The Yukon’s history is full of stories of scoundrels and cons. Though the true criminals are few and far between, no crime is as well known or as chilling as the murder on Ear Lake.
Alexander Gagoff was a Russian who came to the Klondike to seek his fortune during the gold rush.
Gagoff was known to be paranoid and suspicious of everyone. In fact he was rumoured to have been a member of the elite cavalry corps in czarist Russia, the Cossacks.
By all accounts he was a drifter and an outsider, which may have contributed to his terrible end.
“With some of the foreigners cultural differences were confused with craziness, and the inability to speak English was often equated with a lack of intelligence,” according to the book Strange Things Done.
Gagoff soon found work on the White Pass and Yukon Route railway. He was a grunt labourer used to repair damage on the line from the winter.
On September 30, 1915, five men on the railroad crew were eating their lunch at Ear Lake.
“I heard someone say, ‘Here comes Alex’. I looked around and Gagoff was coming down the hill from the opposite side of the track,” said Arthur Wilkinson, the only survivor of the shooting.
“He walked toward us and just as he stepped on the track he fired. Realizing that he was shooting to kill, we all started to run and he continued shooting.”
Wilkinson was lucky. He ran towards Whitehorse, while the men who ran in the opposite direction were chased and killed.
After the shooting Gagoff took their handcar and rode into Whitehorse. He stopped at the home of Frank Leslie, who was in charge of the roundhouse.
Leslie later testified that he had seen Gagoff earlier that morning and had asked him where he was going.
“I’m going hunting,” Gagoff had replied.
Leslie also later testified that he had known Gagoff for several weeks and had always thought him “insane or mentally weak.”
“I would think his mind was about the mind of a child about six years old,” said Leslie in Strange Things Done.
Stopping the hand car, Gagoff preceded to calmly walk down Front Street, rifle in one hand and cartridges clutched in the other. He then entered various businesses in town and bragged about what he had done.
The only reason he gave for the murder was that he was showing that he, Gagoff, was a man of no account, and that now he was a good man.
He was quickly arrested by the North West Mounted Police and put in jail to await trail.
The shooting was the first mass murder in the city’s history and it gave Whitehorse the “greatest shock of her existence,” according to the Weekly Star on October 1, 1915.
Gagoff seemed to feel no remorse or even comprehension of the magnitude of what he had done.
The death of four men ended with the grim death of another as Gagoff was sentenced to hang by the neck until dead on March 10, 1916.
“With firm unfaltering steps, marching between two stalwart members of the RNWMP, Gagoff mounted the steps and took his place at the trap door,” reported the Weekly Star.
“Immediately hangman Ellis sprung the trap and Alex Gagoff was launched to his death … his neck was broken and death was instantaneous.”
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 email@example.com.