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Murder Music of Canada: The Anthems Behind the Homicidal Stories of The North

We uncover the horrible histories behind these disturbing songs.

Illustration by Graeme Zirk

Many things inspire artists, including hideous acts of bloodshed. The murder ballad is a genre of music with a rich history. Humans have been singing about homicide likely since we learned how to sing and how to kill. We’ve been doing both for a very long time. Even Canada, a place known for peace and politeness, has dark histories and people making music about them. Word of warning, this feature discusses graphic violence, including sexual violence. I researched roughly 25 songs that fit my Canuck-focused criteria. The Tragically Hip wrote “Wheat Kings,” which is about David Milgaard's wrongful murder conviction. Quebec’s punk rock outfit Exterio penned “Le Seigneur des Agneaux.” That song mentions Vincent Li, who decapitated Tim McLean on a bus in 2008, and Robert Pickton, the serial killer believed to be responsible for the murders of 49 women on his British Columbia farm. I found mourning songs, like several dedicated to the 14 victims of Montreal’s École Polytechnique mass shooting at the hands of Marc Lepine in 1989. Those songs, and many others, did not make this list.

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Instead, I focused on three strange tunes that explicitly describe three terrifying stories. For each, I wrote a history of the crimes, but history is complicated and murky. I studied court documents, eye-witness testimonies, archived news clippings and even visited the RCMP Heritage Centre in Regina, Saskatchewan. That said, my summaries only touch the surface. The intent here is not to glorify the criminals, but show the genesis of some haunting Canadiana.

Irvin Freese and his daughter Jacqueline’s “Shell Lake Disaster”

On the morning of August 15, 1967 near Shell Lake, Saskatchewan, Wildrew Lang walked to a neighboring farmhouse to find out why Jim Peterson hadn’t shown up to help him load wheat from feed bins onto his truck. Jim, 47-years-old, a husband and father of eight children, was a reliable friend. Wildrew found his body riddled with bullets in the entrance of the family’s home. He rushed to the Peterson’s 1957 station wagon, turned the key in the ignition and sped to Shell Lake to phone the Spiritwood RCMP.

Corporal Barry Richards was the first responder at the scene. He found Dorothy, Mary, William and Colin Peterson—all between the ages of two and 11—dead throughout the house. Shockingly, four-year-old Phyllis was in bed, alive and physically unharmed, tucked between the bloodied corpses of her sisters Jean, 17, and Pearl, nine. Jim’s wife Evelyn, 42, was found at the rear of the house holding their one-year-old son, Larry. Both were dead.

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Victor Hoffman, Photo from the Montreal Gazette

The search for the murderer lasted four days. Authorities received information a farmer’s son near the town of Leask had been released from a mental hospital prior to the murders. Victor Ernest Hoffman, 21, was taken into custody. During a brief interrogation at a North Battleford detachment, Hofman confessed to gunning down nine members of the Peterson family. He used a .22-calibre rifle—a Belgian Browning pump-action repeater—which matched forensic evidence taken from the scene.

During a subsequent interview with authorities, Hoffman said the devil compelled him to slay the family. He spared Phyllis because, as he later declared, “she had the face of an angel.” Three weeks prior to the massacre, Hoffman had been housed at the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital at North Battleford. There, he underwent a regime of treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy, for schizophrenia. For most of his life, he struggled with delusions. He stopped taking his medication on August 8, and seven days later he made his way to the Peterson farm some 60 miles away with a loaded gun.

The Peterson family grave at the Shell Lake Cemetery. Photo from Reddit

Other than the demons in his mind, Hoffman had no known motive for pulling the trigger 28 times, hitting his victims with 27 shots total mostly at close range. The incident was dubbed the “Night of Fear” by local media. Hoffman was found not guilty by reason of insanity on non-capital murder charges in February, 1968. He died of cancer under custody in 2004.

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The Night of Fear was the inspiration for the spectacularly too-soon folk song by Manitoba's Irvin Freese and his daughter Jacqueline called “Shell Lake Disaster.” Only a month after the 1967 killings, Freese released a double-sided 45 pressing through Winnipeg’s Eagle Records. The other track on the record is a cowboy waltz called “Fate of Old Strawberry Roan” by Wilf Carter, who holds his own spot on this list. In Freese’s song, he details the murders set to an almost jovial ditty, with his daughter Jacqueline mimicking the cries of the surviving Peterson child. “Shell Lake Disaster” is ostensibly meant to be hopeful and uplifting. Apparently some listeners found it distasteful and threatened Eagle Records with legal action, forcing the recall of the 45.

Jon Mckiel’s “Monster of the Miramichi”

RCMP investigator Kevin Mole tried to take Nina Flam’s fingerprints, but fire had scorched the features from her hands. Mole questioned the 64-year-old woman as she lay in bed answering through a respirator. She was recovering from second and third-degree burns at Fredericton’s Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in May, 1989. Whispering in pain, Flam described the masked man who’d beaten and raped her in her home above a Chatham convenience store in New Brunswick’s Miramichi river region. She was reading a book the night an unseen stranger put a hand over her mouth and demanded cash. He tied her up, raped her and then beat her into momentary unconsciousness.

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She played dead until the man left, setting the room on fire as he went. Flam managed to escape her binds, but he was waiting for her in the hallway and pushed her back into the inferno. She barely made it out. When authorities arrived at the smoldering shop, Flam’s sister-in-law Annie, 75, was found dead, but it wasn’t fire that killed her. Investigators found her jaw had been broken and her skull smashed from blunt-force trauma. In the hospital burn unit with Constable Mole, Flam described a chain around the intruder’s waist—the kind of chain a prisoner might wear. Mole suspected he knew the attacker’s identity.

Allan Legere leaves court in Burton, New Brunswick in November, 1991. Photo by Andrew Vaughan, The Canadian Press.

Allan Legere escaped from police custody while being transferred to a Moncton hospital for an ear infection on May 3. Authorities would later learn Legere had taken efforts to make his infection worse. He was serving a life sentence for taking part in the murder of shopkeeper John Glendenning and the vicious beating of his wife Mary in 1986. Legere had spent most of his youth in and out of prison. While in the hospital bathroom, he used a radio antenna to pick his handcuffs and leg shackles. He then asked the guards for toilet paper, luring them to open the door, and he burst free. Authorities searched the ground and helicopters were in the sky checking the densely wooded area, but Legere couldn’t be found.

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The manhunt stretched into nearly five months. Unusual break ins were reported in the Miramichi region. Residents’ tensions ran high, but come July they relaxed, perhaps believing Legere skipped town. That is until October 13, when sisters Donna and Linda Daughney, 45 and 41, were found brutally murdered in their Newcastle residence. At this time, Canada’s first DNA analysis lab had opened and samples were taken from the scenes at Newcastle and Chatham. Tests confirmed Legere was responsible for the three killings. Miramichi community members decided to cancel Halloween trick-or-treating. Anyone caught wearing a mask would be taken for police questioning.

A Catholic priest was then discovered dead on November 16. Someone had beaten and tortured Father James Smith to death in his Chatham Head rectory. The 69-year-old had served the Miramichi for over four decades. Father James’ car was found the next day some 50 miles away at a train station in Bathurst. Legere was believed to be on train going to Montreal, but he was nowhere to be found. Seven days later, Ron Gomke was driving his taxi on a snowy night. He picked up a man in Saint John wanting to go 100 miles to Moncton. Gomke cleared the trip with his dispatcher and turned to his passenger. The man pointed a sawed-off .308 rifle at Gomke’s face and said, “Tell them you have the fare. I’m the one they’re looking for. I’m Allan Legere.”

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A few hours outside Moncton, the cab spun out on an icy road and into a snowbank. Legere and his hostage got out of the vehicle and waited for someone to stop. Michelle Mercer pulled over and let the two men into her car. After some talk and Legere’s odd insistence they go back to the cab, Mercer informed him she was an off-duty RCMP officer. The killer revealed his identity and the gun, telling Mercer to turn the vehicle around. The two negotiated for a bit, and she pointed out her car was low on gas. She stopped at the Four Corners Irving Gas Station in Sussex to fill up. Legere went to pay, making sure he took the keys. Unknown to him, Mercer had a spare set and sped off with Gomke to RCMP headquarters. Stranded and desperate, Legere spotted a trucker, Brian Golding, stepping from his rig. Legere aimed his gun at Golding, saying, “Come on, let’s get out of here.” On Legere’s orders, they headed toward Moncton. Somewhere near Newcastle, another driver spotted the two on a road not normally used by large trucks. He called police on his CB radio. RCMP arrested Legere without incident on Route 118 on November 24.

The first use of DNA analysis in Canadian court. Sketch by Carol Taylor courtesy of the University of New Brunswick

For the first time in Canada, DNA evidence was admitted in court and Legere was linked to three murders after a nearly seven-month pursuit. RCMP also connected him to the killing of Father James by matching Legere’s boots to a bloody footprint found at the scene. The purported Monster of the Miramichi received a life sentence for four counts of first-degree murder in November, 1991.

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The serial killer’s spree remains a dark point in New Brunswick’s history. Recently, Legere’s transfer from a maximum security penitentiary to a lower-security facility has been a source of controversy. Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Jon McKiel wrote a track about Legere titled “Monster of the Miramichi,” which the artist spoke about in a 2014 NOISEY interview. The song is featured on McKiel’s 2011 five-track EP Confidence Lodge. McKiel’s lyrics open by describing the terror felt around the Miramichi during Legere’s rampage: “There’s curfews after dark/ This man had set off some spark/ and watched you while you sleep,/ the Monster of the Miramichi.”

Wilf Carter’s “Capture of Albert Johnson”

RCMP Constable Edgar Millen’s first meeting with Albert Johnson went sour. He’d stopped the surly man in his thirties at Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories in early July, 1931 to ask where he came from and who he was. Milen wanted to make sure the newcomer was prepared for the harsh conditions of the north. Johnson wanted nothing to do with the RCMP. This wouldn’t be last time they crossed paths. On January 30 the following year, during the nation’s most dramatic manhunt, the trapper who called himself Albert Johnson would shoot Millen through the heart.

Trouble started when First Nations hunters complained Johnson had interfered with their trap lines in December, 1931. Millen sent Constables Alfred King and Joseph Bernard roughly 80 miles by dogsled to question the man. He lived alone in a tiny log cabin high above the Rat River in the Mackenzie Delta region. He’d built the cabin far from anyone who might disturb him.

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RCMP Constable Edgar “Spike” Millen. Image courtesy of the RCMP Heritage Centre

Johnson refused to talk, so the officers went to a post at Aklavik to get a search warrant and reinforcements. The party now totalled four officers. On December 31, the group reached the cabin, knocked on the door, and Johnson let loose a volley of shots from his Savage M99 .30-30 calibre lever-action rifle. Constable King was severely wounded, forcing the RCMP to retreat. The officer’s condition required immediate medical treatment, and making the trip to and from Johnson’s cabin meant careful planning in the Arctic wild.

On January 9, 1932 three trappers, five officers, including Constable Millen, went to capture Johnson. This time, they also brought a large quantity of dynamite. The resulting shootout lasted over ten hours. The cabin Johnson made was fortified with double thick walls and portholes to shoot from. A concussive blast rocked the cabin after Mounties set off a large quantity of explosives on it. By then, winter temperatures dipped below −40 °C and a blizzard slammed the area. Authorities were forced to leave. Seizing the opportunity, Johnson escaped into the mountainous backcountry. The RCMP would later discover the desperado was surviving off cached food he’d hidden throughout the region. His survival skills were superhuman. Radio broadcasts detailing the hunt for the so-called Mad Trapper captivated listeners across North America. Officials set out on January 16, this time with 21 men, including 11 First Nations deputies, but Johnson evaded them by crossing the border into The Yukon heading toward Alaska. Millen, along with a soldier and two trappers, took chase. 14 days later, Johnson shot Millen dead in a thicket of trees and scaled a cliff wall to evade the rest of the search party.

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Men involved in the hunt for Albert Johnson. Pilot Wilfrid Reid "Wop" May is on the right. Image courtesy of the RCMP Heritage Centre

Desprate, the RCMP enlisted the help of a famous pilot, Wilfrid May. This was the first time the Mounties used a plane and two-way radios in the apprehension of a criminal. Another blizzard delayed them on February 9, giving Johnson time to cross the treacherous Richardson mountain range into The Yukon without gear and little food. He’d run for an estimated 186 miles for two wintery months in Canada’s harshest outback. With a pilot tracker in the sky, the RCMP discovered the trapper had been stepping through caribou tracks to hide his footprints, and the posse finally caught up.

The last shootout with Johnson occurred on February 17 on the banks of the frozen Eagle River. Johnson fired at Sergeant Earl Hersey, who was seriously injured. The criminal took eight shots, before Constable John Moses finally stopped him with a fatal hit to the pelvis. The bullet exploded an ammunition packet in his pocket and lodged into his spine. In a 1973 CBC radio documentary about the manhunt, officials at the scene say Johnson was subdued roughly 70 miles from the Alaskan border. He’d almost escaped RCMP authority.

The body of Albert Johnson. Image courtesy of the RCMP Heritage Centre.

To this day, no one knows the real identity of Albert Johnson, what his motives were or why routine questioning set him off. There are several songs recanting the story, but Nova Scotia-born Wilf Carter recorded the earliest and perhaps most famous version in 1933. Carter takes some creative liberties in “The Capture of Albert Johnson,” which says the bandit killed or “laid low” four Mounties. Corporal Millen was the only officer killed and two others were injured. Carter, however, accurately describes the way The Mad Trapper evaded authorities by backtracking through the snow. But, the song concludes, the Mounties “always get their man.”

Devin Pacholik is a writer and journalist based in Canada. Follow him on Twitter.