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?


Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab by Shani Mootoo

“I asked Sydney what he meant by the phrase “someone like Zain.”  He paused, then said: Someone who hadn’t tried to make him into who he wasn’t, but rather helped him to become who he already was.”

That night Sydney told Jonathan more about his thirty years in Canada:  “Living in Canada,Moving Forward Sideways Sydney said, with its complicated protocols and rules of conduct, is a test indeed to the mettle of anyone who arrives there from a tropical country, indeed anyone from anywhere who lands there with more determination than credentials. Being able to survive in a country like that is a recommendation of all who arrive with the earnest intention to become a grander person than would have been possible had they remained elsewhere, of all who come despite the fear that it will be a feat to achieve anything at all without the structure of culture and family, without the armour of one’s connections. You found out in no time, Sydney said, that the clout your good name carried back home in the village, or on the entire island of Trinidad – an island that could easily be tucked into a bay in Lake Ontario – was useless there.”

It could be said that the book is the story of Jonathan and Sid but then it must be said that it is so much more. Jonathan was Sid’s mother and father. Sid was Jonathan’s mother India’s lover. Sid was absent for several years from Jonathan’s life and Jonathan, during those years, was constantly drawn to his memories of Sid. India and Sid and Jonathan lived in a house in the annex in Toronto where India wrote. India and Sid had met in a bar in a building where India was “reading at the launch of an anthology in which her work appeared, and Sid was attending a marathon video screening”. India gave Sid her number and she told Jonathan many years later that “there was instant attraction between them”.  Sid left the home and his relationships with India and Jonathan when Jonathan was ten years old.

Jonathan’s high school years were rather unhappy ones: “…I’d failed at every subject save for Art and English Literature and Composition, and had embarked on a path of delinquency that included smoking at home and on the school grounds, skipping school, not doing homework – to name the most benign of my transgressions. One might say that I had no imagination when, in order to escape being at home with my mother, I hid away in the reading booths at the Toronto Reference Library on Yonge Street. But there in the booths I lost myself in chronicling my longings and grievances in a notebook. The school psychologist, with whom I was now well acquainted, encouraged me to show him the notebook, and it was with his sustained provocation and encouragement that I began in earnest to turn the facts of my early life into short fictional narratives and poems.”

He did publish some work (with his mother’s publisher) and he continued to hope that Sid might see these books and contact him. This did not happen. Then the internet provided a means to find Sid but it was a long search. Eventually he came across an announcement for an exhibition of paintings by a Sid Mahale in New York and he went to the gallery for opening night. The painter turned out to be Ugandan and knew of no other Mahales who were from Trinidad. And so the search went on. Jonathan began searching for the name and the location in Trinidad of Sid’s parents’ home. This got better results.

The reunion is important, of course, but the stories through which Jonathan discovers who Sid is and has been are the things which compel the book forward and which provide a wealth of relational insights.

The story which provides the title is one about Sid and her friend Zain. Sid has fallen asleep in a car on the way to her parents’ home and is awakened by her father:

“I had come reluctantly out of sleep, wanting to stay in the place I had gone to, where I had just said to Zain, “Look at the crabs,” and she answered, “That’s you, Sid, that’s just how you move.” I had heard her correctly, but I responded lightly, “Did you say stealthy, like a cat?”
“No, you fool,” she said.  “Sideways. Sideways, like a crab.””

More teasing and chiding and Zain says: “You move like a crab, is what I said. But learn to walk like me. Like a cat. On foot in front of the other.”

In a deft touch later in the book, Jonathan speaks of how he misses the crabs. He has spoken with his Toronto girlfriend and thinks of telling her that if he missed anything “it was the crabs, and I began to tell her about the crabs that were caught in the swamps and sold roadside in neatly tied up bundles.” Jonathan has learned much about Sydney at this point and so has the reader.

I found the ending sad and very beautiful: I didn’t want it to end but there was a peacefulness which the author had created. There was also a satisfying feeling of resolution. Have you read any of Shani Mootoo’s work? I have not read one that I did not thoroughly enjoy.