Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Key to the Crime

When my great-grandmother was murdered a century ago in Winnipeg’s ‘Hebrew Colony,’ police had suspects and a motive: antisemitism. But the only physical clue they could find left them baffled.

Wayne Hoffman
February 01, 2022
Tablet Magazine; original photos courtesy the author
Tablet Magazine; original photos courtesy the author
Tablet Magazine; original photos courtesy the author
Tablet Magazine; original photos courtesy the author

My great-grandmother Sarah immigrated to North America from Russia in 1906, fleeing both a wave of antisemitic pogroms and a spurned lover who’d sworn revenge on her. She came to Winnipeg, and married my great-grandfather David Feinstein, himself a recent arrival from Russia. They were poor at first, living close to the railyards in the city’s North End, where most Jewish immigrants had settled.

Within just a few years, though, things had begun to turn around. My great-grandfather had started a successful cattle-dealing business with his brothers, and eventually David and Sarah—and their four children—moved into a bigger house on a quieter street. They became well respected members of the growing Jewish community, and they could even indulge in a few luxuries: fur coats, jewelry, a live-in nanny. Things were looking good for the family—until one night, when everything they built came crashing down.

Sarah Feinstein was murdered in Winnipeg’s North End in the early hours of Friday, August 1, 1913. She was shot through the temple while she slept. Her baby Anne lay in the crib next to the bed, while her 2-year-old daughter Fanny was curled up next to her mother—still asleep after the fatal shot, her nightgown soaking with blood. Her older children—Harry, nearly 6, and my grandmother Ethel, who was 3—were in the next room, with their nanny Victoria Komanowska.

It took me years to discover all the details of Sarah’s murder, which bore little resemblance to the legends that had circulated in my family for decades. But even after I found out the basic facts by digging through official documents and newspaper archives—the brutal murder of a young Russian immigrant in the neighborhood that Winnipeg’s journalists called the “Hebrew Colony” made headlines in English and Yiddish papers across Canada, from Montreal to Vancouver—I still didn’t know who was responsible for what the city’s Yiddish weekly Der Keneder Yid called a “horrific tragedy.”

Nobody else did, either. It was Winnipeg’s only unsolved murder that year.

Police and journalists had a pair of likely suspects almost immediately: Mary Manastaka, who previously worked for the Feinsteins, had spouted antisemitic bile at Sarah, shouting that Russia had gotten rid of its Jews, and Canada should do the same; Sarah had pushed her off her veranda during one of these tirades, and Mary had sworn revenge. She and her boyfriend Stefan Kushowsky, a railyard worker nearby in the city’s North End, were named as prime suspects within hours of the murder on Friday morning.

But by Sunday, they had both been cleared and released from police custody, and investigators had to come up with a new theory of the crime.

While he called the murder of Sarah Feinstein “the work of a most steady hand and a heart of stone,” Chief Constable Donald MacPherson said that “not a really tangible clue was left” at the scene—except for one puzzling piece of evidence.

There were three keys to the Feinsteins’ house, one of which Sarah typically carried, while the other two hung on a ledge in the house. Her husband, David, my great-grandfather, never carried a key to his own house, since his wife was always home to let him in, and Victoria didn’t need one either since, as the Manitoba Free Press reported, “she never had a night off, as she was not permitted to go out, and did not want to.” Coming in through the one window that had been left open a few inches would have made too much noise, police said. So it seemed likely that the perpetrator had used a key to enter the house, probably through the front door that had been mysteriously unlocked when Victoria ran to alert the neighbors after the shooting. When David returned to Winnipeg from a business trip to Canora, Saskatchewan—where he worked as a cattle dealer—on Saturday, the day after his wife’s murder, neither he nor the police could locate the keys that normally hung on the ledge. Where was the key that the murderer probably used to open the front door? “It may be at the bottom of the Red River for all anyone knows of it at present,” the Free Press offered.

Perhaps the murderer was already in the house when Sarah went to sleep. That person might have come in without a key by climbing through the coal chute and hiding in the cellar until the middle of the night, before coming into the house via the basement stairs. This was a remote possibility, although nobody noticed coal dust tracked through the house. More likely, the murderer had taken the key before the killing, or had the key passed along by someone inside the house—a hired girl, for instance. Or maybe a key had been taken or passed along some days before the murder and simply duplicated; the door had a standard Yale lock, whose key could easily be copied by a locksmith.

Whatever the exact story, police believed that the key to solving the crime was, literally, the key. “There is little question but that the perpetrator of the crime had a key to the place,” wrote the Free Press, “and it would be strong circumstantial evidence to be able to find it on anyone.”

Investigators had little other physical evidence to consider. While they could deduce from the flattened bullet removed from Sarah’s skull during the autopsy that the weapon that killed her was a .32 caliber revolver, no gun was recovered. A box of “Russian fusees” were found, and as the Winnipeg Tribune noted, “these matches are not sold in Winnipeg, but are often seen in the possession of immigrants from South Russia and Austria”—although that didn’t do much to narrow the list of suspects in a neighborhood like the North End, filled with immigrants, with more arriving from Russian and Austrian lands every month.

This lack of evidence didn’t stop Winnipeg’s journalists from publishing story after story speculating about the case. The murder stayed on the front page of the city’s newspapers for days in early August 1913, alongside reports of train wrecks, grain production, revolution in Venezuela, and provincial cricket tournaments, as well as other less sensational headlines, such as “Drowning Man Saved by Moose” or “Chicken Shooting Begins Tomorrow All Over Manitoba.”

After the release of Stefan and Mary, the Free Press reported that investigators had already explored “a dozen different plausible theories that looked strong for the time being.”

The front page of the 'Winnipeg Tribune' on the day of the murder, Aug. 1, 1913
The front page of the ‘Winnipeg Tribune’ on the day of the murder, Aug. 1, 1913

Dr. William Rogers, the coroner overseeing the inquest into Sarah’s death, had ruled out suicide early; if Sarah had killed herself, the gun would have been found in her bed. A domestic dispute—the cause of several other much-publicized murders in Winnipeg in 1913—was taken out of consideration after neighbors were unanimous in their observation that Sarah and her husband had rarely quarreled, and that “David Feinstein always treated his wife with consideration, gratifying her every whim whenever possible,” according to the Free Press. (“The only trouble the couple ever had was shortly after their marriage and was about relatives coming to see them,” the paper noted, adding that “for the past several years they have lived happily.”) The possibility of an extramarital affair was also dismissed: “Jealousy, the most common motive for murders in all police records, is hardly worthy of consideration in this case,” the Free Press wrote. “Although questions along this line were put to hundreds of people since the murder, not a word has been heard against the woman’s faithfulness or character.” Sarah, the newspaper concluded, lived “a particularly clean and wholesome life, and no dark spot can be located since she has been in Canada.” Despite the fact that the Feinsteins were relatively well-off by this point, with a reported net worth of $20,000, robbery also did not appear to be the motive, since expensive fur coats that were stored in the attic remained untouched—and even in the bedroom where the murder occurred, a fancy watch and valuable jewelry were lying right out on the bureau, but were not taken. Nor was the attack sexual in nature: “The woman was not assaulted,” the Free Press discreetly reported, “as the bedclothes lay unruffled over the lifeless form.”

Antisemitism was widely assumed—by police, journalists, and the Jews of the North End—to be part of the motive for murder. But that didn’t help to significantly narrow the list of possible suspects since, as the Tribune noted, such feelings were “more or less rampant amongst certain of the foreign element in this district.”

While police were investigating and journalists were reporting on the Feinstein murder case, local politicians also got involved. Altar Skaletar, the newly elected alderman for Ward Five representing the North End on the City Council—the district’s second Jewish alderman, a member of the Conservative Party, and a onetime Canadian correspondent for the Yidishes Tageblatt Jewish newspaper in New York—asked the city’s Board of Control on August 4 to provide reward money for information leading to the murderer’s capture. “There is a prevalent opinion among the foreigners of the city that they are not given the proper protection because they are foreigners,” Skaletar said. “I have often tried to correct this opinion but it seems hard to combat.”

“That is one of the reasons why I would like to see the capture of the murderer in this case,” Skaletar told the Board of Control. “I think it would have a good effect in showing the foreigners that they are dealt with justly by the authorities.”

Controller William Grigg Douglas agreed that more protection was warranted in the North End, but said there wasn’t enough money for more police; besides, he argued, even “one hundred extra policemen” wouldn’t have prevented the Feinstein murder, which he called “one of the worst crimes in the history of the city.” The Board of Control further insisted that providing a reward was a provincial, not a municipal, matter, but agreed to comply if the police commissioner recommended it. The commissioner did, and Douglas kept his word, offering a motion to the board, which carried it unanimously. The following day, on August 5, the provincial government and Board of Control each put up half of a $500 reward. Mayor Thomas Russ Deacon said, “We are trying to assist justice in this matter, and we hope that the murderer will soon be in the toils,” but he maintained that in the future such things really should be up to the provincial government, and said he wanted to make sure this wasn’t seen as a precedent.

The Free Press reported that the reward might soon grow: “Individuals among the Hebrew population of Winnipeg have expressed themselves as ready to contribute if they decide that the offering is not enough to prove significant inducement to the greatest effort to bring about the arrest of the criminal.”

In the evening on August 5, just hours after Sarah’s death notice was filed, the coroner’s juried inquest into the case was set to convene. Many witnesses had been subpoenaed, and the Tribune reported that “it is expected that startling developments will take place during the hearing of evidence.” The Free Press ratcheted up the anticipation, claiming “the police may have some other witnesses that they will spring at the right moment.”

But the most startling development that day came before the inquest even began. In the afternoon, the missing keys were found: They were sitting out in the open atop a jewelry box on a bureau in the rear bedroom—the room where Sarah had been murdered, which detectives had searched thoroughly a few days before. Police surmised that someone had sneaked the keys back into the house on Sunday, when the cordon around the house had been lifted for the day of the funeral, and hundreds of friends, relatives, neighbors, and even strangers had come to pay their respects. The detectives were flummoxed.

“What were at first thought to be good clues have developed into blind leads, so that the officers are working practically in the dark,” the Winnipeg Telegram reported.

In the final moments before the inquest was supposed to open—the jury had been seated and curious spectators had already arrived—coroner Rogers called for a week’s postponement. The inquest, which only two days earlier had seemed like a simple matter where the jury would declare Stefan the murderer and Mary his accomplice, was postponed for a week.

“This is a hard case,” Chief of Detectives Eli Stodgill told the Tribune. “It is one of the most brutal murders in the history of Winnipeg and the proposition of unraveling the tangled skein of mystery which apparently surrounds the whole tragedy is an extremely difficult one.” He claimed that new information had been recently found, and said that “things look much clearer than they did,” but cautioned that no further arrests were imminent after Stefan’s release.

After they found out that the inquest slated for that evening had been canceled, residents of the North End continued to speculate about who might have committed the heinous crime. “Some remarkable stories are being circulated by the friends of the murdered woman, who stand around, a morbidly curious throng in the vicinity of the little cottage, telling and retelling the gruesome details of the tragedy,” the Tribune reported. The Free Press also commented on the rumors, noting that “little weight can be attached to any of them as they are told by excited people whose imagination has run riot and every little thing that has ever happened is stretched until it assumes the proportion of a plausible theory.”

Realizing that the Feinstein murder would not be resolved as quickly as he had hoped, Chief Constable Donald MacPherson told the Free Press: “It is one of the most difficult murders we have ever had in the history of Winnipeg, and it will have to be sifted out by a slow, steady process which will likely take a long time.”

Adapted from The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder, published by Heliotrope Books. © 2022 by Wayne Hoffman. Reprinted with permission.

Wayne Hoffman is executive editor of Tablet Magazine.