Dark history, dimming light

New York journalist and author spends years hunting for answers about his great-grandmother’s mysterious, unsolved murder on her Magnus Avenue porch in 1913

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Sarah Feinstein, Wayne Hoffman’s great-grandmother, was sitting on her Magnus Avenue porch in the middle of the 1913 winter, breastfeeding her daughter, when a sniper rolled past the house and opened fire, killing her but leaving the baby at her breast unharmed.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/02/2022 (242 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Sarah Feinstein, Wayne Hoffman’s great-grandmother, was sitting on her Magnus Avenue porch in the middle of the 1913 winter, breastfeeding her daughter, when a sniper rolled past the house and opened fire, killing her but leaving the baby at her breast unharmed.

“That’s the story my mother grew up hearing,” says Hoffman, a journalist and the executive editor of Tablet, a daily online Jewish-interest magazine headquartered in New York.

But the stories we grow up hearing are often well-honed, massaged or tidied up to cover uncomfortable truths. And this one was so dark that over many generations it was repeated with little suspicion or doubt.

Author Wayne Hoffman in New York, N.Y. (Mark Kauzlarich for The Winnipeg Free Press)

Hoffman’s mother had been tipped off to her grandmother’s murder when she was a child and when she noticed a strange woman standing next to her grandfather in an old photograph. She had met her grandmother, and this woman was not her. So she asked her mom, who gave her a startling reply, followed by an even more shocking one. “The woman you think is your grandmother is my stepmother,” she told Hoffman. “And when I was very little, my mother was sitting outside on the front porch in winter in Winnipeg when a sniper came by…”

“So my mother hears this story, and says, ‘Sure. That makes sense,’” says Hoffman. But he had his doubts. “I never believed it. It didn’t make any sense.”

For years, he kept his skepticism from his mother, but in 2010, she was diagnosed with dementia, which later was recognized as Alzheimer’s disease. So Hoffman decided to have his mother tell him the stories of her life, toting a video camera along for posterity.

When she started to recount the drive-by shooting, Hoffman finally told his mother what he had always thought of the story, using a pair of words that rhyme with “wool mitt.”

“She said, “If that’s not what happened, then what happened?” Hoffman recalls in an interview with the Free Press. “I said to myself, ‘I’m a journalist. Give me a couple of weeks.’”

A couple of weeks turned into a decade climbing back through his family’s history, peeling past layers of truths and the convenient lies people tell themselves. The result is Hoffman’s first non-fiction book, The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder, out this month from Heliotrope Books.

Hoffman was presented with a storyteller’s dream: a suspected lie laying over top of an emotional truth, paired with the intrigue of family mystery, the disintegration of already-foggy memories, and a retrospective travelogue to the 1913 version of a city he’d never visited. A three-time novelist, Hoffman found himself at a convenient nexus for a non-fiction writer, with his own personal stakes in uncovering the truth providing him motivation to keep vigilant his pursuit of an answer to a question his family has asked in hushed tones for more than a century: what happened to Sarah Feinstein?

Hoffman didn’t know. Nobody did: a dive into the archives of the Free Press and the Yiddish-language press of that era revealed a case unsolved. While there were suspects in the immediate aftermath of the murder, the case fell apart and, like many murder investigations do, went cold.

The failure to find justice for Feinstein 100 years earlier bolstered the narrative strength of Hoffman’s story, and in 2013, he travelled to Winnipeg for the first time.

“I wanted to get a sense of what it looked like and see where (this happened),” he says.

He went to his great-grandmother’s gravestone at a tiny Jewish cemetery in Transcona, which had been inactive since 1935. He also went to the house on Magnus or, rather, where it once was; it had been demolished, along with the rest of that side of the block, in the 1960s.

“I couldn’t find the house because it was gone,” he said.

He returned in 2017, this time with the intention of finding people, not places. He connected with the editor of the Jewish Post and News, andeditor Bernie Bellan ran a letter from Hoffman seeking to connect with anyone belonging to the same family tree. Three women responded, each descendants of Hoffman’s great-grandfather’s brother. They, along with cousins in Toronto, Vancouver, southern California and Nairobi, along with his immediate family in the New York area, each had shreds of information.

“They each knew, maybe, three details,” Hoffman says. “But nobody knew the same three, so it kept adding up.” Many had no clue the case had gone cold.

In his storytelling, Hoffman faced some challenges: not only was he under pressure of time to communicate with his mother, a gifted storyteller, before she no longer could share her insights, but he was under the pressure of sharing a personal, potentially family narrative-altering story. What if he found out something upsetting as he gathered information?

“The only thing that concerned me was if I found out my great-grandfather had murdered his wife, which is something some suspected. My husband suspected it,” he says. “But I am 99 per cent sure it wasn’t my great-grandfather.”

Over the course of his work on the book, Hoffman came to some poignant realizations. A journalist who lives with deadlines hanging over his head, Hoffman enjoyed the benefit of a narrative that only strengthened as more time passed. Perhaps most essential — not just to his work, but his life — he also realized his mother had been the keeper of family stories nobody else knew, and just how important it is for a person like that to exist.

“As my mother was losing her memory, one of the things that defined her, I realized I wanted to pick up that mantle,” he says. “To learn the family stories so I can tell them.”

He also realized how intensely he wanted to understand what happened to his family before he was born, including, of course, the murder of Sarah Feinstein, which happened not in the middle of winter, but in August, newspaper coverage and a death certificate confirmed.

“I wanted to know what happened,” he says. “And I want it to be true.”

But without the lie, he would have never been compelled to fact-check the fiction.

“It’s only the fact that the story is so outlandish that made me want to know the truth,” he says.

Ben.waldman@winnipegfreepress.com

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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