murder on the trail

There is strength in numbers, so it was common for men travelling the long and perilous trail in and out of the Yukon to band together. Companions could share the burden of cooking and setting up camp, and keep an eye out for one-another against countless unforeseen dangers.

There is strength in numbers, so it was common for men travelling the long and perilous trail in and out of the Yukon to band together.

Companions could share the burden of cooking and setting up camp, and keep an eye out for one-another against countless unforeseen dangers.

It didn’t happen often, mostly because of the Mounties’ firm and stable grasp on the region, but sometimes those unforeseen dangers left men dead on the trail.

On Christmas day 1899, George O’Brien and Thomas Graves ambushed and murdered three men a few kilometres away from the Hootchikoo North West Mounted Police post on the Yukon River.

O’Brien had spent some time in an English jail for shooting a man. And, in the Yukon, he had earned some jail time for stealing.

The murder victims were Fred Clayson, a Skagway gold buyer; Ole Olson, a government telegraph lineman, and Lynn Relfe, a young bartender from Dawson City.

They were leaving the Yukon that day and had stopped in Minto, where they signed a guest book, before venturing back out on the icy river trail.

Cpl. P. Ryan, of Hootchikoo Post, had been expecting his friend Olson for Christmas dinner and went out to search for him when he failed to arrive.

Ryan found the three men dead. And nearby, he saw where O’Brien and Graves had hidden along the trail and surprised their victims, who were shot, robbed, and dumped into a hole in the ice.

Ryan also found some of the stolen goods stashed nearby.

Const. Alik Pennycuick, who had been investigating thefts from scows and caches along the river, recalled seeing O’Brien in the area where the three men were found.

O’Brien was captured and charged while police continued to investigate the murders.

The trial took place in June, 1901, and saw 400 pieces of evidence that the police had collected.

O’Brien was convicted and hanged in Dawson City on August 23, 1901. Thomas Graves was never found.

O’Brien, although, was not the only bandit to come to a bad end.

Nearly a decade later, in the fall of 1907, Ned Elfors met David Bergman and Emil Anderson in Seattle and the three began an ill-fated journey to Whitehorse.

When they arrived the following spring, they bought a boat and headed north along the Yukon River to Dawson City.

During a break in their travels, on June 8, 1908, Ned Elfors took Bergman hunting but returned alone.

He told Anderson they needed help and, while walking behind him in the woods, Elfors shot Anderson in the neck.

Wounded but alive, Anderson escaped to Fort Selkirk 19 kilometres away and told the Mounties what had happened.

Meanwhile, Elfors (alias “Hank the Finn”) had buried David Bergman’s body in the bush.

RCMP Const. Franklin Thompson was an accomplished tracker who easily reconstructed the crime against Anderson.

On June 10, about 100 kilometres downriver from the crime took place, Thompson captured Elfors single-handedly.

Elfors was sleeping in his tent with $400 of stolen money and two loaded rifles by his side.

Bergman, whose body was not found until June 17, had five bullets in his head. Evidence showed that he had put his arms up in self-defence.

Elfors was brought to trial July 6 and convicted by a jury that deliberated for only 10 minutes.

He was hung October 6, and Thompson was promoted for his swift and successful investigation.

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

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