Manitoba History: The Story of “Bloody Jack” Krafchenko
by Martin Zeilig
The execution of John “Bloody Jack” Krafchenko in Winnipeg on 9 July 1914 brought to an end the “most dramatic episode in the history of crime in Manitoba” up to that time. But even before his hanging for murder, the name Krafchenko was notorious and could provoke headlines and arouse widespread public interest and indignation.
Who was John Krafchenko? There are “two or three versions for most stories that surround Krafchenko,” writes former journalist James H. Gray in “On the Trail of Jack Krafchenko,” a chapter in his autobiography The Boy From Winnipeg (MacMillan 1970). Born in 1881 in Romania of Ukrainian parents, “which by Winnipeg definition made him a Ruthenian,” Krafchenko came to Canada with his parents at the age of seven. The family settled in Plum Coulee, located 104 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg near the American border, where for the next seventeen years his father was the village blacksmith. “From his earliest youth Jack Krafchenko exhibited a violently aggressive streak. Ordinarily a placid, friendly boy, he flew into towering rages when crossed or disciplined. He was apparently a bright enough student but spent little time in school ...”
A 18 November 1908 Manitoba Free Press account says that for years Krafchenko “lived in Winnipeg and as a boy attended the Sunday School at All People’s Mission. He easily acquired the language of his family, German, Ukrainian and Russian and also spoke English fluently. After the death of his mother, his father married a German woman ... His step-mother now lives in Plum Coulee and he has a great affection for her.”
Catherine “Muther” Krafchenko later moved to the Jarvis Avenue area of Winnipeg. She “was considered a tower of strength in time of trouble” and always supported her stepson.
In the early 1970s, former Winnipeg Free Press columnist Edith Paterson wrote a series of articles on Krafchenko which revealed that despite his step-mother’s “rigidly strict upbringing, the good-looking young man began getting into trouble.” Indeed, the 30 November 1892 Winnipeg Daily Tribune reported that the 11 year old boy “John Krafchenko (sic) was charged with stealing five watches from the store of J. S. Barron ... ‘I thought they would fall off [Krafchenko claimed] and was only keeping [them] till I had a chance to return them to my employer.’” The judge released the youth warning him to refrain from stealing.
John’s father “always gambled and caroused around a lot,” and Krafchenko’s “own (natural) mother in Greece had been a noted horse-stealer, who would go off disguised as a man and would come back as a well dressed woman leading a small string of horses.” John even had an affair with his father’s mistress, which caused pappa to “shoot himself right through the foot.”
At the age of 15, writes Gray, Krafchenko “was caught stealing a bicycle in Morden and appears to have been sent to jail, though the record is far from clear. In any event, he was launched in a career of crime that spanned two continents, according to the lurid accounts in Winnipeg papers before his trial for murder.”
Paterson maintains that in 1903 Krafchenko travelled the country as a boxer. Other sources, notably Gray, say that he was “a professional wrestler in Australia, and that he wrestled extensively in the States under the name of Australian Tommy Ryan (as well as Pearl Smith). Certainly, though he was only five six inches tall, he was extremely well muscled for his 160 pounds. His handsome face, however, was completely unmarked and his ears and straight nose belied the legend of his professional wrestling career.”
During his alleged athletic peregrinations, Krafchenko is rumoured to have married a relative of (Gentleman) Jim Corbett, the world heavy weight boxing champion from 1892 to 1897. John Burchill, a City of Winnipeg police constable, wrote an account of the Krafchenko story which appeared in the January 1992 issue of The Blue Print, his police union’s newsletter. According to Burchill, Krafchenko’s life of crime began to unfold after his return to southern Manitoba in 1902 where he toured as a temperance lecturer. Krafchenko was both “admired and feared” by criminals and European immigrants alike, especially since he could usually utter threats in their mother tongue. During his speaking engagements, Krafchenko, who became well known to police on both sides of the Canada-US border for his criminal activities, “passed numerous bad cheques throughout Manitoba and was finally caught in Regina and sentenced to 18 months in the Prince Albert Penitentiary.”
En route to Prince Albert he is alleged, writes Gray, “to have jumped through the window of a moving train while handcuffed. His guard jumped through the window after him and recaptured him.” Burchill picks up the story from there:
Notwithstanding his escape attempt en route to Prince Albert, Krafchenko was put in charge of painting the outside walls of the penitentiary. Not being one to pass up on an opportunity he struck his guard over the head with a paint can and escaped with three other inmates. While the three other inmates were caught, Krafchenko travelled back to Manitoba where he held up a shipment of money ($2500.00) at gun point and then fled to the United States. Once in the
United States he worked his way to New York, held up several banks [there] and then slipped onto a freighter bound for England. Once in Europe he continued on his merry way and robbed banks in England, Germany and Italy. He was reputed to have robbed a bank in Milan where he locked the manager in the vault and then joined the crowd outside to watch the excitement. From Italy he moved to Russia and married there in 1905. [One wonders what happened to his apparent first wife—Corbett’s daughter.]
In 1906, Krafchenko and Fanica, his new wife, returned to Canada and settled near Plum Coulee where soon afterwards he robbed the Bank of Hamilton which was located between the village and the nearby town of Winkler, Manitoba. Again Krafchenko is supposed to have fled to the U.S. He remained at large until 1908 when he appeared as a captured “witness for one Thomas Henry Hicks” who was being tried for the murder of Eccles Lennox in a sleeping car at the C.P. railyards in Winnipeg.
“Fugitive Captured” blared a headline in the 18 November 1908 Free Press; “Tired of being hounded by police officers for a crime of which he declares his innocence but admitting guilt on minor charges, John Krafchenko, alias Pearl Smith, was arrested Monday night by four provincial detectives at his aunt’s home, 133 Barber Street. Though reckless of his life, he was captured so quickly that he had no chance to use the automatic revolvers with which he was armed to the teeth.”
“At Hick’s trial Krafchenko came forward and stated that the gun was actually his,” writes Burchill. “While the court could not prove that Krafchenko was the murderer, the charges against Hicks were dismissed.” But Krafchenko was arrested after his testimony for the 1906 Bank of Hamilton robbery and was sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. After his release from prison, Krafchenko and his wife moved to Graham, Ontario, a tiny community some 120 kilometres northwest of present day Thunder Bay, where he worked as a blacksmith ultimately becoming a foreman boiler-maker for the National Transcontinental Railway. Eventually, as Gray records, Krafchenko’s temper got the better of him:
In the summer of 1913 he was demoted from his foreman’s job for his violent outbursts. The demotion was such a humiliation that he quit. He came back to Winnipeg, hunted up his old criminal associates, and gambled and drank with them in the Moose Club and the Pyramid Club, a couple of all-night boozeries. Then he went out and hung around Plum Coulee for some weeks visiting with his old Mennonite friends, of whom he seemed to have many. He travelled back and forth between Winnipeg and Plum Coulee several times in November and in the process joined with three of his Winnipeg cronies in a plan to rob the bank at Plum Coulee. They arranged for a car to take them out to Plum Coulee during the last week in November for the robbery. Unfortunately for them, the manager of the bank decided to take the day off and closed the bank early. Krafchenko stayed on at Plum Coulee; the others returned to Winnipeg.
However, in his 52 page book entitled John Krafchenko: The Canadian Outlaw (with a wordy subtitle), Ben Rolh, the taxi driver who drove Krafchenko and the other two men to Plum Coulee on 19 November, claims that he returned to Winnipeg later that evening with all three of his passengers.
Then, on 4 December 1913 Winnipeg newspaper headlines screamed about the previous day’s killing during an armed robbery of Mr. Henry Medley Arnold, Manager of the Bank of Montreal at Plum Coulee. The holdup occurred at lunch time when Mr. Arnold was alone in the bank. Arnold apparently got out his own gun and pursued the “fully bearded” thief out the bank’s rear entrance towards the alley. About twenty feet from the building the robber stopped to retrieve some of the stolen loot which he had dropped. Arnold “shouted at him to stop.” The thief then raised his pistol and shot Arnold who died instantly.
Paterson notes that “school children saw an excited man rush from the bank and jump into an automobile parked nearby, but it was not until the accountant returned from lunch that the manager’s body was found on an ash pile just behind the building, shot through the heart.” (The bullet actually entered his shoulder and severed his spinal cord.)
William Dyck, a Plum Coulee liveryman and the owner and driver of the Case automobile in which the bandit escaped, turned up later in the day. Dyck told the Manitoba provincial police that he was forced at gun point to provide a car and drive two men 25 miles southeast. He said the men got out of the car, disabled it and disappeared into the bush. According to Dyck two men were involved. One was about 27 years old, fair and clean shaven and about five feet seven inches in height. The other was taller, heavier, wore a black fur-trimmed overcoat, black cap and neck scarf and a false mustache and beard. This one, said Dyck, could have been Krafchenko. This daring crime sparked one of Manitoba’s biggest man-hunts. The Manitoba provincial police published a wanted poster with a photograph of Krafchenko, offering a “$1000 REWARD.” (Dyck later confessed to the police that there was, in fact, only one man in his car; and that he “had been shielding Krafchenko through fear of his life.”) The day after the robbery, a coroner’s inquest was held into the death of Arnold. On 8 December, the coroner’s jury returned its verdict stating “that the late H. M. Arnold came to his death by reason of a bullet wound through the ribs and the left lung and was shot from a revolver by a disguised man, unknown to us, but the evidence that has been produced points strongly to the fact that the disguised man was one John Krafchenko.”
In the meantime, Krafchenko had managed to sneak back into Winnipeg, arriving in the early hours of the following morning. He rented a room in a boarding house at 546 William Avenue where he posed as “Dr. Fairchild,” a visiting surgeon. Later, posing as “a school teacher from St. John’s College named Andrews,” Krafchenko moved into a room at 439 College Avenue in Winnipeg’s north end. During the next few days, the brazen Krafchenko “had some associates hide part of the stolen loot [and] arranged to send $700 to his wife. He concocted wild plans to escape from the city dressed as a woman, and even had one of his pals buy him a complete woman’s wardrobe. He dropped in at the Moose Club and was frequently seen in his old haunts on Main Street.”
Then, shortly before 10 A.M. on 10 December 1913, 20 heavily armed Winnipeg police men surrounded the residence on College Avenue. Accompanied by four detectives, Chief Donald MacPherson of the city police and Chief Elliott of the provincial police entered the house and went to the room where Krafchenko was asleep. They tapped gently on the door. Krafchenko, who was expecting an underworld contact, came sleepily to the door. “His face blanched” to see, as Paterson says, a “battery of revolvers levelled at him.”
After securing Krafchenko in leg chains and handcuffs, the police located a fully loaded automatic revolver under his pillow and another on the dressing table. No money was found in the room, but about $2800 in two tightly wrapped rolls of bills were concealed near a fence in the yard. More money was recovered in the southwestern part of the city. It was believed to have been handed over by the man who had betrayed Krafchenko. That person’s identity remains uncertain; although Burchill believes Ben Rolph “went to see ex-Winnipeg Police Chief J. C. McRae and told him where Krafchenko was staying.” However, according to Rolph’s book a shady character named Bert Bell “had gone to the police station ... and had told Chief McPherson (sic) how Krafchenko had threatened him and compelled him to aid his getaway. “Bell ... pointed out the house” where Krafchenko was hiding out.
Krafchenko was initially charged with unlawfully giving a revolver to Ernest Larsen, “a youth who was presently serving a three month term for possession of a handgun.” This minor charge allowed the crown attorney time to collect evidence and prepare the case against him. Krafchenko was later charged with murder and robbery.
After appearing in court on 6 January and again on 9 January, Krafchenko was finally committed for trial at the spring assizes, in Morden, Manitoba (122 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg). However, he made a “SENSATIONAL ESCAPE FROM JAIL” at 2:30 a.m. on 10 January. Burchill writes that Krafchenko told stories of money, diamonds and jewelry to Constables Robert Flower and Robert Reid, his two Rupert Street Police Station guards. He “lamented that if only he could get out he would share his hidden treasures with them. Flower paid no attention to the stories, but Reid was fascinated.”
Percy Hagel, Krafchenko’s lawyer, was also interested in Krafchenko’s tales; “and together” he and Reid planned to assist Krafchenko’s jail break. Burchill continues:
Hagel and Reid met several times at the Clarendon Hotel or at Hagel’s office in the Builders Exchange Building to discuss their plans. Hagel also enlisted the support of John Buxton and John Westlake a former employee in Hagel’s law firm. Buxton, a former caretaker at the Builder’s Exchange Building, was to get a gun and rope and give them to Reid who would sneak them into Krafchenko. The gun and rope were then to be used by Krafchenko to escape from the second floor jail area. Westlake, a former clerk in Hagel’s law firm, was to hide Krafchenko in his suite until Krafchenko could be smuggled out of the city. Hagel indicated that he would be responsible for picking Krafchenko up outside the jail once he escaped and would take him to Westlake’s place.
After forcing Jack (John) Walley, a young employee at J. H. Ashdown’s Warehouse in Winnipeg to steal the gun from his employer’s stock, Buxton turned it and the clothesline over to Reid in Hagel’s office. Reid smuggled both of these items into Krafchenko’s jail cell on the night of January 8.
Krafchenko was supposed to have escaped that night, but notes Burchill, “Hagel got drunk at a bar and forgot to pick him up.” In the early morning hours of 10 January 1914, Krafchenko pulled the Colt out from underneath his mattress, pointed it at Reid and Flower and stated “‘I’m going to leave here boys and I’ll kill anyone who tries to stop me. Go into the closet and don’t come out or try to call for help for 10 minutes.’” After ordering Reid to throw his keys to the floor, Krafchenko used them “to lock both constables into a nearby closet. The key chain also contained a key which allowed Krafchenko access to a photography room.” Krafchenko threw the clothesline out of that room’s unbarred window, which faced the street, and then began his slow descent to freedom. However, the rope was “so thin that it broke and he fell 30 feet to the pavement and sprained both knees, an ankle and his back.”
As the red signal lights on police call boxes blinked their alert, Krafchenko, who “was suffering terribly from his injuries,” limped across Main Street to William Avenue, where, allegedly, “a crowd of joy riders, noticing he was hurt invited him to get in the car with them. They, unsuspectingly, drove him” to Westlake’s apartment in the Burris Block on the corner of Toronto Street and Ellice Avenue where Krafchenko said he lived. Burchill speculates that it was Hagel who “probably picked (Krafchenko) up that night.”
The pistol, itself, which was smuggled into Krafchenko’s jail cell was a six and three quarter inch long “Colt 32 calibre rimless smokeless automatic.” The firearm, which is presently stored inside an old shoebox in the City of Winnipeg Public Safety Building armoury, was manufactured in 1912 in Hartford, Connecticut. It will eventually be displayed on a permanent basis at the Winnipeg Police Museum. Although the weapon’s serial number—137743—was filed down on the outside, the conspirators apparently forgot that the number was also engraved underneath the pistol’s hand grip—where it is still plainly visible. As well, the mysterious initials “J.H.B.” are scratched into the pistol’s rough black handle. Burchill believes that they may stand for John H. Buxton.
“On Monday, January 12, 1914,” writes Burchill, “a Royal Commission was called to investigate how Krafchenko was able to escape from the Winnipeg police station with a gun and a rope. Everyone in connection with the Krafchenko case was called to testify including Constable Reid who was kept on the stand for a gruelling 10 hours.” Five days later, Reid “broke down on the stand” and admitted to the Commission his part in the Krafchenko jail breakout. Both Reid and Hagel were arrested. Reid was “immediately suspended” from the police department “and on January 22, he pled guilty and was sentenced” to seven years at Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Reid, who was only in his 30s, was later to die in Stony Mountain while serving his sentence. Westlake and Hagel were held in custody until they appeared in court together on 10 March 1914 before a jury and Judge J. Curran. Both men were eventually found guilty of assisting Krafchenko in his escape. Westlake was sentenced to two years and Hagel to three years in Stony Mountain. The Free Press reported that Buxton, whose evidence helped implicate Hagel and Westlake, was given “his life anew in another country, having been spirited out of Manitoba with the aid of the attorney-general’s department. Buxton has started in business in a big city in Maryland under the very name which was so despised here.” Although disbarred from practicing law in Manitoba after his conviction, Hagel was eventually “welcomed back to the Manitoba Bar” after his release from prison. He continued to practice law in Manitoba until his death at age 64 in July 1944. Interestingly, the Winnipeg Tribune newspaper obituary of the “colorful” Hagel omitted any mention of his involvement, including his imprisonment, with Krafchenko.
Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley, whose book Bloody Jack contains a series of poems inspired by the Krafchenko saga, writes that “In each case those who abetted Kraf ... seemed simply to have been mesmerized by the bandit and to have fallen under the spell of his charm. He was simply fascinating.” Rolph reveals that Krafchenko “persuaded more than one man to do things they would never have attempted had they stopped to consider the circumstances.”
Krafchenko was recaptured without a fight, but with much fanfare, on 18 January, by Chief MacPherson, Deputy Chief Newton and “a squad of picked detectives and constables.” This time he was taken to the provincial jail and “locked in a steel cage used for condemned criminals.” Along with news of Krafchenko’s recapture, the 19 January Free Press reported that the previous day Reverend Dr. J. L. Gordon, pastor of Central Congregational church in Winnipeg, “told an immense audience how Krafchenko got out of jail, where he is now, and how he could be brought back.” According to the Free Press account Gordon described how,
There has been a commission appointed to investigate the evidence concerning the case. I shall have nothing to say about that. I simply wish to draw some moral lessons from the tragedy that has impressed us all and made us think. He is a man with a genius for crime, a man of personality, and he applied the secret of success to his awful predicament, and by thinking intensely found means of escape. With half the skill and brains that he has devoted to crime he could have won success in other fields.
He is in Winnipeg in a castle named Fear. No, we can’t offer a pardon. If the man is found he must die. But he is not without hope of pardon. Christ offers him pardon. If this man had ever known Christ he would not tonight be a fugitive from justice.
Krafchenko was tried in Morden before a jury and Justice J. C. Mathers. He was represented by Winnipeg barrister Joseph Devereux Suffield, who failed to win “a postponement of the trial” due to perceived “damaging” and “untrue” comments, including those made by Reverend Gordon in his sermon, “calculated to prejudice the public.” W. Hastings, Esq. was counsel for the crown. Over 70 witnesses testified during the court case which ran from 18 March to 9 April. The court house was packed throughout the event. Krafchenko, who received some supportive letters from various individuals during his incarceration, protested his innocence up until the very end. Even a petition for clemency containing 10,000 names (one estimate says 20,000 names) did him no good. The evidence seemed pretty clear that he was guilty. Krafchenko was executed by hangman “Arthur Ellis” at the provincial jail on Vaughan Street in Winnipeg “a few seconds before 7 o’clock [a.m.] on Thursday, July 9, 1914.”
Newspapers noted that a dying wish of Krafchenko was that his boy, who was presumably in Graham, Ontario with Fanica, “be brought up in the Christian religion.” It was also reported that the “condemned man expressed the most intense sorrow for the pain he caused others.”
The Free Press reported that “Fully 2,000 people were in the neighbourhood of the Jail when the black flag was hung upon the flagpole ...” But there’s a macabre twist to this tale. Krafchenko’s step mother, writes Edith Paterson, “obtained the body as soon as she could and tried to revive him. She had assembled everyone who, she thought, might be able to bring him back to life—two witches, a warlock, a soothsayer and even a practitioner of voodoo.” The distraught old woman even “tried to breathe her own breath into the limp body,” alas without success. Krafchenko was buried in an unmarked grave in lot 546, section 22 of Winnipeg’s Brookside Cemetery.
On 15 July 1914 a Free Press editorial, headlined “The Case of John Krafchenko,” intoned: “John Krafchenko deserved his fate much more than many other murderers over whose hanging the public betrayed little feeling. In John Krafchenko’s case interest was chiefly aroused because a large number of people saw in him the degeneracy and perversion of a strong, resourceful and original character ... Surely it is the case for us all to wear sackcloth and ashes and confess humbly the grave shortcomings of our social economy and the awful gaps in our civilization.”
Page revised: 21 October 2020