Newsletter - A Trio of Murderous Manitobans by Jack

Tuesday Dec 02 2014
by Jack

“Bloody Jack” Krafchenko was born in Romania in 1881 and came to Manitoba in the later 1880s, settling with his parents in Plum Coulee. Because of his subsequent notoriety, there are dozens of unsubstantiated stories about his early life. What we do know is that the young man was good-looking, bright, articulate, and very persuasive. He spoke a number of languages, including German, Ukrainian, Russian, and English. One tale has him as a boxer in the United States, supposedly married to a daughter of “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, the boxing champion. Another has him in Australia as a professional wrestler; although he was not very big (five feet eight inches tall, and about 160 lbs)., he was very strong, however. In 1902 he was reputed to have toured Manitoba as a temperance lecturer, passing bad cheques as he went. Caught, he was imprisoned in the Prince Albert Penitentiary, from which he escaped. Krafchenko made his way to New York City, then to Europe, where he robbed banks until his return to Canada in 1906.

Arrested in Winnipeg in 1908, he was sentenced to three years in Stoney Mountain Penetentiary. After his release from prison he apparently tried to go straight, settling in northern Ontario with a wife he had acquired in Europe and working as a blacksmith. He soon tired of this life and was back into trouble. In December 1913 he robbed the Bank of Montreal in Plum Coulee, killing the bank manager in the process. Krafchenko escaped town by commandeering an automobile at gunpoint; the driver of the automobile later published a short booklet about his experience, probably full of exaggerations. The murder provoked a major manhunt for the culprit, who returned to Winnipeg and posed as a school teacher at St. John’s College for a few days. This impersonation suggests that he could present himself as “respectable” if he so chose. He was eventually captured at his rooming house on College Street by heavily-armed Winnipeg policemen and held at the Rupert Street Police Station (later to be involved in the 1916 Winnipeg Riot). He escaped from this facility on 10 January 1914, seriously injuring his legs and back in the process of climbing down a rope. He was aided by several accomplices, including a police officer and a lawyer. Recaptured quickly, he was confined to a cell in the Vaughan St. Jail. The trial was held in Morden from 18 March to 9 April 1914 before a packed courtroom. Seventy witnesses testified. Krakchenko maintained his innocence until the end. He was executed on 9 July 1914. Many Manitobans were drawn into helping him in his escapades, and even more were struck during his lifetime and beyond with his energy, resourcefulness, and personability.


Earl Leonard (“The Gorilla Strangler”) Nelson was born in San Francisco on 12 May 1897. His parents soon died, and he was raised by his puritanical maternal grandparents. At age 10 he had a serious bicycle accident that left him with headaches and frequent lapses of memory. In May 1918 he attempted to sexually  molest a twelve-year-old girl in her home, and he was sent to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane. Unfortunately, security was weak at the hospital, and he escaped so many times that he was eventually discharged. Nelson subsequently married, and when his wife sought protection from his rages he was returned to the Napa State Hospital. In October of 1925 Nelson began a deadly peregrination of destructive behaviour in the form of serial homicide around the United States and Canada that would last for three years. His pattern was always the same. He would rent a room as only guest in a strange city in a boarding house kept by a landlady living on her own. Soon he would assault her, bind her hands using a fairly distinctive knot, strangle her, sexually assault her, hide her under a bed, and then remove articles of clothing and other things from the house. He seldom used any weapon besides his bare hands. This modus operandi was relatively unusual, and the police community soon recognized Nelson’s signature methods right across the continent, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to Chicago and eventually Winnipeg, with a half dozen intermediate stops along the way.

Nelson normally hitchhiked his way from one city to another, as he did not own a car. In Winnipeg, Nelson rented a room on Smith St., and soon lured a young female flower seller to it, following his usual pattern in murdering her. He then rented another room on Riverton Avenue, where he dispatched the young landlady, this time after an altercation which left him with scalp wounds. Nelson then left Winnipeg, ending up in Regina. The discovery of the bodies in Winnipeg produced a major press campaign to catch Nelson. The culprit left Regina, catching a ride as far as Boissevain over rural roads, thus eluding a major manhunt on the main highways. He ended up in a store in Wakopa, Manitoba, where he was recognized. A Manitoba Provincial Police constable from Killarny rushed to Wakopa and arrested Nelson, locking him in a jail cell in Killarny from which he soon escaped. He was arrested fleeing for the border, having tried to catch a train carrying many police officers who were to join the manhunt looking for him. Taken to Winnipeg, it was discovered that he was still wearing clothing sold him earlier in the city. He was tried in early November 1927, and hanged on 13 January 1928. The total number of his victims will never be known, since he was probably blamed for deaths not his responsibility and not blamed for others that were. In any case, Nelson was one of the earliest known serial killers in North America, as well as being one of the most “successful”.

 A More Complicated Criminal Case: (Emily) Hilda Blake (1878-1899)

Hilda was born in England, in the town of Chedgrave on the Norfolk Broads. Her father Henry was a former cottage tenant and farm labourer on the estate of Sir Reginald Beauchamp who had become a police constable in the Norfolk Constabulary. He had a history of alcoholism and died in 1883, probably of tuberculosis. Her mother Sarah died a few years later, leaving Hilda an orphan at the age of nine. She was sent briefly to the Heckingham Workhouse, but was in 1888 (along with her brother Tommy) sent to Canada as an emigrant, sailing from Liverpool to Montreal and then on to Elkhorn, Manitoba, where she ended up as an unpaid labourer on a prosperous farm owned by the Stewart family. Before long she had run away, and her host family instituted legal proceedings to return her from the family that had taken her in. In the course of the legal business, Hilda had testified that she was afraid of the males in the Stewart household. Returned to the Stewarts, she ran away again.

In the early 1890s, Hilda Blake moved to the young city of Brandon, Manitoba, where she found employment as a domestic servant in the household of Robert and Mary Lane, a prosperous middle-class family with four children. Her main duties included child care, and she had a loving relationship with the children. She would later claim that she had been seduced by her employer and carried on a lengthy affair with him. In June of 1899 Hilda travelled by train to Winnipeg and purchased a gun, a .32 calibre revolver. On 5 July she used the gun to shoot and kill Mary Lane, subsequently claiming that she had seen a tramp who had intruded into the house and who had hidden a gun under a barrel. Her story provoked a wide-spread manhunt, but gradually the local police became suspicious of her. Soon after her arrest, she confessed She claimed to be jealous of Mary Lane’s loving relationship with her children. Blake’s situation engendered a good deal of sympathy in Brandon and beyond. She was young, pretty, and had no previous convictions, although she corresponded surreptitiously with a male while imprisoned. Above all, she was an orphan, whose life had always been one of vulnerability. 

She came to trial in November 1899. Blake declined legal counsel, although several lawyers had volunteered their services. The trial was brief and she declared herself “guilty,’ subsequently fainting outside the courtroom. She was sentenced to be hanged. A later interview with the feminist Dr. Amelia Yeomans led to Yeomans arguing that Blake was insane, a diagnosis that contributed to a campaign to commute her sentence. That campaign was chiefly led by urban women, mainly from Winnipeg. The Laurier government refused to appoint a commission to enquire into Blake’s mental health or to order a fresh trial. Despite Governor-General Minto’s sympathy with Blake, he concurred in allowing the law to take its course. She was executed by hanging on 27 December 1899, the only female executed in Manitoba’s history. Many of the court records connected with the case, including the file employed by the Canadian cabinet in considering the affair, have not survived. The Blake case was clearly complex, not simply one involving a murderous criminal act. It could be viewed as a sad example of the lives of orphaned children sent as servants to Canada, as a tale of the evils wrought upon young female domestic servants by lustful employers, or as an illustration of how women were treated in nineteenth-century Canadian society.

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