Who Killed Jackie Bates?

By Bill Waiser

In Who Killed Jackie Bates? historian Bill Waiser takes an archetypal Depression-era tragedy and attempts to complicate it through the use of newly released information and a more accusatory point of view. But while the extra biographical material on the Bates murder adds to our understanding of their story, the book is marred by Waiser’s rush to judgment and crude hammering of an unnecessarily tendentious thesis.

The grim facts: Ted and Rose Bates were an unhappily married couple living in the small Saskatchewan town of Glidden when the Depression struck. Ted was a butcher but not much of a businessman, or a husband. He drank a lot. The couple had a son named Jackie. Scrambling to make ends meet in the economic and environmental dustbowl of the 1930s they shuffled off to Vancouver – not the easiest place to make a go of it then or now. Ted failed in several businesses there and the small family found itself not only without money but falling through what passed for a social safety net at the time. In order to get relief they would have to return to Glidden, something Rose had sworn never to do.

They never got there. After getting back to Saskatchewan they entered into a suicide pact, with Ted and Rose planning to rent a car and kill themselves, and their eight-year-old child Jackie, by carbon monoxide poisoning. The plan didn’t work. Jackie died but the car ran out of gas too soon to finish the job (they hadn’t been able to borrow enough). When she awoke Rose pled with Ted to pinch hit for God: “Do something! Finish me off too! I don’t mind what you do.” He was, however, too weak and dopey from the carbon monoxide to do much of anything. He tried to smash Rose’s head in with the car’s engine crank but wasn’t strong enough. Ditto for his efforts with a butcher knife. Then he tried to cut her throat with a penknife, but only hacked at her neck without severing the carotid artery. Finally he slit his own wrists with razor blades but not deep enough to bleed to death before help, unwanted, finally arrived.

What Dreiser would have done with material like this! The time was past due, but this was Canada . . .

Despite the mysterious title of this slim book, there is little doubt that Ted and Rose Bates killed their son Jackie, and with premeditation. That they were found not guilty by a jury of their peers seems to have been due to an early instance of what has come to be known as “jury nullification.” As the Crown prosecutor said after the verdict, the accused had been proven to be guilty but were “set free through the sympathy felt by everyone.” Even while the trial was underway there were rumours that jurors would not convict. (As an interesting historical aside, one that Waiser strangely doesn’t remark on, the leading case on jury nullification in Canada, R. v. Latimer, would involve another Saskatchewan parent killing his child by carbon monoxide poisoning.)

This “sympathy felt by everyone” – the community of Glidden, the town that Ted and Rose had been ashamed to return to, took up a collection for their defence – is not shared by Waiser. His research reveals that the Bates marriage was coming undone. Even before they left Glidden Rose had written a letter to her sister saying she wanted to leave Ted but couldn’t leave Jackie behind. She even suggested killing herself and Jackie in a double suicide. Unfortunately, Waiser takes such information and chooses to amplify it in the hope of problematizing the conventional – and contemporary – view of the tragedy. He does this in the first place by repeatedly invoking an entirely false dichotomy – that the Bates were either both “cold-blooded murderers” or free of any moral culpability (the “Depression made them do it” defence). Or, in the words of a Crown prosecutor (emphasis added), “the real motive . . . may not have had anything whatever to do with relief . . . the real motive may [have been] family trouble.”

Such either/or distinctions simply don’t work in the real world. The murder was intentional, premeditated, perhaps “cold-blooded” (though that involves more of a value judgment), but also an accident in that it was just one part of a pathetically botched plan. The “real motive” clearly had something to do with the failure of relief, but just as clearly there was “family trouble” as well.

What we do know is that the people who knew Ted and Rose didn’t judge them harshly, and were unswerving in their belief that they loved their son. This suggests a further complexity Waiser seems to want no part of. Instead his narrative presses a finger on the scale against the couple at nearly every turn. Did Rose fail to go see Jackie’s body laid out at the funeral home? No. Why not? Who knows? Any number of reasons suggest themselves. But Waiser jumps in with both feet: “Such callous behaviour would normally have shocked people [meaning it didn’t this time?]. It was as if poor Jackie was being abandoned in death, as if he were some possession his parents no longer wanted or cared for.” As if indeed.

Another technique maximizes rhetorical condemnation by digging in the knife and then twisting it at the end of chapters. At the end of Chapter Five, for example, a nurse at the hospital Rose was staying at after the murder brought a newspaper report of Jackie’s funeral service and made a point of reading it aloud on the ward. Such monumental insensitivity is used by Waiser to make a quite different point:

She [the nurse] thought that Rose would want to hear about the Glidden service for her son and fought back tears as she read aloud the newspaper account at her bedside. All the patients in the ward started to cry as well, especially when they heard about Jackie’s schoolmates shuffling by his coffin to say their goodbyes. Only Rose sat there stone-faced.

End of chapter. Oh wicked Rose! And yet one wonders . . . Who provided this account of Rose’s stone-face? No source is cited. Was it the nurse? Perhaps not the most impartial observer. But even more to the point, were there no other possible explanations for Rose’s lack of emotion? She had, after all, already been through quite a lot. And did she feel like she was now being asked to perform a kind of lachrymose penance before the entire ward?

At the end of Chapter Six Waiser becomes even more judgmental. After their preliminary inquiry Rose and Ted, who had been held in separate custody, were allowed a quiet moment together holding hands and talking before being taken away again. A reporter on the scene was “among those moved by the scene,” seeing it as an indication “that the sordid events of the past week had done nothing by way of lessening mutual affection.” Waiser, who of course wasn’t there, will have none of it: “Few in the courtroom realized at the time that the loving picture was nothing more than a performance.” End of chapter.

This is outrageous speculation. Presumably because of the information he has uncovered relating to their unhappy marriage, Waiser feels confident in asserting that Ted and Rose had no affection whatsoever for each other, and were only play-acting as part of some kind of cynical public relations ploy. How absurd. In the first place they simply weren’t that sophisticated (failures in life and failures in death, as one newspaper nailed it). And whose opinion would they have been trying to influence anyway? Is it not more likely that their joint tragedy had genuinely brought them together, at least for the moment? They had, after all, tried to commit suicide as a family. And at the time of the hand-holding incident they knew that all they had was each other. Murderers they may have been, but surely not the scheming, conscienceless charlatans Waiser makes them out to be.

While Waiser’s research does give an added layer of psychological depth to the Bates story, one finally has more faith in the judgment of their contemporaries. These were weak people living in a hard time, undone by a series of personal and public failures, depressed and seeing no way out. And who can blame them for being fatalistic? The system had failed them. Though they may have been motivated by shame in not wanting to return to Glidden, their last chance for relief, the fact was that they “would have been no better off” there (as there was no relief available in Glidden, even for residents).

For various reasons the idea that society does share in the blame in such cases is not as popular a public position to take today as it once was. And so Who Killed Jackie Bates? is perhaps more a tale told for our times, an oddly ahistorical bit of history.

Review first published online January 5, 2009.