The Massey Murder

By Charlotte Gray

The wheels of justice could spin at a brisk pace a century ago. On February 8, 1915 Charles Albert Massey (descendant of a less affluent branch of the prestigious Massey family) was gunned down by his maid outside his home in Toronto.

The maid’s trial ended on February 27.

That wouldn’t happen today. But Toronto a hundred years ago was a different place. Just how different is the story that popular historian Charlotte Gray tells in The Massey Murder.

Gray uses the murder of Charles Massey by the 18-year-old Carrie Davies as a narrative hook to hang various bits of Toronto’s social history on, including the daily newspaper wars, the blossoming women’s movement, and class relations in Toronto the Good. Each of these angles would play a major role in the coming trial.

But the big story, the one that dominated the headlines even more than the Massey murder trial, was the war in Europe. In February 1915 it’s clear from those headlines that Canadians had no idea how bad things were “over there,” and how much worse they were soon going to get. Our thinking about the war was still full of myths and illusions.

In part, it was some of those same myths and illusions that would help determine Carrie Davies’s fate. Sympathizers would try to spin her story as parallel to the war. Carrie, a British immigrant with a boyfriend supposedly away at the front (though you’re free to doubt that bit), was, like the Empire itself, a citadel of virtue imperiled by brute and barbaric advances.

Bert Massey’s caddish behaviour toward Carrie, her defence lawyer understood, could be played as being just “like the events in Europe . . . stirring up subcurrents of indignation, resentment, rage, helplessness, and unease in Toronto.” His goal would be to put the murdered man “on a par with the vicious Huns,” and make Carrie’s trial “all about duty – the duty of Carrie to protect her honour after a wanton attack” and “the duty of Canadian lads in the trenches to defend the Empire.” Thus the acquittal of his client “would be tantamount to a patriotic act.”

Would the jury buy it? Well, Toronto a hundred years ago was a different place. A lot of illusions had yet to be shattered, and the law was a little more open to free interpretation. And so what we have here is a fascinating historical snapshot, but one that doesn’t tell us much about how we came to live the way we live now. Too much has changed too radically. Instead Gray opens a window on a not-so-distant past that is now hard to imagine.

Review first published October 19, 2013. But here’s a question: how tall was Carrie Davies? Despite the editorial efforts of Gray’s husband and his “gimlet eye for clichés,” she is simply described here as being “a mere slip of a girl.” What size is that, exactly? I ask because Gray reports that Davies was put through the full Bertillon process after being charged, which involved taking a number of physical measurements. Do we no longer have the results?

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