Updated: Sep 24
The death of Doukhobor leader Peter (Lordly) Verigin in a train explosion between Castlegar and Grand Forks on Oct. 29, 1924 is the West Kootenay/Boundary’s greatest unsolved mystery. It is also one of the area’s deadliest single incidents, for it took eight other lives in addition to Verigin’s. And if the blast was the result of a bomb, as two coroners’ juries concluded, it was the deadliest crime ever committed in the region.
There are a lot of peculiar things about the case, some of which I will list here. I am indebted to the website canadianmysteries.ca/sites/verigin/home/indexen.html and Steve Lapshinoff’s groundbreaking 1993 book, Documentary Report on a Death of Peter Verigin, et. al. in a Train Explosion near Farron, BC in 1924, which compiled every relevant police and government document he could find, along with all of the newspaper coverage of the disaster.
Peter (Lordly) Verigin is seen in a 1922 portrait by Campbell Studio of Nelson.
(Greg Nesteroff collection)
1) Verigin apparently predicted his own death – and so did others
Verigin supposedly had a premonition his end was at hand. Of course, this was only spoken of after the fact and is impossible to verify. Had Verigin lived to a ripe age, it would have no significance. Nevertheless, the Nelson Daily News quoted his friend and business associate Max Baskin a day after the explosion:
Mr. Verigin and I had talked of death only a few days ago. He said then he believed everyone went when his time came, and also that he was not afraid to die. He felt he had still a great deal of work to do, but he would be quite willing to go when his time came.
Simeon (Sam) Kamenshchikov, a Russian from Bessarabia who hung around the Doukhobors, said he dreamed harm would come to Verigin and wrote him a letter to that effect. He insisted, however, that he never threatened Verigin.
On March 30, 1925, the Russian language newspaper Russky Golos published a letter in which W.A. Makaseyeff claimed Verigin knew he would die two days before the explosion. According to Makaseyeff, Verigin told Ivan Evseevich Konkin “that the latter would soon hear that the train in which Verigin would travel would explode and that Verigin desired a sudden death, rather than suffering one.”
Lapshinoff quoted a diary account of Verigin’s six-week memorial, at which Nikola Zarchukoff apparently made the following statement, although it’s unclear if he claimed it actually happened or came to him in a dream:
[Verigin] called in to our place and said … I wish to say good bye to Christ’s orchard … I will be met with unexpected death in the province of British Columbia. When I will be in a coach, with an exploding bomb I will be thrown out onto a cliff, where my head will find peace upon a rock and the cliffs will be washed with holy blood …
Again, all of this is after the fact, so it’s hard to assess its value.
2) Verigin received death threats – or not
If Verigin was thinking about his mortality, it might have been for good reason.
According to Pete N. Maloff’s Doukhobors: Their History, Life, and Struggle, Nicholas Hoodikoff approached Verigin in Saskatchewan in August 1921 and told him three Independent Doukhobors and one foreigner were plotting to kill him. However, I haven’t seen the manuscript and don’t know any other details.
In 1963, Fred Plotnikoff of Castlegar told RCMP that shortly before his death, Verigin “received many anonymous threatening letters … Although he was constantly under guard Lordly himself and his close associates were forever reminding his guards of the danger of someone plotting to kill him.”
Verigin’s longtime companion Anastasia Holobova confirmed in 1965 that Verigin
received four letters threatening him. She said that she tried to get hold of the letters so she could turn them over to the government, but Peter Lordly did not want her to see the letters, so destroyed them. The first letter contained a number of threats and it told Peter to get ready because he didn’t have too much longer to live. The three other letters were along the same lines and all were unsigned. The last letter was received approximately one month prior to the death of Peter Lordly.
However, Holobova said nothing about these letters when interviewed in 1932. Furthermore, Verigin’s nephew Larion, a key member of the Orthodox leadership, told police in 1965 that he checked all the mail and “and at no time did he find anything threatening.” He did find some odd things, though (more on that below).
3) Verigin’s death was reported prematurely
On July 23, 1924, a little more than three months before the fatal explosion, the Nelson Daily News carried this item on its front page:
It’s not known how this rumor got started, nor how Verigin supposedly met his demise in this scenario. But more than 30 years later, Nickolai Zeabin of Robson recalled for RCMP how he received a phone call at 3 a.m. from a reporter who asked him if it was true that Verigin had been killed near Thrums. He remembered, correctly, that Verigin had been visiting Grand Forks “and when he returned he was told of the phone call but showed little concern and said he would contact the Nelson Daily News regarding their source of information.”
4) Verigin bought two different train tickets
On the night of his death near Farron, Verigin bought one train ticket for the short trip from Brilliant to Castlegar and a second from Castlegar to Grand Forks. But according to Bill Lazareff, a contractor from Trail who managed the Doukhobor lumber interests, Verigin always planned to proceed to Grand Forks and then to Spokane, where he would meet Lazareff and Max Baskin. He couldn’t explain why Verigin purchased two tickets.
However, Larion Verigin told a CPR investigator in 1932 it was “quite common for Peter Verigin to purchase a railway ticket only part way when he intended to travel and … that the conductors used to pass him on without transportation. He stated that he often traveled with him and had seen this done.”
I don’t quite understand the implication; that Peter Verigin figured his Brilliant-Castlegar ticket combined with his prominence would entitle him to free passage to Grand Forks?
The Castlegar train station is seen at centre. It still stands as a museum. On the left is the W.J. Farmer store and on the right is the Castlegar Hotel, both now gone.
(Greg Nesteroff collection)
5) A suspect was immediately identified – but how?
In a letter to his superiors two days after the explosion, Grand Forks RCMP Staff Sgt. G.O. Reid named Dan Grenor, a Russian watchmaker, as a suspect.
Grenor was a shadowy figure who lived on the periphery of the Doukhobor community. Yet Reid didn’t explain what led him to Grenor, except to note that he was an expert on clocks and typed long letters. Apparently that was grounds enough to believe he might have built a bomb. No motive was suggested, nor was any theory advanced as to whether Grenor was working alone or in concert with someone else.
Reid went to Castlegar to question Grenor, but couldn’t find him. He kept an eye out at Verigin’s funeral and put out other feelers, to no avail. Grenor wasn’t located until six years later (more on that below).
Sam Kamenshchikov was also considered a suspect because he spent the night before the explosion at a section house a few miles from Farron and visited the wreckage the next morning. He also had some odd habits, like wearing a crown of oranges. He was known as Orange Sam or the Czar of Heaven.
Furthermore, he feuded with Verigin and some said Kamenshchikov bore a grudge, though he denied this. He was arrested, but police ultimately concluded he was not involved. Others were detained for questioning, but no one was ever charged.
6) Bert Currie got the scoop of his life
The explosion occurred around 1 a.m.; two hours later, Nelson Daily News star reporter H.H. (Bert) Currie received a tip about it. He had the story on the front page that morning and filed the first dispatch to the Canadian Press.
Even by modern standards, that would be impressive. However, the initial story missed the key detail that Verigin and Grand Forks-Greenwood MLA John McKie were among the victims. The Vancouver Province, an evening paper at the time, broke that news first; whether they relied on Currie’s reporting, I don’t know.
At the inquest, the coroner asked Currie what led him to write that the disaster was the result of a gas tank explosion. Currie replied that the tipster told him that. He didn’t say where he was when he got word of the explosion — working the night shift? — and declined to name his source: “My informant asked me if I heard of the accident, evidently seeking information, and asked not to be mentioned. Therefore I am not at liberty to give you the name … My informant doubtless encountered a street rumour.”
Currie said he tried to confirm the story with a dispatcher by telephone, but the dispatcher was too busy, so he went to the train station and met Supt. W.O. Miller, who confirmed a coach had blown up with multiple fatalities. Currie was under the impression Miller had stated the gas tank was to blame.
Miller testified that a CPR call boy tipped Currie and must have been the one who said the gas tanks exploded. Miller said he relayed no such message. Miller also said he asked Currie not to write anything “till we get some further facts.” Currie sent a correction on the wire at 9 a.m., apparently to clarify that the cause was not a gas leak.
The front page of the Nelson Daily News of Oct. 29, 1924 broke the news of the explosion at Farron, although readers would not learn until that night that Peter (Lordly) Verigin was among the victims. The headline was correct at the time, but several more people died in or en route to hospital.
7) One passenger insisted there was a gas leak
F.W. Shaver, an injured passenger, was adamant that he felt an inrush of gas before the explosion. Lt.-Col. G. Ogilvie, chief inspector of explosives for the federal Dept. of Mines, said:
This statement is I think well worthy of credence. We could not reconcile the finding that there was a dynamite explosion with the fact that little if any damage was done to the bottom of the car or with the absence of the mutilation of the bodies to be expected as a feature of explosion of a high explosive.
Yet the CPR stated the gas tanks were intact. Both coroners juries concluded the explosion was the result of a bomb.
8) The $2,000 wanted poster
Three weeks after the explosion, a circular was printed in English, Russian, Ruthenian, Ukrainian and Polish and distributed around West Kootenay, offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. That’s the equivalent of about $29,600 today. (It incorrectly gave the location of the explosion as east of Farron; it was actually west.) The reward was never paid but anyone who saved the poster might have ensured a windfall for their great grandchildren: earlier this year a rare book dealer had one for sale for about $1,100.
9) The investigation quickly stalled
Reading the documents Lapshinoff compiled leaves the distinct impression that either the initial investigation was not very thorough or the authorities (the RCMP, BC Provincial Police, and CPR investigations division) didn’t keep very detailed notes. Although they pursued various leads, the trail soon went cold. Yet subsequent investigations revealed they had not turned over every stone.
In February 1925, a group of Orthodox Doukhobors frustrated at the lack of progress visited Staff Sgt. Ernest Gammon of the BC Provincial Police. “I explained to them that it was not the policy of the Police to divulge any information they received,” Gammon wrote to his superintendent, “but that they could rest assured that everything possible was being done to find the culprit or culprits.”
But the surviving correspondence suggests very little was being done — or at least it wasn’t well documented.
10) It took forever to produce the inquest transcript
Police, lawyers, and the attorney general’s office were all frustrated over how long it took to receive a verbatim transcript from the inquest at Nelson — at least six months — and they complained repeatedly to coroner H.H. McKenzie. The stenographer, C.W. Tyler, finally came through, but of the 138 pages he typed up, only 71 survive. What happened to the rest? (The content of the missing pages was, at least, reported by local newspapers at the time of the inquest.)
A parallel inquest held in Grand Forks did not result in a verbatim transcript, but simply signed statements by each of the witnesses.
11) Police thought the Mafia might be involved
Suspects in the explosion ranged from Bolsheviks to the Ku Klux Klan to Doukhobors themselves, and even, briefly, the Mafia. In June 1925, police investigated a report that a man who had been on the train at Farron was the victim of an axe murder following Mafia threats and a robbery at his North Vancouver confectionery. However, they soon established it was mistaken identity: the victim was Frank Rosso, while the train passenger was Frank Russo, a carpenter from Trail.
A man was soon charged with Rosso’s murder: Charles Henry (Sonny) White had no ties to the mafia, but was sentenced to hang. He appealed on the grounds that the behavior of bloodhounds should not be admitted as evidence and the BC Court of Appeal granted him a new trial, but I don’t know the outcome.
Peter (Lordly) Verigin was buried in a marble tomb overlooking Brilliant. However, it was blown up several times and finally replaced with a concrete slab.
(Greg Nesteroff collection)
12) The explosion was to the provincial government’s benefit
The death of MLA John McKie helped the Liberal government keep its tenuous grasp on power. McKie, a Conservative, was actually en route to Victoria for the first sitting of the new legislature, due to begin Nov. 3. Another MLA, Fernie’s Thomas Uphill, was on the same train but not in the car that blew up.
The general election in June 1924 saw John Oliver’s Liberals capture the most seats but lose their majority government. They were reduced from 25 to 23, while the Conservatives went from 15 to 17. There were also three Provincial MLAs, three Canadian Labour MLAs, and two Independent Liberals. Combined, the opposition parties outnumbered the government by two seats. McKie’s death reduced that number to one, allowing the Liberal whip to relax slightly.
A footnote: both Oliver and opposition leader William Bowser lost their own seats in the 1924 election. Nelson MLA Kenneth Campbell stepped aside so Oliver could run in his riding, a safe seat for the Liberals. I’m not sure how much time Oliver spent in Nelson, but he clashed with local Doukhobors, telling one group they should leave Canada if they couldn’t obey its laws, and another “The laws would probably be more right if you are dead, then you are now.”
13) Police got some weird letters about the case
In April 1925, Larion Verigin received a letter from a John Stacey of Trail who claimed he had information about the burning of local schools. Verigin passed it on to the Provincial Police, who compared the handwriting to another letter they received from an M.F. Edwards of Trail. They concluded Stacey and Edwards were the same man.
In February 1926, John D. Edwards of South Slocan sent a letter to Premier John Oliver, offering his services to probe a theory that “a Socialistic element of the Doukhobor community” killed Peter Verigin. He offered to pose as an envoy from Socialist headquarters and asked for $200 a month to pay his wages and an interpreter.
“If I was to go on my own I would like to get permission to carry a revolver to be used only in self defense,” he wrote. “I would like to have the power to make arrests also. I would prefer to be hired by the government as I am a poor man.”
The letter was bounced around the BC Provincial Police offices, where it must have caused much amusement. The 1925 and 1926 BC directories listed an M. Edwards as a carpenter in South Slocan. The following year Matthew Edwards was listed as a rancher there.
14) The prime suspect was finally arrested – and let go
In 1930, during a period of unrest among the Sons of Freedom, police arrested a Russian man at Porto Rico, whom they were suspicious of and had been seeking for several months. According to W.C. Cowell, an investigator with the federal Department of Immigration and Colonization, he was not a Doukhobor, but police “could never locate him and the Doukhobors always protected him.”
He was Metro Grishen, also known as Metro Gretchin, Mit Graen, Mit Gren, Jim Mitgren, and possibly Dmytre Grenchuk. He was a travelling watch and clockmaker and is believed to be the same man as Dan Grenor, identified as a suspect in the wake of the explosion. However, Cowell, who interviewed him at length, didn’t appear to know that.
In his report, Cowell remarked on Peter Verigin’s death and noted that Grishen’s knowledge of timepieces would be helpful to anyone who wanted to build a bomb. Yet he doesn’t seem to have asked Grishen about it. Instead, Cowell told him to leave the area immediately and was “pleased to report that he left Nelson on the west bound train for the Okanagan Valley within a few hours of his release.”
I’ll bet he did. The prime suspect — or at least the key person of interest — slipped through their fingers and was never seen again. Grishen apparently returned to Russia and was last heard from in 1932. Less reliable reports suggest he was killed by Bolsheviks in Russia or lived in New Denver in the mid-1930s.
In any case, Grishen’s name, or one of his aliases, came up repeatedly during the various investigations. Several people felt he had something to do with the explosion, although no one saw him get on the train, talked to him about it, or otherwise had any evidence of his involvement. He was implicated by virtue of his profession and, it seems, his outsider status.
In 1956, James Johnston, the deputy chief of the CPR Police, delivered a speech to a Winnipeg service club in which he said he was “almost sure” Grishen made the time bomb used in the Farron explosion. Yet he offered no proof.
A few years later, responding to an inquiry from John Bondoreff, Johnston said he couldn’t disclose any information contained in their files. And yet where were those files? In 1980, Steve Lapshinoff inquired with the CPR’s security and investigative division but was told they had no information about the Farron incident. The CPR archives also came up empty.
Almost all of the physical exhibits in the case have vanished, but at the Doukhobor Discovery Centre in Castlegar you can still see the clothing Peter Verigin was wearing the night he was killed.
The front page of the Nelson Daily News, Oct. 30, 1924.
15) The case was reopened twice
In July 1932, the CPR’s investigations department took a fresh look at the case with help from the Provincial Police. What resulted was a far more detailed document than anything produced in 1924-25.
They interviewed several people who police inexplicably failed to talk to following the explosion, including train engineer Archibald Blaney, Castlegar Hotel proprietor Peter Hardy, and Verigin’s longtime companion, Anastasia Holobova. Blaney, who finally came forward with a statement in 1931, did not provide any new information.
Hardy, however, indicated Metro Grishen had been in his hotel the afternoon before the explosion. Hardy suspected him as making the bomb, although he didn’t explain what led him to that conclusion. Holobova thought Verigin’s death had been orchestrated by his son from Russia, but had no evidence.
The latter theory was also advanced in 1963 by Simma Holt in her book Terror in the Name of God. The RCMP thought there might be something to this, so they reopened the investigation again and over the next two years interviewed 21 Doukhobors in four provinces, including Orthodox, Independent, and Sons of Freedom. (One of them, I was surprised to learn, was my great grandfather.)
This resulted in the most extensive paper trail in the case, but coming over 40 years after the fact, many people had died, and memories were fuzzy. They found nothing substantial.
— With thanks to Jack McIntosh for corrections to transliterations