Going Out

WEEKEND LONG READ: Charlotte Gray dives into true crime with “The Massey Murder”

Known for historical biographies, local author Charlotte Gray dives into true crime with “The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and The Trial That Shocked a Country.” The salacious 1915 trial, pitting a teen housemaid against her powerful employers, shocked the city. In Gray’s hands, the machinations of the lawyers, judges, and journalists also shine a light on the social mores of the time

Evening Telegram - Friday Feb 9thBy Paul Gessell

It was an ordinary house in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. But it was a house with a past. And Ottawa author Charlotte Gray was determined to learn all she could about the building at 169 Walmer Road.

On this day in 2011, she already knew much of the story, having previously scanned newspaper accounts, legal documents, and photographs that described what had happened here. But Gray needed to see and touch the house herself, to commune with its ghosts so that she could get every detail absolutely right for the true-crime book she had started planning two years previously.

The sleuthing author had not warned the residents that she planned to visit. She simply climbed the steps leading to the veranda and boldly knocked on the front door, all the while clutching a slip of paper, a letter of introduction of sorts, that she would leave behind if no one was at home. But a woman answered the door. Gray began the conversation cautiously. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m very curious about this house because I’m writing a book. There was an event in 1915 in which the house was involved,” Gray recalls saying. “Yes, I know,” the woman replied, “a murder.”

And what a murder it was! On Feb. 8, 1915, at the very doorway where Gray stood, Carrie Davies, an 18-year-old British immigrant and housemaid, had raised her right arm and twice fired a pistol — a 32-calibre Savage automatic pistol (available through Eaton’s catalogue for $18 in 1915) — as her employer mounted the stairs. Seemingly in cold blood and without provocation, Carrie fatally shot 34-year-old Charles Albert “Bert” Massey, a Studebaker salesman and man-about-town who belonged to the famous Massey family that supplied farm equipment to much of rural Canada.

Massey Murder****

Some time after the murder, the Massey house was converted into three apartments. The woman, an artist, who answered Gray’s knock at the door, lived on the ground floor. She immediately offered Gray a tour so that her book could better describe the Masseys’ dinner parties, especially the one in which Bert is said to have played an X-rated game of footsie under the table with a woman who was not his wife Rhoda.

During the visit to 169 Walmer, Gray did not get to see Carrie’s attic room or the master bedroom where the maid claimed Massey had, the day before she shot him, tried to kiss her, to convince her to try on Mrs. Massey’s underclothes, and … . The mind reels at all the things Bert Massey wanted to do that day to a teenage virgin while Rhoda was out of town. And Carrie was a virgin. Doctors were asked to verify that important fact for the murder trial. Carrie’s virginity was ultimately what kept her from the gallows.

“She was such a perfect virgin,” the 65-year-old Gray deadpans over mid-morning coffee. Young Carrie earned $16 a month scrubbing and cooking and regularly sent part of her meagre pay home to England, where her widowed, blind mother still had a brood of hungry youngsters to feed. Charles Dickens could not have spun a better tearjerker.

Writes Paul Gessell: "Along with her virginity, Carrie Davies had another asset — a brave soldier sweetheart in Europe fighting for king, country and, it would seem, the honour of innocent virgins, especially British-born ones toiling in Canada."
Writes Paul Gessell: “Along with her virginity, Carrie Davies had another asset — a brave soldier sweetheart in Europe fighting for king, country and, it would seem, the honour of innocent virgins, especially British-born ones toiling in Canada.”

Along with her virginity, Carrie Davies had another asset — a brave soldier sweetheart in Europe fighting for king, country and, it would seem, the honour of innocent virgins, especially British-born ones toiling in Canada. Well, at least that’s how young Carrie’s wily defence lawyer, Herbert Hartley Dewart, framed the story to the jury of working men and farmers whom the defence expected to feel more sympathy for a poor abused housemaid than for an adulterous millionaire’s grandson who, in Carrie’s words, tried to “ruin” her. Dewart cast a convincing spell: convicting Carrie would be unpatriotic and leave chaste young women at the mercy of rampaging Huns — or at least frisky Masseys.

Entitled The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial That Shocked a Country, the non-fiction book about Carrie Davies, Bert Massey, and a cast of eccentric lawyers, judges, and journalists marks a departure for Gray. She is best known for her more genteel biographies of strong, engaging Canadian women from a century or more ago: backwoods pioneer Susanna Moodie, poet Pauline Johnson, the mother of former prime minister Mackenzie King, and suffragette Nellie McClung. This true-crime book, on bookstore shelves this September, is filled with the lurid reportage of battling newspapers, The Toronto Evening Telegram and the Daily Toronto Star.

***

It was while proofing her last book, The Gold Diggers, published in 2010, about fortune hunters in the Yukon gold rush, that Gray started yearning to tell a different kind of story. She had just read two superb true-crime books: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen, the account of a mass murderer in Chicago in the late 1800s, and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale, the tale of a notorious British murder case around the same time. Gray wanted a story with the wallop of those books.

And with the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War in 2014, Gray was confident readers would be in the mood for a book set in that period — one that also explained the era. Context is always crucial in Gray’s books on the past. Certainly, to understand the story of Carrie Davies, one must understand the sexual mores of the time, the class system, the manner in which courts operated, the influence of crusading newspapers, and the way the horrific war in Europe coloured most every aspect of life in Canada.

To find a juicy Canadian crime that occurred during the war to end all wars, Gray sought suggestions from various historians, lawyers, and academics. One lawyer recommended the Massey murder. It was a most unusual case. Carrie Davies was acquitted even though she confessed to shooting her employer, saying she feared further sexual harassment or worse.

At the time, the acquittal of Carrie Davies was considered an “aberration,” says Gray, rather than a precedent-setting case. Canadian courts were generally not ready in 1915 to embrace the notion of battered-wife syndrome or other similar situations that made women justifiably feel they had to kill, in self-defence, cruel husbands and serial abusers. “It would take three-quarters of a century and a revolution in social attitudes before abused women were given explicit protection in the law, but Carrie Davies’ acquittal hinted at the changes to come,” says Gray.

Photography by Tony Fouhse
Author Charlotte Gray was photographed by Tony Fouhse.

Gray’s move to revive the Massey murder grabbed the attention of the Toronto-based Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History.

The organization, which dedicates itself to the study of old legal cases, decided to co-publish Gray’s book. The society treated the book like an academic one, stipulating that it had to be peer-reviewed by a team of lawyers before publication.

Only minor changes were suggested. (One lawyer questioned Gray’s accuracy in placing a wig on the head of Chief Justice Sir William Mulock, the judge who presided over Carrie’s trial. Gray dug a little deeper and discovered a portrait of the bare-headed judge in his robes. She excised the wig from the book.)

Gray also sought advice from Tim Cook, a friend, fellow author, and Canadian War Museum historian specializing in the First World War. Years earlier, Gray had recruited Cook to join her on the board of Canada’s History, the Winnipeg-based magazine formerly known as The Beaver. Gray chaired the board from 2009 to 2012. “I was always deeply impressed,” says Cook, “with her dedication to sharing Canada’s stories with all Canadians and, at the editorial meetings, pushing the magazine editors hard for inclusive history of women, social, and cultural history.”

Adds Deborah Morrison, publisher of Canada’s History: “Like many, I have always loved Charlotte’s writing because she has such an incredible talent for making you feel you are right there, living and breathing the lives of the people whose story she is telling. I’ve had a lot of friends ask me who they should start with to brush up on their Canadian history, and Charlotte’s books are always at the top of my recommendation list simply because they are so readable. History is never boring in her books — at the end of each one, you’re left wanting to read another.”

***

Gray’s influence stretches far beyond her books and her many history-themed articles in newspapers and magazines. She is an adjunct professor at Carleton University; she is helping the Royal Society of Canada complete a report on libraries and archives in Canada, examining such issues as how archival institutions deal with oral history; and she serves on a committee studying how to turn the Canadian Museum of Civilization into the Canadian Museum of History.

Former museum president Victor Rabinovitch praises Gray’s books as “serious social history” and compares her work to the museum’s style of exhibitions in that they emphasize people and societies. “The museum’s popularity with visitors is similar to her popularity with readers and editors.”

Indeed, Gray’s last book, Gold Diggers, is in the process of being turned into a television miniseries to be broadcast early in 2014 on Discovery Channel. Gray attended some of the shooting last winter in Alberta at a Dawson City-lookalike film set and Rocky Mountain locations standing in for the Chilkoot Pass, part of a deadly route through the Coast Mountains in Alaska to the Yukon. When asked about the trip, the author seemed particularly thrilled that Scottish actor Richard Madden had been cast in the miniseries. Madden is best known for portraying Robb Stark in the popular blood-and-lust American television series Game of Thrones. (Gray says she is addicted to the series.)

However, no one should be surprised that Gray, with her Oxford education and crisp British accent, should so love fantasy soap-opera television and, out of the blue, pen a true-crime book about a salacious murder. Even though this mother of three adult sons claims some of her relatives in England act as if Victoria were still on the throne, Gray is far from a demure Victorian herself. She has an incredibly sharp tongue on occasion, and some friends say she can be astoundingly competitive. But more frequently she is witty and self-deprecating.

Gray cites the late author Sandra Gwyn and fellow Ottawa author and journalist Roy MacGregor as two people who provided guidance when she first arrived in Ottawa in 1979 from England and soon found herself covering politics in a strange land. Says MacGregor, who first met Gray during the 1984 election campaign: “She struck me as, of course, beautiful and educated and suave and sophisticated and of a very high class. But also funny and kind and down-to-earth in her own way.”

The location of Gray’s home nudges Rideau Hall, although it is doubtful the Johnstons drop over for tea, given a rather critical article on His Excellency their neighbour penned for The Walrus. Still, Gray and her husband, George Anderson, a former deputy minister, have become one of Ottawa’s more prominent power couples, meaning Gray now has membership in the same social circles she used to cover, in her pre-book days, as the young Ottawa editor for Saturday Night magazine. Gray and Anderson summer on their own 16-acre Pine Island in the Rideau Lakes. There, Gray can emulate, with a few more conveniences, the pioneer lifestyle captured in her book Sisters in the Wilderness.

Anyone who knows Gray cites her love of Canada and what Tim Cook calls her “passion” for this country’s history. With the 150th anniversary of Confederation coming in 2017, Gray is now looking for a Confederation project. “My self-appointed pompous mission is connecting Canadians with our history,” says Gray. Confederation is certainly part of our history — and so is the story of a lowly chambermaid who deliberately shot a Massey and got away with it.

Gray’s influence stretches far beyond her books and her many history-themed articles in newspapers and magazines. She is an adjunct professor at Carleton University; she is helping the Royal Society of Canada complete a report on libraries and archives in Canada, examining such issues as how archival institutions deal with oral history; and she serves on a committee studying how to turn the Canadian Museum of Civilization into the Canadian Museum of History.

Former museum president Victor Rabinovitch praises Gray’s books as “serious social history” and compares her work to the museum’s style of exhibition in that they emphasize people and societies. “The museum’s popularity with visitors is similar to her popularity with readers and editors.”

Indeed, Gray’s last book, Gold Diggers, is in the process of being turned into a television miniseries to be broadcast early in 2014 on Discovery Channel. Gray attended some of the shooting last winter in Alberta at a Dawson City-lookalike film set and Rocky Mountain locations standing in for the Chilkoot Pass, part of a deadly route through the Coast Mountains in Alaska to the Yukon. When asked about the trip, the author seemed particularly thrilled that Scottish actor Richard Madden is in the miniseries. Madden is best known for portraying Robb Stark in the blood-and-lust British television series Game of Thrones. (Gray is addicted to the series.)

However, no one should be surprised that Gray, with her Oxford education and crisp British accent, should so love fantasy soap-opera television and, out of the blue, pen a true-crime book about a salacious murder. Even though this mother of three adult sons claims some of her relatives in England act as if Victoria were still on the throne, Gray is far from a demure Victorian herself. She has an incredibly sharp tongue on occasion, and some friends say she can be astoundingly competitive. But more frequently she is witty and self-deprecating.

Gray cites the late author Sandra Gwyn and fellow Ottawa author and journalist Roy MacGregor as two people who provided guidance when she first arrived in Ottawa in 1979 from England and soon found herself covering politics in a strange land. Says MacGregor, who first met Gray during the 1984 election campaign: “She struck me as, of course, beautiful and educated and suave and sophisticated and of a very high class. But also funny and kind and down-to-earth in her own way.”

The location of Gray’s home nudges Rideau Hall, although it is doubtful the Johnstons drop over for tea, given a rather negative article on His Excellency their neighbour penned for The Walrus. Still, Gray and her husband, George Anderson, a former deputy minister, have become one of Ottawa’s more prominent power couples, meaning Gray now has membership in the same social circles she used to cover, in her pre-book days, as the young Ottawa correspondent for Saturday Night magazine. Gray and Anderson summer on their own 16-acre Pine Island in the Rideau Lakes. There, Gray can emulate, with a few more conveniences, the pioneer lifestyle captured in her book Sisters in the Wilderness.

Anyone who knows Gray cites her love of Canada and what Tim Cook calls her “passion” for this country’s history. With the 150th anniversary of Confederation coming in 2017, Gray is now looking for an 1867-era story to write. “My self-appointed pompous mission is connecting Canadians with our history,” says Gray. Confederation is certainly part of our history — and so is the story of a lowly chambermaid who deliberately shot a Massey and got away with it.