a friendship turned sour leads to murder

Yukon's history is full of stories of partnerships that saved lives and made men rich. Just as often, though, those helping hands turned to menace, and sometimes even murder.

Yukon’s history is full of stories of partnerships that saved lives and made men rich.

Just as often, though, those helping hands turned to menace, and sometimes even murder.

This was the case between two partners and friends: Romolo Caesari and Dominico Melis.

Both men worked at the Pueblo copper mine in 1914 and shared a cabin near Whitehorse.

That winter, they began to argue about an unlikely mining machine they were inventing that could run forever without fuel.

Caesari thought Melis meant to steal the idea and make a fortune for himself, so Caesari threatened his life.

After Melis was found dead, a police investigation determined that Caesari killed Melis with a heavy blunt object. Caesari then trussed the body with poles he cut near Whitehorse rapids and hid Melis in a cavern scooped out by the river’s jumble ice.

Caesari told anyone who asked him that Melis left town, probably to work in a coal mine near Carmacks.

The police started to investigate in June, 1914, after Melis’ body was found floating down the Yukon River.

Sgt. Lewis McLaughlin and Detective Sgt. Eion McBrayne found the incriminating evidence they needed to convict Caesari in the house he shared with Melis.

They discovered blood stains that, upon examination, proved to be human.

They also found more evidence in a sack Caesari had left at Captain Patrick Martin’s store, located on Wood Street in downtown Whitehorse.

The sack contained an axe head, a raincoat, and a pair of rubber boots. One boot had a suspicious dark stain on the inside.

McLaughlin tried to find exactly where near the rapids Caesari had cut the poles used on Melis, but because it was a favourite spot to cut fishing poles, that was impossible.

What they did discover was that a rift had been widening between Caesari and Melis in the days before the murder.

Weeks later Caesari was arrested in Dawson City; he was found in possession of a number of Melis’ belongings and brought to Whitehorse for trial.

More than 50 witnesses were called to testify at the trial, only one was supporting the defence.

And Caesari did little to help his cause.

When asked why he should not be sentenced to death Caesari responded: ‘Kill me tonight or tomorrow if you want to. I would not say anything even if I had killed him,’ according to the Star newspaper report from Friday, October 2, 1914.

After deliberating for nearly two hours Caesari was sentenced to death. The date of execution was fixed for February, 1915, and until then he was to stay at the Whitehorse jail.

But then something curious happened.

“Romolo Caesari, under sentence to be hanged today at White Horse, Yukon Territory, for murder, attempted to escape and was shot by Constable Hayes of the North-West Mounted Police, who was guarding him,” reported the New York Times on February 19, 1915.

“Two bullets took effect and the man died.”

When he tried to escape Caesari didn’t know one important thing.

Minutes before a telegram from the Canadian Minister of Justice reached Whitehorse directing the authorities to stay the execution.

The government had decided that Caesari was insane and had commuted his sentence to life in prison.

“The sheriff was on the way to convey the news to Caesari when he attempted escape,” according to the Times.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.