August 20, 2019

The Forgotten Story of a Jewish Cowboy

“My great-grandmother Sarah Feinstein was murdered on Aug. 1, 1913, in Winnipeg’s “Hebrew Colony.” The city’s only unsolved homicide that year, it made the Canadian newspapers from Toronto to Vancouver, in English and Yiddish. The Winnipeg Tribune called it “without doubt one of the most mysterious occurrences ever recorded in the annals of this city.”

A century later, when I set out to investigate this piece of my family’s history for a book I am writing about the murder, I knew almost nothing about my great-grandmother. I had just one photograph of her, taken on her wedding day. She is standing tall, stern-faced, her hair swept up, pendants hanging from her necklaces, her elbow resting on the back of a chair.

While I didn’t think much about it at first, this was also the only photograph I had of my great-grandfather David Feinstein, sitting in that chair with a trim mustache and neatly parted hair, wearing a stiff-collared shirt under a jacket and tie.

Sarah was just 26 when she was killed. Although she’d had a relatively full life in the seven years since she’d immigrated to Canada from Russia—she’d gotten married and had four children—her story was cut dramatically short by her assassin, leaving precious little of her for me to discover; there were no more photographs to find.

But David lived almost six more decades after the murder, finally dying of a stroke in 1971, a few months after I was born. So what began as an investigation into my great-grandmother’s death soon turned into an investigation into my great-grandfather’s life, years of research that revealed many more photographs, and tales I’d never heard, and relatives I’d never met. The things I learned about him as I collected these images and stories changed how I thought about not just my own family history, but the story of Jewish immigrants more broadly—a story that I thought I already knew.”

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