Shocking murder, stunned community

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Excerpted from The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s To Solve a Murder. Published by Heliotrope Books, 2022.

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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.

Excerpted from The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s To Solve a Murder. Published by Heliotrope Books, 2022.

After my great-grandmother, Sarah Feinstein, was murdered in her sleep on Aug. 1, 1913, in Winnipeg’s North End, the Manitoba Free Press — later to become the Winnipeg Free Press — asked its readers: “Who walked into the house with no other intention than to shoot to death an inoffensive mother? Who contemplated the placid features of the sleeping woman as she lay with her hands beside her face as though in prayer? Who was cold-hearted enough to send a bullet crashing into the beautiful forehead to abruptly end a young and happy life, to leave motherless four tiny children, one of whom had its curly head pillowed on the mother’s breast when the assassin’s bullet ended her life? What could have been their motive?”

The answers were nowhere to be found in the days following the killing. As Chief Const. 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.”

David and Sarah wedding photo 1906.

The story was front-page news; residents of the North End, including thousands of recent Jewish immigrants, followed the case particularly closely. While police searched for suspects and journalists interviewed residents of the neighbourhood looking for clues, one of the largest funerals the city had ever seen was held.

Three thousand people gathered to pay respects to Sarah Feinstein early in the morning on Sunday, Aug. 3, 1913, in front of the family’s home at 520 Magnus Ave. The house, which had been cordoned off by police since Sarah was brutally murdered early on Friday morning, was opened to visitors for the day.

The crowd was extraordinary for city, which had roughly 150,000 residents at the time. “Winnipeg had never seen such a big funeral,” Der Keneder Yid/The Canadian Jew, the Yiddish newspaper, reported. The Winnipeg Tribune noted that it was “attended by practically the entire Hebrew colony of this city.”

“The street in front of the house was thronged with a morbid crowd who scrambled and fought for an opportunity to gaze in at the windows of the innocent-looking little cottage which was the scene of the crime,” the Winnipeg Telegram reported. When the crowd grew too large and unruly, police had to call in an extra squad to control it.

A brief service was held in the house, after which the casket was brought outside to a waiting carriage. Seeing his children sobbing, my newly widowed great-grandfather David Feinstein — who had returned to Winnipeg from a business trip in Canora, Sask., the previous morning — was overcome by emotion and fainted. A sympathetic neighbour kept him from falling to the ground and Dr. Abram Bercovitch, who had been called to the house on the night of Sarah’s murder, took him outside for some fresh air until he could stand on his own again.

Police strained to hold back the crowds so that the mourners’ carriages could pass. The coffin was brought to Tiferes Israel, a synagogue that had opened that year just around the block from the Feinsteins’ home, at Manitoba Avenue and Powers Street — the same street corner where David and Sarah had been married seven years before.

The service began at 11 in the morning, conducted by Rabbi Israel Isaac Kahanovitch, leader of the Beth Jacob Synagogue on Schultz Street, the largest synagogue in the North End, seating some 700 worshippers. A short man with a long beard, Kahanovitch was born near Grodno — then part of the Russian empire — and studied in a yeshiva in Slobodka, Lithuania, before coming to North America in the wake of the pogroms of 1905, ultimately arriving in Winnipeg in 1907 after a short stint in Scranton, Penn. He became the city’s chief rabbi. Despite his prominent position, he was not paid a full-time salary in Winnipeg and lived on Flora Avenue — the street David and Sarah had lived on a few years before — in a modest home where his wife Rachel kept a vegetable garden, a chicken coop and several goats.

Barely 40 years old at the time of Sarah Feinstein’s funeral, Kahanovitch was already one of the leading Jewish authorities in Western Canada, revered by both secular and religious Jews in Winnipeg and beyond as he built Hebrew schools, orphanages and old-age homes. His followers were so devoted that in Manitoba’s 1911 census, many Russian immigrants reported their religion as “Beth Jacob” rather than “Hebrew,” as most Jews did at the time.

But Beth Jacob, which had opened in 1907, was not the only synagogue in town — and Kahanovitch was not the only rabbi. One younger rival, Rabbi Jacob Gorodsky, arrived in Winnipeg in late 1912 and became a community rabbi for several new synagogues in the North End. Dubbed the “second chief rabbi” in the Yiddish newspaper, Gorodsky sometimes challenged Kahanovitch’s authority on subjects such as his supervision of kosher slaughter, and his support for Zionism. Gorodsky, too, spoke at Sarah Feinstein’s funeral — a sign of unity in the city’s sometimes-divided Jewish community.

Gorodsky eulogized about Sarah’s tragic end, and consoled the grieving crowd by assuring them that even if the identity of the murderer was not yet known for certain, God saw the truth and would eventually punish the culprit.

Winnipeg Tribune, Friday, Aug. 1, 1913

It was 76 degrees (24 C) and fair, a beautiful summer day, as the funeral procession began. The route spanned more than five miles (eight kilometres) to the Children of Israel cemetery on Almey Avenue, across the Red River in Transcona — a town that had been incorporated only two years earlier and didn’t even have a proper sewer system yet, serving mainly as home to repair yards for the railroads. Several hundred people made the full journey to the gravesite, on foot or in horse-drawn carriages. By the time they arrived, it was mid-afternoon.

Winnipeg’s first Jewish graveyard, Children of Israel had opened 30 years before, in March 1883, the land purchased for $800. The first people buried there were five infants who had died the previous winter. They had originally been buried temporarily in a flood-prone cemetery on Thomas Street, in what was then the city’s red-light district, before being moved to the new site. By the time of Sarah’s funeral, there were just a few dozen graves at Children of Israel. A plot cost about $5.

David had gotten through much of the day without breaking down, as the Telegram wrote: “For the most part he stood staring straight before him, as if unable to realize the depth of meaning in the scenes which were taking place before him.” But when his wife’s body was taken out of the hearse, David threw himself on her casket. “It is impossible to describe the harrowing effect this tragedy has had on him,” Der Keneder Yid reported. As the casket was interred, David lost all control, throwing himself on the ground and screaming in anguish until the rabbis calmed him down and escorted him home — or, rather, since his house at 520 Magnus was again behind a police cordon, back to his brother Harry’s house down the block, where his children had been staying with their Aunt Pauline since the murder. They would all remain there for the next week, sitting shiva in observance of Jewish mourning rituals.

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