Monday, 16 October 2017

The Stories Our Buildings Tell: Tragedy and Mystery in North Point Douglas

Guest post by Greg Agnew, Heritage Winnipeg Board Member
Edited by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

Behind the buff brick walls of 187 Sutherland Avenue in Winnipeg hides a story of mystery and intrigue. An unassuming two story building in the North Point Douglas neighbourhood, the façade gives no hint as to what tragedy transpired there in 1928. Cheerful arches with decorative keystones grace the entrance and windows on the front façade, with a brick cornice detail running along the roofline, giving no suggestion of heartache. In a neighbourhood where immigrants came to start a new life, a little girl’s life was cut short leaving unanswered questions that haunted those involved for years to come.

In 1812, the Selkirk Settlers arrived at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. With Fort Gibraltar already established by the North West Company at this location, Governor Miles Macdonell choose to lead the settlers further north along the Red River, to an area on the west side which had been cleared by fire in recent years. The land was divided into long narrow river lots for settlers in the north, the colony’s buildings on the narrow point of land to the south and “King’s Highway” (which would become modern day Main Street) meandering through it all. It was in this area that the settlers would soon build Fort Douglas, named after Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk, the reigning Lord Selkirk in 1812. It was the site of conflict for many years, as the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company (aligned with the Selkirk Settlers) struggled for power. Destruction, reconstruction, struggle and strife all finally ended in 1821, when the two warring companies merged, with the fort still standing. It took a force of nature, a flood in 1826, to wash away Fort Douglas forever.

Fort Douglas on the banks of the Red River in 1817.
Source: Douglas Archives
Although the fort was lost, the name remained, with the narrow point of land carved out by the Red River becoming known as Point Douglas.  The neighbourhood was a growing settlement, with streets, houses, schools and churches being built and businesses being opened. Many of Winnipeg’s founding families, the Ashowns, Bannatynes, McDermonts, Logans and Schultzes called the area home. For most of the 19th century, Point Douglas was a prestigious place to call home, with many elegant houses filling the neighbourhood.

In 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived, with its tracks running right down the center of Point Douglas, cutting the neighborhood into two. North Point Douglas remained a residential area, while South Point Douglas was more commercial. The presences of the noisy trains and the unpleasant industry growing up around it drove many of the residence away, replaced with working class immigrants of non-British origin. North Point Douglas soon became an immigrant community, where people could shop, worship and speak as they did in the homeland. Yet through this change, the original buildings of the area stood unfazed, a reminded of a time of prosperity and promise. Many of the areas larger homes were divided into boarding houses while single family homes where tucked between the stately old homes.

Point Douglas in 1912, the narrow point of land surrounded by the Red River on three sides.
Source: CBC News Manitoba and Achieves of Manitoba
It was into this North Point Douglas, filled with old homes and new immigrants that Julian Johnson was born. By 1928 Julian was five and a half year old little girl that lived a happy life at 138 Austin St. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Julia was a pretty girl of about 40 pounds, with blue eyes, dark brown hair and a pale complexion. She lived with her mother, her father Anton, who was a construction worker, her sister Bernice, 11, her brother John, 16, and brother Joseph, 13. The family was of Polish decent and by no means wealthy.


On April 25th of 1928 Julia was playing outside while waiting for her sister and the next door neighbor, Elizabeth Kral, to come home from school so they could play together. Julia was a shy, quiet little girl. She was taught not to talk to strangers and to always stay close to home. Her mother was washing clothes in the kitchen around 1:30pm when Julia went outside to play.   Julia was wearing a red and black dress that her mother made for her and little black shoes that just had a new sole put on one. With fawn stockings, a sweater and brown toque, she was ready to go outside and play. It was a mild day, with the temperature around 0ºC and no rain in sight.

Julia’s mother would call out to her daughter periodically, with Julia coming in to tell her mother what she was doing. She would tell her mother she was just playing with her favorite tennis ball, or that she was watching the “gas man” as he made his rounds. Around 3:30pm, Julian’s mother got a strange feeling. She called out for Julia, but here was no answer. She went out the front door and called again, but still no answer. Mrs. Kral, the neighbour, came out and told her she had just seen Julia a few minutes ago playing with her ball, bouncing it against her house. They immediately searched the area, calling out, but could not find Julia. The Kral’s son Alfred came home from school just before 4pm, and when asked, he said he had not seen her along the way.

It was not like Julia to disappear and so after the search continued fruitlessly for a short time, the police were called. Constable Thomas McKim got the call on his callbox #4 as he made his rounds in the area, so he responded to the Johnson home and joined in the search. Nothing turned up to give them any clue as to where Julia was. When Julian’s father, Anton, arrived home he started searching the entire area with the help of her brothers and some school kids that knew Julia. They searched the neighborhood and along the riverbank looking for clues or footprints, but found nothing. Panic set in and the family was stricken with anxiety.

The case was turned over to the detective division as suspected foul play. Inspector R. Macdonald, in Division E, was put in charge of the case. Chief Detective George Smith, Sargent Fred Batho, Sargent Charles Maciver, and Detective Alex Kolomic were assigned to the case and the search for clues started in haste.

Nathan Taplinsky owned the blacksmith shop at 190 Sutherland, just a half block away from the Johnson’s home. He had seen Julia around 2:00pm with some other children playing in the yard that he used for storing his wagon and material. It was a dangerous area for kids to play in and he chased them out. Mrs. Newmark indicated that she and her son talked to Julia on Austin Street in front of her house at around 3:15-3:30pm. The neighbor, Mrs. Kral, said Julia was bouncing her ball against her house somewhere around 3:45pm.

A search started that took up the whole Point Douglas area and continued all the way to St. Johns Avenue past Redwood. Every home, building, back yard, river bank was checked by the police with the help of the local citizens, as well as a Boy Scouts troupe that offered to help.   Tons of metal in piles were searched in back yards, alleys and businesses. Anywhere where a small girl could hide was searched and then searched again but nothing.

Julia Johnson's family offered a reward of $50,
which was a large sun of money for a poor family n 1928.
Sadly, it was speculated that Julia had been abducted and as the search continued the family was starting to losing hope and Mrs. Johnson became bedridden with grief. The search went on for months but with no new leads, and the detectives were at a standstill. The case was not closed, but put aside, with the detectives continuing to monitor it for any breaks.

The family could not live in the home anymore because of the memories and moved to 1105 St. Mary’s Road. Detective George Smith became Chief Constable in 1934, and he never dropped the case, but like the others, he watched over it looking for a possible break. Every two weeks, Mrs. Johnson and her husband Anton would go to the police station and ask Chief Smith if there was any new leads as he always gave them time. He had become close to the Johnsons and wanted to relieve their pain by solving the case, which is why it was never closed even though it went cold.

 In 1937, 187 Sutherland Avenue was sold to Muzeen & Blythe, a machine shop company. They were preparing the building for their business, clearing out a lot of scrap and equipment in the building from its soda bottling days. One item was the old boiler that sat in the basement. Wilfred Adams had the task of dismantling the boiler so it could be removed. To his horror, when he took off the back cover, there was a gruesome discovery - small skeleton was inside. The police were called and when word reached the station George Smith and Alex Kolomic rushed to the scene.

187 Sutherland Avenue in North Point Douglas, seen at the center of the photo.
There in the boiler were the remains of a small girl bent over so her head had almost touched her feet. A brown toque and a ball with a tear in it were found by the body. The Johnson’s son John came down and identified the body by the ball, toque, and what was left of the dress Julia was wearing the day she disappeared. It was devastating news for the family, as they always had hope that she was alive somewhere.

The case was then reopened and the search for new clues began. It had been nine years since Julia’s disappearance. People had passed and memories had grown foggy, but the detectives continued on. During the course of their investigation, they discovered Mr. Hamilton, who owned 187 Sutherland Avenue, closed the business down on April 7, 1928. The building was boarded up and the doors locked. He went to the blacksmith shop of Nathan Taplinsky and left a key there for the meter man, which was hung on a post by the door. Nathan and his assistant denied having the key, but a former worker testified that there was a key on the post, although he not knowing what it was for. A meterman also said he got the key from Nathan to read the meter and he hung it back up at the blacksmith shop afterwards.

Florian Kovacs, a neighbour, said he saw Julia talking with a bearded man, walking and holding hands. No one saw or knew of this man and Julia, known for her shyness, would never talk to strangers. The premises of 187 Sutherland Avenue, including the boiler, had been searched more than once, but because the body had been pushed right to the back into a cavity, it was never found. A metal tube was found by the boiler, which could have been used to push Julia’s body back and cause her hip to dislocate, as noted by the corner.

A coroners hearing was held after police were given time to reopen the case and look for new clues. When they presented what they had found, the jury at the inquest hearing was not satisfied. There were too many discrepancies in the witnesses’ testimonies in 1928 and in 1937.

Who would do such a thing? Why was the ball found with the body? If foul play was suspected and she was lured into the building, why were no screams heard? Surly she would have screamed if she did not know the person. She did just that two weeks before she disappeared! She ran home and told her mother the “boogey man” was after her. It took her mother almost two hours to calm her down. The building at 187 Sutherland Avenue is only 60 feet from the back of her home so her mother would have heard her screams for sure.

187 Sutherland Avenue still stands in North Point Douglas today,
steadfast in its silence, the only witness to what really happened to Julia Johnson.
Unfortunately, too many unanswered questions never got answered. Little Julia was buried March 30, 1937 and laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery.  The case was closed as unsolved in June of 1937 and remains a mystery to this day. Only the walls know what really transpired at 187 Sutherland Avenue that heartbreaking day in 1928.


SOURCES:

CBC News Maniotba
www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/point-douglas-winnipeg-s-1st-and-only-red-light-district-1.1381108

Douglas Archives
www.douglashistory.co.uk/history/Places/fort_douglas.htm#.WeTfOCMrL5Y

Manitoba Historical Society
www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/features/walkingtours/pointdouglas/index.shtml
www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/douglas_t.shtml
www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/fortdouglasforks.shtml

Neighborhoods of Winnipeg
now.winnipeg.ca/history/north-point-douglas

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