Local Halifax Newspaper Report
JUNE 15, 1922
CONFESSION OF A SUICIDE MAY LIFT MYSTERY VEIL FROM CAUSE
OF TERRIFIC HALIFAX EXPLOSION
SEATTLE, Washington, June 14 Solution of the mystery which surrounded the explosion of the British ammunition ships and caused death and devastation in the city of Halifax, late in 1917, is believed by government agents in Seattle to have come with the suicide of Wm. Johnson, alias “Mike” Murphy, alias N. Primatchenk, a highly educated Finn chemist, whose body was found by an Indian on Bacon Creek, Skagit county, last month. Agents of the United States and Canadian governments say the chemist confessed, not only to responsibility for the Halifax disaster, but also admitted the slaying of two men, one a captain of a British transport. Worry over his deeds and fear that came to him after he is alleged to have confessed, are believed to have caused him to kill himself.
IT has already been established that Johnson was in Halifax in the British transport service at the time the explosion occurred. An address at which he later resided in Halifax is known to agents. Effects of the suspect, found in a lonely cabin, deep in the woods of Skagit county, fifteen miles beyond Rockport, off the line of the city of Seattle railway running to the city’s power project, and others in a trunk traced to a cache near Bellingham, will reveal names of accomplices, it is believed. First news of the investigation under way came from officers in Sedro-Wooley. They have co-operated in the original phases of the investigation with government agents sent from Seattle.
JOHNSON, as the man was known to a few persons in Skagit county, lived alone in the secluded cabin, where he experimented with acids and explosive formulas, it is stated. His cabin was filled with peep holes, so none might approach it unobserved. The only window was filled with an opaque glass. The man is known to have been in the woods there since about March, 1920. On one occasion an explosion burned him severely and neighbors a few miles away learned that he was experimenting with explosive materials in the manufacture of what it is supposed were bombs.
FIRST information regarding the alleged confession and possibilities of clearing up the Halifax disaster mystery, came from J. R. Cox, a watchmen employed at Talc mines on the Skagit River, beyond Rockport. Cox at the same time informed Canadian officials. Agents of the Department of Justice from Seattle went into the woods last month to investigate. In the cabin they found evidence that Johnson was well educated, a thorough chemist, and that he had been familiar with powder and other high explosives. I. W. W. literature found in the cabin indicated that he had radical connections. The investigators were at first handicapped, however, in finding that a truck containing diaries and many personal papers had been carried away before his death by high water, which cut into a bank where the suspect was camping. Addresses, through which the other trunk at Bellingham was located were found in the cabin and among papers at the home of F. M. Younkine, proprietor of a road house, where some of the effects were taken.
IT was while talking with Johnson some days before his death, Cox told Seattle agents, that Johnson alluded to the Halifax explosions. Cox had asked the chemist whether he could identify an unbranded high-explosive powder. Johnson named it at once: “I had thirty-five pounds of a more dangerous explosive that that left after we blew up those ships in Halifax harbor during the war,” Johnson is alleged to have told Cox. “If they hadn’t discharged me, there would have been more ships blown up. We will be better prepared for them next time they start a war.”
COX said Johnson refused to tell him further details of the explosion, but that he volunteered to say that he had murdered a captain of a British vessel while returning from Australia to Canada. Johnson served in the British transport service during the war he told Cox. The suspect also told Frank L. Oakes, a prospector living in the Skagit woods, that he had murdered two men. Johnson was found on the banks of Bacon Creek, about a mile and a half beyond the point where the city’s railway crosses the stream, by Charley Moses, an Indian, on May 20. His revolver, a weapon with an unusually long barrel, was found in the waters of the creek nearby. His shirt was powder burned, and he had apparently taken his own life.The coroner, called from Marble Mountain, decided there was no need of an inquest. The body was taken out in a canoe by Indians.
ASIDE from the fact that he avoided all strangers, Johnson appeared rational, according to both Cox and Oakes, his nearest neighbors. Cox told officers that he believed Johnson became fearful that he would be exposed, after making the reference to the Halifax explosions, and took his won life, rather than face capture.
The only note left by the dead man, scribbled on a piece of paper found in the cabin, said “Its no use.” According to Cox Johnson said he was born in Finland and was 40 years old. He had been educated in European universities, but was cut off from family inheritance. This fact may have turned his thought into radical channels, agents believe. Ranchers said Johnson went from Bellingham into to Skagit county woods, and probably came from Canada originally. He had spent some time at sea.
Seattle agents of the Bureau of investigation decline to tell what names of accomplices they may have in connection with the explosion mystery pending investigation in other cities of the United States and Canada.
WAS IT HELMSMAN OF IMO?
THE suicide of this man Johnson in the west recalls the fact that the helmsman of the ill-fated steamer Imo was named Johannson. He appeared as witness in the inquiry before the Drysdale Commission and also on the criminal case of manslaughter against Pilot Mackey and the French captain before Stipendiary McLeod. After Mackey’s committal for manslaughter, W. J. O’Hearn, K. C., who was his counsel, applied to Mr. Justice Russell for a writ of commission to take evidence of H. C. Taylor, manager of the Burns Detective Agency at Phoenix, Ariz. Reference to the files of The Herald in this report of the application made at that time, discloses the fact that Johannson’s picture had been sent on to the detective agency and the report was that a man and his wife who resided in Phoenix, Ariz., had identified Johannson as a German who had resided with them in the early days of the war and who had professed strong sympathy with the Fatherland. On this evidence, Mr. Justice Russell immediately ordered a writ of commission to issue, but the evidence was never actually taken because later that same judge discharged Mackey from custody on habeas corpus proceedings.
This information was turned over at the time, to the local secret service, with the suggestion that co-operation of the American Federal authorities might be secured, but if anything along that line of investigation was ever done, nothing was ever heard of it.
It may develop that the above dispatch from Seattle refers to the helmsman of the Imo.