Murder in Brandon — terrible news of cruel crime spreads through city like wildfire

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

It had all the elements of sensationalism that extraordinary crime stories dripping with venomous jealousy, sleazy sex and murder receive on cable news networks today. In the absence of 24-hour electronic outlets providing bedroom to courtroom coverage, each tidbit of titillating information exposed about the Emily Hilda Blake case was reported  daily in newspapers.

For those eagerly awaiting the daily reports, the July 5, 1899, murder in Brandon of Mary Lane had it all: children untimely deprived of their mother’s love, a husband’s reputed affair with the family’s live-in maid,  blame placed on a mysterious “foreigner,” a suspicious police chief who questioned the validity of the sole witness’ story, a surprise last-minute confession and guilty plea followed by the pronouncement of the death sentence, rumours of a remorseful suicide attempt, a failed escape aided by a sympathetic jailer, and the public aroused to petition for mercy. 

But there was more. It was also a commentary on the social conditions of women, orphans, the poor, immigrants and servants in turn-of-the-last-century Canada and Britain. Blake’s sad story  eventually impacted nearly every segment of Canadian society, including the political arena.

Shortly after 3 p.m. on July 5, Mary Lane, the wife of prominent businessman Robert Lane, was in her 10th Street Brandon home standing on a chair in the kitchen while hanging curtains when two shots were fired — with one striking and killing her. Those were the immediate facts of the case, but Blake had more to tell when the police arrived. 

According to the maid, a tramp appeared at the back door and in broken English, asked 32-year-old and pregnant Lane for something to eat. When Lane said she was too busy at the moment, the tramp was alleged to have pulled out a revolver and deliberately fired at her.

A report in the Portage la Prairie News and Review said “the fiend was so close to her that her clothes were singed with the flames from the pistol.”

Brandon Police Chief James Kirkcaldy later confirmed there were powder burns on Lane’s dress.

A report in the July 6, 1899, Winnipeg-based Morning Telegram claimed Lane ran through the front room and out to the sidewalk and dropped dead, but not before her screams brought  neighbours running to the scene of the tragedy.

The newspaper reported the murderer was seen running through the backyard to the Canadian Pacific Railway  station yards, about 100 metres from the Lane home. 

“Terrible news of a cruel murder committed in the heart of the city spread like wild-fire,” reported the July 6 Brandon Times. “Too horrible to be true seemed the tale which every tongue was telling ...” 

The “terrible news” was enhanced by some reports that Lane had scooped up her toddler playing on the floor as she staggered, fatally wounded, outside.

The truth of this claim is suspect, as other reports indicated at least four of the five Lane children were playing with friends on the lawn of a vacant lot 10 metres from the back entrance to the Lane home. A teacher named Miss Bawden quickly spirited the children away.

Kirkcaldy organized a party of from 500 to 600 people to scour the bush along the Assiniboine River and to  block escape routes while others boarded every train to determine if the murderer had found his way to another location. To further instill the mob to action, a local lawyer offered a $100 reward for the capture of the foreigner.

Armed with a description provided by Blake that the murderer was 5-foot-10, medium weight, sunburnt and ruddy, of fair complexion and about 33 years old, the search party soon ran across a “Galician” —  the catch-all term used to describe Eastern European Slavic immigrants, especially Ukrainians, from a former province now divided between Poland and Ukraine — in the CPR stockyards answering the description who spoke with a “foreign accent.” 

They seized the man, taking him to the police station amid shouts of “The rope!” and “Hang him!” from the excited crowd gathered along the route to the station. 

Despite the demands of the mob, the foreigner was safely placed behind bars.

Newspapers reported there was little doubt that a Galician named Peter German was the murderer, since four people said they saw him run away from the vicinity of the crime.

Reports said German had been working for the railway in Medicine Hat and was returning to his Stuartburn home to be with his wife and two children. 

On July 6, a coroner’s inquest was held on the murder as newspapers continued their speculation that the noose was “weaving itself around the neck of the Galician.” 

The inquest found that a bullet entered Lane’s body, going through the left lung and lodging behind her heart.

At the inquest, Blake said “she thought she could identify the man if she saw him again, though her mental image of him was not perfectly clear.”

As the inquest progressed, the Telegram reported, “It is believed by most people that the Galician now lodged in the provincial jail is not the real culprit. There are of course all kinds of stories afloat.”

More ominously the newspaper said:  “Some even go so far as to believe that the servant girl might know something about the cause of the awful murder.”

News reached Brandon that railway conductor Bertrand managed to snag a tramp accused of stealing a ride on a train. He locked the man up under the railway’s water tank, but the vagrant escaped by digging his way out. At the time, Bertrand didn’t know about the killing, but it was speculated the tramp may have had something to do with the murder. 

The hysteria also resulted in the arrest of two tramps in Treesbank, but they were soon released for lack of evidence.

Dave Anderson, who led the search party east to Carberry, returned to Brandon disappointed that he did not find the murderer.

Dr. Matheson, a Brandon physician, told the coroner’s inquest reconvened on July 9 that he examined Lane’s body at the scene of the crime and determined that “death was due to hemorrhage caused by the bullet.”

Dr. McDiamid, who conducted the post mortem examination of the body, corroborated the previous doctor’s evidence.

But it was the testimony of Blake which the people had come to hear. Blake said she had been working for the Lanes for nearly a year. “Everything has been harmonious between myself and the family,” she testified. “I was present when Mrs. Lane was shot. There was (sic) no others but myself, Mrs. Lane and the perpetrator ...

“About  3 o’clock a man came to the door. I had not heard him before. What drew my attention to his appearance first was his shadow. I was not startled at all. I thought perhaps it was a man sent up to fix the lawn. When I saw him put down his bundle I knew by his makeup he must be a tramp.  He spoke to me first, asking for something to eat ... I turned to Mrs. Lane (then hanging the curtains) and said: ‘Here is a man asking for something to eat.’ The tramp said something then that I did not catch. It has since occurred to me that he spoke in a foreign language. Before addressing Mrs. Lane I walked from the summer kitchen into the kitchen proper, the tramp following ... I was about four or five feet from Mrs. Lane. I did not particularly notice the tramp’s hands and did not know if there was something in them.”

Blake said the tramp raised his right hand and fired two shots. “At the first shot she screamed. One shot followed the other immediately. She jumped off the couch and I knew she had been shot. She said as she ran, ‘Oh Hilda! ... I’m on fire!”

Blake testified that the tramp ran from the house, while she ran after Lane, but initially fainted, though did not lose consciousness, in the front parlour. When she stumbled out to the 10th Street sidewalk, Mary’s husband, Robert Lane, was there “lying in her blood ... and Mrs. Johnson was stooping over her.” When her husband arrived, Mary was already dead.

Blake went back into the house for some water to bathe Mary Lane’s bloody face.

It was next-door neighbour Mrs. Johnson who first heard the screams and was the first to arrive on the scene. Another neighbour, a Mr. Sampson, ran to call for a doctor and Robert Lane. Sampson had also alerted the police. When Sampson returned Mary Lane was still alive, but blood had accumulated in her lungs and she was unable to say who had killed her. 

While testimony was being heard at the inquest and people were scouring the countryside for the murderer, Manitoba Provincial Police Chief E.J. Elliott and Detective McKenzie began an investigation in Winnipeg after receiving a photo of Blake from the suspicious Kirkcaldy.

In Brandon, Kirkcaldy had within hours begun wondering about Blake’s role in the murder. The police chief’s supicion was aroused when he  couldn’t match the trajectory of the bullets with the doorstep where the tramp was alleged to have been standing.

Kirkcaldy then began to accumulate other evidence, such as pieces of a torn Manitoba Free Press newspaper found in Blake’s room. The pieces were later found to match the same June 20 issue wrapped around the revolver identified as the murder weapon. The revolver was reported in the Telegram on July 7 as having been found the previous day under a lime barrel at the back of the Lane house by a man named Talbot. A later report had Blake suggesting the location of the revolver, but it seems more likely the revolver was found by a searcher only a day after the murder as first reported. Some of the information reported in newspapers and in the courts about the details of the case is contradictory and at times difficult to reconcile.

The MMPs traced Blake’s steps while she was in Winnipeg on June 20, discovering she had been registered at Seymour House (Hotel). They found Blake then visited Hinston Smith Arms Co. on the west side of Main Street, between Bannatyne and William avenues, where she purchased a revolver and cartridges. Apparently, Blake told the clerk she only needed three or four cartridges for her purposes.

The MMP investigators secured the sale “blotter” for the revolver and cartridges and a telegram was sent to Brandon outlining the evidence found in Winnipeg. Detective McKenzie was dispatched to hand-deliver the evidence to Brandon.

Confronted by the evidence gathered in Brandon as well as the findings of the MMP in Winnipeg, Blake confessed to Kirkcaldy that she had bought the revolver and cartridges and after the murder had thrown the revolver wrapped in the newspaper under the barrel.  

Blake said her intention had been to use the revolver to commit suicide, but subsequent events spiraled out of control.

“On Wednesday I don’t know what came over me, but I was seized with an insane fit of jealousy,” she confessed to Kirkcaldy. “I went upstairs and got the revolver. When I came down, I went into the kitchen. Then I went to Mrs. Lane and kissed her. She wondered what was the matter with me. Then I pulled the revolver from my pocket and fired at her head (she obviously missed with the first shot as the inquest found just one bullet killed Lane). She (Lane) started to run and I put the revolver close to her back and fired again.”

As she made her confession, Blake begged Kirkcaldy to shoot her.

The “unfortunate foreigner,” whom Blake said was not the culprit when called to make an identification, appeared in police court on July 10 and was released at the urging of Kirkcaldy.

Before his release, a July 7 Telegram editorial revealed the newspaper’s Conservative affiliation, its animosity to foreigners and to Liberal federal Interior Minister and Brandon MP Clifton Sifton, who was responsible for opening up Canada to Eastern European immigration. The newspaper proclaimed: “Another horrible crime has been committed by the foreign ruffians whom Mr. Sifton is rushing into the country. The tragedy took place in Mr. Sifton’s own town, Brandon ... In order that Mr. Sifton may keep the Liberal Party in power by votes of the ignorant and vicious foreign scum he is dumping down on the prairies we are to submit to have our nearest and dearest butchered on our door-steps.”

Given the widespread hatred felt by many for those arriving from Eastern Europe (Sifton’s desired peasants in sheep-skin coats accustomed to hard work and farming) since the Liberals gained power in 1896, it was quite easy for Blake to cast suspicion upon a “foreigner” with an accent.

In an article called Lynch Law — A Warning, the Portage la Prairie News and Review, wrote it wouldn’t have required much effort to excite Brandonites into lynching “the unfortunate Galician,” but “a great public crime had been averted” by Blake’s confession.

At her preliminary trial on the morning of July 10, amid a “court crowded to the doors with spectators,” she was reported in the Telegram to be “calm and fully possessed though naturally pale. She was neatly dressed in a black cashmere skirt and blue and white striped cotton blouse. She had a checkered Windsor silk tie and also wore a white sailor hat with purple band and black cashmere gloves.”

The charge of murder was read by Magistrate Campbell, who then heard evidence from the police chief and the two doctors who examined the body before turning to Blake.

When asked if she had anything to say in her defence, Blake replied “‘No,’ and in flattering tones told the court she was guilty and begged the magistrate to impose on her the severest punishment.”

Instead, the magistrate set a trial date for the following November.

Emily Hilda Blake was born in January 1878. Her parents were Henry and Sarah Ann Blake of Chedgrave, 16 kilometres southeast of Norwich, England. (Detailed information about Blake’s life is found in Walk Towards the Gallows: The Tragedy of Hilda Blake, Hanged 1899, by Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell, Oxford University Press, 2001.) The Blakes and their four children lived as cottage tenants on the 800-acre estate Langley Hall of Sir Reginald Proctor-Beauchamp.

Blake had been appointed as a constable with the Norwich police but was dismissed in 1873 for drunkenness. Surprisingly, he was re-appointed in 1877, but died at age 37 in 1883. His wife Sarah only outlived him by a few years.

The three youngest children at first lived in the home of their elder sister, but after her marriage she was unwilling or too poor to keep them in her care. 

In November 1887, Tommy was sent to the Heckingham Workhouse. The abysmal conditions of British workhouses and the infamy of the Poor Law were made famous by Charles Dickens in his novels such as Oliver Twist, the story of a workhouse orphan, who eventually finds comfort with his saviour Mr. Brownlaw and finds his dead mother’s long-lost sister after many trials and tribulations. 

Hilda and Donald soon followed Tommy into the abominable institution. Amendments to the British Poor Laws in 1850 allowed for the assisted immigration of children. Amazingly, workhouses were not abolished in Britain until after the Second World War. 

Sir Reginald happened to be on the board of the Self-Help Emigration Society, which in a supposed act of benevolence sent orphans to a new life in the New World. He convinced the directors to provide Hilda and Tommy with £2 (a value of $10 at the time) worth of clothes each and passage to Canada. 

Under the law, immigration of children had to be approved by the Poor Law Board and the children had to give their consent. It is doubtful Tommy and Hilda fought their immigration, but documents indicate the main consent came from their elder sister and brother .

Similar to what Scrooge told the two gentlemen collecting for the poor in A Christmas Carol by Dickens, Beauchamp was doing his part to relieve England of its surplus population.

The society in which he was a director told the Nottingham Evening Post in 1892 that it “has been instrumental in sending large numbers of people to Canada, who, but for its timely assistance, would in all probability have gone to swell the great body of helpless poor in this country.” 

From 1869 to the early 1930s, some 100,000 British Home Children were sent to Canada by as many as 50 organizations in the United Kingdom. It is estimated there are about four million descendants of British Home Children now living in Canada.

The boys were sent to work as farmhands while the girls became domestic servants commonly called “mother’s helpers” as was the fate of Hilda Blake. They were in effect young “hired hands,” although they are sometimes described as indentured servants.

It would be unfair to say all these children were mistreated as many were regarded as members of the family and treated accordingly, but a large proportion were exploited. In a number of cases, the children were simply seen as a source of cheap labour. 

Surprisingly, many of the children were not orphans. Children placed in an organization’s care for free medical treatment, as illegitimate children or by parents unable to provide for them  were frequently shipped overseas to the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Canada. These children were “gone” when their families came to retrieve them. In effect, many children were ripped from family, relatives and friends and placed in the care of strangers in a strange land. And when they arrived in Canada, brothers and sisters were often separated and sent to different regions of the country, although this was not the case for the Blake children.

Dr. Thomas John Barnardo, who founded the largest organization and sent 30,000 children from Britain to Canada, was reported to be not above kidnapping children, changing their name and religion to make them untraceable and sending them to Canada to collect the $2 bounty received for farmhands issued by the Canadian department of agriculture. David Lorenta, who has investigated the court proceedings, said Bernardo called the kidnappings “philanthropic abduction.” During his numerous kidnapping trials, Barnardo said he had every right to remove children from parents he considered harmful to their well-being.

The Barnardo organization spread across Britain and Canada, establishing an office in Winnipeg and a home to train boys in Rivers, Manitoba.

(Next week: part 2)