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Century-old crime illustrates class conflict

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IN 1915, a Toronto maid killed her employer, shooting him on the front steps as he returned home from work. Arrested on the spot, the inevitable outcome seemed likely -- she would be found guilty of murder and hanged.

Or would she?

In her latest work of popular history, well-known Toronto biographer and historian Charlotte Gray uses discerning research and a perceptive tone to weave a compelling tale of murder, class conflict and societal changes brought on by war in early 20th-century Canadian society.

In some of her previous books, the British-born Gray has written about some of Canada's most famous people and great moments in history, such as Alexander Graham Bell and the Klondike gold rush.

"Yet after finishing each one of these books," she says in the introduction to The Massey Murder, "I found myself wondering about forgotten lives, the long-dead individuals who left no record behind them. What happens to anonymous, powerless individuals who are swept up by events and currents completely beyond their control?"

Gray, a former journalist in Ottawa, begins in the middle of Carrie Davies' story -- the day she killed her employer, Charles Albert (Bert) Massey, grandson of the founder of the prominent farm equipment manufacturer and a cousin of future governor general Vincent Massey.

The 18-year-old domestic servant from Britain accused Bert of making improper sexual advances. She confessed to the crime at the scene and was taken into police custody.

Gray had to rely on the report of the coroner's inquest and newspaper coverage of the shooting and trial as the basis for the book. Further, in-depth research enables her to use Davies' story to paint a picture of life in Toronto in 1915.

She describes buildings and neighbourhoods to set the scene, but she also touches on the tone of Toronto's newspapers, the workings of the court system and the social stratifications of city life.

As well, she provides some national and global context of the era. She highlights the new feminist thinking on maternal issues, for example fresh milk for children and better working conditions for servants (rather than wage parity and equality).

Gray writes clearly, with a seemingly effortless flow as she moves from writing about Carrie and a description of the notoriously terrible women's jail, to some background on Charles Massey and the ongoing Toronto newspaper war that made the crime notorious.

Gray also links the story to issues and concerns around immigration, nationalism and the Great War, which was then in its second year.

Rather than becoming confusing, each shift is done smoothly and shares information that deepens the reader's understanding of the murder itself as well as the issues of the day.

Gray moves through all the technical details of the case without losing the reader's interest, including the coroner's inquest, the hearing and the arraignment before getting to the meat of the story -- the trial.

The courtroom was packed and the revelations from Davies' testimony elicited gasps from onlookers, but the verdict itself caused the biggest reaction from the citizens of Toronto.

A special touch is the chapter that focuses on what happened to the key players in the story, bringing a sense of closure to the tale.

In The Massey Murder, Gray shows real kindness and compassion, bringing a sense of humanity to a once-lurid tale from the tabloids.

 

Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 A1

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