls, although the public could attend by invitation. That is until 1935, when an unfortunate weight miscalculation by the executioner led to a gruesome decapitation of a woman accused of murdering her husband for the insurance money. Read more.
The last execution in Canada took place in 1962 as the government put a moratorium on capital punishment in 1967. In 1976 they removed it from the Criminal Code, except for certain military offences. In 1998, capital punishment in Canada was abolished entirely, but not before 62 people in Alberta were sent to the executioner over the years – all of them convicted of murder.
HANGING AROUND IN FORT SASKATCHEWAN
31 of those who faced the hangman’s noose did it at the old Fort Saskatchewan Provincial Jail.
Fort Saskatchewan, originally home to the North West Mounted Police (predecessors of the RCMP), was established in 1875 and later became a provincial jail in 1915. For years and well into the future, the jail has been reported to be haunted.
Fort Saskatchewan Jail Cemetery is a small cemetery of unmarked graves located along the trail that runs through Fort Saskatchewan, tucked into a residential neighborhood overlooking the river valley. The sign on site notes that it was moved to this site in 1957.
The following are some of the stories of the executed whose remains may reside here. Be forewarned, they are a bit gruesome.
SWIFT RUNNER [Executed 1879]
Swift Runner has the dubious distinction of the being the first person legally executed under the jurisdiction of the NWMP in Fort Saskatchewan, in 1879. The details of his crime are particularly grisly, he murdered and then cannibalized his entire family, including his wife, six children, mother and brother. It is quite a famously horrible story and a quick Google search for “Swift Runner” will yield you several results. This is one such result – read more.
JOSEPH CAMERON aka JOSEPH ARTHUR CAMPBELL [Executed 1919]
Cameron was accused and found guilty of killing a Police Officer and a civilian. The evening started innocently enough, just drinking and playing poker with some buddies. Turns out that Cameron wasn’t a good loser and ended up shooting the man who beat him when he wouldn’t return the money. Later that same night, a police pursuit also resulted in Cameron murdering Constable Frank Beevers.
Beevers is now widely recognized as the first Officer killed in the line of duty in Edmonton. Interestingly, it is believed that Frank Beevers was actually the Janitor at police headquarters and not a Constable at all. Due to wartime shortages of men, the Chief of Police sent Beevers, along with two other Constables to pursue Cameron. The position of Constable is believed to have been awarded to Beevers posthumously. [Read more: The Edmonton Bulletin, October 18, 1918]
THE RUM RUNNER & THE MOB PRINCESS [Executed 1923]
Florence Lassandro, was hanged in 1923 for her role in the execution of a police officer in 1922. She maintained her innocence right up to her death. She was the last woman executed in Alberta. While it is widely reported that Florence and her mob boss, Emilio Picariello, were buried in unmarked graves, Gord Steinke, a News Reporter from Edmonton discovered their headstones in St. Joachim’s Cemetery. Now the Fort Heritage Precinct sometimes offers graveside story telling of these two infamous characters.
VERNON ELWOOD BOOHER [Executed 1929]
One night in 1928, Booher decided to kill his mother at the kitchen table because she didn’t like his girlfriend and had broken off the romance. As fate would have it, his brother and two hired men came running into the house and saw what he had done. Booher said then he panicked, and he had to kill them because they were witnesses.
Unusually, this mass murderer was caught with a little help from a psychic, The Vienna-born Maximilian Langsner. Langsner maintained that he could read mind-waves. Reportedly, he sat outside Booher’s cell for hours until he was finally able to draw the police a map to the location of the rifle used to murder the family. Faced with the murder weapon, Booher confessed and was subsequently hanged to death. [Read more: https://freaked.com/booher-family-mass-murder/]
GEORGE DWERNYCHUK [Executed 1931]
Smoky Lake, October 1930…Apparently motivated by rage, an estrangement from his wife and controversy over some land ownership, George walked into his wife’s parent’s home after family supper and opened fire with his shotgun. He killed John Walanski and his wife (Dwernychuk’s estranged wife’s parents), along with her disabled 17-year old sister, Mary Walanski; and Helen Huchaluk, her 74-year-old grandmother. Poor John Darichuk, who lived nearby, happened to pass by on his horse and buggy and George shot him too, worried that he might turn him in. Captured in Vegreville the next day, George was sent to the gallows after only 48 minutes of jury deliberation, the shortest murder trial in Edmonton history.
“Tell Mackenzie King and Mr. Forko that they will soon have room for another immigrant” he told his spiritual adviser, Major Hector Habkirk of the Salvation Army just before he was hanged. – Lethbridge Herald March 3, 1931. Read more: Edmonton Journal, This Day in History November 24, 1930
JOHN FERGUSON [Executed 1934]
Classic case of loving the farmer’s daughter! John Ferguson, age 25, was in love with Louis Jobin’s daughter, Marcella, age 16. Jobin did not approve of the relationship. When Ferguson approached Jobin to see if Marcella could leave with him to go work for his parents. Jobin refused and Ferguson shot him in the head. Read more: Winnipeg Evening Tribune, March 16, 1934
WILLIAM HAWRYLUK [Executed 1935]
The newspaper said that Hawryluk quarreled with his wife, hit her on the head with a blunt object and then put her outside in -45-degree temperature. It wasn’t known if she died as a result of exposure or the trauma to her head. Read more: Hannah Herald January 24, 1935
MICHAEL JOSEPH HAYES aka THOMAS LEE [Executed 1950]
Unemployed army veteran, Michael Joseph Hayes, buried his victim, William McKay, alive after a drinking party went very, very bad. The newspaper clipping says when McKay’s struggles made it evident he was still alive, he was then hacked to death with an axe. Read more: Winnipeg Free Press, July 4, 1949
Interested in the history? Here is some further reading for you:
- Canada’s History: Reasonable Doubts
- Edmonton Journal: Hanged [a special series written in 2011]
- Canada’s Historic Places: NWMP Fort Saskatchewan Post
- North-West Mounted Police: History of Major Posts
- The Law and the Lawless: Frontier Justice on the Canadian Prairies