The Whitewater murder mystery — witnesses testify that Gordon confessed to crime


by Bruce Cherney (part 3)

On April 2, Walter Gordon took his place in the prisoner’s box in the Brandon Courthouse with Justice Joseph Dubuc again presiding. During the two earlier proceedings, Gordon had not admitted his guilt and entered a not guilty plea at the Brandon trial. Virtually the same list of witnesses from the Boissevain preliminary trial retold their testimonies at the double-murder trial. 

At the trial, murder victim Charles Daw’s hired-man Walter Jackson said Gordon had written in the black notebook: “Have got a whisper where Smith and Daw are. I am going to make it interesting for them. Don’t let it out.”

Officer Cox testified he came into possession of a letter allegedly written by Gordon to John Mutch of Powell, near Medicine Hat, which he turned over to Manitoba Provincial Police Chief E.J. Elliott. The letter described the farm, the stock and the crop Gordon had bought. In the letter, Gordon asked Mutch for a loan of $200 for two or three months “on good interest.”

Under cross-examination in court, witnesses could not definitively confirm that it was Gordon’s handwriting in the letter.  

A new witness was T.J. Sears, an American soldier stationed at Fort Meade. Gordon was the assistant galley cook under Sears. Sears testified that Gordon said he got into trouble with two farmers in Canada when he bought a farm from one of them and stock from the other. According to a Telegram account published after the trial, Gordon confessed to Sears that he murdered the two farmers.

In a Free Press account, Sears had purchased a watch, a book, a valise and a rubber stamp all bearing the name Walter Gordon. When Gordon deserted, Sears became curious “as to where he had gone.”  The newspaper said, “This led to the arrest of Gordon while he was at Halifax on his way to South Africa,” although it wasn’t until weeks later when Sears saw the bulletin about the reward that he reported Gordon to the proper authorities.

To explain his lack of immediate action, the American later said troopers did not inform on each other. 

In court, the witness said he wasn’t testifying to claim the reward,  but appeared as a “matter of duty.”

After the trial was over, the validity of Sears’ testimony was called into question. Sears  asserted in a Free Press article that Gordon had planned to kill him in South Dakota, which was a claim that didn’t come up during the trial.

After visiting the condemned man in jail, Sears told the newspaper, Gordon said he had planned to kill him during a visit to Sturgis, the town nearest to Fort Meade. Sears said he was suspicious of Gordon and declined to go to town.

“You had the luckiest escape of your life that night,” Gordon is alleged to have told Sears while awaiting execution. “I intended to kill you when (I) got you alone and I would have killed you for sure, you suspected me.”

Rev. E.A. Henry, Gordon’s spiritual advisor during his time in Brandon jail, in an April 10 letter asserted that the soldier’s claims were “double-dyed falsehoods.”

“I have it on good authority of the Brandon gaoler and of every guard that this creature Sears never stood inside the gate of Brandon gaol,” wrote the minister. “The nearest he ever got to his old chum, whom he sold for money, was the space between the prisoners’ box and the witness stand (during the murder trial).”

Rev. Henry said Sears’s conscience had “not troubled him very seriously until he saw the offer of (a) $1,000 reward ... the sight of the money caused his sense of duty to be most suddenly and wonderfully keen.”

Rumours circulated that Sears had been compensated after giving evidence against Gordon during the trial. The American soldier, who was staying at the Winnipeg Hotel, was reported to have received $500 of the $1,000, “and had been displaying large rolls of bills in consequence,” according to the Telegram.

But Attorney-General Colin Campbell fervently denied the rumours. “The department has received a number of statements of claims from various parties, asking for the reward or portions of it, and the matter has not been entered into.”

Yet, it is unlikely the MPP would have heard about Gordon serving as a U.S. soldier without obtaining first-hand information from a then undisclosed source in South Dakota. 

Defence attorney H.M. Howell could not rattle witnesses William Scott of Whitewater and William Hyndman of the MPP, who related the defendant’s previous confessions to them.

When it was time to present his case, Howell called John Gordon, the father of the defendant. The gist of the father’s testimony was that insanity ran in the family. The father told the court his  brother had died “insane” in Whitby jail just before being taken to an asylum. The court also heard that the father had been periodically confined for bouts of mental illness.

The father told the court his son, who would be 24 on May 22, was a well-disposed boy, but after writing to ask for $225 became mentally unbalanced when the request was refused.

Dr. Gordon Bell of Winnipeg testified 70 per cent of insanity could be traced to heredity. He said if both parents were mentally unstable, the condition was more likely to turn up in their children. When questioned by Howell, he said, “insane people often take great pains and show great cunning to hide their deeds,” according to a Free Press report of the trial.

The insanity defence tactic failed. After just 20 minutes of deliberation, foreman J.L. Wannoc pronounced a unanimous guilty verdict arrived at by the 12-man jury. 

Judge Dubuc, who pronounced the ultimate penalty the next day, described the crime as “most cruel and without provocation or excitement ... He had done the act deliberately in a most premeditated manner” and “after a fair trial had been found guilty.”

The story of Gordon’s life was recounted in a jailhouse letter “signed by myself” that first appeared in the Brandon Sun. According to the letter, dated April 7, 1902, and released to the newspaper by Rev. Henry, Gordon came to Whitewater in March 1898, working for farmer B. Ellis for eight months and then for Leonard Thompson. He had $420 in cash from wages and the sale of a pony when he decided to go to New Mexico. After paying for his train ticket, he had $375. 

Gordon worked at a graphite mine in Kelly, New Mexico, earning about $500, which he used to enter into a partnership with a man named Savage in a  mine near Water Canyon in New Mexico’s Magdalena Mountains. The letter claimed Gordon and Savage found a gold and silver vein in the mine. Arrangements were then made for the sale of the claim. Gordon said he received a telegram originating in Sorroco along the Sante Fe Railway line from Savage saying the mine had been sold for $10,000. 

According to the letter, Gordon had accumulated $1,000 when he decided to leave Kelly for Manitoba, although the sale of the mine had not been completed. Before leaving, he borrowed $100 to purchase a train ticket. Why he would borrow money when he allegedly had $1,000 in his pocket was not discussed in the letter.

Gordon claimed to have reached Whitewater with the $1,000 still on-hand on July 12. He stayed at the Graham farm until the next day when he went to Daw’s with the intention of buying his farm. Apparently, he had heard from other sources about Daw’s desire to sell. “Daw and I finally agreed on the purchase (price of) $6,400 about July 15 ... I told Daw about having $1,000 in cash on my person and that I was expecting $5,000 in a short time from Savage. I told Daw I would write home and to John Mutch to see if I could raise enough money to pay all in cash for the farm.”

Gordon’s letter told about the visit to lawyer N.P. Buckingham of Boissevain to sign an agreement. He took possession of the farm and kept on hired-man Jackson. Until the final payment was handed over, Daw and Jacob Smith also remained on the farm. 

On July 31, Daw and Gordon were on the way to Boissevain when they stopped at the Whitewater post office, where Gordon picked up two letters. According to Gordon, the contents of the letters were read on the road to Boissevain: one letter from Savage said the mine sale had fallen through and another from his father said he was unable to give his son $225. At the news, Daw became angry and tried to throw Gordon from the buggy. Gordon pulled out a revolver he said he carried at all times and shot Daw twice in rapid succession. Daw fell dead into a ravine.

All the evidence indicates Daw had been patient with Gordon to this point, as he had not pressed the matter of money exchanging hands to complete the transaction. For example, Gordon had possession of the farm for two weeks while there was no record that the alleged $1,000 had been deposited in any bank by Daw.

“When it was done (the murder) I felt gone — lost, dazed.” wrote Gordon.

Despite recalling feelings of remorse, Gordon continued on to Boissevain and stopped at a hotel where he ate supper. When it was dark, he started back and reached the place where the body lay. He roped Daw’s body to the buggy’s axle, dragged it to the farm and placed it in the well.

According to the letter, when Smith showed up drunk, the argument over the division of feed began in the stable. After Smith uttered profanities, Gordon ran out of the stable to retrieve his revolver, saying he only wanted to protect himself from Smith, who was bigger and stronger. Smith continued to be belligerent so Gordon fired two or three shots. 

“He became worse, and threw a stone at me. I went to the house to get the shot gun. It was standing just inside the door. The wild geese were plentiful at the time (not so, according to local resident Peters, who wrote to the Telegram, “I never saw geese plentiful in July”). When he came to the porch door, I was holding the gun and fired a shot, and I think I hit him in the shoulder. He started to run and holler. He ran to the stable and walked around the granary. I thought he was coming after me, and at twenty-five yards I fired again.”

Smith tried to flee but only got a short distance before collapsing dead. 

“I went home and for an hour or so I do not know what I did. My memory seemed gone. I seemed to be getting into deeper trouble every step. The rest of the day I arranged about the hay, as we were (told) at the trial, and went to Deloraine in the afternoon. I removed Smith’s body that night, on the stoneboat, to the well.”

Gordon said he later realized the “horrors of the thing, and feeling how awful it was I tried to cover it up.”

He went on to write that it was not “done for money or for the greed of it, but on an unexplainable impulse on the moment.

“No one knows how I have suffered, and can only express my sorrow and hope to make my peace with God.” 

Gordon may have expressed sorrow in his letter, but it was a commonly held belief that Gordon was engaged in a scam to gain possession of Daw’s farm and he had every intention of killing anyone who stood in the way of completing his nefarious scheme. The very fact that there is no concrete evidence that any money was ever paid for the farm reinforces the view that Gordon hatched an elaborate plot filled with promises he could not possibly fulfill. 

All we have is Gordon’s word that he had $1,000 in his pocket when he returned to Whitewater and stood to gain another $5,000 through the sale of his alleged New Mexico mine. Furthermore, while claiming to have cash on-hand, Gordon continually borrowed money from others, such as the $100 for a train ticket to Manitoba.

In addition, we only have Gordon’s word that he showed Daw the two letters prior to shooting the young man. Only two letters were known to exist; one containing the denial of the $225, which was confirmed by Gordon’s father in court, and a letter addressed to Mutch providing details of the so-called farm purchase entered as evidence in court, although witnesses could not confirm the letter was in Gordon’s handwriting. 

The alleged partner and mine sale announced by Gordon in Whitewater in 1900 may have been part of his con. We have no proof to the contrary as the Savage letter was never produced in court nor proven to exist by any other method. As well, Savage never appeared as a witness on Gordon’s behalf nor was his existence ever physically confirmed.

The mysterious Savage was more likely fabricated by Gordon, who did not provide a first name in his jailhouse confession. Nor is the name Savage mentioned in two years of newspaper accounts of the crime until the Gordon prison confession was released in April 1902. But the name Savage was well-known in American mining circles. For example, Leonard Coates Savage had a claim near Virginia City, Nevada, which he sold and was amalgamated into the renowned Comstock Lode. James Savage was a famous figure during the California Gold Rush of 1849. 

Although it is only speculation, it is possible Gordon somewhere read or heard about these early miners while in New Mexico, decided enough time had passed that they had been forgotten or felt they were never known in distant Manitoba. When forced to come up with a name to maintain he possessed the money to buy the farm, he incorporated “Savage” into his 1902 confession. 

Tales of fabulous gold and silver bonanzas in the southwest U.S. without a great deal of accompanying details undoubtedly reached  Whitewater. As a result, Gordon’s 1900 claim of making a gold and silver strike was plausible to local residents, especially Daw, who was overly anxious to sell his farm and thus a prime candidate for a confidence swindle.

The only viable conclusion that can be derived from the evidence is that when Gordon realized his elaborately woven swindle was beginning to unravel, he tried to cover up any traces of the deception by killing first Daw and then Smith. 

Whitewater residents weren’t particularly pleased with Gordon’s jailhouse confession. Local grocery store owner Fred Peters wrote a letter to the editor of the Telegram (April 17, 1902) saying: “If, as the condemned man states, both crimes were committed under provocation, how does he account for the letter written before the murder (handed over by Jackson to MPP Chief Elliott), stating that both men had gone away, he knew not where.

“I think the spiritual adviser of Gordon should satisfy himself of the truth of the condemned man’s statements before permitting them to be made public, as, in my mind, they have created an impression that our courts are as guilty, or more so, than the convicted murderer.

“If Gordon’s story is true, he is only guilty of manslaughter and liable to imprisonment for life, and the execution of the death sentence would be judicial murder,” Peters ended.

Whatever tidbits of truth were contained in Gordon’s jailhouse confession, newspapers reported that the condemned man freely admitted his guilt to his jailers during numerous conversations. 

“The annals of crime in this province are fortunately brief,” said a Free Press editorial on the day Gordon was sent to the gallows. “Murder has been of comparatively rare occurrence. In spite of these facts the crime which Walter Gordon was guilty must be classed among the most cold-blooded, the most daring, the most deliberate, committed in all the west.” 

Gordon’s charm was displayed during his time in Brandon jail awaiting execution, and provides evidence of his ability to easily earn the confidence of Daw in Whitewater two years earlier. Surprisingly, the guards and others still regarded Gordon with a measure of affection despite his repeated confessions that he was a murderer.

The Telegram reported that “during his incarceration he won the friendship of all connected with him (including Rev. Henry). The governor’s children were particularly fond of him, and often beguiled him into participating in their childish games ...

“Before the hour of execution arrived (June 20) and before leaving the jail Gordon shook hands with his friends and bade them good-bye. He also shook hands with Radcliffe, his executioner.”

About 150 people had tickets handed out by Brandon Sheriff William Henderson to witness Gordon’s execution in the southeast corner of the Brandon jail yard. Hoping to get a glimpse of the hanging, some of those without tickets mounted a rise outside the jail and still others were seen atop a barn some 300 metres away.

At 8:04 a.m., Sheriff  Henderson, followed by jail governor Acton, Rev. Henry, “quoting in clear tones the Lord’s Prayer,” and Dr. Anderson, assigned to confirm the prisoner’s death, preceded Gordon as he mounted the 18 steps to the top of the scaffold. Gordon with his hands strapped behind him was attended by two jail guards, followed by John Radcliffe, Canada’s official executioner.

Gordon was reported to have walked firmly and calmly up the stairs to the scaffold. Once over the trap door, Gordon had nothing to say when asked, and a black cloth was placed over his head. 

“The silence was as deep as that of the forest, or the ocean,” reported the Free Press, “and not a sound could be heard but the clergyman’s trembling voice and then as the words ‘and forgive us our trespasses’ were  uttered, Radcliffe took a quick step and pulled the lever. The thick rope tightened in an instant and Gordon’s body went crashing through the trap. There was a straining sound, and a sharp jerk and that was all, and Gordon had paid the penalty.”

Even after death, Gordon remained the object of controversy, according to the Telegram. While Gordon’s lifeless body hung from the noose, the executioner became agitated when he noticed the black flag, the signal of an execution taking place, flying over the jail at half mast.

“What the devil is that flag flying half mast for!” shouted Radcliffe. “This is no time for mourning.”

Radcliffe rushed into the jail, got the caretaker and had him raise the flag to the top of the pole. Radcliffe was reported to have had a look of satisfaction on his face when the black flag reached the end of the rope.