Friday, 23 November 2018

Tragic Endings: Agla Bjarnason of Langruth

© 2018, Christian Cassidy

Tragic Endings: In my decade of blogging and other historical research I have come across hundreds of examples of Manitobans who died well before their time. This series is a  collection of stories about some of those lives.

Information about these deaths comes mainly from newspaper stories of the day as, in most cases, inquest documents, court transcripts and investigators' notes are no longer available. This means that the information I will provide will include many of the gaps in coverage, errors in reporting and prejudices of the day.

If you have additional information about any of these stories feel free to contact me at cassidy-at-mts.net

Agla Bjarnason of Langruth (1900 - 1920)

The story of Agla Bjarnason shows how quickly the justice system worked "back in the day". Even the case of a mysterious death could be wrapped up in a matter of a couple of days - and that included the coroner's inquest. This seemed especially true when it came to dealing with the deaths of non-British stock immigrants.

Did the speed at which this young woman's case was ruled a suicide provide swift closure for the Bjarnason family or did it allow someone got away with murder?

Top: 184 Balmoral in 2015 (Google Street View)
Bottom: June 1920 ad, Winnipeg Free Press

Agla Bjarnason was born April 7, 1900, near Langruth, Manitoba in the Rural Municipality of Westbourne, (now known as the R. M. of WestLake – Gladstone), to Mr. and Mrs. Helgi Bjarnason. (Note that the Winnipeg papers spelled her first name A-l-g-a, but her death certificate and grave marker read A-g-l-a, so I will use the latter.) She was one of She was one of three sisters, two

Around 1917, Agla came to Winnipeg to work. She initially settled at a boarding or rooming house at 434 Langside and by 1919 was living at another house at 444 Spence Street. In the summer of 1920, she moved once again to 184 Balmoral Street where she was one of six or so people who rented out a bedroom in a private family home.

Agla worked as a bookkeeper at Buckler and Son's, a boot and shoe wholesaler located at 84 Princess Street at McDermot, (the building is now now known as 78 -84 Princess, having been divided and subdivided a number of times over the century.) Buckler shared the building with Redmond Co. Ltd., a men's clothing wholesaler, but had its own entrance from the street.

Victor Buckler managed the wholesale division, whilst a number of other Bucklers operated a retail outlet called the Cut Rate American Shoe Store on Main Street.

Agla was last seen around 9:30 p.m. on the night of Wednesday, September 29, 1920 by the night watchman at Buckler and Sons. The two chatted very briefly about the fact that she was working late, which is something she often did.

At around 1:25 a. m. , Winnipeg police constable Gibson was patrolling the street and checking locks when he noticed that the light was still on in the Buckler office and the front door was slightly ajar.

Gibson entered the office and saw Agla sitting in the office chair with her back towards the entrance. He commented that she was working late, but got no response. When he moved further into the room, he saw that Agla was dead with a gunshot wound to her right breast. A12-guage shotgun was lying on the floor beside her.

Agla was seated normally in the chair with her feet on the floor and her arms on the armrests. Her head was tilted 'naturally' to the left. There were no signs of a struggle.

September 30, 1920, Winnipeg Tribune

Initially, police suspected that this might be a homicide and numerous officers and provincial coroner Dr. Benjamin James McConnell were called to the scene.

Police fanned out to visit Agla's housemates and coworkers. They found that she was thought of by all as a "good girl" with no bad habits, no debt issues and no enemies. Many noted that she was shy and had not made a lot of friends in the city.

A "J. Buckler", likely John, one of her bosses at the retail store, told the Tribune: "She was an excellent bookkeeper and a quiet girl of excellent reputation."

October 4, 1920, Winnipeg Tribune

The only piece of evidence that police had to work with was the shotgun.

Some officers were sent around to local pawn shops and sporting goods stores to see if they recognized the gun as one they had sold recently. Initially, none claimed they had.

During the search of Agla's bedsit, officers found an image of Agla, (above), in overalls using a 12-guage shot gun that they felt certain was the same gun found at her side.

Also in her bedroom was a letter. One account said that it had been torn up and had to be pieced together by investigators. The contents of the letter, which were never made public, sealed the case for the police.

After an investigation that "extended over several hours", (one newspaper story reported that a whole 60 man-hours of police work had gone into it), Winnipeg Police Chief Chris Newton declared the death to be a suicide on the morning of Friday, October 1, 1920.

October 1, 1920, Winnipeg Tribune

The Tribune took more of an interest in covering the details of Agla Bjarnason's death than the Free Press did and their reporter and continuously raised questions in his stories. (There was no byline on the Tribune's four main stories written about her death, but I will assume the reporter was a "he".)

In his story about Newton's announcement, the reporter posed a rhetorical question: how could a young woman hold a shotgun, shoot herself in the breast and be found sitting upright in her chair? He also pointed out that while none of the acquaintances police spoke to gave them any reason to believe someone would want to harm Agla, they also didn't consider her suicidal.

The Free Press' main story about the investigation quoted the police chief and provided comments attributed to coroner McConnell and Dr. Gordon Bell, the province's bacteriologist, all of whom had a chance to examine the body. They all seemed to agree that suicide from "despondency" or mental illness was the only possible conclusion.

Dr. B. J. McConnell (source)

On the night of October 1, 1920, Dr. McConnell convened a coroner's jury and the body was viewed at Bardal's funeral home. The inquest was then postponed until October 6 so that Agla's parents could make it in to Winnipeg from The Narrows, where they were staying at the time of her death.

The inquest lasted two days and heard from a total of 27 witnesses, including Agla's sister and a brother, co-workers, police and medical experts. The hearing is supposed to lay out all the facts so that the jury can determine the official cause of death. This one, though, raised many additional questions.

On the first day of the inquest, Constable Charles Gillis testified that on the morning of September 29, the day before Agla's death, he was patrolling the neighbourhood and checking that doors were secure. He noticed at the Buckler and Sons building that there was a nail in the door frame under the latch, (presumably to keep it from latching shut). Gillis said he reported it to the manager who seemed surprised.

The last man to see Agla alive was D. H. McIntyre, the block's night watchman for the previous twelve years, who saw her in the office that night around 9:30 p.m.. He testified that they said very little to each other when they met and that it wasn't unusual for her to work late and often with the office door unlocked.

McIntyre said a security bar had recently been installed inside the front door at his request so that staff working late could better secure the premises. He testified that he last checked the door at around 11:00 p.m. and it was secure. Though the light inside the office was still on, he did not knock or go inside.

October 7, 1920, Winnipeg Tribune, (headline after day one of inquest)

The Tribune noted that members of the police force called to testify had differing opinions about whether or not Agla committed suicide.

Officer Gibson thought it was possible that she put the butt of the shotgun on the floor and used the toe or heel of her soft shoe to push the trigger. Sargent James Hoskins admitted that he didn't know how she managed it, but felt there was no doubt that she committed suicide. Another constable said he had no opinion on whether it was suicide or not.

A third policeman, Inspector John Street, declared: "In my opinion it was a physical impossibility" for the death to be suicide as the gun barrel was too long for her foot to reach. He tried to demonstrate that the toe of her shoe was too wide to fit into the trigger housing from above - she would have needed a much longer leg to extend her leg away from the gun so that her foot could enter the housing from the side. 

Street concluded that even if Agla had figured out a way to discharge the weapon herself, she would have had to contort her body to the point that there was no way she would have been found sitting normally in the chair with the gun resting on the floor beside her.

1921 Henderson Directory

As for the gun itself, police finally did track down a sporting goods shopkeeper who said he remembered selling the gun to Agla. John Farquhar said she looked at the gun on the Saturday before her death and on Monday came back to purchase it.

The shopkeeper described Agla as cheerful, but "not exactly a sociable type" and that she didn't say why she wanted the gun. He noted that Agla was familiar with firearms, stating: "She knew more about the gun than I did."

October 1, 1920, Winnipeg Free Press

The all-important note found in Agla's bedroom was discussed in detail on the second day of the inquest.

Mr. R. Frayer, a clerk with the coroner's office, was one of the officials that went to Agla's suite after the body was discovered. He testified that he found the torn up letter that helped to seal the suicide conclusion. (The coroner would not let the letter be read publicly, so the jury was moved to an ante room and had it read to them there.)

The question then turned to who wrote the note.

Agla's brother, sister, coworker and a housemate were all asked to examine the handwriting.  The relatives and housemate said it was similar to Agla's, but wouldn't swear that it was hers. The coworker said it definitely wasn't Agla's.

Dr. McConnell sent a Buckler staff member to the company's office to fetch samples of Agla's handwriting so that he could see for himself. The best he could do was say that the writing "resembled" hers, noting that the mental duress she must have been under likely caused some differences in penmanship.

October 7, 1920, Winnipeg Free Press, (headline after day one of inquest)

For those who thought foul play was involved, there was not much in the way of suspects or motives brought up at the inquest.

Agla had been on a two-week vacation back home and just returned to work the week of her death. If something at home had upset her it wasn't mentioned by her family, (or at least not reported in the coverage of their testimony.)

Agla's landlady testified that Agla was out late the night before her death, apparently at the Orpheum Theatre, which was unusual as she was normally a homebody during the week. She also said that she was certain that Agla had no boyfriend and almost never had men call on her.

Feb 2, 1921, Winnipeg Free Press

The only person that came under some suspicion was one of Agla's employers. The Free Press was the only paper that covered this part of the testimony and reported that his name was "W. D." Buckler, which may have been a typo. There were at least six Bucklers involved in the wholesale and retail divisions of the company but no "W. D.". The manager of Buckler and Son was Victor Buckler and William A. Buckler was the shipper.

Both the building's caretaker and a police constable testified that W. D. Buckler and Miss Bjarnason were seen talking behind the building the evening before her death. The Free Press noted that the according to the caretaker, "both were evidently excited from the demonstrations but he could not overhear the words uttered."

W. D. Buckler testified that Agla had told him that the workload she faced was too great for one person and that she was going to quit. (An examination of the company's books showed that she was behind in her work.) He said he offered to hire a second bookkeeper to work with her, but she did not want that.

According to Buckler, three weeks prior to her going on holidays he had to drive her home because she was under great mental stress, but she had not taken any additional time off. The landlady remembered her Gla being dropped off and crying after Buckler left.

The coroner's council asked Buckler to account for his whereabouts the night of Agla's death. He said he was out with his wife for the evening. They returned home at 10:30 p.m. and both retired shortly after that.

The coroner later said to the jury about W. D. Buckler, "There had been certain evidence to indicate that the employer of the deceased had shown the deceased certain attentions, but these witnesses swore they were from the highest of motives". He noted that during his examination of the body he found Agla was a virgin, ruling out a sexual affair.

October 8, 1920, Winnipeg Tribune

After the testimony of witnesses wrapped up on the second day, the jury briefly convened before returning with their verdict:

"We find that Alga Bjarnason came to her death between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. September 30, in the front office of the premises occupied by Buckler and Sons, 84 Princess Street, from a gunshot wound through her breast, by misadventure."

Both newspapers reported on the verdict but only the Tribune picked up on an important point and screamed it in their headline.

In his charge to the jury, McConnell told them that everything in the case pointed to suicide and the fact that they couldn't quite figure out how Agla physically did it as being one those "inexplicable" things when it came to suicide cases.

Given McConnell's charge and the fact that the note, which convinced most of those in authority that the death was a suicide, was part of the jury's evidence, their verdict of "misadventure" rather than "suicide" is intriguing.

It could mean that members of the jury didn't quite buy the suicide theory, but that there was not enough evidence to say that it was foul play. An alternate theory is that the jury wanted to save the Bjarnasons the shame of having an official "death by suicide" in the family.

Despite the jury's finding and the fact that the Tribune picked up on it, there were not follow-up stories about Agla's death or direct interviews with those involved in the case. Once the verdict was reached there was no more mentions of Agla Bjarnason.

Top: Agla's death registration, Manitoba Vital Statistics
Bottom: Headstone, Langruth Cemetery (source)

Agla's body was returned to her community and she was buried in the Big Point Cemetery near Langruth, Manitoba.

For the Bjarnason family it was another tragedy involving one of their children.

Mrs. A. Chapplett of Chicago, Agla's sister, noted in her testimony that the family once consisted of four sisters, three brothers and two step-brothers. Two of the sisters had already died, ages 18 and 30. Now, they were burying 20-year-old Agla.

1 comment:

molly hamish said...

thank you for your wonderful research, sad for young woman and her family...