Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray

Canadian author, Charlotte Gray brings history to the masses in this detailed account of the events surrounding the murder of Charles Albert (Bert) Massey by his family's domestic servant, Carrie Davies at the turn of the last century.

On the evening of Monday, February 8, 1915, Bert Massey was shot on the steps of his house at 169 Walmer Road by eighteen year Carrie, a British immigrant. Massey was carried to a neighbour's home where he died and Carrie, in shock, was arrested and taken to police headquarters at City Hall.

Carrie Davies had been in Canada for a mere two years, employed during that time by the Massey family. She arrived from Bedfordshire, England with the hopes of obtaining work as a maid in order to send money home to her widowed and nearly blind mother who had four children to support.

When questioned by police, Davies stated she shot Massey because "He ruined my character...",  a shocking allegation against a wealthy family that was a pillar of the Toronto's upper class at the turn of the century.

Set against the backdrop of World War I, Gray takes her readers first through the crime and then goes on to explore the events surrounding the trial by portraying life in Canada in the early 20th century and describing many of those involved either directly or indirectly in this major newstory.  Life in the city of Toronto in 1915, the history of the legendary Massey family, the women's movement in Canada and women's changing role in society in the early 20th century, the Toronto newspaper scene, and the Toronto judiciary are all detailed before Gray gets down to the actual details of the trial.

Gray describes the Women's Court, a separate court for women set up by the National Council of Women and Toronto's Local Council of Women, who were concerned for the integrity of the judicial process when it came to women. As women were unable to vote or create laws, the judicial process was usually not favourable to them. Only women were allowed to attend Women's Court.

The Massey family history is explored in-depth in a separate chapter entitled, "The Muscle of the Masseys". The Massey family were American Methodists from Vermont who settled on farmland north of Lake Ontario in 1802. Bert Massey's great-grandfather, Daniel, purchased a workshop in Newcastle and this heralded the beginning of the Massey foray into the production of agricultural implements - a venture which would make them millions. From the sale of threshers and reapers the Massey family became one of Canada's first self made millionaires. Gray reveals to readers how Bert's family gradually became estranged from the rest of the Massey's with the death of his father Charles from typhoid in 1884. Nevertheless, when the shocking circumstances surrounding the murder of Bert in 1915 began to surface almost immediately and the Massey name was facing the possibility of being irrevocably shamed, the Massey family began to assert their influence.

There's an interesting chapter on what was termed the "White Slave trade" - girls who traveled from Europe to be domestic servants in wealthy Canadian families. Such work often entailed long hours, little time off and placed young women in situations where they were preyed upon by their employers with little recourse to the law should events turn dangerous.

The Massey Murder is an engaging read for those who have a keen interest in Canadian history and that is the strength or weakness of this book, depending on your level of interest.  For those with a historical bent, Gray gives her readers a strong sense of Toronto society and life in Canada during the World War I era. Canada was a British colony and Toronto was a predominantly white, British immigrant city with a sense of obligation and duty to the England and King George V. Gray's main thesis is that Davies' legal counsel, Herbert Hartley Dewart, KC, was determined to win her case by creating a story for Carrie that would get her acquitted. There were several motivations behind his determination to win this case. The first was bad blood between the Dewart and Massey families. His father, Hartley Dewart Senior and Hart Massey had been at odds over the move of Victoria College from Cobourg to Toronto years earlier. There were also rumours of a stock deal gone bad between the two family patriarchs. Dewart had also lost an important case early in his career to a lawyer who managed to portray his client accused of murder, as the victim. Dewart never forgot this case and it was a lesson he was to use in Carrie Davies favour years later.

Hartley Dewart would craft a story that was based on his client's purity and defense of her honour - something that would turn the tables and make Bert Massey the villain. He would compare Carrie's fight for her honour to that of the British soldiers fight for honour in the trenches of the brutal war going on in Europe. He would appeal to patriotic sentimentality and the steadfastness of the British working class as the foundation of the British Empire. It was a risky defense but it just might work.

The main draw of the story, the trial of Carrie Davies on the charge of murdering Charles Albert Massey, takes up a mere four chapters of the book. These chapters are filled with drama and theatrics that would never be a part of a criminal trial in the 21st century. They are particularly insightful because they demonstrate how little the force of law played into the resulting verdict. The use of the "unwritten law" defense which entailed Since the transcripts of Davies trial were not preserved due to her acquittal, Gray relied on contemporary newspaper accounts to write about the trial.

Gray concludes her book with a follow-up chapter on the main characters in this drama, which will be of interest to readers. Charlotte Gray's blog has an relevant entry from 2013 about an encounter The book includes a map of Toronto during the time the events occurred, a diagram of the Massey family tree, black and white plates of Toronto newspaper coverage pluse many photographs of the Masseys and life in Toronto during this era. There is a detailed source list at the back of the book but no annotated bibliography.

When writing history it can be difficult to discern between fact and embellishment. Some readers may find this the problem with The Massey Murder. Gray mentions that no transcript of the Massey trial survived because of the outcome, so her account is based on newspaper articles of the day.

Regardless, this is a fascinating account of an event that gripped Toronto almost one hundred years ago.

Book Details:
The Massey Murder. A Maid, Her Master, And The Trial That Shocked A Country by Charlotte Gray
Toronto: HarperCollins Publisher Ltd.     2013
308 pp.

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