Three men set out for a Yukon Christmas dinner and were never seen again. What followed was one of the first examples of the application of forensic crime-scene analysis to convict a ruthless killer. This is the story of the O’Brien murders ….
It was Christmas day in 1899 when three men left the tiny log roadhouse at Minto on the Yukon River, destined for the Mounted Police station at Hootchikoo where they were to join Corporal Patrick Ryan for roast turkey.
They never arrived, and what ensued is a tale of murder and horror that stands out in the annals of Yukon crime.
It all started when Fred Clayson, riding his bicycle and accompanied on foot by Lynn Relfe, left Dawson City a few days earlier to visit family and friends Outside. Slowly working their way up the frozen surface of the Yukon River, they arrived at Minto on Christmas Eve.
There they met telegraph lineman Lawrence Olsen, who had been working in the vicinity and who invited the two travellers to join him at Corporal Ryan’s North-West Mounted Police post for Christmas dinner. When the trio left the roadhouse Christmas morning, it was the last time anyone except the killers saw them alive.
A few kilometres up the Yukon from Minto, George O’Brien and another man, ironically named Graves, lay in wait. As the three travellers passed the lookout the two murderers had fashioned earlier, they were shot from ambush.
As Olsen and his companions lay in the snow mortally wounded, they were put to death by gunshots to the head. Their belongings were stripped from them and their bodies shoved into the Yukon River through a hole that had been chopped in the ice.
After the valuables had been removed, the victims’ clothing was burned. Unwanted items were scattered in the snow to be quickly buried by drifts. Graves was never seen again. It is believed O’Brien killed him as well.
In those days, things happened more slowly than they do now. Days passed before the disappearance became a concern. Meanwhile, O’Brien was slowly making his way up the Yukon River. At Tagish, he was arrested on charges pertaining to the theft of goods from caches.
Slowly, suspicions turned into the realization that a terrible crime had been committed. Telegrams wired back and forth between various Mounted Police posts communicated the facts as they emerged.
Will Clayson, Fred’s brother, was so concerned that he hired a detective to look into the disappearance. Philip Ralph Maguire was powerfully built, with a bushy black moustache and the dogged determination to locate the missing man.
Upon reaching the Yukon, the American Maguire teamed up with North West Mounted Police Constable Alexander Pennycuick, an Englishman, to find evidence of Clayson’s whereabouts.
Here is where the story becomes interesting. In the manner of modern day forensic science, the two men embarked on a quest for clues to the fate of the missing brother. Together, they returned to the vicinity of where the group was headed, and to where O’Brien was seen at about the same time.
Locating O’Brien’s camp, the two detectives found the remains of a fire. In the ashes they uncovered the remnants of burnt clothing. This was not a damning fact in itself, but who would want to burn clothing in a land where the temperature was reaching forty below?
Carefully, the men inspected the trail that ran through the bush beside the Yukon River. With the meticulous patience of present-day archeologists, they carefully sifted through metre upon metre of winter snow, until they found a frozen pool of blood buried in the drifts where the trail led down to the river.
As their search continued they found more frozen pools of blood and then other items that linked these remains to the missing trio. They found receipts in Olsen’s name, a fragment of tooth that later matched the dentition of the bullet-shattered jaw of Relfe when his body was finally recovered, and keys that opened drawers in a safe in the office of the Clayson family business in Skagway.
Several rifle shell casings were located near the other items buried in the snow. The casings were of the same calibre as the rifle found in O’Brien’s nearby camp. The detectives were able to match the nicks found in the blade of an axe that belonged to O’Brien with the marks on trees that had been chopped down to create the lookout that O’Brien and Graves used to secretly watch passersby on the Yukon River ice trail.
For six weeks, the evidence hidden in the snows along the banks of the Yukon River was carefully gathered, inventoried, mapped and measured.
When the bodies of the three men were finally recovered from the icy Yukon, revealing the brutal and unnatural nature of their deaths, there was enough evidence to link O’Brien to the crime. In June 1900, O’Brien was charged with the murder of Lynn Relfe. All this time O’Brien had been languishing in jail, first in Tagish and then later in Dawson City.
His trial took place in July of the following year. It was, in its era, a high-profile event. The courtroom was packed. Crowds of the curious milled around outside the old log courthouse in Dawson City peering in through the windows to catch a glimpse of O’Brien and the proceedings.
The events of the trial and the verdict made the newspapers across the country. The Crown had assembled an impressive array of evidence and the testimony of 63 witnesses, each of whom contributed a tiny piece to the puzzle that became a highly incriminating set of circumstances.
Witnesses could place O’Brien at the scene of the crime at the time of the disappearance of the men. Others connected the possession of certain objects found at the murder site to the three victims. At the time of his arrest, O’Brien even had in his possession items that belonged to the murder victims.
Two witnesses, one of them, the notorious felon “Kid” West, described O’Brien’s invitation to join him in his murder and robbery scheme. In the end, even the scathing attack by O’Brien’s lawyer, Henry Bleeker, on the veracity of West’s testimony, could not sway the jury. After less than two hours of deliberation, the jurors returned a verdict of guilty. He was sentenced by the judge to be hanged.
On the morning of August 23, 1901, George O’Brien rose and had a light breakfast. He offered no resistance when officials, the only people in attendance, led him to the scaffold. Unrepentant to the end, O’Brien cursed those present and spewed out a string of accusations against them.
Given a final opportunity to confess his guilt, O’Brien refused, maintaining his innocenceto the end. At 7:35 a.m., before a small and silent crowd, a newspaper noted that he was “launched into eternity.”
This column is reprinted from the book History Hunting in the Yukon, which is available in stores throughout the Yukon. Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.