The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray

The subtitle about sums up this reading adventure in equal parts (A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Nation) with perhaps just a little more about the trial and its effect upon the country than about the maid or about her master but it all adds up to a very entertaining read and an extremely informative one historically. I found it very compelling but would be the first to admit that readers who are not strongly interested in Canadian history particularly in the early twentieth century or in famous families might not be quite as enthralled as I was.

The Preface gets right to the deed which occurred “on a gloomy February evening in 1915” when Massey Murdera gunshot was heard on Walmer Road in Toronto. Carrie Davies, a domestic servant worked in the home of Bert Massey and shot him as he approached his front door on his return from work (he was a salesman of Studebaker automobiles).

The author, Charlotte Gray, explains in the Preface that if Carrie Davies had not “run afoul of the law” we would never have heard of her. “There were no letters, journals, notes, or diaries”.  Gray’s sources were limited she writes: “I had to rely on the official report of the coroner’s inquest, plus newspaper articles.” Fortunately, the daily coverage of the murder was “detailed and vivid”. She also explains that “different newspapers gave radically different accounts” of the murder and this added to the fascination of the case I found.

Gray provides an exceptionally detailed account of the growth and character of major newspapers in the Toronto area at the time of the crime and this in itself is worth the read.

The author’s opening comments must be kept in mind while reading: “I have had to use all the conventions of narrative non-fiction to bring this silent witness to life. I imagine but I do not invent. I do not fabricate characters, events, or dialogue – anything in quotation marks comes from a written source. Physical descriptions, of people and buildings, come from photographic evidence. However, I speculate and interpret, based on empirical evidence and knowledge of common practice and human behaviour. I do so cautiously and only when I am confident that I am more likely to be right than wrong. In the words of historian Modris Eksteins, “For facts to become memorable, an element of fiction [is] essential.” ”

As Gray puts it,…”sometimes, that element is the only way to understand what it was like to actually be there, as the ordered world crumbled and war broke the old vision.”

Carrie’s lawyer was the canny Hartley Dewart who made full use of the currents of “militarism, imperialism, feminism and nascent nationalism” to build a case even though Carrie herself “probably knew nothing about them” as forces in her world.

A “List of Characters” is provided for the reader and is interesting to browse as well as for keeping the participants straight. I found it impressive to find Constable Mary Minty, Toronto’s first female police constable on the list along with Mrs. Sinclair, superintendent of Women’s Department, Don Jail as well as Florence Gooderham Hamilton Huestis, president of the Toronto Local Council of Women. There is a list of witnesses, lawyers, newspapers, officers of the court, and, of course, a list of the Massey Family members. The latter list includes Vincent Massey who was 27 at the time and who became Canada’s eighteenth Governor General and served from Feb 18, 1952 to September 15, 1959. He made a “successful transition”…”away from the occupants (of the office) who had been both members of the peerage and born overseas.” He was in office during my high school years and so I was interested to find him in this book: he was a cousin of the murdered man, Charles Albert “Bert” Massey.

Here is a link  to several actual items from newspapers of the time. The link also contains a photograph of the house on Walmer Road where the shooting occurred. “Bert lived in the Annex, the area between Bloor and Dupont, west of Avenue Road, that had been developed over the previous three decades as Toronto’s population exploded and streetcars allowed middle-class residents to live further away from their workplaces.” Albert and Rhoda Massey lived on the shabbier end of Walmer Road near Dupont.

“Bert’s job as a Studebaker salesman gave him a certain social flash” but “he sold on commission, and with a war on, sales had slumped.” The day of the event in question had “been particularly exhausting”; his wife Rhoda was away and “he had barely bothered to sweep the snow off the sidewalk.
Before Bert Massey reached home, he met Ernest Pelletier, the sixteen-year-old paper boy who had just delivered a copy of the Toronto Daily Star to the Massey house. Massey flashed his most charming smile as he pulled out a quarter to pay for delivery of the Star for the previous month.”

“Bert Massey turned off the sidewalk towards his front door. He had no idea what awaited him.”

Charlotte Gray’s work includes several biographies. I want to read Flint & Feather next. How about you?