City & Politics, History

The Altona school shooting of 1902

It’s an undeveloped and puzzling line, a very brief Wikipedia entry, regarding something referred to as the “Altona school shooting” back in 1902. What happened in Altona–though, ultimately not as destructive as more recent acts of violence in Colorado and Connecticut schools–is a reminder that there’s been more than one such similar incident in Manitoba (the other being at the killing of a student at Sturgeon Creek Secondary in 1978). 

What happened in Altona, happened on Oct. 9, 1902; it would eventually claim two lives while wounding five. The headline in the Manitoba Free Press on Friday, October 10th, read, in all-caps: Shot Seven and Five May Die. The Winnipeg Daily Tribune, meanwhile, proclaimed one was dead and three fatally wounded by the “death-dealing demon” or “human fiend.” Those three eventually recovered.

“A tragedy startling in its suddenness and diabolical in its intent, has created intense excitement in this village and placed on record a crime which has been unequalled in the history of western Canada,” read the Free Press.

The shooter was a man named Henry Toews (he is sometimes given the middle initial I or J). And he was actually the teacher at the Mennonite school in Old Altona where the shooting took place. He was in his thirties, originally from Russia, and was close to both his octogenarian mother and his brother (his father had died in Russia). The notes on him are contradictory; that he was both loved and hated, that he was a very good teacher, though unreliable, and that he had recently disappeared for a number of months for no evident reason. Toews had also been recently been given some notes on how to be a better teacher, said the Tribune, something that evidently “rankled” him.

One witness was quoted by the Tribune as saying, “I always heard that he was quite a good teacher, but was considered sullen and irritable out of school.”

The two newspapers have differing accounts of what happened that day in Altona. There seems to have been some sort of meeting in the home of one of the school trustees during the school day, regarding Toews’ behaviour towards the children. Toews was living in a room or house connected to the school; neither the Kehler or Rempel families were willing to board him because of his demeanour, which created such hard feelings that he took it out on their daughters, who happened to be his students. In the days after the shooting, the Free Press sent a correspondent to the town, and Peter Kehler told the reporter that they had caught Toews attempting to seal a door with a hammer and nails. Speculation was that he was about to seal himself in the building in case he was dismissed. The three trustees then decided to confront Toews with his behaviour, with Toews asking to take the conversation to the nearby house, so the children didn’t have to witness a confrontation.

Here, again, the accounts differ. The three men had questions for him, which he refused to answer. Toews either retrieved a gun, or had it ready. Soon into the interview’s start, Toews started the shooting, either shooting all three inside (the Tribune has Toews and Kehler fighting over the gun) or shooting one, then pursuing the other men outside. Both papers agreed that John Hiebert was hit first, followed by Abraham Rempel and then Peter Kehler, in the hand.

“Crazed by the sight of his victims, Toews’ passion got beyond all control,” reads the Free Press’ account. “He rushed out of the home and across to the school-room among the children.”

Cruelly, Toews then re-entered the school, and singled out Rempel’s daughter and Peter Kehler’s two daughters, after telling the other children to get back to their studies. He shot the three students point blank. Somehow he only winged the Rempel girl, but more seriously wounded the two Kehler girls. Anna Kehler eventually did die of her wounds, having been shot three times. The rest of the children ran out into the street in a panic.

Toews then exited the building, started walking away from the scene down the railroad tracks towards New Altona, to go after a fourth trustee, as the Free Press surmised, or perhaps to catch a train. But, in a poignant prairie detail, Toews had a threshing team, drawn by the sound of the gunfire, pursuing him, armed with sticks. Another newspaper account said that he dared one of the people present to engage him. Somewhere along the tracks, he shot himself. However, he had aimed too low, and it failed to immediately kill him.

”When Toews fell, the villagers forgot their desire for vengeance and carried him to Dr. Meek’s office, where he was placed under arrest,” reads the Tribune account.

In the days afterwards, more details became clear. Toews had been planning this for some time, it seems.

“In going through the effects of the murderer, a letter was found, which he had just written to a Winnipeg sporting house, asking them to send him a repeating rifle and another revolver,” claimed the Free Press.

Then there were more contradictions.

“It is granted that he is a first-class teacher and that the school in old Altona has shown splendid results under his care,” reads one statement. Yet, in an adjacent article, in the same newspaper: “It seems strange that they would place children under the charge of such a man. Besides being of a tacturn (sic) disposition, it is generally admitted that he was of a weak mind.”

For such a strange (at the time) outburst of violence in such a protected area, for such an incident to occur in a Mennonite community (interestingly referred to as a ‘reserve’ a number of times in the papers), there was little other coverage, other than the immediate facts of the case. There was a half-week or week of follow-up stories. The “unequalled” shooting happened on a Thursday, and after the following Tuesday, the Tribune had no more coverage. Maybe Altona was too far away, maybe the fact that the community was a Mennonite community was enough to set it apart. Unless there was some sort of notification that Toews was in court in the following months, there was no other real follow-up to the shooting, not, at least, that fall. There were also no pictures of anyone–not the victims, not the shooter, not the scene– ever, in the papers of the capital.

And the story didn’t seem to have much in the way of legs with the Free Press, either. Towards the end of that first week the bigger news of the day was getting the larger and more urgent (all-caps) headlines, specifically the news regarding a coal miners’ strike in Pennsylvania.

(The Tribune ran a strange albeit interesting account of Toews’ arrival in Winnipeg on October 10th, lying on a stretcher in a train car with his head encased in bloody bandages, and having to be cajoled by one lawman to get on his feet and disembark on his own power, that his wound wasn’t that bad.)

As the months went on, Toews remained in Winnipeg General, growing a beard and being alert enough to accept guests, like his brother and his mother. He was also told, at one point, that the community forgave him for what he did. According to the Free Press, his brother informed him of the death of Anna Kehler. “The brother also brought a kindly message from the Hiebert, Rempel and Kehler families in which it was stated that they had no hard feelings for the evil he had wrought. At this, the man who had shot down six people in cold blood is said to have broken down completely. He professed the deepest regret concerning the tragedy, and said his memory of that awful day was only returning.”

But he was not a popular patient amongst the nurses, and they were glad when he was transferred to another holding facility. In the roundabout language of the day, it’s difficult to tell if he was merely a nasty person or mentally ill. “The nurses will not regret his departure as he is said to have been more expressive than refined in the use of his language,” read the Free Press.

It’s also informative, to see the 1902 print media in action, keeping in mind that newspapers were the only game in town, really. Many names were spelled wrong at least once. People were proclaimed to be mortally wounded, only to recover. Contradictions, as mentioned, were not in shortage. But the attention span was short; aside from that first week, there were no six-month or one-year anniversary pieces, not at least in the Free Press. Nor were there any calls for new laws, greater protection or movement on any bigger issues, like, say, psychological testing of teachers.

Also, the language around what we would now call “the accused” was different, too. Toews was the guilty party, the newspapers knew that immediately. There was an inquest of sorts held almost immediately–within a day, seemingly, of the crime–and witnesses, mostly classmates of the three wounded girls, presented accounts of what happened, in German. In the accounts of the day, there was never use of the words “alleged” nor “suspect.”

Toews ultimately didn’t live to witness his own judgment. Of course, it’s difficult to say how Toews would have been found in a court of law. But, at this point in Manitoba history, they were still executing people.

Whatever Toews’ mental condition, he seemed to otherwise shrink away. He had moments of “brightness” but the medical officials were always doubtful about his recovery with the “gaping wound below his temple” and the bullet that was still lodged in his head. That wound eventually did claim him in January of 1903. It was only then that the newspapers ran articles about the shooting again. It turns out the second victim of Toews’ shooting was Toews himself. His family claimed the body.


Jim Chliboyko is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him at: @jchliboyko

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