Friday 7 February 2014

Murder in Toronto the Good (back on February 8, 1915)

  Canadian Best Seller On The Shortlist For The RBC Taylor Prize

99-years ago tomorrow, Bert Massey was shot to death on the steps of his modest 169 Walmer Rd home by his live-in 18-year old housemaid.

Award winning Canadian historian Charlottte Gray's The Massey Murder. A Maid, Her Master And the Trial That Shocked Country is a true Toronto crime story that rolls the curtain back on one of the city's most important families and examines - street address by street address - a city that was growing out of its Toronto-the-Good Victorian roots, into a modern urban centre where women were beginning to get rights and a role in politics and law.

His wife away in the US,  Charles “Bert” Massey—of the Masseys, they of Massey Hall and Massey College—walked towards his Annex home. As he approached the front door, his young English servant, Carrie Davies, burst out, brandishing a revolver. She is reported to have yelled “You ruined my life,” before she pointed the handgun and fired. The first shot missed, the next found his heart. He was dead within seconds.  Davies was arrested, confessed and taken to the Don Jail.

As one reviewer has written, "the irresistible storyline of a poor but virtuous maiden defending herself from disgrace made the ensuing trial a sensational affair, attracting reams of newspaper coverage and packing the courtroom with blue-collar workers and society mavens alike".

Gray tells the story of Carries Davies and the legal team that saved her from the gallows.  We learn about the real Massey Family.  Yes they were good corporate citizens (Massey Hall, Fred Victor Mission etc) but they were less kind to their own.  The Massey Family attempted to have the murder charges thrown out of court and the house-maid sent to a mental institution rather than have the family's dirty laundry aired in the papers.  Massey was a disenfranchised Massey - a "vain ne’er-do-well, a respectable cad". A man who “took much enjoyment out of life,” according to one newspaper, Massey was “quite a popular figure among the younger society set,” said another. Put less charitably, Massey liked sports cars and fast women even though he was married with child.

The case was fodder for a raging newspaper war in the city. In Gray's book we meet John Ross Roberts and Black Jack Robinson (The Toronto Telegram), Joseph Atikinson (Toronto Star) and Toronto's ace female reporter Helen Ball (Evening News).   Despite the horror stories coming from Europe (World War 1), these papers kept the murder story, the  arrest, the inquest, the Supreme court trial and the Massey family on the front pages throughout the month of February.

The house-maid was from England, sent to Canada to raise money for her impoverished UK family. She was little more than an indentured slave.  She shot her master after he made lurid passes at her while his wife was away.

The plight of women like Carrie, both in terms of living/working conditions and treatment by the courts was of concern to Florence Gooderham Hamilton Huestis (Toronto Local Council of Women) and suffragette Nellie McLung.  The two women are featured in this book.

Newspapers debated the merits of the case, and Davies’ character, in extended coverage of the trial and the verdict. The editor of Women’s Century argued: “She was as justified in killing the man for her honour as a soldier is in shooting the enemy for the honour of his country.”

Spoiler Alert - Davies' lawyer Herbert Dewart, brings in medical experts who testify that the house-maid is a virgin.  Supreme Court Judge  Sir William Mulock and the jury find Davies not guilty and on February 27th she walks out of court a free woman!

Naming streets, homes and buildings that still stand, this is a riveting read for Torontonians wanting to know about their Hog Town's roots.  And for those that really want to know about the Massey Family the book includes a fold-out family tree chart, vintage photographs and information on where each Massey family member lived in Toronto and where they all the bodies are literally buried.

Journalists - if you would like to know more about the book, the author and /or the RBC Taylor Prize (formerly the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction) contact Stephen Weir at