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culture

Historicist: A Killer on the Loose

John Kluk, a mentally unstable murderer, skulks through the city's Eastern European enclave.

Someone lurking in the shadows at the rear of 8 Turner Avenue, August 1935. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 1356.

For a few days in the fall of 1940, fear enveloped the districts in which the city’s Eastern European population resided. A killer, recently escaped from a Saskatchewan mental hospital, shot two men, a Pole and a Ukrainian. The latter died of his wounds almost immediately, touching off one of the greatest manhunts yet seen in this city. Through the night and day, police combed yards and alleyways of the district southwest of Queen and Bathurst streets, and throughout the railyards. Meanwhile, the area’s Eastern European families barricaded their doors and windows, terrorized by the prospect of an insane murderer lurking in their neighbourhood.


1924 Goad's Fire Insurance Map of the neighbourhood where Kluk hid and was captured  From Nathan Ng's Goad's Atlas of the City of Toronto project

1924 Goad’s Fire Insurance Map of the neighbourhood where Kluk hid and was captured. From Nathan Ng’s Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto project.

Looking haggard in a worn-out grey suit jacket, greenish sweater, and raggedy white running shoes that advertised he was down on his luck, John Kluk, a 30-year-old Polish immigrant, arrived in Toronto in mid-September 1940 and sought assistance at the homes of acquaintances from the old country who’d likewise made their way to the city.

At the turn of the century, when the federal government was recruiting peasants in Eastern Europe to farm in the Canadian west, many industrial workers also arrived to seek employment in urban centres like Toronto. This nucleus of a community in Toronto grew exponentially, even after the border was all but closed to new immigration during the Great Depression, when many prairie homesteaders harshly hit by drought poured into cities like Toronto looking for work. The precise composition of this community is difficult to assess, however, because of the vagaries of census-taking, which frequently enumerated both Poles and Ukrainians as Germans, Russians, or Austro-Hungarians. Of the estimated 114,000 non-British immigrants in Toronto by 1940, for example, over 10,000 were of Ukrainian descent.

Family at rear of 63 Mitchell Avenue, July 1936, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 29.

The newcomers clustered in the district around St. Stanislaus Kostka Church near Queen and Bathurst, and to the southwest, where Adelaide and Richmond intersected Niagara, areas with boarding houses and service providers catering to the Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, and Slovak populations.

The hardships of the Depression made Eastern European immigrants the convenient scapegoats of the broader society. Negative portrayals in local media were common with the immigrants viewed as interlopers taking bread off the tables of honest, native-born Canadians. In the street, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to hear racial epithets hurled in the direction of newcomers. So the newcomers came to rely upon each other for support. When Kluk began calling on past acquaintances, there was nothing to arouse suspicion. “He kept his cap well down over his eyes and looked sort of queer,” one woman he visited recalled, but he’d spoken playfully with her children and there seemed nothing to fear. At only 5′ 7″ and 140 pounds, Kluk was not an imposing individual.

Rear of 43 1/2 and 45 1/2 Augusta Avenue, March 1939. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 507.

On September 20, Kluk called at 46 1/2 Augusta Avenue, the home of 41-year-old John Plachetko (also spelled Plachtek or Plachedka), a family friend from the old country. Plachetko and his wife treated Kluk to supper at a restaurant and helped him find a place to sleep. The next morning—Saturday—Mrs. Plachetko thought little of it when Kluk returned to their home. She ushered him in, and returned to washing clothes. She overheard the men’s conversation in the front room escalate to an argumentative pitch, as Kluk became enraged over something or other Plachetko was supposed to have said to Kluk’s relatives in Poland years earlier. Then a pistol shot rang out and, as Mrs. Plachetko investigated, Kluk bounded down the hall to escape through a rear window, disappearing into the district’s warren of backyards and laneways.

Clutching at the bleeding wound on his neck, Kluk’s victim stumbled out a front window, crawling to seek assistance at a neighbour’s window. Hospitalized in critical condition at Toronto Western, Plachetko clung weakly to life.

28 Tecumseth Street, south of Wellington Street, September 1938. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 379.

News reports over the next few days sketched in aspects of Kluk’s biography and criminal record, sensationalizing Kluk’s history of mental illness to label him a “mad gunman” fueled by blood lust. Suffering from a psychological condition which caused him to believe everyone was against him, the Polish immigrant had been transferred from Kingston Penitentiary, where he was serving a two-year sentence for a non-fatal shooting, to the hospital for the criminally insane at Penetanguishene in March 1938. After his release as fully recovered in February 1939, Kluk made his way west on passage paid for by a brother in Saskatchewan. His psychological difficulties must have returned while he was an inmate of the Saskatchewan Hospital, a mental institution in North Battleford. He escaped in August 1940 and made his way to Toronto.

Neighbouhood view from 17 Turner Avenue, July 1936. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 40.

Monday morning, Arte Borisevich (also referred to as Artem Borievich and Archie Borislow) was released from jail after serving a 30-day liquor conviction. A 54-year-old veteran who was disabled fighting for the Canadian Army in the First World War, the Ukrainian immigrant’s first act as a free man was to collect a $50 pension cheque. Then, with his friend Emma Irving, Borisevich retired to a hotel beverage parlour, hitting it off over a couple of glasses of beer with an unshaven and dissheveled Pole, whose thick black hair fell over his forehead from under his light-coloured cap.

Wanting “to be a good fellow,” as police later said, Borisevich invited Irving and Kluk at 6 p.m. to continue drinking in his rooms at a boarding house on Turner Avenue, a dead-end street in the heart of the Eastern European colony, running one block west of Tecumseth Street. The three’s consumption soon outpaced their supply, and Kluk and Borisevich departed to purchase more wine. Failing to do so, Borisevich decided to call it a night and returned home alone at about 8 o’clock. A half-hour later, Kluk made his way back into Borisevich’s rooming house at 19 Turner Avenue, demanding another drink from Borisevich.

19-21 Turner Avenue, July 1936. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 39.

“Get to hell out of here. Me no drink no more,” Borisevich was heard to shout by fellow boarders as he tried to push Kluk back out the front door. Pulling a revolver from his trouser pocket, Kluk fired one shot. It struck Borisevich in the jugular vein, causing him to fall back into the living room, bleeding profusely. “When I got to Archie he was slumped over the arm of the chair,” Irving recalled. “Blood was running from his neck like a stream of water.” Rushed to Toronto Western at 8:50 p.m., Borisevich was pronounced dead at 9:12 p.m.

After the shooting, Kluk fled into the street, across an empty lot, towards Adelaide Street—and disappeared.

P.C. Mike O’Shea leaving police building, September 12, 1935. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 37841.

Police descended upon the neighbourhood in two waves. First, detectives secured the scene of the crime, and then every available officer and squad car was called into action to comb the alleyways and yards of the district from Queen Street to the waterfront, between Spadina and the exhibition grounds.

A retirement party for Inspector Nat Guthrie, the brother of the acting chief and a veteran of the force since 1889 was cut short so patrolmen could be pressed into joining the city’s largest manhunt to that point in time. Railway police were enlisted to assist.

Acting on dozens of tips called into headquarters by anxious members of the public, the police rushed from place to place, responding to many false alarms throughout the night. With weapons unholstered and flashlights in hand, officers searched an abandoned house on Adelaide Street, from which Olga and Mary Biloki (also spelled Boleki) and their friends reported seeing a man emerge when playing on a vacant lot that afternoon. The stranger brandished a gun, threatening to shoot them if they didn’t flee. “He told us to beat it or he would shoot us,” 10-year-old Mary told reporters. “He was wearing a grey suit. We all stared at him for a moment and then turned and ran like anything. I was so scared I went home and got into bed.”

26-28 Tecumseth Street, south of Wellington Street, March 1938. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 337.

Next, responding to a tip, detectives searched an abandoned building at Front and Spadina, in which Frank McCullough, who’d murdered a detective years earlier, had hidden after escaping the Don Jail. Several officers fell through the rotted floors of the structure, and were luckily unhurt, but there was no sign of Kluk.

By around 10 p.m., squad cars and motorcycles rushed to the Langmuir Leather Company factory at King and Niagara streets, where a man was rumoured to be hiding. Officers surrounded the building, ladders were used to inspect windows for signs of break-in, and officers climbed to the roof. But again there was no sign of Kluk.

Star (September 24, 1940)

Star (September 24, 1940).

News flashed over the police radio at 10:30 p.m. that a man answering Kluk’s description had been seen leaping over the fence, into the railyards, at the foot of Tecumseth Street. “In a few minutes the hunters converged on the area and started a methodical foot-by-foot search of the [railyard] district,” the Globe and Mail (September 24, 1940) reported breathlessly. “Flash lights dotted the darkness as detectives peered into dark corners guns at the ready in the event the murderer came out fighting.”

“There’s been a man murdered up there tonight,” a man matching Kluk’s description said just after 11 o’clock, as he lumbered toward Margaret Millington, who was walking along King Street near Bathurst. “He had his right hand in his trouser pocket and there was a crazy look in his eye,” she later reported to police. “I was scared to death. He kept nudging me and I backed up and stood behind some drunk who was swaying on the street.” Frank Wright, a friend of Millington’s, happened by, and chased off the man, who fled on foot up Bathurst Street. At 11:30 p.m., police received reports that Kluk was in a Spadina Avenue beverage room. But, after police sped to the scene, it turned out to be another false alarm in the evening’s intensive but fruitless search.

2014 02 22 Star 24Sep1940 390

Wherever police assembled as they zipped around the neighbourhood, doors and windows opened on both sides of the street and locals, in shawls and coats, gathered to watch. Officers scrutinized their faces, concerned Kluk might be lurking in the crowd. There was an air of excitement for the locals of the Polish-Ukrainian enclave, with children chasing behind officers. “They’re after some Germans! They’re after some Germans!’” one small, barefoot boy yelled, not quite realizing the gravity of the situation.

(Left: Star [September 24, 1940].)

The following morning, as a cordon of police continued to scour the neighbourhood, housewives gathered on doorsteps grimly discussing Kluk and their growing fear. “Are we frightened? I’ll say we’re frightened,” one told a reporter. “Neither the children—and I have five of them—nor I can get to sleep at night. I’m mighty thankful I have a man in the house. You wouldn’t find me there otherwise.” Another mother demonstrated for a journalist how she’d barricaded her door the previous night with a rocking chair and two kitchen chairs. Others showed the rolling pins and sticks of firewood they’d kept close for protection. “He doesn’t know us,” another told a journalist, “but that won’t mean a thing to a crazy man like him. Everybody around here is scared. We don’t dare go anywhere or do anything.”

“He’s a raving maniac,” Inspector Douglas Marshall declared that morning, after Acting Chief Constable George S. Guthrie issued orders for police to shoot Kluk on sight. “We aren’t taking any chances. He’s killed one man, tried to kill another and he’ll do the same again if he gets a chance.” Marshall expressed the force’s belief that Kluk was in the neighbourhood, possibly staying with a friend unaware of his alleged crimes. “I don’t think he’s very far away,” the inspector concluded, warning proprietors of beverage rooms in particular to be on guard as Kluk’s seemingly insatiable thirst for liquor might prompt his re-emergence.

63-65 Mitchell Avenue, July 1936. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 30.

After shooting Borisevich, Kluk had fled across a vacant lot on Turner Avenue and found his way into a horse barn behind a house on Mitchell Avenue. Crawling up into the hayloft, the alleged murderer remained in his comfortable hideout until now, on Tuesday afternoon, when he emerged to seek food and drink. He used the few cents he had to purchase bologna and a package of cookies at a Niagara Street store. Then, a man matching Kluk’s description was discovered in the kitchen of a Tecumseth Street residence—changing his shoes—when Peggy Hardy arrived home unexpectedly. The 11-year-old girl ran off in fear, and by the time police arrived, the prowler had again disappeared.

2014 02 22 Star 28Sep1940 208R

Gazing from a window overlooking the backyard of his 57 Mitchell Avenue home, Charles Priolo was enjoying a smoke just before 5 p.m. “What are you doing there?” the Italian-born fruit wholesaler shouted to a haggard man who appeared in the yard. The stranger’s tattered sweater was partially pulled up over his face to brace against the day’s harsh wind and rain, and he had one hand in his trouser pocket, as if holding a gun.

(Right: Star [September 28, 1940].)

“You got nothing good for me to drink? I gotta have a drink,” Kluk demanded.

“Get out of my place,” Priolo shouted back. “Get out.” When Kluk repeated his demand, Priolo—who’d been suffering ill-health—rushed downstairs as fast as he could. By this time, his 16-year-old daughter Ida had spied the prowler from the kitchen window and screamed. Priolo’s wife, peeling potatoes nearby, brandished her butcher knife at the back door, watching attentively as Kluk meandered confusedly, first towards Queen Street and then in the direction of King Street.

Responding to Ida’s telephone call, a police cruiser was on the scene within five minutes. Behind the wheel, Cadet Barry Lorimer, a 20-year-old rookie, spotted Kluk lurching along Adelaide and into a rainswept alley east of Niagara. Despite orders to shoot on sight, Lorimer and Patrol-Sergeant Irving Smith rolled up quietly behind Kluk until they were close enough for Smith to leap from the passenger side and grasp the fugitive from behind.

“You are Kluk,” Smith asserted. “We want you.”

“Yes, I’m John Kluk,” the captive responded, submitting to arrest without resistance.

“You murdered a man last night?”

“Yes, I did.”

As they were handcuffing Kluk, Smith and Lorimer found a loaded .32-caliber automatic pistol strapped to his waist and 32 rounds of ammunition in his pockets, both of which Kluk claimed to have found behind a pile of railway ties in a small Ontario town on his journey east.

Although Kluk initially admitted to shooting Borisevich—because he’d called Kluk a stool pigeon—and Plachetko, further police questioning proved useless. After the famished prisoner wolfed down a huge meal at Claremont Street Police Station, he fell into a long silence, broken only by “incoherent utterances.”

2014 02 22 Star 04Feb1941 239

In court in early October, a pallid-looking Kluk stood motionless, allowing lawyer John Grudeff, a Bulgarian-born attorney who’d long been active in advocating for and assisting the new immigrant community, to do all the speaking.

(Left: Star [February 4, 1941].)

Kluk was remanded to stand trial for the murder of Borisevich and attempted murder of Plachetko. The charges were elevated to two counts of murder when Plachetko succumbed to his wounds on October 16.

At trial on February 3, 1941, Grudeff entered a plea of “not guilty on the ground of insanity” on behalf of his client, supported by two doctors called as defense witnesses. A third doctor called by the Crown dissented, but the jury concurred with the defense. Ruled insane, Kluk would be committed to a mental institution, his lawyers told reporters.

Sources consulted: Andrew Gregorovich, “The Ukranian Community in Toronto from World War One to 1971,” in Polyphony Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1984); Robert F. Harney, ed., Gathering Place: Peoples and Neighbourhoods of Toronto, 1834-1945 (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1985); Lubomyr Luciuk and Stella Hryniuk, eds., Canada’s Ukrainians: Negotiating an Identity (University of Toronto Press, 1991); and articles from the Globe and Mail (June 21, September 23, 24 & 25, and October 3, 11 & 17, 1940; January 25 and February 4, 1941); the Niagara Falls (NY) Gazette (September 24, 1940); the Toronto Star (June 29, September 24, 25 & 28, and October 8, 16, 1940; February 4, 1941); Winnipeg Free Press (September 24, 1940).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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