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culture

Historicist: A Massey Family Murder

The tale of the Massey's bad seed and the family maid.

Front page of the Toronto Star (February 9, 1915).

Front page of the Toronto Star (February 9, 1915).

Returning from work one early evening in February 1915, Charles “Bert” Massey—of the Masseys, they of Massey Hall and Massey College—walked towards his fashionable brick residence at 169 Walmer Road. As he approached the front door, his young English servant, Carrie Davies, burst out, brandishing a revolver. Shouting “You ruined my life,” according to a Toronto Globe (February 27, 1915) account, she raised the weapon and fired.

The shot was wild, but her second struck Massey in the chest. Attempting to flee, he stumbled to the sidewalk, falling as neighbours, who’d heard the gunfire, rushed to give assistance. Within minutes, he was dead.

When police constables arrived, they found the 18-year-old maid in her attic quarters—dressing, she said, so she could set off for the nearest police station to confess her crime. She admitted her actions, alleging that her wealthy employer had attempted to rape her the day before.

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.

Born in Bedfordshire, England, Davies grew up in impoverished conditions made worse when her father, a disabled Boer War veteran, died when she was 16. In the early 20th century, the Canadian government, through various partner organizations, was recruiting young, respectable, trustworthy, and chaste unmarried working-class women to work in Canada, where there was a shortage of domestic servants. Davies signed up for the scheme and immigrated to Toronto, where she found a position as a live-in servant in the bourgeois Massey household. She rarely went out or socialized, dedicating little of her wages to herself, in order to send $5 or $10 from her pay back to her partly-blind mother and three younger sisters. It was supposed to be more respectable work for women than that found in public locations like factories, shops, or hotel bars.

Photo of the house on Walmer Road by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

Photo of the house on Walmer Road by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

Massey was 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.

The son of Charles Albert Massey, who had managed the family business through the 1870s, Bert Massey wasn’t as highly regarded by his grandfather—founder of the company and patriarch—as his cousins Raymond and Vincent. Rather than taking active part in the family’s farming equipment company, he became a salesman for York Motors.

Davies was brought to trial for the shooting later that same month, before Chief Justice William Mulock. Among the usual assortment of prostitutes, drunks, and vagrants in the women’s court, Davies stood out, looking “like a mild and gentle Sunday school pupil,” in the words of the Telegram.

2013_02_09_TorontoStarFebruary16-1915_410To begin the trial, the prosecuting attorney, E.E.A. Du Vernet, argued that because Massey had not succeeded in his assault, his murder was not justified. Although his efforts were seen as half-hearted by some observers, as Carolyn Strange writes in detailed account of the case in the anthology Gender Conflicts (University of Toronto Press, 1992), Du Vernet implored the jury to find her guilty of manslaughter.

(Right: Article from Toronto Globe; February 10, 1915.)

Davies’ own lawyer, Hartley Dewart, did not dispute the prosecution’s factual reconstruction of the killing, but pled for mercy. He emphasized her modesty and virtuous reputation. (Dewart even established Davies’ virginity, according to the standards of the day, by calling to the stand a doctor who had examined her physically.)

She was from a respectable working-class family, he argued, and had been instilled with wholesome British values. Davies was an innocent, vulnerable young woman, who fell prey to a wealthy but dishonourable brute, who nearly succeeded in ruining her. “We have placed upon ourselves as Canadians the duties of trustees and guardians for girls who come from homes such as this to Canada,” he told the all-male jury, calling upon their sense of chivalry, fatherly instincts, and British gentlemanly values.

Finally, as proceedings wore on Davies took the stand herself, marking the culmination of the already dramatic trial as she recounted the circumstances leading up to the crime.

On Sunday, the night before the murder, Massey’s 14-year-old son went out after supper. Massey’s wife, Rhoda, was away visiting her family in Connecticut. This left Davies alone in the house with her 32-year-old employer, who, just days earlier, had drunkenly made lewd comments to her.

Seemingly intoxicated again, Massey now excitedly but awkwardly tried to offer her a ring in appreciation of her services. “Then,” Davies testified, “he caught me round the waist and kissed me twice, and said he ‘liked little girls.’” Resisting, she managed to escape. Not long after, Massey called her to his bedroom to make his bed. When she complied, Davies said, Massey grabbed her and threw her onto the bed. He tried to force himself on her until she wrestled free and escaped to her own room.

Davies managed to slip out of the house, and made her way across town to Cabbagetown, where her sister—her only relation in Canada—lived, and told her sister and brother-in-law of the incident. They advised her to return to work and fulfill her duties as employee. While they told her to be careful, they did not encourage Davies to report the attack to the police. The three knew intuitively that a servant girl had little chance of courtroom success against the scion of the powerful and wealthy Massey family. Between 1880 and 1930, Strange writes, “not a single Toronto domestic who laid a complaint of indecent assault or rape against her master saw him punished.”

2013_02_09_GlobeFebruary10-1915_400In Toronto The Good (The Toronto Publishing Company, 1898), C.S. Clark’s sensationalist excursion into the unsavoury elements of turn-of-the-century Toronto, the journalist wrote that it was common for male members of a household to take sexual liberties with their live-in domestic servants. “[O]ne lad of eighteen years informed me,” Clark noted, “that in five years there had not been a domestic in their house with whom he had not had improper relations.”

(Left: Article from Toronto Globe; February 10, 1915.)

In such situations, power rested squarely in the hands of the employer. If a servant girl were dismissed with a whiff of scandal (or even just without a letter of reference), Magda Fahmi argues in an article in Labour/Le Travail (Spring 1997) [PDF], it could easily send her tumbling into desperate circumstances. In a 1913 study, the Toronto Social Survey Commission found that of 75 prostitutes surveyed, 36 had formerly been employed as domestic servants.

For Davies, therefore, the stakes were high if she didn’t return to work. So, divided between her sense of duty to her employer and her fear that she would be ruined if he succeeded in his advances, Davies arrived back at the Massey household at 11:20 p.m. on Sunday night.

The next morning she prepared breakfast for her attempted assailant, then hid in the cellar until Massey had left for work. “I was alone in the house all day Monday,” Davies testified, “and was worrying about what had happened on Sunday, and was not able to do all my work. Being my master, I thought it was a disgrace for him to kiss me.”

“When I saw Mr. Massey coming down the road I lost all control of myself,” she testified. “Everything became misty before me,” she continued. “I only thought of his doing me harm, and knew I would have to defend myself in some way or other. I could only think of the revolver hanging in the little boy’s room.” She continued: “He started to run and I kept on pulling the revolver, but the trigger did not seem to work. I could only think of his doing me harm.”

“The attack gave the girl only one alternative,” Dewart argued in his closing statement. “If she did not defend herself against this man she would have been a fallen woman, an outcast, one more sacrifice. Let that sink into your mind. It was not manslaughter. It was brute-slaughter.

Du Vernet countered in the prosecution’s closing argument that, by slaying her unarmed employer without his having a chance to give his side of the story in court, Davies had issued a death sentence. It was a penalty, he noted, that was out of balance with Massey’s alleged crime.

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 honor as a soldier is in shooting the enemy for the honour of his country.” A male letter writer to the Daily News, on the other hand, was certain everyone was “being carried away by the twaddle served up by the lawyer for the defence.”

The Star vehemently defended the deceased’s honour as a gentleman and—acting as the apparent mouthpiece of Massey’s powerful relatives, who didn’t care to see their name in scandalous headlines—sought to discredit Davies. In one Star story, Massey’s brother recalled Davies’ history of epileptic episodes, which he said sometimes caused her to carry “on like an insane person.” He added: “[W]e feel sure that the crime was committed in a fit of temporary insanity, and many things that puzzled us in the past seem very clear now.”

The jury arrived at their decision in under half an hour of deliberation. Verdict: not guilty.

The crowd in the court-room was jubilant. The elderly judge had tears in his eyes as the admitted killer was pronounced innocent. “Thank you, Judge,” Carrie Davies responded, “and thank you gentlemen of the jury.” She had played the part of the deferential maiden perfectly, Strange suggests, while her lawyer, the judge and jury had taken the role of being her chivalrous protectors.

2013_02_09_TorontoStarFebruary27-1915_400In the wake of the sensationalistic trial, Dewart was elected to the provincial legislature in 1916, becoming leader of the Ontario Liberal Party not long afterward. Due in part to his role in Davies’ trial, the Star‘s management actively worked to prevent Dewart from becoming premier in the 1919 election. After losing in that race, Dewart retired from politics.

(Left: Article from Toronto Star; February 27, 1915.)

Upon her acquittal, Davies received numerous offers of employment. She declined them, refusing to accept work in any private residence. Decades later, author Frank Jones tracked down Davies’ daughter and uncovered what happened next to the once-famous defendant. Davies married Charles Brown, an older English farmer based in Huttonville and Norval. Moving from farm to farm in Ontario, Davies and her family lived at the edge of poverty. Davies spent much of her time on charitable work, volunteering at church and dedicating her time to Georgetown’s Cedarvale Home for Wayward Girls. She never told her two children of her notorious crime and trial before her death in October 1961.

Additional sources consulted: Frank Jones’ fictionalized retelling, Master and Maid: The Charles Massey Murder (Irwin Publishing, 1985); Carolyn Strange, “Wounded Womanhood and Dead Men: Chivalry and the Trials of Clara Ford and Carrie Davies,” in Franca Iacovetta and Mariana Valverde, eds., Gender Conflicts: New Essays in Women’s History (University of Toronto Press, 1992); and newspaper articles from the Toronto Globe (February 9, 1915), and the Toronto Star (February 9 and March 2, 1915).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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