More than 50 years after it was written and nearly a century since the events described, Penn Law Professor and Dean Edwin Keedy’s account of the murder trial of two Inuit men in Canada’s far north remains a vivid and timely piece of scholarship.
By Dennis Drabelle | Illustration by Daniel Chang
Edwin Roulette Keedy (1880-1958) is still very much a presence at Penn Law School. His portrait hangs in Roberts Hall. The student who makes the best contribution to the law review receives the annual Keedy award. The team that prevails in the intramural moot-court competition, which climaxes with an oral argument before a panel of outside judges, wins the Keedy Cup. (My partner, Mike Levy L’69, and I vied for that honor before Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and two lesser lights in the spring of 1969; we lost). But as I discovered recently, after finding Keedy cited in an unusual place, our knowledge of his life and career is limited.
The citation in question is a 1951 article by Keedy, “A Remarkable Murder Trial: Rex v. Sinnisiak.” Its first sentence, “In August, 1917, the writer attended the trial of Sinnisiak, an Eskimo, at Edmonton, in the Province of Alberta, Canada,” raises a tantalizing biographical question. Long before eco-tourism and the lure of the Edmonton Mall, what was “the writer,” a new member of the Penn Law faculty, doing in distant northern Alberta? He doesn’t say.
His follow-up sentence elaborates on a sensational topic with sober restraint: “Sinnisiak was charged with the murder of Rev. Father Rouvière, a priest of the order, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, at Bloody Falls on the Coppermine River near Coronation Gulf on the Arctic Ocean in November 1913.” Next, the author notes that he’d meant to chronicle the trial upon its conclusion but had gotten around to it only now, more than 30 years after the fact; “but it is believed,” he adds, “that the interesting and unusual features of this trial warrant a presentation even at this late date.” With that bare-bones prelude out of the way, Keedy begins to tell a fascinating story.
We shouldn’t blame our man too much for his low-key beginning, or for the detachment he maintains throughout the account. Written before learned articles evolved into a form of performance art, this is a chunk of old-fashioned scholarship, 20 pages of straightforward text and copious footnotes, published in the 100th volume of the Penn Law Review. It’s a piece worth revisiting not only because it features that perennially intriguing subject, murder, but also because it has come to the aid of journalist McKay Jenkins, author of a new book, Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: Madness, Murder, and the Collision of Cultures in the Arctic, 1913. “A Remarkable Murder Trial” exhibits the staying power of sound scholarship, which can prove useful to later thinkers and writers in ways that the original researcher may not have foreseen.
The mills of Canadian justice ground slowly in those days. As mentioned, it was 1913 when Fathers Jean-Baptiste Rouvière, 30, and Guillaume LeRoux, 28, were killed near Bloody Falls, so-called ever since Chipewayan Indians massacred a group of Inuit there in 1771. [When not quoting other texts, this article will use the currently accepted term, Inuit, to describe the people native to this area.—Ed.] Communication, transportation, and severe weather posed such formidable obstacles in the far north that it was two years before news of the missionaries’ deaths reached the outside world, and two more before the murder suspects stood trial.
While alive and working together, the priests might have put on an effective good-cop-bad-cop routine. As depicted in Jenkins’s book, Rouvière was gentle and affable, LeRoux cantankerous and bossy. But in fact, they had no plan of any sort for carrying out their assignment: to convert the band of indigenous people known as the “Copper Eskimos.” Their superior had sent them out despite their lack of hunting or survival skills. Knowing next to nothing of the local language, facing the task of explaining knotty Christian concepts to people steeped in a religion of multiple everyday taboos, the priests had great difficulty making themselves understood by their prospective flock. Often, however, Rouvière and LeRoux were preoccupied with simply making it from one day to the next; they relied heavily on a guide named John Hornby, on white prospectors working the region, and on the “Copper Eskimos” themselves. The latter were wary of outsiders, however, and only three years had gone by since their first encounter with white men. Hornby warned the priests particularly about a man named Sinnisiak, with whom he’d had a disturbing encounter: Sinnisiak had stolen a fishing line, then threatened to kill Hornby in the ensuing dispute.
The priests’ tragedy began to take shape when they left their base camp 50 miles northeast of Great Bear Lake to follow a band of Inuit to the Arctic Ocean. After LeRoux got into a fight with a man over a gun, a peacemaker urged the priests to return to their camp and come back another time. Even though it meant throwing themselves on the mercy of a barren land with winter coming on, the priests took the advice, piling their gear onto a sled hauled by dogs. During the return trip, the priests grew hungry and weak while trekking through snowfall and plummeting temperatures. Sinnisiak and a friend named Uluksuk went after them, and when they caught up it seemed like a godsend. The dogs had been struggling in the snow, and the priests hired the two men to haul the sled, payment to be in traps.
After a day’s work, however, Sinnisiak and Uluksuk were having second thoughts; it was snowing hard, they’d lost the trail, and they wanted to rejoin their people at the coast. As the parties separated, the Inuit men noticed a cache of gear left behind by the priests. Fearing that they were about to help themselves, the priests backtracked. LeRoux, the volatile one, was carrying a rifle and yelling.
Communication between the two pairs was far from perfect, but Sinnisiak later testified that when he asked LeRoux if he was going to kill them, the priest nodded in the affirmative. Under duress, the Inuit resumed hauling; Sinnisiak testified that LeRoux shoved him more than once. Pretending to have to relieve himself, Sinnisiak went behind LeRoux and stabbed him in the back with a knife. Uluksuk, in Sinnisiak’s words, “finished [him] up.” Rouvière ran off, possibly to get another rifle, perhaps just to escape. Sinnisiak brought him down with a rifle shot. Together, the Eskimos dispatched Rouvière with blows from a knife and an axe. Before leaving the scene, they cut LeRoux open, and each ate “a little piece” of his liver; then they did the same to Rouvière.
For crimes committed outside its provinces, Canadian law permitted holding the trial wherever convenient. Hence the venue of Edmonton, more than 2,000 miles away from Bloody Falls, for the trial of Sinnisiak, who was charged separately, and for one homicide only, by the prosecutor, Charles McCaul. As Jenkins notes, in so doing McCaul was “hedging his bet. If he somehow managed to lose this case—but how could he?—he’d simply present charges against the Eskimos for the murder of Father LeRoux and try again.”
Edwin Keedy’s re-creation of the trial opens with an extended passage of scene-setting, in which costumes evoke the participants’ markedly different backgrounds:
“On the bench was the Chief Justice [of the Supreme Court of Alberta] wearing a black silk gown, a similar gown being worn by each of the counsel. Appearing as witnesses for the Crown were the members of the Northwest Mounted Police, who had investigated the crime and brought the defendants from the Arctic Ocean, the Inspector in a uniform consisting of a dark blue tunic and light blue breeches, while the Corporal and the Constable wore breeches of the same color with scarlet tunics. Also appearing as witnesses for the Crown were several priests of the Oblate Order, each wearing a long black cassock with a large silver crucifix hanging by a chain from the neck. Displayed as exhibits were the vestments of Fathers Rouvière and LeRoux with the articles for the Mass used by them. In order that the jury, which was composed of prominent citizens, might observe the defendants as they appeared in their native habitat, they were dressed, at the opening of the trial, in the garments they wore when taken into custody, consisting of a loose smock and hood of sealskin with loose trousers and soft boots of the same material. As the summer temperature at Edmonton was much too warm for such apparel each of the defendants was provided with a wash tub, filed with water and blocks of ice, into which he placed his feet. After the first session of the trial the defendants wore suits of blue denim.”
In his opening statement, McCaul served notice that he considered this not simply a murder trial but a test-case. “These remote savages, really cannibals, the Eskimos of the Arctic regions have got to be taught to recognize the authority of the British crown,” he argued, “and that the authority of the Crown and of the Dominion of Canada, of which these countries are a part, extends to the furthermost limits of the frozen North.”
In his response, defense counsel argued that since the two Eskimos had reason to think they were about to be killed, their actions amounted to “justifiable homicide.” Meanwhile, the Court had to assume an unusual duty: making sure the defendant stayed awake. In the hot courtroom, subjected to lengthy proceedings that he had trouble following, Sinnisiak kept falling asleep.
Aside from the principals, there were no eyewitnesses to the killings. Charles “Denny” LaNauze, the Mountie who made the arrests, testified that the defendant’s fellow Inuit believed his excuse of having feared for his life. LaNauze himself seemed of the same mind. In questioning him, defense counsel made a point of this: “Your report says that [Sinnisiak and Uluksuk] had killed them in self-defense?” LaNauze replied, “I said they might have, I think.” Later he was asked about a particular statement in his arrest report: “The unfortunate priests may have been the victims of a premeditated murder for the possession of their rifles and ammunition, or may have brought on the crime by their own untactfulness.” Asked what he knew of this untactfulness, LaNauze replied that he inferred it from “the prisoner’s statements.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Sinnisiak stuck by his interpretation of LeRoux’s behavior: he thought the priest was going to kill him. The idea of eating the priests’ livers, he explained, had been planted in his mind by his grandfather: it was supposed to prevent dead men from coming back to life. (In a footnote, Keedy summarizes his consultation with a Penn colleague, anthropologist Morris Jastrow, Jr., who informed him that “references to the liver as the seat of the soul (spirit) are found in the literature of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hebrews, Chinese, Etruscans, Greeks and Romans.”)
As presented by Keedy, the evidence leaves an ambiguous impression. Sinnisiak and Uluksuk might have had larceny in their hearts and acted rashly, but no one could contradict the former’s testimony that the ill-tempered LeRoux had frightened and assaulted him. Yet the court—Chief Justice Horace Harvey—would have none of this. In his instructions to the six-man jury, Harvey drew an analogy to Germany’s discredited excuse for starting the Great War, which was still being fought at the time: that a country living in fear of being attacked could ethically strike first. This preventive style of self-defense, the court said, was “not under our law permissible.” Rather, self-defense “as it is known to our law” was “defence against attack, a defence against an assault of some sort.” Harvey went on to tell the jury that it was their “duty to find a verdict of murder.”
At first blush, it would seem that the chief justice had played fast and loose with the record. His instructions sloughed over Sinnisiak’s crucial assertions: that LeRoux had affirmed an intention to kill the Eskimos and that he had repeatedly pushed Sinnisiak. But thanks to another kind of selectivity—the prosecutor’s partitioning of the case—Sinnisiak was being tried for killing Rouvière, not LeRoux; and the kindly Rouvière hadn’t made any threats. Harvey concluded by trying to reassure the jurors. Given the defendant’s ignorance of white men’s customs, he, the court, would “consider it a crime that this man should be executed.”
As the jury retired to deliberate, Sinnisiak’s conviction seemed foregone. But just over an hour later, the jury came back with a shocking verdict: not guilty. According to Jenkins, some jurors believed the priests were as much at fault as the Eskimos, and one may have been swayed by anti-Catholic prejudice.
Now the cunning prosecutor, McCaul, made good on his hedged bet. He filed new charges—against both prisoners this time—for the murder of LeRoux. McCaul also asked for, and received, a change of venue to Calgary, 200 miles farther south. (McKay says that Keedy, who had become friendly with McCaul, considered this last maneuver likely to backfire and tried to talk him out of it, without success.) There, six days later, the second trial began, with Chief Justice Harvey again presiding but without Keedy looking on (for the rest of his account he relies on a transcript of the proceedings). Despite having a harder case to decide, the new jury proved to be more tractable. “We find the prisoners guilty of murder,” the foreman declared, “with the strongest possible recommendation to mercy that the Jury can give.”
Harvey sentenced both Sinnisiak and Uluksuk to death but predicted they would get off with prison terms. He instructed their interpreter to make sure they understood that, once back home, “they must let their people know that if any of them kill any person they will have to suffer death. They know now what our law is.”
As expected, the sentences were commuted. After two years of imprisonment and labor, Sinnisiak and Uluksuk went free in 1919. Five years later, Uluksuk was shot to death after quarreling with another Inuit over a dog. Sinnisiak was dead by 1930, of an unknown cause. In an epilogue to his book, Jenkins reports his findings during a 2002 visit to the “Copper Eskimos’” homeland: a people suffering from high rates of alcoholism, diabetes, and suicide, and a Catholic church that had been “closed for years.”
The trial’s American observer went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career, teaching at Penn Law School from 1915 to 1950 and serving as dean from 1940-45. After Keedy’s death in 1958, the law review devoted an issue to a symposium in his memory, beginning with a tribute from a former student who had himself become a Penn law professor: Louis B. Schwartz W’32 L’35. And then there are those awards with Keedy’s name on them.
Despite the man’s prominence, however, the best we can do is make an educated guess as to what brought him to Edmonton in the summer of 1917. Schwartz portrayed Keedy as having “a connoisseur’s relish for dramatic trials that took him across half a continent to see an Eskimo primitive tried under the white man’s law for killing and eating a missionary.” If you overlook the hyperbole (“eating a missionary” makes it sound as if Sinnisiak and Uklusuk were gorging on flesh cooked in a pot rather than consuming part of one raw organ), this is as good an explanation as we are likely to get. Judging from the rest of Keedy’s career, more than likely he traveled several thousand miles north and west in the summer of 1917 for no other purpose than to observe Rex v. Sinnisiak, thus advancing his research into criminal procedure, much as he had done on visits to England in 1910 and Scotland in 1912. He later wrote a textbook in the field, Cases and Statutes on Administration of the Criminal Law (1928); and in 1931-32 he extended his reach by going to France, where he examined that country’s criminal-justice system. But in 1917, with the Great War raging, European travel was presumably out of the question. Canada might have been the best available place for Keedy to pursue his passion.
In the end, however, why Keedy attended those far-off sessions is less important than how he attended them: as an expert reporter—a “connoisseur,” as Schwartz would have it—taking the notes that bore fruit, thirty-odd years later, in “A Remarkable Murder Trial.” But what Keedy surely envisaged as a contribution to comparative criminal law became something different for McKay Jenkins: a sharp observer’s firsthand impressions, with learned commentary, of the culmination to a fateful series of cultural misunderstandings. Keedy was not oblivious to this aspect of the case, but his main interest lay elsewhere, in the workings of a foreign country’s criminal justice system as it extended its reach to the remotest corners of its jurisdiction.
In this way, Keedy’s article exemplifies the serendipity of scholarship: how a line of research that one pursues and commits to paper because it engages him and complements work he has already done can lie around for decades until someone dusts it off and puts it to a new use. Another legendary Penn figure, the great scholar of Old and Middle English Albert C. Baugh, made a similar point in an article I recall reading as a grad student but (having failed to track it down) can only paraphrase: that a scholar should do and publish the work that excites him, not worrying too much about its immediate relevance but trusting that eventually it will serve as a building block for someone else, perhaps in an unrelated field.
Almost a century after the underlying events and more than 50 years since its publication, “A Remarkable Murder Trial” is still a remarkable piece of work.
Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.