Three men set out for a Yukon Christmas dinner and were never seen again.
It was Christmas day, 1899 when they 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 was a tale of murder and horror that stands out in the annals of Yukon crime.
Fred Clayson with his two-wheel bicycle, and Lynn Relfe, on foot, left Dawson City heading outside the Yukon to visit family and friends. Slowly working their way up the frozen surface of the Yukon River, they arrived at Minto on Christmas Eve. There, they met a telegraph lineman named Lawrence Olsen.
Olsen, who had been working in the vicinity, invited the two travellers to join him at Corporal Ryan’s Northwest Mounted Police post for dinner on Christmas day. When the trio left the roadhouse Christmas morning, it was the last time anyone except the killers saw them alive.
A few miles up the Yukon from Minto, two men, George O’Brien and another named, ironically, Graves lay in wait. As the three travellers passed a look-out prepared by O’Brien and Graves, they were shot from ambush. As the men lay in the snow, bleeding and mortally wounded, they were put to death by gunshots to the head. Their belongings were stripped from the bodies; the corpses were shoved into the Yukon River through a hole that had been chopped in the ice.
After the valuables had been removed, the clothing was burned, and items found in the pockets were scattered in the snow, to be quickly masked by the drifts. Graves was never heard from or seen again; it is believed that he was also killed by O’Brien.
In those days, things happened more slowly, so days passed before the disappearance of the three men became a concern. Meanwhile, O’Brien was slowly making his way up the Yukon River. At Tagish, he was arrested and detained on unrelated charges pertaining to theft of goods from caches.
Slowly, suspicions solidified into the realization that a terrible crime had been committed. Telegrams wired back and forth between various Mounted Police posts communicated emerging facts.
Will Clayson, the brother of Fred, was so concerned that he hired a detective to look into Fred’s disappearance. Philip Ralph Maguire was powerfully built, with a bushy black moustache, and had the dogged determination to locate the missing man. Upon reaching the Yukon, the American Maguire teamed up with NWMP Constable Alexander Pennycuick, an Englishman, in an effort to find evidence of the whereabouts of Clayson.
Here is where the story becomes interesting. In the manner of modern-day forensic science, the two men embarked on a quest for any clue to the fate of the missing brother. Together, they returned to the vicinity where the missing men were headed, and where O’Brien was seen about the same time.
Locating O’Brien’s camp, the two detectives found the remains of a fire, in whose ashes were 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 minus 40?
Carefully, the men inspected the trail through the bush beside the Yukon River. With the meticulous patience of modern-day archeologists, they carefully sifted through metre upon metre of winter snow, until they found a frozen pool of blood buried in the drifts along a trail leading down to the river.
They found more frozen pools of blood, then other items that linked these remains to the missing men: receipts in Olsen’s name; a fragment of tooth that later matched the dentition in the bullet-shattered jaw of Relfe, when his body was dragged from the Yukon River; and keys that opened drawers in a safe in 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.
They were able to match up the nicks found in the blade of an axe that belonged to O’Brien to marks on the trees that had been chopped down. From the vantage point thus created, O’Brien and Graves could secretly watch passersby travelling along the winter trail on the Yukon River ice.
For six weeks, the evidence, hidden in the snows along the banks of the Yukon River and collected from the painstaking labour of the two men, was carefully gathered, inventoried, mapped and measured. When the bodies of the three men, recovered from the icy Yukon waters the following summer, revealed the brutal and unnatural nature of their deaths, there was enough evidence to link O’Brien to the murders.
In June of 1900, a charge of the murder of Lynn Relfe was laid against O’Brien, who had been languishing in jail, first in Tagish, then later in Dawson, since his arrest in January.
The O’Brien trial took place in July of the following year. It was in its era, a high-profile event. The courtroom was packed, and 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 news of the trial and the verdict was reported right across the country
The Crown had assembled an impressive array of items of evidence and the testimony of 63 witnesses, each of which contributed a tiny piece to the puzzle that, when assembled, formed a highly incriminating picture 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 had in his possession certain items that had 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. Even the scathing attack by O’Brien’s lawyer, Henry Bleeker, upon the veracity of West’s testimony, could not shake the jury from its decision. 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 in attendance and spewed out a string of accusations against them.
Given a final opportunity to confess to his guilt, O’Brien maintained his innocence to the end. At 7:35 a.m., before a small and silent crowd, a newspaper noted, he was “launched into eternity.”
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.