Farr case — compelling testimony from Margaret Robertson, the woman the already married man promised to wed

by Bruce Cherney (part 4)

Alleged arsonist William Farr told W.D. Russell, his brother-in-law, about his escape from the city jail on April 15, 1895, which he said was undertaken to give him time “to see how he was to get clear of the difficulties surrounding him,” according to testimony Russell gave in a Winnipeg Police Court hearing in June.

Inexplicably, Russell only accompanied Farr to Jemima Street, where they parted company, although Farr’s brother-in-law had claimed that he was asked by the escapee to accompany him to Farr’s Ross Avenue home that he shared with his wife, Ellen, and their four children.

Manitoba Provincial Police (MPP) Chief E.J. Elliott testified that while in Farr’s company, following his re-arrest in Vancouver, the prisoner often spoke about his “alleged” crime and his escape from jail in Winnipeg. He also told Elliott about the coal oil purchase and how he changed from one dealer to another in order to get a better deal.

Farr said he wrote the telegram found in his possession to himself. He wanted to get away from an employer, and Isaac Pitblado (a Winnipeg lawyer) was the first name that came to mind.

The telegram, signed I. Pitblado and from the CPR office in Winnipeg, read: “To Edington, Hastings, B.C. If you want to see your father alive come on the first train, and bring Jenny with you.”

When approached about the telegram by a Winnipeg Tribune reporter on June 17, Pitblado replied: “I was never more surprised in my life than when I read that telegram with my signature in the paper. It was the first I ever heard or knew about the matter. I never saw the telegram. I never sent it ... Personally I never heard of Farr’s father. I never knew he even had one ... I don’t know who ‘Jenny’ mentioned in the telegram is; I never heard of her.”

The most compelling testimony during the trial came from Margaret Robertson, the woman Farr promised to marry. She related that she had known Farr since 1890, first meeting him in Rapid City, where he came one evening each week in his capacity as a railway engineer. She then saw him several times after she moved to Minnedosa, working in the Central Hotel as a “dining-room girl.” When Robertson came to Winnipeg on May 7, 1891, they then met two or three evenings a week. They were in each others’ company at several locations throughout the city, including the Bijou Theatre.

Surprisingly, Robertson was living near Farr at a 412 Ross Avenue boardinghouse owned by a Mrs. Thompson at the time of the fire. When he was arrested, she was employed as a dressmaker.

“Several times I had seen Mrs. F. and her family going to St. Andrew’s Church,” she told the court.

When Robertson questioned Farr about being married, she said he always told her he wasn’t and that he was just living with his brother’s wife and her children, adding that he and his brother looked very much alike and they were often mistaken for each other. Farr spoke of the woman in question — his real-life wife — as “Mrs. F.” to Robertson.

The young woman said they frequently spoke of their engagement, but no definite plans had been made.

“He told me that when his brother’s children grew up we would be married,” Robertson told the court.

Robertson’s recollections about the details of the promised marriage and when they were to be married frequently changed.

When Farr visited the boardinghouse, he even told Mrs. Thompson about their impending marriage, according to Robertson. In later trial testimony in November, Thompson said she was given the same story from Farr about his relationship with his alleged brother’s wife and children. Thompson further testified that Farr and Robertson were very affectionate toward each other.

The only time Robertson had some doubt about Farr’s marital status was when she noticed a newspaper article referring to “Mr. and Mrs. W. Farr” and became confused, since she knew Farr’s brother was named James.

When she questioned Farr about the discrepancy, he told her that his brother’s name was really Walter, which explained the use of the initial W.

“I believed him and trusted him,” she said.

Robertson received five letters from Farr during the time he was on the lam. All the letters, except three, she burned. The last letter Robertson handed over to the police appeared in court as evidence.

All the letters sent to Margaret Robertson were signed, “W.E.,” as reported in the June 24 Winnipeg Free Press.

Robertson admitted that Farr was using the assumed name W. Eddington (Farr’s alias was also referred to in testimony as Edington) and was told to write her letters to that name in Hastings, B.C., which she did.

After receiving the last letter, dated June 15, Robertson told the court she sent a letter to Farr containing her photograph.

The contents of one letter from Farr alleged he was not married and what he wrote was meant to induce her to come with him to Honolulu, where they would be married.

Questioning Robertson, defence attorney, Horace Crawford, asked: “Before the prisoner went away (escaped from jail) was there any talk between you of marriage within a specified time?”

“We agreed to be married this summer but no date had been fixed.”

“What was to become of his brother’s wife and family?”

“I understood he was to make some provision for them. Just what I did not know.”

Robertson, under cross-examination by Crawford, said she received a letter from a man named Hampton, then living in Rapid City, proposing marriage while she lived in Minnedosa. She told Crawford that the proposal came as a surprise, since she hardly knew the man.

“Did you ever tell Hampton that Farr’s intentions were objectionable to you?” she was asked by Crawford.

“Never,” Robertson replied.

“Did you never tell him that as Farr was married you did not want his attentions?”

“Never. I never had such (a) conversation with Mr. Hampton.”

When asked about why she still believed Farr wasn’t married when so many claimed otherwise, she replied: “I trusted him in what he said and thought people were all mistaken owing to his resemblance to his brother.”

After her cross-examination, Robertson began to sob.

“Chief McRae went to her, and taking her by the arm assisted her to rise. When on her feet again, she stood a few seconds, then threw up her hands in an excited manner, and, addressing the prisoner, said: ‘Oh, Will, forgive me! I had to tell the truth.”

She then left the court room still in tears.

(Next week: part 5)