New York journalist seeks clues in great-grandmother's 1913 murder in Winnipeg

As a child, Wayne Hoffman was told an almost unbelievable story about how his great-grandmother was shot to death by a sniper while breastfeeding on the front porch of her North End Winnipeg home in the winter of 1913.

Wayne Hoffman travelled to Winnipeg and Canora, Sask., for answers about 103-year-old family tragedy

New York journalist Wayne Hoffman is writing a book about his great-grandmother and the aftermath of her murder in Winnipeg in 1913. (Courtesy Wayne Hoffman)

As a child, New York journalist Wayne Hoffman was told an almost unbelievable story about how his great-grandmother was shot to death by a sniper while breastfeeding on the front porch of her North End Winnipeg home in the winter of 1913.

Hoffman travelled to Manitoba and Saskatchewan earlier this month to research a book he plans to write about the death of his great-grandmother, Sarah Feinstein, a Jewish immigrant from Russia.

So much of the tale he was told seemed far-fetched, Hoffman said. Why would his great-grandmother be breastfeeding in the cold? And what is the likelihood a sharpshooter would be prowling Winnipeg streets?

A photo of Sarah Feinstein and her husband was published the afternoon of Aug. 1, 1913, the day she was found shot to death in her North End home. (Winnipeg Tribune archives)

"I grew up not quite believing it, but I didn't want to say anything," he said. "My mother heard this story growing up. She believed it."

Seven years ago, when Hoffman's curiosity led him to begin researching his great-grandmother, he learned, as expected, that nearly everything about the story had been false — aside from one key detail.

Feinstein had indeed been killed by some unknown assailant. 

"Someone came into the home in Winnipeg and basically executed her while she slept in bed with a two-year-old, a baby in the crib next to her and my grandmother, who was three, in the next room," he said.

The killing happened at the North End home at 520 Magnus Ave. on Aug. 1, 1913, say reports in the Winnipeg Free Press archives. Feinstein was shot through the right temple with a single bullet, the newspaper reported at the time.

For months, investigators interviewed witnesses and neighbours, trying to figure out who was responsible, but no one was ever charged.

An article in the Winnipeg Tribune published the afternoon of her murder said the killing may have been the result of an "anti-Semitic feeling" which was "more or less rampant" in some Winnipeg communities at the time. Police investigated that at the time but it went nowhere, said Hoffman

The Tribune article ended up being one of dozens written about the murder.

"This was big news. Newspapers covered it so much — 3,000 people came to the funeral in 1913," Hoffman said.

The Winnipeg police, the City of Winnipeg and the province all offered a cash reward for tips.

One of the complicating factors was there was no obvious motive. There was no struggle at the scene and nothing was stolen from the house, said Hoffman. The children were left unharmed.

Theory implicates great-grandfather

Hoffman said the going theory is his great-grandfather hired a man to kill his wife while he was away in Saskatchewan handling the family's cattle business.

But after scouring vital statistics and dozens of articles in Winnipeg newspapers and Yiddish papers in Montreal, Hoffman has trouble believing the theory.

Neighbours of his great-grandparents at the time, who had been willing to share loads of information and gossip with police and media, always maintained the marriage was sound.

"No one has anything negative to say," said Hoffman. "And when my great-grandfather remarried, he didn't do so for another two years."

After a research trip to Manitoba and Saskatchewan in June, Hoffman is doubtful he will ever figure out who killed his great-grandmother.

Still, he plans to write a book about her and what happened to his family after she was killed.

"At this point the story has evolved where it's becoming more of a story of family discovery," he said. "Even if I can't solve the murder, I can at least find out more about who the family was."

CBC Saskatchewan's Afternoon Edition