Articles

THE MIND READER AND THE MURDERER

Maxmilian Langsner told the Edmonton police he was a human radio when the thought waves flowed. And when he tuned in on Vernon Booher the farmer’s son was hanged for four murders

S. TUPPER BIGELOW March 15 1950
Articles

THE MIND READER AND THE MURDERER

Maxmilian Langsner told the Edmonton police he was a human radio when the thought waves flowed. And when he tuned in on Vernon Booher the farmer’s son was hanged for four murders

S. TUPPER BIGELOW March 15 1950

WHEN Dr. Adolf Maxmilian Langsner, the eminent criminologist from Vienna, arrived in Edmonton in July, 1928, to give his attention to the mysterious Booher murders the local Press was generous in its coverage. Photographs of the doctor taken as he disembarked from the Vancouver train showed a quaint, swarthy, little man, dressed in a loud checked tweed cap and voluminous plus-fours reaching almost to his ankles, his eyes protected by an oversize pair of dark sunglasses.

In an interview at the station it was reported that Dr. Langsner described himself as “a Viennese criminologist, psychologist, hypnotist and mind reader extraordinary, who spoke 16 languages fluently, consultant and adviser to the Khedive of Egypt, the Shah of Persia and the British Foreign Office.”

Another newspaper report stated what everyone in Edmonton already knew from recent dispatches. Dr. Langsner had first come to public attention when, it was said, he solved crimes which had baffled the authorities in Leipzig, Bucharest, China, and intermediate points. In 1919, for example, when Langsner was only 26, he was called in when the police confessed themselves unable to solve the murder of a jewelry salesman in a hotel room in Leipzig.

Taken to the room where the murder had been committed Langsner was able to “receive” the thought waves which were left by the murderer at the scene and, without further ado, traced him to a local jail where, when the heat had got too much for him, the guilty man had prudently managed to get himself locked up for smashing windows.

Appalled by Langsner’s startling mental legerdemain the frightened murderer confessed all.

Langsner had first come to Canada with the idea of demonstrating his unusual mental powers at a series of lectures. Starting in Vancouver, he was quickly sidetracked from his original plan when the British Columbia Provincial Police retained him on two or three small matters which had been giving them some trouble. Langsner quickly and obligingly solved these problems for them and they were pleased to be able to recommend him to other police forces.

Dr. Langsner was in Edmonton, therefore, at the request of the Alberta Provincial Police, who admittedly had come to a dead end in the puzzling mystery of the Booher murders.

Who Fired The Ross Rifle?

THE BOOHER murders took place sometime in the evening of July 19, 1928, on the farm of Henry Booher, about five miles from Mannville, Alta.

The first one on the murder scene was Vernon Booher, 20, who stated that he had got back to the farm at about 8 o’clock, after mending the fence on the west field. When he found his mother and brother dead he called Dr. Heaslip, and when the doctor came on the scene he called Constable Olsen of the Alberta Provincial Police.

By the time Olsen arrived Vernon’s two sisters, Dorothy, 19, and Algirtha, 17, had returned home and a third victim had been discovered; the body of Gabriel Goromby, a hired man, was found by Dr. Heaslip on the threshold of the bunkhouse, shot twice in the back of the head.

Eunice Booher, Vernon’s mother, was seated at the dining room table, and looked as if she had dozed off with her head on her arms. Beside her on the table was a bowl of strawberries and she had a strawberry in one hand. She had been shot once in the middle of the back.

Fred Booher, Vernon’s 22-year-old brother, lay stretched out on the kitchen floor. He had been drilled neatly through the centre of the forehead.

When Henry Booher, Vernon’s father, arrived home from the fields he was told what had happened.

“I know who did this!” he exploded. “Rosyk! Where is Rosyk? I’ll kill him with my bare hands!”

The old man ran out to the barn with Olsen and the others following along behind. By the time they got there Booher was standing just inside the barn door and in his flashlight’s rays, lying on the floor, was the body of William Rosyk, the other hired man. He had been shot twice from behind; there was a bullet hole in his head and another in his back.

Vernon told the police officer that he had seen Goromby talking to two men the day before—bums, they looked like. Vernon gave very good descriptions but the police scoured the district in vain.

Olsen called Edmonton for assistance, and Inspector Hancock and Detective Sergeant Lesley, of the Criminal Investigation Bureau, arrived. With the assistance of neighbors they searched the farmhouse, the outbuildings and the farm itself with meticulous care, but were unable to find the murder gun.

But they did find a single brass cartridge case in a pan standing on the back of the stove in the kitchen. It was a .303 made to fire from a Ross military rifle, and Lesley, who had examined the murder bullets, was able to say that they could have been fired from a Ross rifle and that all bullets were fired from the same rifle.

The police found that a neighbor, Charlie Stephenson, had the only Ross in the district. But Stephenson didn’t have the gun; he said he had first missed it the previous Sunday night, before the killings. The police checked Stephenson, but he was able quickly to establish an unshakeable alibi.

A married couple nearby said they thought they had seen Vernon’s sorrel pony going toward Stephenson’s place on Sunday morning around church time. They couldn’t be certain about the rider either.

Vernon told the police he had left for the west field right after supper, which the family had had at half past five. Another neighbor called Scott told them he had called at the Booher farmhouse at half past six, and Vernon had come to the door and told him there was no one home.

The police tackled Vernon about this, but he simply said Scott had his dates mixed up; it was the day before when Scott called. Scott, however, stuck to his story.

The police racked their brains looking for a possible motive linking Vernon with the four murders but only unearthed the flimsy fact that, according to one of Vernon’s sisters, their mother had complained about a girl in Mannville to whom Vernon had paid some attention. But, the police argued, if this were the motive, why kill four people? Admittedly, if Vernon had killed his mother while the other three were on the premises he might have to kill them to cover up the first murder, but why not pick a time when he and his mother would be alone? And anyway, it didn’t make sense a boy killing his mother for such a trivial reason.

However, Vernon Booher was charged with murder. As Commissioner William Bryan read his subordinates’ reports he must have winced as he realized the weakness of the case against the farm boy.

It was at this point that Commissioner Bryan read of the mental jiggery-pokery performed by Dr. Langsner in Vancouver, and perhaps he thought that Langsner might at least be able to find the gun. It was the work of a minute to telephone the commissioner of the British Columbia Provincials and get Langsner on his way to Edmonton.

On Langsner’s arrival he was taken direct to the commissioner who, on his first sight of the weirdly attired little man, must have regretted his hasty action. However, he explained the problem to the mental giant.

“Well,” said Langsner, “this is very simple. You see, thought waves are just the same as waves of light, or sound, or wireless waves. But you must be equipped to receive these waves, just as you must have a receiver to translate radio waves into words and music. I am, of course, so equipped.”

“Quite so,” the commissioner replied hastily. “Inspector Hancock will take you to the Booher farm.

On the way to the farm the inspector learned a good deal more of the methods of crime solution, as applied by Dr. Langsner.

“I hope it will not be too late when we get to the farm,” he said. “You see, thought waves differ in their power and, of course, the thought waves of someone who has killed four people would be of very high intensity, and would stay around the area of the crimes for a considerable period of time. But it is nearly a week now since these murders. I shall need to feel all these waves if I can.”

“Well, then, doctor,” the inspector asked, “it would be proper to refer to you as a mind reader?” 

“Oh, yes,” Langsner replied modestly, “but it is not a term I like; I am more of a—what would you say?—a thought catcher.”

“Perhaps you would care to catch my thoughts, doctor? What am I thinking of now?”

The doctor laughed for the first time. “You are very naïve, my friend. That is too easy. You are thinking I will not find the gun.”

The inspector started. That was precisely what he had been thinking.

“Did that surprise you, my friend?” the doctor asked gently. “Don’t worry; I shall find the gun.” 

It was past midnight when the inspector nosed the car through the Booher gate. Langsner alighted and Hancock waited for instructions. Langsner sniffed the air like a hound on a scent and crawled back into the car.

“Now we go back to Edmonton,” he said. “I have received an impression of the thought waves that are left here. They are not very powerful, after so long a time, naturally, but they will help.”

“Back to Edmonton!” Hancock echoed.

“Yes,” Langsner said blandly. “All I must do now is see young Booher.”

The commissioner was none too pleased with the night’s work. He explained carefully to Langsner the next morning that he must not speak to Booher. He had begun to think that it would be dangerous if it could be suggested that Langsner had hypnotized Booher.

“I do not need to speak to him, or have him speak to me,” Langsner explained. “You see, the thought waves—”

“Oh, quite, quite. The thought waves. The inspector will take you to Booher’s cell.”

The Wordless Seance

IN THE guardroom of the Edmonton jail, on one side of a long table, sat Langsner; facing him was the sullen farm boy, Vernon Booher. Off in the shadows were Inspector Hancock and Detective Sergeant Lesley.

Booher looked out of the corner of his eyes at the police officers, and then at Langsner, sitting there inscrutable, with his eyes hidden behind his dark glasses. Booher squirmed restlessly in his chair and finally said to Langsner:  “What do you want with me?” They were the only words Langsner ever heard Booher utter. There was no answer.

The ticking of the clock in the desk sergeant’s office, though separated from the guardroom by a two-foot brick wall, could be heard plainly in the eerie silence. Hancock said later that toward the end of the vigil each tick sounded like gunfire.

Precisely 30 minutes after Langsner had entered the room he strode toward the door. Booher was returned to his cell.

“Very well, gentlemen, I am ready,” Langsner said to the police. “Take me back to the farm. I know where the gun is.”

At the Booher farm the little doctor slowly got out of the car and ambled unhurriedly around the yard. He hummed the air of a gay Vienna waltz. The Booher murders seemed to be a million light years away.

But suddenly, like a bird dog attracted by a pheasant’s scent and traveling downwind, Langsner turned quickly and broke into a dogtrot, heading for the barn. He ran past it, came to a field of pasture land, dotted with small clumps of willow. Past the willows the doctor trotted with Hancock breathing hard at his heels, the bulkier Lesley lumbering along behind. Langsner entered a marshy section of the pasture, luxuriant with tough marsh grass.

“About 140 yards from the barn,” Inspector Hancock said at the trial, “we both saw the gun about the same time. Once you came upon it, it was in plain sight and no effort had been made to hide it. It was plainly visible from a distance of several yards.”

“Well, gentlemen,” Langsner said, “there is your gun. You will find it is the murder weapon, of course. The thought waves are always reliable.”

It was a Ross rifle, easily identified as Charles Stephenson’s, but the police could get no fingerprints from it. Lesley quickly determined that it was the one from which the lethal shots had been fired.

Hancock and Lesley reported the finding of the gun to Commissioner Bryan with understandable jubilation, but the commissioner was not wholly satisfied.

“How could our own men have missed the gun?” he asked. “The defense will argue it was planted there, of course. But who could have planted it? Langsner? Maybe, but where did he get it in the first place?”

Langsner made subsequent visits to Vernon Booher in the guardroom, but still no word was exchanged between the prisoner and the thought catcher. After the last visit Langsner went straight to the police and told them that they might expect a confession in a short time.

He Didn’t Look a Killer

Within a matter of minutes Booher called for Detective Sergeant Lesley and said he wanted to make a confession. It was a simple one: “I want to get it all over with. I don’t care if I’m hanged tomorrow. I killed Mother as she sat at the table and then my brother Fred as he rushed into the house. I killed Gabriel Goromby in the bunkhouse and Bill when he came in from the field. It was Mother’s and Fred’s constant nagging at me about a girl I was crazy about that was the cause of it all. I had it planned out for some time ...”

This appeared to solve the perplexing mystery of the four murders and, so far as the police were concerned, their job was done. It remained only to produce in court the evidence they had gathered and let the law take its course.

On Sept. 25, 1928, a little over two months after the killings, Vernon Booher went on trial for murder in the crowded Edmonton Courthouse before Chief Justice Simmons and a jury.

The Crown was represented by E. B. Cogswell, K.C., a prosecutor noted for his fairness, though admittedly colorless and phlegmatic, while Booher was defended by Neil D. Maclean, K.C., then and now a skilful defense lawyer with a remarkable ability to bring to the most commonplace case a vividness of color which adds tremendous dramatic impact to the simplest question or the most elementary argument.

Vernon Booher, in court, appeared to be an ordinary farm boy, tall, lithe and clean-cut. The last thing he looked like was a four-time killer.

The first day of the trial passed in routine evidence, but on the morning of the second day, before the trial resumed, the passages of the Edmonton Courthouse buzzed with the rumor that Booher had confessed the murders to a Salvation Army officer.

Just before noon Prosecutor Cogswell mumbled something to the court crier who dutifully bellowed, “Adjutant Thomas Sutherland Stewart. Adjutant Thomas Sutherland Stewart.” No answer.

A police officer echoed the crier’s words in the courthouse corridors. “Adjutant Thomas Sutherland Stewart doesn’t answer, my lord,” he informed the court.

Cogswell asked Chief Justice Simmons for a bench warrant ordering Stewart’s immediate arrest.

Stewart, arrested at his office at Salvation Army headquarters, was placed in the witness box. Cogswell gently told him, “Adjutant, it has been said that the accused has told you something having to do with the matters in issue here. If that is so, it is your duty under the law to tell us what the accused has told you. Is that clear?”

“It is perfectly clear, sir,” the mild little grey-haired man replied boldly, “but I am refusing to answer any such questions.”

“After What I Have Done—”

Cogswell tried it again, coming in on another tack, but again Stewart refused, stating that he was, as he saw it, conforming to the law of God which transcended man-made laws.

Chief Justice Simmons, then took a hand, pointed out to Stewart that his refusal to answer was contempt of court.

“My lord,” said the adjutant theatrically, “in fairness to Vernon Booher and to my vows and covenants taken 16 years ago I cannot tell. Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ Jesus, his Master, and if I betray Booher, I betray my Lord and the covenant given that ‘all of Stewart is the Lord’s.’ ”

There was a hush in the court; all eyes were fixed on the judge. Booher had flushed and turned pale alternately during Stewart’s ordeal, and finally it was Booher who broke the silence by signaling for his counsel.

After a few whispered words Maclean stepped forward. “My lord, if it will help any, the accused has told me that he releases Adjutant Stewart from any vows or covenants which fetter him, and that he permits him, as the accused’s spiritual adviser, to tell of the conversation at the jail.”

A hum of relief was heard throughout the courtroom, and Booher relaxed in the prisoner’s box with a pleased and contented expression.

Stewart then stated simply that Booher had once said to him in his cell, “Do you think God can forgive me after what I have done?”

Done what? Maclean wanted to know of the jury later. Could that be construed as a confession of quadruple murder? It might have meant anything.

Cogswell’s next step was to try to introduce the confession made to Lesley. For this purpose he moved for the exclusion of the jury, since the admission or rejection of a confession is a matter of law, something to be decided by the judge alone.

When the jury was excluded Cogswell called Langsner to the stand. The doctor made a favorable impression with the public from the first: he had abandoned the weird clothes; his manner was quiet; and one newspaper report of the time referred to his “clear, friendly eyes and gentlemanly appearance."

Langsner simply stated what we already know, added that among his other mental powers was the ability to exercise hypnotic effects upon a subject by feeling and directing his thoughts, but denied that he had hypnotized Booher.

Maclean took every advantage of this admission and silkily asked Langsner if he had not hypnotized Booher or tried to hypnotize him, why did he visit Booher in his cell after the gun had been found?

Langsner frankly admitted he was trying to induce Booher to confess, but repeated he had not hypnotized Booher or attempted to do so.

Maclean then called to the stand a Dr. Gessner, who somehow had been hunted up in San Francisco and brought to Edmonton. Gessner said he had been a pupil of Langsner’s some years before and that, undoubtedly, Langsner was one of the world’s greatest hypnotists.

This was enough for Chief Justice Simmons who ruled the confession inadmissible on the ground that Langsner had hypnotized Booher—the only occasion in Canada’s history of jurisprudence when such a reason has been assigned for the rejection of a confession of the commission of a criminal offense.

The Host Ejects a Drunk

When the jury returned to the courtroom the Crown proceeded with its case; for the second time Langsner was called to the witness box.

Langsner stated that he was born in Austria in 1893 and received his preliminary education in the schools of that country. Later he studied at the universities of Vienna, Leipzig, Gazt, Upsala (Sweden) and Trinivily (India). He served in the Austrian Army in World War I.

Urged by Cogswell, Langsner then told of his two visits to the Booher farm and his silent communion with Vernon Booher in the guardroom of the jail. He explained that he did it all by thought waves.

Then Maclean took over, but he was unable to get anywhere with the redoubtable doctor. He led the little thought catcher up to the garden path many times, but never down it. He asked a number of suggestive questions but Langsner always answered simply.

“Dr. Langsner,” Maclean said finally, “you stated earlier that you had never been convicted of a criminal offense.” He waved a yellow sheet of paper. “Let me read this cable to you. It is from the chief of police of Vienna.

“ ‘Dr. Maxmilian Langsner of Vienna convicted here of common assault March 20, 1922.’ Now, Dr. Langsner, what have you to say about that? Did the great mental giant lose his memory?”

Langsner’s face broke into smiles. “Common assault a crime? I had never entertained such a thought, but if that is so in Canada you must forgive me; I had not intended to deceive the court. You see, my lord,”—and here he turned to the judge, speaking almost confidentially—“on this occasion in 1922 I was entertaining at my home in Vienna the celebrated Ganna Walska, the opera singer. Your lordship would know her well. One of my guests became a little, ah, intemperate, and quite offensive to my guest of honor. I asked him to apologize, and he refused. I asked him to leave my house, and he refused. No other course was left open for me but to eject him forcibly. When he laid a charge against me I did not dignify the man by contesting the matter, but paid a small fine out of court."

“Your lordship,” he added brightly, “being a gentleman, would have done the same.” He turned to face Maclean.

“That’s all,” Maclean snapped.

Only Static on His Radio

But there was some re-examination, and the judge could not resist, any more than Hancock could earlier, asking the criminologist the $64 question.

“You say, doctor,” the judge asked, “that you are a mind reader?”

He got the same answer the doctor had given Hancock.

“Well now, doctor,” the judge went on, “you have told us of a number of events in your life today. I am thinking of one of them. Can you tell me what it is I am thinking of?”

There was a short pause. Any spectator would have guessed that the judge was thinking of the time Langsner ejected the drunk from his house in Vienna, but would Langsner take the chance? Or was it a chance? Would Langsner read the judge’s mind right in his own courtroom? The silence as the judge waited for Langsner’s answer was oppressive.

Finally Langsner spoke. “My lord, in this crowded courtroom, where the life of a man is hanging in the balance, the thought waves are of great power and intensity and there are many of them. If that part of me which receives these waves were compared to a radio receiver it would be as if nothing were coming out of the radio but static, and that very loud and quite incomprehensible.

“Thank you, Dr. Langsner.” The Chief Justice smiled pleasantly. “I was thinking of the time you were obliged to speed your parting guest on his way from your home in Vienna. You may step down.”

Maclean’s address to the jury was a masterly forensic effort. He hammered home relentlessly the fact that there was no motive, and certainly, with Booher’s confession excluded, none was apparent to the jury.

Turning his attention to Langsner he pulled out all the stops, referring to the doctor as “snake-eyes,” “a disreputable Vienna convict,” “a foreign hypnotist who fought against us and our gallant allies scarcely more than 10 years ago,” and “an Austrian charlatan.” He alleged that he had hypnotized Booher in the guardroom. He dismissed the mind reading or thought catching by saying that Langsner had merely made a lucky guess. He insisted that mind reading was scientifically preposterous and that all theatrical mind-reading acts were flummery of the first rank.

The Judge Was in Tears

But for all Maclean’s argument the jury found Vernon Booher guilty after a retirement of 1 hour 40 minutes.

The Chief Justice gazed on the 20-year-old impassive youth with infinite compassion. In tones not quite steady he sentenced him to hang on December 15. Before the Chief Justice had finished intoning the sentence of death tears came to his eyes and streamed down both sides of his cheeks. Obviously overcome with emotion he hurriedly left the courtroom.

But Maclean did not give up. He entered an appeal for a new trial and argued strenuously before the Court of Appeal that, since Cogswell had mentioned the existence of a confession, and that the confession had been rejected by the trial judge, a new trial should be ordered. The appeal judges agreed and Booher went on trial for his life for the second time.

The second trial had none of the color or drama of the first. Langsner had gone; there was no trouble with Adjutant Stewart; the confession angle had been settled in the first trial; and the judge, Mr. Justice Walsh, later Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta, did not seem to be the slightest bit overcome by the fact that he was obliged to sentence a four-time killer to be hanged.

One or two incidents at the second trial, however, are worth recording. Even the lay spectators were astonished at the vehemence, indeed the violence, of Maclean’s language in his address to the jury—

“The unfairness of the way this case has been conducted by the police and the attorney-general is the most damnable thing that has occurred in the British Empire in the last hundred years. The attorney-general responsible (J. F. Lymburn, K.C., of the then United Farmers of Alberta Government) for bringing Langsner into the case is not fit to be an attorney-general and the head of the police force who authorized it is not fit to be the head of a police force.”

“The Evidence is Against Me!”

The judge commented on Langsner’s connection with the case in more temperate language. “It is unfortunate,” said Mr. Justice Walsh, “that this man came into the case at all. No doubt those who brought him into it regret it as bitterly as I do myself. It is foreign to our system of justice and I hope it will not be repeated in this country.”

The jury in the second trial was out for five hours before it returned with a verdict of “Guilty.”

When the second death sentence had been pronounced on him, Vernon Booher paled suddenly and cried, “The evidence is against me! I am not guilty!”

This was the only occasion when the steely nerve of Booher broke, from the time Dr. Heaslip arrived at the Booher farm until the gallows trap sprung under the youth’s feet at the Fort Saskatchewan jail on April 26, 1929.

As an encore to his sterling performance in the Edmonton witness box Dr. Langsner hired a hall in the MacDonald Hotel and advertised he would put on a mind-reading exhibition at the somewhat exorbitant (in those days) charge of $3 a ticket. The show was a sell-out.

Langsner was conventionally attired in white tie and tails. The equally conventional glamorous blonde acted as his assistant.

The Bloodhound Wore a Mask

Most of the acts were strictly second-class vaudeville, but one was different. Two men came from the wings, each holding a burlap sack, and Langsner explained that each sack contained a fighting cock which would act only on the snap of his fingers.

The owner of the birds, a local man, confirmed that Langsner had never seen them before.

The handlers released the birds at Langsner’s signal, and he snapped his fingers. Instantly the two game cocks tore into each other, savagely intent on destruction. At the height of the combat Langsner appeared to snap his fingers—though no one could hear the snapping for the noise. At once the birds stopped fighting, virtually in mid-air; and when they hit the floor they stood frozen gazing off into space.

Langsner then delivered a short lecture on the power of mind over matter, but no one was listening; the crowd’s attention was riveted on the motionless cocks. Someone said later they didn’t even bat an eyelash.

Another snap of the magic fingers brought them to instant life and they flew at each other with renewed frenzy. The fight was a little one-sided when the doctor’s fingers snapped again—the birds froze, the handlers gathered them up and put them back in the sacks. Perhaps they’re still frozen.

Langsner was next heard of in Calgary a few days later. He announced that he had been retained by “some Toronto interests” to solve the mysterious murder of Ambrose J. Small and had, indeed, made considerable headway with the matter by remote control, as he had already determined the identity of Small’s killer and the precise location of Small’s body. He proposed to leave for Toronto soon and these things would be divulged in due time.

When Langsner arrived in Toronto the Press of that city was as generous in its coverage of the great thought catcher as the Edmonton press had been. Endless reports were published of the great man going around and about Toronto, masked, scenting out Small’s burial place.

Yes. that’s right—masked. In Toronto Langsner wore a mask wherever he went. But the Small murder—if murder it was—remains unsolved.

Nobody seems to know what happened to Dr. Langsner after that and the best the Alberta Provincial Police can do is report that in 1931 he had been heard of in Poland.