Detective John Wilson Murray investigated The Minto Mystery

(Note: This is the conclusion of what was known at the time as “The Minto Mystery.” In April of 1899 a Minto farmer discovered a body beside the road about three miles from Harriston, which evidently had been hidden under the snow since the previous fall. Authorities suspected murder. A diligent investigation produced no clues as to the identity of the man or what exactly had been his fate.)

Wellington County’s crown attorney, Henry Peterson, liked to get results. The Minto Mystery frustrated him when he was unable to find any clue to the identity of a suspect. After a few days, the case had gotten under his skin.

He, as well as the coroner, were both convinced that the mystery man had been murdered, and Peterson was determined to get to the bottom of the matter.

Urged on by Peterson, County Constable Mereweather continued his investigation for another week after the jury reported its opinion that the man had come to his end “by some foul means at the hands of some party or parties unknown.” Mereweather reported nothing new, but he hinted at various leads, telling the press that “not all clues in connection with the affair have been examined.”

Perhaps that was an attempt to flush out the perpetrator by playing on his nerves and sense of guilt. If so, Mereweather’s attempt was a failure.

After the coroner’s jury delivered its verdict confirming his own conclusions, Peterson contacted John Wilson Murray, the head detective of Ontario’s Criminal Investigations Branch. As a detective, Murray’s strength was a thorough and logical approach to investigations, aided by his instinctive understanding of human nature. Murray was very well known, and something of a celebrity in his time. (A television series based on his career aired a few years ago.)

Murray had been the province’s first detective, appointed in 1875; he would hold the job until his death in 1906 at the age of 66.

Detective Murray arrived in Harriston on the morning of May 10, 1899, nine days after the coroner’s jury had adjourned. Accompanied by the coroner, Dr. Sam Cowan, Wilson visited the site where the body was discovered, and then examined the body, which had yet to be buried.

By that time, the cadaver was not in the best of condition, having been lying in a ditch through a winter, partially devoured by crows, and then subject to a thorough autopsy.

Detective Murray reached his conclusions quickly. He did not believe the man had been murdered. He said that the wounds to the neck would not be sufficient to cause death. His belief was that the man was either a common tramp or Aaron Noble, a mentally feeble farm labourer who had worked briefly for the Darroch family’s threshing crew, and who had gone missing in November 1898.

Murray spent only part of one day in Harriston, and returned to Toronto the same night. He did not speak to County Constable Mereweather, who, on instructions from Henry Peterson, was still investigating the case, following some vague leads in the northeastern part of Minto Township. The next day Mereweather expressed regret that he did not have a chance to consult with Detective Murray.

Mereweather remained convinced foul play was involved. He thought his explanation was the most plausible one, based on his quarter century of experience. Murray was a very busy man, and in his haste to return to Toronto perhaps did not fully appreciate all the contradictory evidence that had already been turned up.

In any case, none of the officials involved accepted Murray’s opinion. Back in Toronto, where the case was being reported in all the dailies, Murray walked away from penetrating questions posed by reporters.

In Wellington County, newspaper editors ridiculed his conclusions, and few members of the public believed them. The Guelph Mercury’s reporter found Murray’s version totally implausible: a tramp, from who-knows-where is caught in a snow storm on a back road in Minto. He stumbles in a ditch, perhaps hurting his leg, and then falls down exhausted after climbing a fence. He hides his bundle of personal possessions, and perishes in the storm.

Why would he climb a fence and then walk more than 30 feet to a clump of short cedar trees when there were farm houses in the area, in both directions along the road? Why did he have most of his clothing, including his overcoat, tied in a bundle in the midst of a blizzard? And why did he hide that bundle? Why would he collapse after climbing a fence?

The autopsy showed him to be a well-muscled and healthy man, with no evidence that he was a drinker.

Those were some of the questions posed by the coroner and echoed by the local weeklies. The coroner had others. Part of the windpipe was missing, obviously the result of a blow from a blunt implement. Detective Murray, for some reason, disregarded that piece of evidence, and other indications that the dead man had suffered violence to his head.

As well, Murray had no explanation as to why someone placed a bottle of the poison Paris Green at the scene two days after the discovery of the body. The coroner believed that it was a clumsy attempt to suggest that the death had been a suicide.

A day or two after Murray’s visit, a resident named Miss Christison came forward with a story that may have been significant. She recalled that the previous January she saw a sleigh stop at the area where the body had been found. The next day she passed the place, and noticed some footprints leading off to the side of the road and over the fence. At the time she mentioned it to a couple of other people, thinking it strange that someone would walk into a swamp in January.

The people she spoke to, though, thought nothing of the matter, and she let the incident fade into the recesses of her memory. She remembered it when the body was discovered, but then, for whatever reason, hesitated to tell the authorities at the time the body was discovered, saying nothing for almost three weeks.

Constable Mereweather’s continuing investigations turned up no more evidence. The failure to solve “The Minto Mystery” was a frustration to the authorities, particularly Crown Attorney Peterson.

For many residents, the placing of the bottle of Paris Green at the site after the body was discovered meant that someone local was responsible or involved with the death, or knew who was. It was a disturbing thought. It meant that it was possible that an identified murderer lived in the community.

County Constable Mereweather abandoned his investigations after another week of following up on increasingly vague leads.

“The Minto Mystery” has never been solved. Was this a genuine homicide, or was Detective John Wilson Murray correct in concluding that the dead man was a homeless tramp who had the misfortune to get caught in a sudden blizzard?

His conclusions seemed hasty and rushed, but on the other hand he had more experience than anyone in Ontario


investigated many of the murder cases in the province during the previous quarter century.

This file may still reside, after 11 decades, in the dustiest of the cold case drawers of local police officials.

This story also has an interesting postscript. Minto council decided that it did not want to pay the burial costs of the dead man. It passed a resolution, and forwarded it to county council. Basing its argument on the township’s assertion that the man had been murdered and dumped in Minto, they requested that county council pay the bill.

The county’s finance committee referred the matter to the county’s solicitor, Donald Guthrie. Quoting directly from the Statutes of Ontario, Guthrie noted that the burial expenses of unclaimed bodies are to be met by the local municipality, which, in turn, could claim those costs against the assets of the dead person, if there were any.

As for the alleged murder, Guthrie stated that no charges had ever been laid by authorities, and that, in any case, the law allowed no exceptions from the section he had quoted.

The Township of Minto, therefore, was responsible for the costs. It could recover nothing.

The only assets of the deceased were his clothes – and he had been buried in them.


Stephen Thorning