Manitoba History: The Murder Oak: A Tale of Tragedy and Justice
by Glen Suggett
The sandy ridges on the landscape south of Delta Marsh provide ideal growing conditions for bur oak, Manitoba’s only native oak tree. While thousands of these bur oaks grow throughout the area, a lone oak, visible for miles, is unique. The “Murder Oak,” as it has come to be known, grows near a dirt road some three miles west of a modest farm that was very typical of those on the Portage Plains in the 1940s.
Among the many murder trials in Manitoba’s past, the “Murder Oak” case of September 1945 stands out. Not only does it illustrate the workings of the criminal justice system of the 1940s, it deals with a case based largely on circumstantial evidence that progressed remarkably rapidly from arrest to conviction to hanging. It took an unusual turn when an attempt was made at racial profiling to defend the accused.
The farm that brought the people involved in these events together belonged to Douglas L. Campbell, who had moved to Winnipeg to serve as the provincial Minister of Agriculture. He rented the farm to Wesley Owens and his wife Maxine, who lived there during the summers of 1943 to 1945. The Owens had two young children, a hired girl to help with housework, and a hired man to help with the farm chores. All lived together in the two storey house, with the Owens family using the bedroom on the main floor. The hired girl and hired man each had a bedroom upstairs. The help had every Saturday night and every other weekend off, so on most weekends the Owens family had the house to themselves.
The hired girl was sixteen year-old Pearl Dell from Portage la Prairie. She looked older than her years and spoke often of a boyfriend named Nick, who she had met at a dance earlier that summer and had gone out with several times. Pearl often spent weekends in Portage, either at her parent’s home or with her older sister, who was married with her own home nearby. The hired man was 48-year-old Baldwin “Baldy” Jonasson, a bachelor born in Iceland who at the age of two arrived at the Lake Manitoba Narrows with his parents. In winter, Baldy fished on Lake Manitoba and in summer he worked at farms in the Portage area. Unlike most Icelanders of the day, who prided themselves on their ability to read and write, Baldy was illiterate. However, he did own a car, which was more than most farm hands could afford, and he had a good reputation as a reliable farm hand. Few knew that, in 1927, Baldy had been convicted for assaulting a young girl.
Baldy and Pearl appeared to get along well through the summer of 1945. He frequently gave her a ride to Portage for the weekend and back to the farm on Sunday evening. It was one such Sunday night, 9 September, that Baldy went to Pearl’s sister’s house to give her a ride back to the Owens farm. Monday was washday, and when she had left for the weekend, Pearl assured Mrs. Owens that she would be back by Monday morning to help with the wash. Monday came and went, but there was no sign of Pearl or Baldy.
On Tuesday morning, 11 September, Jim Wilkinson, a neighbour, was leaving his yard in a horse-drawn wagon and saw something lying on the roadside. He drove up and discovered that it was Baldy, who was very weak and could barely speak. He had a blood-soaked bandage on his neck and a cut across his left wrist. Jim returned home to get his brother Art, who had a car. When Art arrived, Baldy said that he had an accident and his car was stuck in the ditch further down the road. They picked Baldy up and placed him in the back seat. Weak from loss of blood, he hoarsely whispered to Jim that Pearl was in his car – dead. Art drove to a nearby farm, which had a telephone, to summon the police. The Wilkinson brothers then took Baldy to the Portage Hospital.
Later, an RCMP officer heard Jonasson’s version of events. He claimed that an accident had occurred west of where his car had been found. It had rained hard on Sunday and the roads were slippery. He had taken a corner too sharply and hit a culvert. Pearl’s head had gone through the windshield, as had his own head. He removed a piece of windshield glass from her neck and she died in his arms without saying a word. He then got the car back on the road and proceeded towards the Owens place but he had become very weak and the car ran into the ditch. He spent Sunday night, all of Monday and the early hours of Tuesday morning in the vicinity of the car, alternately passing out and crawling to where Jim Wilkinson found him.
Investigators at the scene soon found inconsistencies in Baldy’s story. The path taken by his car could be traced easily by following the imprint made by the car’s tires in the soft mud. A hammer and some broken glass were found in a nearby pasture, blood stains were found on a gatepost, and a straight razor was discovered in the grass. When the car was removed from the ditch, its windshield was found to be broken in two places, with most of the glass inside the vehicle. There was no blood on the windshield or on the dash – most was on the floor on the driver’s side. Baldy did not have any injuries to his head that would suggest he had gone through a windshield. There were only two clean cuts – one to his neck and another to his wrist.
An autopsy was performed on Pearl Dell to determine the extent of her injuries and cause of death. Traces of mud were found on the inside of her thighs and there were some fine cuts in the toe of one shoe. She had suffered a blow to her forehead from a blunt object, such as a hammer, with sufficient in force to render her unconscious. Her throat had been cut twice by a sharp instrument, such as a straight razor. There were no injuries to her head that would be consistent with striking a windshield. None of the wounds had traces of glass in them. After reviewing the autopsy results and investigations at the scene, the RCMP returned to the hospital. When confronted with the evidence, Jonasson changed his story:
The physical evidence did not support either of Baldy’s versions. Had their heads gone through the windshield or the windshield been kicked out, it was unlikely that most of the glass would be recovered inside the car. Small fragments were found inside the pasture all the way to the point at which the car came to rest, suggesting that the windshield had been broken in the pasture and not at the gate where Jonasson claimed Pearl had kicked out the windshield. The blow to Pearl’s head occurred before her throat was cut, and it seemed improbable that she could hit herself over the head with a hammer and cut her own throat twice before throwing the razor out of the car. A coroner’s inquest was convened where it was concluded there was sufficient evidence to charge Jonasson with the murder of Pearl Dell.
The Canadian justice system in 1945 dealt with serious criminal cases remarkably quickly by today’s standards. The alleged murder occurred on 9 September and, upon completion of the investigation, Baldwin Jonasson was formally charged on 4 October. A preliminary hearing was held 16, 17 and 23 October, and Jonasson was committed to stand trial. On 13 November, he appeared in the Court of Kings Bench to face a judge and jury. The case was heard before Mr. Justice Adamson and a jury of twelve men. Mr. W. D. Card KC appeared for the Crown and Mr. H. D. Sparling represented the accused.
The trial took place over five days, from 13 to 17 November. The Crown presented its case first, calling medical witnesses, Pearl’s father, the Owens, the Wilkinson brothers, and the policemen who had investigated the scene.
The first witness was Dr. G. P. Armstrong who had examined Jonasson in the Portage District Hospital. He testified that Jonasson’s wounds were caused by a sharp instrument rather than glass from a windshield. He also said that Jonasson did not have any other apparent head injuries that would be consistent with his head going through the windshield. Dr. George Hamlin was then called to testify about the wounds suffered by Pearl Dell. He stated that there were two marks to the vertebrae, indicating that there had been two cuts. When questioned about the possibility of suicide, he stated that it was not likely that the two wounds could have been self-inflicted. He had also examined the wounds suffered by Jonasson and had not found any traces of glass in the wounds. Dr. John Kettlewell, who performed the autopsy on Pearl Dell, was next called to the stand. He testified that she had suffered two wounds, one on the forehead above the right eye and the other on the neck. The wound to her forehead was crescent-shaped and likely caused by a blunt instrument, such as a hammer, while the neck wound was inflicted by two separate incisions by a sharp instrument, one of which severed the jugular vein. He said that she likely died within two minutes of her throat being cut due to the massive loss of blood. He was unable to determine if she had been sexually assaulted.
Next, Maxine Owens and the father of Pearl Dell were called in turn to establish the relationship between the victim and the accused. Jim and Art Wilkinson testified regarding their discovery of Jonasson on the road and how later they accompanied the police during their investigation. There was no police tape cordoning off the crime scene on that occasion. It was actually Art Wilkinson who discovered the murder weapon while wandering around with the police. Jim Wilkinson testified in considerable detail about the whereabouts of various pieces of evidence, such as the razor, as well as testifying to the absence of vehicle tracks in contact with the culvert under the road, which Jonasson had said was the cause of his accident. Art Wilkinson’s testimony substantiated that of his brother and he described his discovery of the apparent murder weapon.
Wesley Owens was called to testify about his conversation with Jonasson when he visited him in the Portage District Hospital. Jonasson had related his first version of events to Owens during his visit and then repeated it to the RCMP. Owens also testified that Jonasson kept a hammer in his car, similar to the one found in the pasture, but he did not recognize the razor as belonging to Jonasson.
The first RCMP officer called to the stand was Joseph Vachon, stationed in RCMP Headquarters in Winnipeg, who had been assigned to investigate the case. He was an eight-year member of the force at this time, specializing in fingerprints, photography and plan-drawing work. At the trial, he explained the details of various photographs he had taken of the crime scene and the map he had drawn showing the path taken by the car and the locations at which various pieces of evidence were collected. Also entered as an exhibit and discussed by Vachon, was the windshield, reconstructed from the pieces found inside the car. He described the route taken by the car and the absence of any evidence to suggest that the car had come into contact with the culvert under the road. In the course of his testimony, he incorrectly identified Jonasson’s vehicle as a 1939 Plymouth coupe, when it was actually a 1937 Chevy coupe. However, no one seemed to notice the discrepancy. Although Vachon was identified as an expert in fingerprints, no fingerprint evidence was introduced at the trial.
Upon completion of Vachon’s testimony, Sergeant James Newman was called to relate his conversations with Jonasson and his investigation of the crime scene. In his cross-examination of Sergeant Newman, Jonasson’s defence lawyer tried an unusual line of questioning by asking, “In all your experience as a police officer, how often have you prosecuted Icelanders for homicide?” Mr. Card, the Crown prosecutor, objected and Judge Adamson responded, “Objection allowed. What has that got to do with it?” So much for racial profiling.
John Mallow, also an RCMP officer, was called to testify about the blood samples taken from Pearl Dell and Baldwin Jonasson. The science in this regard was fairly primitive at this time, but he could determine that Dell was type O and Jonasson was type B. He was unable to find blood on the hammer and was only able to identify Jonasson’s blood on the razor.
Corporal John Watson with the RCMP then testified about his investigation of the crime scene with Sergeant Newman. He indicated that he had recovered several small pieces of the windshield at various points all the way from inside the pasture to the point at which the car came to rest. He also stated that the gate to the pasture was closed when they attended the scene. Jonasson had mentioned opening the gate to drive through after Pearl had supposedly cut her own throat, but he did not mention stopping to close the gate behind him before continuing on. There was also some discussion of the crank Jonasson said he had used to start the car in the pasture. The crank was never found even though a thorough search had been made of both the car and the pasture.
Upon the conclusion of the Crown’s case, Jonasson’s lawyer indicated that he would like to make a motion. The jury was excused so that Judge Adamson could hear the motion in their absence.
Judge Adamson dismissed the motion and said that even though the evidence was all circumstantial, he would leave it to the jury to decide the case. He said “That is the value of a jury. Men of everyday experience and knowledge come here; they know what happens and doesn’t happen in the ordinary affairs of life. It is thoroughly a matter for the jury.”
Mr. Sparling’s tactic, which may have proven effective in a courtroom today, had little effect on the court in 1945. It appeared from his subsequent defence of Jonasson that he had been counting on his motion for acquittal to carry the day and was not well prepared to carry out a thorough defence of his client.
Sparling first called an expert witness, Dr. Trainor, a Winnipeg pathologist, in an effort to dispute the findings of the autopsy. Dr. Trainor testified that it could have been possible for a person to hit themselves with a hammer and then cut their own throat twice before losing consciousness. However, his testimony did not stand up well under cross-examination. Sparling then called Mary Homes, a cousin of Jonasson’s to testify as to his good character and establish that he had not shaved while staying at her house the weekend of Pearl Dell’s death. The implication was that if he had been in possession of a razor, he would have used it to shave himself. He then called John Devine, an employee of Moore’s Taxi in Winnipeg, for his expertise on windshield glass. His testimony did little to support Jonasson’s claims that Pearl had kicked out the windshield on her side and that his side was damaged when his head went through it. Next, a former employer of Jonasson’s was called to confirm his good character. This line of questioning went nowhere as well. Then, Sparling called Jonasson to the stand to testify on his own behalf. In a questionable move, after trying to establish Jonasson’s good character, he asked Jonasson about his previous charge of criminal assault in 1927. He then went on to question Jonasson about his version of events the night of Pearl Dell’s death. Jonasson denied that either the hammer or the razor were his and said that Pearl had committed suicide.
Mr. Card then had the opportunity to cross-examine Jonasson. He asked him several questions related to his trouble in 1927 mentioned by the defence, making sure the jury understood that he had been convicted for indecent assault on an eight-year-old girl. Card then went on to expose the improbability of Jonasson’s versions of events the night of Pearl’s death. Jonasson answered most of Card’s questions with “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” Card would repeat a statement made by Jonasson and then query “is that true?” to which Jonasson usually responded “as far as I know” even when there was an apparent contradiction. The prosecutor then asked Jonasson about the hammer recovered in the pasture. In response, Jonasson claimed that he had lost his hammer earlier in the summer and while the hammer in the court looked like his, it was not his.
Card then turned to the condition of the victim’s body. “There was mud on Pearl’s thighs and above her dress. “How would mud get on her thighs?” he asked Jonasson. “Did you have your hands on her that night?” It was a damning accusation in the form of a question, hitting its mark with the jury regardless of Jonasson’s quick denial. The jury could now assume a motive and piece together the events of that night for themselves. Jonasson had made advances that were resisted. He hit her with the hammer to knock her out and then cut her throat to keep her quiet. Upon coming to his senses, Jonasson had tried but failed to commit suicide. Following Card’s blistering cross-examination of his client, Sparling abruptly announced that the case for the defence was concluded.
In his charge to the jury, Judge Adamson dealt with the issue of the Crown’s case being based on circumstantial evidence. There were no witnesses and Jonasson denied responsibility for the death of the young woman.
On 17 November 1945, after lunch and about an hour of deliberation, in less time than it had taken the judge to summarize the evidence of the case, the jury advised the court that it had reached a unanimous verdict. The final moments of the proceedings were recorded as follows:
Jonasson’s lawyer launched an appeal, but it was denied. Several letters written by members of the Icelandic community and a petition signed by residents of the Narrows area were sent to the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice requesting that Jonasson’s sentence be commuted to life in prison. The authorities were not swayed by these appeals.
Shortly after midnight on Friday, 8 February 1946, as scheduled, Baldwin Jonasson was led to the gallows in Headingly Gaol. To the end he proclaimed his innocence. Regardless, the sentence was carried out as specified and he was hanged by the neck until he was dead. He would not be the last person to be executed in Manitoba; eight more men would be led to the same gallows until the very last execution occurred in 1952.
Was an innocent man executed? The judge and jury did not think so. There was no evidence presented of fingerprints on either the hammer or razor and the analysis of the blood and other evidence on the body was crude by today’s standards. However, the jury believed Jonasson was responsible for the death of Pearl Dell because there was no other plausible explanation for the circumstances. No one will ever know what really happened that night in 1945, but it ended with the death of a young woman. Five months later, the matter came to a conclusion with another death in another place. The case was closed forever.
The pasture where Pearl Dell died is now a barley field, and the road remains seldom traveled. Standing vigil to this day is the only surviving witness to the crime, a lone oak tree, known ever since as the Murder Oak.
Page revised: 8 June 2014