Historicist: How a Murder Fed Anxieties about Toronto Ravines
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Historicist: How a Murder Fed Anxieties about Toronto Ravines

The violent murder of a young woman in the city's east end in 1935 shines a light on the lives of working women in during the Depression.

toronto ruth taylor murder

Ruth Taylor was 20 when she was murdered while traveling alone from work late at night in November 1935. Photo from the Toronto Daily Star, November 6, 1935.

20-year-old Ruth Taylor was a stenographer in the transfer department of the Toronto General Trusts, an insurance firm in the heart of downtown.

On November 4, 1935, she was working late into the night with a colleague, Mrs. Melville. A short distance away at Maple Leaf Gardens two teams of NHLers were playing a pre-season charity hockey match before a large crowd. Not a sellout, but close.

It was around 11 p.m. when Taylor left the office at Bay and Melinda streets, boarded a streetcar—either a Bay car north to College or a King car to Gerrard and Broadview—and began her regular journey home.

As usual, Taylor switched to a Carlton car that would bring her the rest of the way to her father’s home on Norwood Road, a short residential street a little west of Main and Gerrard Street East.

This night, however, the Carlton car that picked up the young office worker was a “hockey special,” one of several extra streetcars inserted into the regular schedule for the crowd leaving Maple Leaf Gardens.

Instead of continuing all the way to Main Street, the special service terminated at Danforth and Coxwell avenues, leaving Taylor to walk the rest of the way from Coxwell and Gerrard in the driving rain.

It was around 11:40 p.m. when she stepped from the streetcar, put up her umbrella, and began to walk east in the dark alone.

About four minutes later she was dead at the bottom of a nearby ravine.

toronto ruth taylor murder

The Toronto Daily Star printed this map of the Gerrard Street East and Coxwell Avenue area. The X shows where Ruth Taylor’s body was found. From the Toronto Daily Star, November 6, 1935.

Ruth Taylor’s late night at the office was typical for a girl her age during the Depression. With jobs traditionally occupied by men scarce amid the financial turmoil, young women were increasingly relied upon as wage earners in households across the city.

“They earned wages in factories and classrooms, the houses of the wealthy, and the offices of Toronto businesses in order to feed, clothe, and house their families,” writes Katrina Shrigley in Breadwinning Daughters: Young Working Women in a Depression-Era City, 1929-1939.

“As long as they worked in women’s jobs, behaved and appeared respectable, they were not a source of discontent. They were, instead, dutiful daughters who intended to follow the path to matrimony and offspring,” Shrigley writes.

Often, young women like Ruth Taylor were forced to leave school and curtail romantic activities in order to provide a steady income.

Unlike in the 1910s and 1920s, when a woman working late into the night and traveling home alone would have been a source of concern, Taylor’s activities that night were considered normal, even admirable.

She was working overtime to help support her single father whose business had recently collapsed.

toronto ruth taylor murder

Police search the Gainsborough ravine for clues after the discovery of Ruth Taylor’s body. Photo from the Toronto Daily Star, November 6, 1935.

Taylor’s body was discovered the next morning at the bottom of the Gainsborough ravine near Wembley Drive, a short walk from where she left the streetcar.

It’s not clear who saw her first. Mary Prentice, who lived on Gerrard Street East in a house that overlooked the ravine, said she had been at her window several times that day without seeing anything unusual.

“My husband came home for lunch, looked out the window into the ravine, and said: ‘Is that a woman lying there?’ The body was nearly naked. We could see a wind-breaker beside it, and a blood stained rag wrapped about the head,” she said.

Around the same time, a woman walking along the street noticed a group of about 20 children throwing stones into the ravine.

“I went to the edge and saw a human body lying at the bottom. I was horrified. I said ‘Don’t throw stones, boys.’ One of them said, ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter, it’s only a dummy.'”

Police officers from the nearby Main Street station and detectives from downtown scoured the area for clues. Bloodstains on the sidewalk led into the undergrowth. Disturbed leaves and dirt on the valley wall suggested Taylor had been clumsily dragged 40 or 50 feet to the bottom.

An inspection of the body revealed significant trauma to the head and face. Taylor’s clothes were badly ripped and her skirt was knotted around her head. Several of her belongings, including her compact, were scattered nearby. Strands of fibre from her blue rabbit hair sweater littered the slope.

She had also been violently sexually assaulted.

“I’m satisfied that death was caused by a fracture on the front of the skull and a resultant intra-cranial hemorrhage,” chief coroner Dr. M.M. Crawford told the Daily Star.

“We have several clues, but it would be premature to make them public yet,” said Inspector John Chisholm, chief of detectives. “Everything humanly possible is being done to solve this case as quickly as possible.”

toronto ruth taylor murder

Detectives form a chain to climb out of the ravine on Gerrard Street East. “The murderer is believed to be a degenerate,” the Toronto Daily Star reported on November 6, 1935.

In the 1930s, Toronto’s ravines were often viewed as dangerous nether regions occupied by the homeless and mentally unstable. Down under the cover of trees and bushes in the steep-sided valleys that cut through the city, unknown terrors lay in wait for people like Ruth Taylor.

“A murder like [Taylor’s] reflected all too well the fear that dangerous, sexually insatiable predators lurked in the darkened corners of public space for young women,” writes Katrina Shrigley in her book.

As a result, ravines were routinely filled in, used as garbage dumps, and generally viewed with fear and concern. “It is a known fact that these immoral maniacs are constantly scouring parks and ravines for prey,” the Evening Telegram reported earlier in 1935.

In the days before her murder, Taylor had told her friends how she was unafraid of ravine near her home.

“Just a few nights ago Ruth and another girl and myself were coming home at night and we were talking about being afraid to pass the ravine and even less lonesome places,” Edith Rapley recounted to the Daily Star.

“The girl who was with us said she was even afraid to go up her street alone late at night. Ruth just laughed and said: ‘Go on, why should you be afraid? There’s nothing to be afraid about in this city. No-one is going to run off with you, anyway.”

“I can’t understand why Ruth was ever walking along near that ravine on such a dark, rainy night,” she said.

toronto ruth taylor murder

Harry O’Donnell, a gas station attendant who lived close to the crime scene, was arrested a short time after the discovery of Taylor’s body. Photo from the Toronto Daily Star, November 7, 1935.

The police were as good as their word. News of an arrest hit the papers on November 7, 1935, just a day after the discovery of Taylor’s body.

Harry O’Donnell, a 25-year-old gas station attendant who lived a short distance from the crime scene, was picked up at his workplace at Gerrard Street East and Woodfield Road.

At O’Donnell’s Hollywood Crescent apartment, police turned out drawers, peered into nooks and crannies, and even disconnected the plumbing in search of traces of blood in the pipes. They left that day with bags of evidence, including a blood-stained overcoat with burrs and pieces of fibre clinging to the outside.

Back in the ravine, detectives found what they suspected was the murder weapon: a jagged, 12-inch rock marked with blood.

A few hours later, O’Donnell was formally charged with Ruth Taylor’s murder.

toronto ruth taylor murder

Detectives scoured the Gainsborough ravine for days in the hope of turning up new clues. Eventually, their persistence paid off. From the Toronto Daily Star, November 9, 1935.

As all of this was rapidly unfolding, the accused’s wife was in a nearby maternity home after giving birth to the couple’s first child a few days earlier.

She had been closely following the case in the Toronto Daily Star, and O’Donnell’s counsel and her nurses were concerned the shock of her husband’s arrest “might kill her.”

“She has learned nothing about her husband and as long as I am here nobody is going to tell her,” one of the nurses told the Daily Star.

In an extraordinary move, rather than simply keep Mrs. O’Donnell from reading the paper, the Star printed a special one-off edition with all mention of her husband’s name removed.

The phoney paper with its fictional front page was delivered nervously to the woman’s bedside by a nurse with the excuse that her husband was sick with the flu and unable to visit.

“Mrs. O’Donnell doesn’t know it, but she is holding in her hand perhaps the only special edition of a Toronto newspaper ever printed solely for one individual,” the Star told its readers on the front page of the real November 8, 1935, edition.

“First her husband’s name had to be eliminated from The Star‘s main story on the newest ravine murder developments and a new introduction written,” the paper explained.

“Then an interesting item telling of the kindly deception arranged by police and nursing home authorities in order to allay her mind about her husband had to be taken out, a new article set up in type and arranged as a replacement.”

“When they catch the man, I hope he gets his deserts,” Mrs. O’Donnell told her nurse, unaware that her husband had just been formally charged with the crime.

toronto ruth taylor murder

Ruth Taylor’s casket was displayed at Mack’s Funeral Chapel on Gerrard Street East. Thousands lined the procession route and gathered outside the chapel. From the Toronto Daily Star, November 8, 1935.

Ruth Taylor’s funeral also took place on November 8 at Mack’s Funeral Chapel on Gerrard Street East. The building, less than a block from her home, was crowded with friends and relatives while thousands of mourners lined the curb outside.

The crush was large enough to warrant a police presence. People perched on verandahs of nearby stores, climbed trees, and strained to get close enough to hear the service.

Friends and relatives expressed shock at Ruth Taylor’s death. Friends said no matter the weather she never accepted rides from strangers and had always refrained from taking a boyfriend.

What remained unclear was why Taylor had crossed to the north side of street if she had hoped to pick up another Carlton streetcar. She also didn’t telephone her father for a ride as she had done on previous occasions.

Rev. John Manuel from Hope United Church, where Taylor had long been a member, decried the “cruel, inhuman, and utterly heartless crime.”

“Why did they have to kill her of all people? She never knew sin,” asked Taylor’s father, Edgar, overcome with emotion.

“I’ve had a lot of hard luck in the last few years. Ruth’s mother died four years ago in June. Then I lost my business, and now Ruth.”

“It’s hard to understand sometimes.”

toronto ruth taylor murder

The high profile nature of the case was underscored by the number of people who turned out to mourn Ruth Taylor. From the Globe, November 9, 1935.

In the days following Taylor’s murder, there were calls to better protect locals from the perils of the murder area.

115 east end residents signed a petition to the city’s Board of Control asking that the ravine be filled in or fenced off. The group also called for brighter lighting in the area and police patrols of vacant lots, parks, and other natural spaces “to protect women and children.”

“That unprotected ravine is a menace to the womenfolk of our district and I am sure that if the city realized the fear in our hearts, it would erect a wooden fence without delay, before someone else is made a victim,” Katrina Shrigley recalls local resident Mrs. M. Stevens telling the Board of Control.

Despite outcry, the ravine remained untouched.

toronto ruth taylor murder

The site of Ruth Taylor’s murder was frequently visited by members of the public in the days and weeks after the discovery of her body. From the Toronto Daily Star, November 8, 1935.

In total, the Toronto Daily Star printed and delivered seven doctored editions for the benefit of Mrs. O’Donnell as she lay in hospital with her newborn son.

According to reports in the Globe and Star, she never became suspicious and appeared to forget about the crime. In order to keep the ruse going, nurses lied that her husband was seriously ill with the flu.

She was eventually informed by her doctor on November 15—two weeks to the day after the murder—and hastily taken out of the city to a relative’s home in the country to recuperate.

toronto ruth taylor murder

The case against Harry O’Donnell hinged on the discovery of Angora sweater fibres found on his overcoat. From the Globe, February 8, 1935.

The evidence against Harry O’Donnell centred on the blood spatters and blue rabbit hair fibres found on an overcoat in his house. Forensic scientists in 1935 couldn’t match blood stains to a specific person, but they were able to tell the difference between blood types.

Unfortunately, the stain on O’Donnell’s clothing didn’t yield sample material for a test to be completed, and the source of the blood remained unconfirmed.

At trial, the prosecution focused on the blue strands of fibre and plant burrs found on the overcoat in O’Donnell’s apartment. Pathologist Dr. I.H. Erb, who performed the post-mortem examination, told the court there was “no essential difference” between the Angora fibres found on O’Donnell’s clothing and those worn by Taylor.

The defence introduced witnesses who said they heard muffled screams coming from a car in the Gerrard Street East and Coxwell Avenue area on the night of the murder. Another woman said she was followed in the area by a group of men in a car who catcalled and heckled her.

O’Donnell’s counsel, Frank Regan, suggested police had ignored evidence a man had stepped off the streetcar with Taylor.

“The police paid $25 to the [streetcar driver] to go and find the man,” he said. “Apparently they attached great importance to the matter. If there was ever such a man he certainly has remained very quiet.” The $25, he said, might as well been spent to “buy ice-cream cones” for all the good it did.

O’Donnell lacked a firm alibi. In his account of the evening, he visited his wife in the maternity home, returned to the service station where he worked, and visited a local hotel. On his way home, O’Donnell said he stopped at a vacant lot on Gerrard Street East where the plant fibres became attached to his clothing.

toronto ruth taylor murder

The trial of Harry O’Donnell was relayed to a rapt public by the Toronto newspapers. From the Toronto Daily Star, February 4, 1936.

The high-profile murder trial began February 3, 1936, and lasted 12 days. The prosecution presented a wrench found in the ravine and engraved with the letters “O.D.” as another possible murder weapon.

“The man who committed this revolting crime would be covered with blood. We have 10 drops,” said defence counsel Regan. “The only bathroom in [O’Donnell’s] house, seen the next day at eight o’clock—no blood, nothing in any form to indicate blood.”

“Do you suppose if he could wash up his clothes in the bathroom, there would have been no trace left?”

After a little under three hours of deliberation, the jury found Harry O’Donnell guilty of Ruth Taylor’s murder on February 14, 1936.

“My Lord, I am not guilty,” said O’Donnell—his first words at the trial—as the death sentence was handed down by Justice Nicol Jeffrey.

An appeal denied, the 25-year-old mechanic was hanged at the Don Jail on May 5, 1936.

Before the executioner sprung the trap, O’Donnell confessed to Taylor’s murder and several other sexual assaults. He described “uncontrollable impulses and strange inhibitions” as the motivating factors behind the crimes.

He said the murder weapon was a piece of concrete, not the engraved wrench.

As Harry O’Donnell made his confession and sought divine forgiveness in the presence of his counsel, Frank Regan, Mrs. O’Donnell sat outside the jail in full knowledge of the truth and the means of her deception.

“Yielding to persuasion, the sobbing woman was led to the automobile of friends,” the Globe reported. “After sitting there for another hour in silent and tearful contemplation of the building where her husband was awaiting death, she was driven home.”

Additional material from the November 5, November 6, November 7, November 8, November 9, November 11, November 12, November 14, November 15, November 16, editions of the Toronto Daily Star; the November 6, November 8, November 9, November 16, November 30, December 3, December 5, January 16, February 4, February 8, February 13, February 14, February 15, March 6, March, April 21, May 1, May 6, and May 18 editions of the Globe and Mail; “Breadwinning Daughters: Young Working Women in a Depression-Era City, 1929-1939,” Katrina Srigley, 2010; “Toronto’s Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City,” 1880-1930, Carolyn Strange, 1995; and “True Crime, True North: The Golden Age of Canadian Pulp Magazines,” Carolyn Strange and Tina Merrill Loo, 2004.

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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