Final rest for young flower girl

Elmwood Cemetery's riveting stories include fourteen-year-old victim of the Dark Strangler


Advertise with us

Young girls who knock on doors selling flowers aren’t supposed to never be seen again alive.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:

All-Access Digital Subscription

$4.75 per week*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Pay $19.00 every four weeks. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled anytime.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/08/2016 (2375 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Young girls who knock on doors selling flowers aren’t supposed to never be seen again alive.

Lola Cowan, 14, knocked on the rooming-house door at 133 Smith St., just off Broadway and a few blocks from where she lived.

It was June 9, 1927. Lola’s father had come down with a lengthy illness and was unable to work. So Lola would go out evenings, selling bouquets of decorative paper flowers — she made them from coloured crepe paper — to help support the family. She sold them for 25 cents a bunch.

Her little brother Hugh, 12 — he died in 2002 and is buried beside her — usually accompanied his older sister but didn’t that evening. It tormented him the rest of his life.

Lola knocked on the door. She could not have suspected the killer dubbed the Dark Strangler was inside. The Strangler had murdered at least 24 women to date but all in the United States. He is thought to be the first serial killer in North America. He left a trail of female victims from San Francisco to Chicago. Winnipeg was his first Canadian stop.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Families and area residents use the scenic cemetery grounds to walk, run or jog along circular roads that run through the park.

The irony is it was Earle Nelson, a.k.a. the Strangler, who always knocked on doors. He knocked on doors of homes with “Room to Let” signs in the window, hoping to find a female home alone. That was his modus operandi.

So when Earle Nelson opened his door shortly after checking in and saw Lola standing there alone, he must have done a double take. It was like room service. The landlady shrieked as she entered the room the next day and found the girl’s corpse stuffed under the bed.

Winnipeg police Chief George Smith put two and two together, but not quickly enough before the Strangler claimed a second Winnipeg victim in 24 hours. A manhunt ensued, the likes of which has never been seen since. Smith didn’t go home for a week. The Free Press staffed its newsroom round the clock. Programs on radio — the electronic medium of its time — were frequently interrupted with news bulletins on the Strangler. Daughters were escorted to school. Women stayed inside, preferably with someone, and didn’t answer the door.

The terror lasted until the Strangler, a pathetic-looking man with a hound-dog face and vacant stare, was caught a week later in the village of Wakopa, in southwest Manitoba. He was headed for the United States border 10 kilometres away.

They didn’t waste any time in those days. Nelson was tried and convicted in a Winnipeg courtroom in November and hanged in the Vaughan Street Jail two months later.

Lola is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

It’s not the most prominent headstone, in a cemetery full of elaborate burial architecture. But the family with six children couldn’t afford one, so Lola’s classmates at Mulvey School raised the money to pay for it. “Safe in the arms of Jesus,” reads the inscription on her red granite headstone.

Photos by RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The gravestone of Lola Cowan was erected thanks to money raised by pupils of Mulvey School. The 14-year-old was a victim of the Dark Strangler.

Elmwood Cemetery opened in 1902. It has the distinction of being perhaps the only cemetery after which a municipality was named, instead of the other way around, said Jim Smith, president of the North East Winnipeg Historical Society. Yes, the cemetery name preceded the municipality of Elmwood, which didn’t come into effect until 1906. And yes, it’s shaded by a sylvan of old elms and other trees.

Elmwood was Winnipeg’s first non-denominational cemetery and probably the first private cemetery. Most cemeteries are run by churches or municipalities.

For example, the City of Winnipeg owns Brookside, Transcona and St. Vital cemeteries. Transcona and St. Vital cemeteries came under city ownership as part of Unicity in 1972. Brookside Cemetery, started in 1878, has always been owned by the city and is the largest cemetery in Western Canada, with 250,000 burials.

Two private companies also own cemeteries in Winnipeg. They operate under business models that include funeral homes. Arbor Memorial Inc. has the Glen Eden, Chapel Lawn and Glen Lawn cemeteries, to go with its funeral homes. Dignity Memorial Canada has funeral homes and cemeteries Green Acres and Thomson in the Park.

Elmwood Cemetery’s 38 acres were previously owned by William Hespeler, a former German consul to Western Canada, city councillor and immigration agent to the first Mennonites to arrive in Manitoba. Hespeler never lived on the cemetery land but bought it, speculating that Winnipeg would spread across the river. In the meantime, Hespeler leased the land to Scottish immigrant Thomas McIntosh, who became the first market gardener in the Elmwood area. (Both Hespeler and McIntosh have nearby streets named after them.) So Hespeler wasn’t pleased about selling his property as a cemetery, but Winnipeg council got its way.

Elmwood Cemetery ran smoothly for almost a century. The problem with private companies, however, is they can go out of business.

In 1996, Elmwood Cemetery announced it was broke and couldn’t run the cemetery any longer. The company’s single shareholder, Brian Smith, blamed high inflation and declining interest rates.

Private cemeteries are required to set aside a certain percentage of revenues to ensure they don’t go belly up. In the 1950s, the province passed the Cemeteries Act requiring private cemeteries put aside 35 per cent of revenues into a perpetual-care fund.

The 35 per cent doesn’t apply to the city-owned cemeteries. Winnipeg has its own formula. City-owned cemeteries set aside 25 per cent of revenues from in-ground burials; 15 per cent from “niche” compartments in columbariums; and 10 per cent from scattering ashes in one of its cremation gardens. That doesn’t cover costs, however, so the city injects another $500,000 annually. The policy is currently under review.

The problem with the privately run Elmwood Cemetery was it hadn’t been putting up 35 per cent of revenues into perpetual care for much of its history. Elmwood held back as little as 15 per cent of revenues in its early years. The North East Winnipeg Historical Society says it got up to 20 per cent. The current administration of the cemetery will only say the percentages for the perpetual fund kept changing.

The money may not have been wisely invested either, said Jim Baker, Elmwood’s executive director. That is, a perpetual fund is invested, and half the returns are saved in the fund, and half are used to help fund cemetery operating costs.

As a result, Elmwood Cemetery had just $1.4 million in the perpetual-care fund when it needed at least $5 million to run the cemetery. It also owed $400,000 in property taxes. Normally, the city would assume ownership of a property so far in arrears. In this case, the city said thanks, but no thanks.

Enter former Winnipeg mayor Bill Norrie. Norrie, who is now buried in Elmwood, spearheaded a group called Friends of Elmwood Cemetery, a non-profit organization. Norrie and Thomas Sill, who founded the Thomas Sill Foundation and is buried in Elmwood a stone’s throw from the home where he lived as a life-long bachelor, led a huge fundraising drive.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Series on cemeteries. Elmwood Cemetery, Executive Director Jim Baker.

The cemetery grass was a metre high when the Friends took ownership. You couldn’t see half the headstones, said Bob Watley, a consultant to the cemetery.

The new owners began putting 35 per cent of revenues, including donations, into the perpetual-care fund. The Winnipeg Foundation manages the fund, including its investments. Since taking over in 1998, the Friends group has grown the perpetual-care fund up to $5 million, making the cemetery viable again.


● ● ●


The Strangler’s second victim was Emily Patterson. She lived in the 100 block of Riverton Ave., at the foot of the Disraeli Bridge, across the street from the Elmwood Cemetery.

She and her husband, William, and their two boys, 3 and 5, were newly arrived from Ireland to start a new life in Canada. William got a job downtown at Eaton’s.

The boys were the first to notice Emily missing. Where was Mom? They went looking for their mom but couldn’t find her. That had never happened before.

When their dad got home, he knew something was seriously wrong. He searched the house and went around the neighbourhood asking if anyone had seen his wife. He didn’t stop searching until nearly midnight.

Then, exhausted and emotionally frayed, he knelt to pray at the foot of his three-year-old son’s bed. Kneeling gave him a certain angle to see under the bed. It was Emily’s leg he spotted first. Emily had been murdered and brutalized by the necrophiliac Strangler.

When the case came to court, William broke down on the stand and was finally allowed to step down. It’s believed he immediately returned to Ireland with his sons. It’s not known if they paid for the burial — social services will pay costs for the indigent — but they certainly couldn’t afford a headstone. Emily is buried in an unmarked grave, next to Lola’s.

For people visiting the cemetery, Lola’s grave is Grave 1339, Section 12A. It’s down the first row of military headstones where they change to civilian markers.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Many children are buried in this cemetery, some with lambs on their headstones.

Updated on Monday, August 8, 2016 7:31 AM CDT: Updates

Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us

On Sacred Ground