Holland murder mystery — young man’s arrest denounced by residents of the community

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr. Mortimer told Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes he observed two sets of footprints on the pathway outside Baskerville Hall. He said one set was made by Sir Charles Baskerville, whose grotesquely contoured facial features suggested he had died under horrific circumstances. When Holmes asked Dr. Mortimer who the other set belonged to, the reply was, “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” 

While a gigantic hound was not responsible for the death of Hannah Hatton in 1896, her murder was associated with two sets of footprints. In addition, Hatton’s demise was just as mysterious as that of Sir Charles Baskerville in Doyle’s tale, which was published six years later. Since the police investigating the murder in Holland, Manitoba, apparently lacked the deductive powers of the fictional sleuth, the true identity of the murderer remained a mystery for 20 years. 

Two decades after the murder, a deathbed confession was made, but subsequent newspaper reports tended to remain skeptical or evade directly naming the alleged perpetrator. The very nature of the crime and the subsequent trial of an accused man may have made the media skittish about adding more fuel to the flames of what at the time was called one of Manitoba’s most sensational murders.

The Winnipeg Free Press on December 17, 1935, said: “... there is reason to believe that a confession was obtained from a member of the community in which the crime occurred, admitting the murder. This occurred many years afterward, and its authority is not such as to permit disclosure.”

Days before the report of the confession, the Free Press had published the first part of a two-part series on the murder of Hannah Hatton, “but immediately after the appearance of the first a number of objections were registered by ... readers who were either friends or relatives of the parties concerned. After considering these protests the Free Press withdrew the article, and the second instalment was not published.”

The “protests” provided one of the few instances in Manitoba’s history when the press was intimidated to the extent that it feared specifically identifying the alleged perpetrator of an horrendous crime.

A few years later, the Winnipeg Tribune on March 6, 1943, felt more comfortable about publishing further details of the case, including the deathbed admission. The newspaper article by G.C. Porter said the dying admission provided a solution to the crime, but he didn’t directly name the alleged murderer. 

The burden of being associated with the murder originally fell upon a young man who happened to have briefly lived in the same home as Hatton. The Manitoba Provincial Police believed the footprints in the snow found at the scene of the crime implicated Robert Morran in the slaying of the 24-year-old woman.

Hatton was brutally slain as a result of receiving two wounds to her throat, one of which was judged to be fatal. The crime occurred on a frequently travelled road a half kilometre from Holland on the night of March 30, 1896. Why she was on the road in the first place is a matter of speculation, but it appeared that she knew her assailant as there is no evidence she struggled with her attacker. In fact, Hatton’s body seemed to have been carefully positioned by her killer.

The Holland coroner said Hatton bled to death almost immediately after receiving a wound from a sharp instrument that penetrated her windpipe. Bruising observed on her forehead was probably the result of her falling to the ground rather than an assailant striking her, according to Dr. Walter Scott, the local coroner. In later court testimony, he said the woman had probably been knocked to the ground and then stabbed  twice in the throat.

“She could not have been killed any other way than by being knocked and then stabbed,” he testified, although the doctor maintained there was no direct evidence of how she had been knocked to the ground, as there was “no indication of a blow to the back of the head or damage to the brain” in the post mortem examination of the body. 

Hatton had been at Dr. Scott’ office that day as well as McLachlan’s store and the Morran family’s boarding house before she started out at 9 p.m. for her uncle’s home where she was living. Since the previous July, Hatton had been looking after the three children of her widowed uncle Richard Agar (he remarried shortly after Hatton’s murder).

Later testimony would reveal that Hatton was from six to eight weeks pregnant and had paid Dr. Scott $1 on the day of her murder for a medical consultation “respecting a lapse of her menstruation.” She already suspected being pregnant, but sought out his confirmation, according  to Scott. 

Hatton would have been well aware of the symptoms of pregnancy, since she had a child five years previously following a tryst with her sister’s husband — by now a possibly deceased man only referred to in the following murder trial as Kier. The whereabouts of the Kiers was apparently unknown to Hatton’s uncle and mother, who revealed the existence of the young child to the court. 

The doctor asked Hatton about the identity of the father, but received no reply, according to Dr. Scott’s subsequent testimony during the inquest into her murder.

While Richard Agar was in Ontario for the winter, Morran lived and worked at the Agars’ home three kilometres outside Holland. He left after Hatton’s uncle returned from Eastern Canada, taking up residence in his family’s boarding house in the village. 

Hatton’s body was passed several times until finally spotted when a horse shied. Joseph Kirkpatrick later testified that if his horse hadn’t shied, he wouldn’t have noticed the body as it was clad in dark clothing. The blackness of the evening and the dark clothes helped prevent Hatton’s body from being easily sighted as it lay alongside the road.

Upon sighting the body laying at a corner where a barbed wire fence intersected the road, Kirkpatrick went straight to Holland to notify town Constable George Smart, who then conducted the initial investigation.

Days later, Morran was charged with the murder, although the majority of Holland residents felt the young man was innocent of the crime.

“Never in its history has Holland and its vicinity seen such excitement as that which took possession of every man, woman and child yesterday,” reported the Winnipeg-based Daily Nor’Wester on April 11, 1896. 

“Business came to a standstill. People would talk about nothing else but the recent tragedy. The names of Hannah Hatton and Robert Morran were on every tongue.

“Aged men would stop one another on the streets and ask how could it be possible that Robert Morran so young (19 years old) and innocent and respected could have committed so bloodthirsty a murder. Impossible, impossible they thought, and the crown authorities were severely and bitterly denounced for having arrested a man upon whom, apparently, there was no  just cause for suspicion. Few if any believed Robert Morran to be guilty.”

Morran was arrested based upon what can best be described as circumstantial evidence, although the authorities  believed they had accumulated a chain of evidence pointing to Morran as the chief suspect in the murder. 

A preliminary investigation into the crime at the Foresters’ Hall in Holland “was crowded to suffocation,” according to the Daily Nor’Wester. People came from miles around to witness the proceedings, staying until one o’clock the next morning when the testimony was completed.

“While suspicion in the minds of the officers strongly pointed to the guilt of the accused man, it was difficult for them to show that he had any conversation with the murdered girl or that he had been in her company on the fatal night of March.”

Witnesses appearing before the investigation failed to intimately link Morran with Hatton on the day in question, with most agreeing they briefly saw the two together in the same house, but that encounter did not involve any conversation. Morran left minutes later through the back door while Hatton exited through the front door. His absence was a matter of minutes, while Hatton would never be seen alive again.

In Morran’s case, it was guilt by association based primarily on village gossip and an exchange of two notes with Hatton.

“Would like to see you in private to see what you have against me, and why you don’t speak to me when you see me,” wrote Hatton in a note dropped off at the Holland post office on March 18. “Drop me a note and let me know how I can see you and oblige.”

Two days later, Morran replied: “Friend — I received your letter last night stating you wanted to see me. If you  come in on Monday night I will go home with you. When you go to get ready I will go out across the (CPR) track and wait for you at the farmers’ elevator. I don’t want the people to know.” 

What he didn’t want the people to know is unclear, but there is no evidence to suggest Morran was romantically involved with Hatton.

The closest connection made between Hatton and Morran came during a later trial when 10-year-old Harry Agar, the cousin of the murder victim, said, “Hannah and Robert were always nice to each other.” He added, “Robert used to play with me as well as with Hannah or the rest in the house.”

Even the sister of the murder victim, 20-year-old Dora Hatton claimed she “never saw anything indicating improper intimacy between Hannah and Morran.” 

Hatton’s uncle expressed the same belief, adding only that “they were friendly.”

The disclosure of the notes led the authorities to presume Morran and Hatton had met a short distance from his family’s boarding house and walked up the road together “as traced by the footprints which corresponded to the size of the boots worn by them both,” reported the Daily Nor’Wester on April 11.

The newspaper said she informed him of her pregnancy “as told her by Dr. Scott who had just examined her, and that she told him he would have to share her shame, they then walked on to a lonely spot, he struck her from behind and she fell; then he stooped down over the prostrate body and plunged a knife into her throat and thereby silenced forever the story of their illicit relations from Hannah’s lips.”

At least that was the conclusion drawn by the investigators, which was accepted by the presiding magistrates at the preliminary investigation in Holland. Evidently, the police had heard rumours to the effect that Hatton promised to go to the man “who caused her ruin and would make him share her disgrace,” the Daily Nor’Wester reported. 

It was admitted during the investigation that the evidence against Morran was slight, but for the “clinching link” of the two notes and the fact that the meeting was arranged near where Hatton’s body was eventually found. Her body was discovered laying on the road near “Agar’s Corner,” which was the intersection of two roads between the Agar home and the Farmers’ elevator along the CPR tracks.

“Indeed it is doubtful if the suspicions were strong enough to warrant singling out Morran as the perpetrator of the horrible butchery,” claimed the newspaper.

The evidence of the footprints was readily dismissed by most as Morran walked with a limp, the result of an earlier accident when a chimney fell on his right leg. For those who saw the marks in the snow, the footprints appeared to be made by someone without such a disability.

The Portage la Prairie Weekly Review on April 16, 1896, said both Manitoba Provincial Police Chief Frank Elliott and Portage Detective Cox were complimented for “their work in the case, and considering the slight clues have gathered a strong chain of evidence. The letters secured from the accused are the strongest links, and all others go to confirm the genuineness of the correspondence ... He denies his guilt, yet the circumstances point against him.”

Originally, Morran was slated to appear in Portage court on the charge of murdering Hatton, but his lawyer, Frank S. Nugent, believed he would not receive a fair trial in the community. 

In an affidavit asking for change in venue, the Winnipeg-based lawyer said a trial in Portage would be more costly than one in Winnipeg, where most of the defence’s expert witnesses resided. Nugent said the expert witnesses would not be able to take off their busy schedules to testify outside of the city. He further said he had to be in continual conference with his client in order to properly conduct his defence, and since his law practice was based in Winnipeg a trial in Portage would present a hardship for the defence.

In another affidavit, Morran claimed the expense of a trial in Portage was prohibitive as he would be forced to pay for the cost of providing transportation and rooms for defence witnesses from Holland. He  said Portage lacked a direct rail  connection with the village, while that was not the case in Winnipeg. “The expense of my defence, if the trial takes place at Portage la Prairie will be almost double what they would if held at Winnipeg...,” he wrote.

Morran said his 58-year-old father was a man of limited means and kept his family fed and clothed by performing odd jobs in the community and taking in boarders.

Whatever the family’s ability to pay, they didn’t abandon their son, eventually raising thousands of dollars for his defence. 

Since the Crown didn’t oppose the change of venue, the case was moved to the Provincial Courthouse in Winnipeg. 

When reporting the decision, Portage newspapers mentioned that local residences were extremely disappointed that their community would not be the site of the “sensational” murder trial. 

Before the train left Holland for Winnipeg where Morran was to be incarcerated until his trial, the Daily Nor’Wester reported the “fond farewell between him and his mother ... was something to be remembered forever.  His sorrow-stricken parents embraced him while choking sobs bespoke the broken heart, and who can blame her? Her youthful son took from her bosom by the hand of relentless justice, and carried off to the lonely dungeon charged with having committed an inhuman butchery on a helpless female.”

Some 500 people were said to be at the Winnipeg station to get a look at “Robert Morran, the alleged boy murderer.”

On November 4, 1896, Morran made his appearance before Justice Joseph Dubuc of the Manitoba Court of  Queen’s Bench in Winnipeg. He was defended by lawyers Nugent and W.R. Ross, while the Crown’s case was presented by Hector Howell. On a bench near the prisoner’s dock was Morran’s spiritual adviser Rev. C.C. Owen. While the case was heard in court, Morran’s mother, father and brothers were in constant attendance, providing support to the accused.

The indictment was read and in a clear voice Morran pleaded “Not guilty,” initiating the trial proceedings. 

In his opening remarks, Howell said the community was “shocked by an awful crime,” and that Morran committed the murder, not for robbery, but “to get rid of some great dishonour ... the Crown’s theory is that the murder was committed to get rid of the pregnant woman, to escape the dishonour.”

In court, Constable Smart said he found blood under Hatton’s head, measuring a foot and a half across and reaching down to the shoulders and extending beyond her head. “It was a good stain of blood.”

He discovered the wound by putting his finger between her neck and collar band.

He said the muff shown to him in court was lying close to the head of the victim. He also found a small shawl north of her body in a heap “as if it had been thrown down,” as well as a cap. Hatton’s mitts were found by Smart four or five feet from the body, and her rubber boots were about two feet away — one upright and the other on its side.

After ordering William Campbell to guard the body and prevent anyone among the gathering throng from disturbing the crime scene, Smart went into town to get Dr. Scott. After the doctor examined the body where it lay, it was moved to the town in Sinclair’s commercial wagon. Hatton’s body was placed in a building belonging to Hall, the local banker.

In her pockets were found the chocolates Hatton had earlier purchased as well as a purse containing a $5 bill and four $1 bills, apparently the change given to her by Dr. Scott after she paid him for his examination, as well as a postage stamp and 15-cents in change.

When Dr. Scott was called to the stand, he said the nature of Hatton’s wounds indicated she had bled to death. He told the jury the sharp instrument used to inflict the killing stab was made by a knife. Other experts later claimed the wounds were inflicted by a sharp surgical tool.

“She never breathed after the stab, because the windpipe was cut. Air could not have got to the lungs,” the Holland doctor testified.

The doctor was among the many people at the crime scene who examined the footprints in the snow. “I measured my rubber with a rule and it corresponded with the length of the track ... They appeared to me not very peculiar as to whether the track turned in or out. It was just an ordinary footstep.”

Dr. Scott also testified he treated Morran after his accident and knew the man had difficulty walking.

When cross-examined by Nugent, the doctor could not swear that the tracks were made by either a man or a woman.

Witness Joseph Paul said the tracks came from a corner of Agar’s farm along a trail toward Hatton’s body, and seemed to be the tracks of two women.

John Mawhinney also examined the tracks, saying he measured the “man’s tracks.” His measuring style didn’t follow today’s crime scene investigation rules, as he placed his foot in one of the tracks, which he said “was just the same size as my foot. I had on shoes with rubbers; they were number eights.”

Mawhinney, who with Constable Smart was among the first people at the crime scene, was shown a photograph of a set of tracks made while Morran was a prisoner in the provincial jail. Prison Governor Patrick Lawler had Morran walk across freshly fallen the snow in the prison yard on April 20 and then J.R. Benetto photographed the resulting tracks. “From what I noticed of the prisoner in walking about the jail he turns out the right foot more than the left,” commented Lawler.

W.J. Bathurst, a resident of Holland, saw the footprints made in the snow at the crime scene and also informed the court about Morran's peculiar walk resulting from his injury. “He threw out the right foot and walked with a limp. These tracks on the photographs shown me do not look like those I saw that morning in the snow.”

Medical experts for the defence who examined Morran said his ligaments and tendons of his ankle were injured which caused his right foot to turn outward at almost a 45-degree angle.

When questioned, Mawhinney said the photographed tracks didn’t resemble the footprints at the murder scene. He said it was evident that the tracks made at the prison were made by a man with a limp as the right foot went outward.

Even Constable Smart admitted the tracks in the photograph “do not resemble those I found in the snow” at the crime scene.

Actually, all the witnesses were unable to say with absolute certainty that the footprints photographed at the prison were in any way similar to those at the crime scene. 

Some of the evidence said to implicate Morran centred around bloodstains found on his clothing. Among the articles seized by Constable Smart was a pair of overalls and a shirt, which were later examined by Dr. Hutton of the University of Manitoba who performed a chemical analysis. He said he found small splatters of blood on the overalls from the knee to the bottoms of both legs. His analysis revealed the blood stains corresponded either to human or ox blood. Dr. Hutton said the blood on the shirt sleeve corresponded with human blood. When cross-examined, he said, “I would not stake my personal reputation in stating that it was human blood.”

Doctors testifying as defence experts told the court it was difficult after 17 days of the bloodstain drying out to definitively tell the difference between human and animal blood.

Testimony from Morran’s family indicated any blood found on him was the result of bleeding a sick horse on March 27, three days before the murder.

Morran’s brother George said he  and his father were present when the horse was bled in the stable. “Rob held the horse while my father bled it. He had the halter in his right hand and he kept his left hand over the horse’s eye. The horse jumped as soon as he was cut, and the blood went all over Rob ... The blood got all over Rob’s overalls and some of it went down one of the sleeves.”

(Next week: part 2)