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Bookends: An Upstairs, Downstairs Kind of Murder March 10, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, mystery, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: An Upstairs, Downstairs Kind of Murder

The Massey MurderBy Dan Davidson

January 18, 2017

– 812 words –


The Massey Murder
By Charlotte Gray

Harper Collins

307 pages



On the evening of Monday, February 8, 1915, Charles Albert Massey was on his way home from work. He was the not quite so well to do scion of the very well to do Massey family, a family which had grown wealthy and powerful making and selling agricultural equipment. It was a family that would go on to produce a Governor General and a world famous actor.

At 34 years of age, Bert, as he was generally known, cut quite a swath in Toronto’s social circle. It was true that he was less well off than others of the clan, that the house he and his family lived in was not nearly so grand. He was a high end car saleman in a new industry, and the family was living about his income.They had but one domestic servant, a mousy, quiet 18 year old import from Great Britain named Carrie Davis.

Bert liked her, and had crossed a line a day earlier (while his American born wife was visiting family in Bridgeport. Connecticut) by making several aggressive moves on the girl, which she successfully evaded. Even so, he was surprised, we assume, when she met him at the front door carrying his own .32 calibre Savage automatic pistol, and proceeded to shoot him twice, killing him almost immediately.

Those facts were never in doubt, having been witnessed by several people, and never actually denied by Carrie herself, although she was initially uncertain that she had killed him.

There were larger questions in play in almost no time at all. How quickly could the Massey family get this dealt with in a polite way (the girl was obviously deranged and Bert’s behavior had nothing to do with it) without besmirching the family name?

Then there was the question of public opinion, and what it might due to stimulate the sales of the two big rival newspapers in the city, not to mention the smaller ones.

Then there was the question of Carrie’s defense, and how it might put a feather in the cap of any potential lawyer willing to take it on.

Not much of this had any bearing on whether or not she had killed the man – because she had. Was it a planned event, a spur of the moment decision? Was the girl merely protecting her honour (her virginity, as it were) against a further assault?

Hartley Dewart, KC, had the daunting task of presenting a Carrie that was tried beyond her young endurance, forced to defend herself, and driven to the killing of her employer on the spur of the moment.

The city, already excited by the anxiety brought on by the war in Europe, which had begun the previous August, was somewhat diverted by this drama on the home front, and all sorts of people adopted all sorts of opinions as to what had happened and what ought to happen next.

This book is a kind of forensic examination, but it is not one about the facts of the case, which were mostly available to Gray through the newspaper coverage during the 19 days between the act and the verdict.

It is rather an examination of the time, place and society within which the events transpired. It is a portrait of Toronto during that month in 1915, in the midst of the war. As background and context we are offered the rise and fortunes of the Massey family, some of the history of the city’s newspaper wars, and a good look at the tactics that were used to both prosecute and defend Carrie Davis.

One of the reasons the book goes in this direction is that there is very little about the case preserved in the official record. It was a case where assumptions about character and motive trumped the cold facts of the killing.

Gray is the first to admit that the newspaper coverage was pretty cut-throat, and there are often competing accounts of the same speeches and descriptions, but that does help to make the book interesting.

Carrie Davis was a virgin, a major fact in her favour. She had a young suitor who was fighting the Hun in Europe. She seemed even younger than 18 much of the time, and utterly disconsolate at the state in which she found herself. The jury took pity on her.

Gray unfolds the narrative in four parts: The Story, The Law, The Trial and the Aftermath. Chapter 17 finishes off the war story that is interwoven with the trial for the month, and chapter 18 tells us something of what happened to Carrie Davis during the rest of her life. All told, it’s an engrossing story.

Charlotte Gray was Berton House writer-in-residence in 2008.








Bookends: Murder is a matter of decision and action March 10, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, mystery, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Murder is a matter of decision and action

By Dan Davidson

January 11, 2017

– 779 words –

Black River Road 

Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character

By Debra Komar

Goose Lane Editions

224 pages


also available in e-book format.

Debra Komar is the author of three previous books that have used her forensic investigative skills to reexamine real life historical crimes that have taken place somewhere in Canada.

In The Bastard of Fort Stikine, she took on a case from 1842, in which a miscarriage of justice in northern British Columbia was hushed up by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The death of John McLoughlin Jr. may have been a justifiable homicide, but Komar gave it the hearing it never got at the time.

In The Lynching of Peter Wheeler she looked at the evidence in the case of a coloured man who was hanged on the assumption that he has murdered a white girl. In 1896, forensic detective work was in its infancy and Komar concludes that several competing narratives were permitted to overcome the facts of the case

In The Ballad of Jacob Peck, Komar examined an even earlier case, from 1805, in which Amos Babcock was found guilty of killing his sister, under the influence of a religious mania. That he did the deed is not in doubt in her view, but how he came to do the deed, how he was inspired and by whom, become clear during Komar’s narrative.

Her method is to visit the archives, pull out the available material on cases which are somewhat shady, and see what a full “cold-case” examination of the existing records will reveal.

Each book so far deals with a particular manner in which the facts of a case may be distorted. Her most recent book, Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character, provides its theme in the title.

What is, or should be, the role of an accused person’s character in determining his or her guilt or innocence? The murders of Maggie Vail and her child are particularly instructive in examining this premise, for this 1869 case, taking place in St. John. New Brunswick, is seen to be the first in which the social standing and reputation of the accused, respected architect John Munoe, were used as the main argument in his defense by his trial lawyer.

“His lawyer’s strategy was as simple as it was revolutionary,” for that time and place, she writes.

“Munroe’s wealth, education and exemplary character made him incapable of murder.”

These things had not rendered him incapable of having an extramarital affair with Maggie, or of fathering a child with her. That he was connected to her in a number of ways and could be traced to the area where, some months latter, a group of teenaged berry pickers stumbled across the badly decomposed bodies, were facts dismissed by his lawyer as incongruent with his character.

Komar prefaces the elegantly told story of Munroe’s life with an essay titled “The Dahmer Effect” in which she shows how the case of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer led forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz to develop his theory of universal lethality. In short, under the right circumstances, anyone can make the decision to become a killer; it’s the ability to decide and the will to act that make the difference.
Dietz wrote, “I think people are born with the inherent ability to be cruel and harmful and destructive and selfish and acquisitive. It’s the function of many of the institutions of society to train us out of that.”

To some this would seem to contradict the notion that people are naturally good and that crimes such as murder are committed by deviants. To others this might well put a new spin on the older notion of original sin, divorcing it from any connection the sexual act.

In the courts of the post-Dahmer days, character, and its adjunct, motive, matter less than decisions and actions, and it is this point that Komar uses the Maggie Vail case to illustrate.

She does so in a prose style that deliberately echoes 19th century writing and is supported by useful maps, photographs, memorabilia from the high profile trial and a very thorugh listing of footnotes and references.

Debra Komar was the fall to early winter writer-in-residence at Berton House, having turned to writing non-fiction crime books after 23 years as a practicing forensic anthropologist. She has testified as an expert witness at The Hague and throughout North America and is the author of many scholarly articles and a textbook, Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice.


Bookends: Two books about the North for your winter reading February 19, 2015

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Bookends: Two books about the North for your winter reading

By Dan Davidson

December 3, 2014

– 764 words –


One of the perks of writing this column since 1977 is that I’ve had the chance to sample a lot of books I might not necessarily have picked up on my own. In addition, it’s offered me the opportunity to meet, at least by way of interviews, quite a few interesting people who have contributed to my knowledge and understanding of the territory.

In the case of the following two books I interviewed the writers and prepared profiles of them for the Star this past fall.


A Rock Fell on the Moon:

Dad and the Great Yukon Silver Ore HeistA Rock Fell

By Alicia Priest

Lost Moose

251 pages



Alicia Priest spent her early years living in Elsa, leaving there as a result of her father’s part in the silver theft referenced in the subtitle. His crimes caught up with the family after they moved to Vancouver and had a tremendous impact on their lives after that.

This delightful book works on a number of levels. It is a memoir about growing up in rural Yukon. For all the pain and stigma that Gerry Priest inflicted on his family, the parts of the book about life in Elsa are full of joy and happiness and bring to life the late 1950s and early 1960s in a very real way.

Driving through the gated ghost town a few years ago didn’t give me nearly the sense of the place that I got from this book.

It is also a mystery story, as Priest, the journalist, tries to piece together the somewhat fragmentary evidence and figure out just how her father and his partner in crime pulled it off. They were caught almost by accident and, as she says, the methods that were used to catch them, as well as the way in which the evidence vanished, would probably have made it impossible to convict them if the same thing were to have happened a few years later.

Priest was pushed to finish this book, on which she had already been working for a year, when she was diagnosed with ALS, By the time of the book launch in Whitehorse last fall she was no longer able to speak and her husband, Ben, had to handle all the public chores.


Polar Winds: A Century of Flying the NorthPolar Winds

By Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail


224 pages



Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail doesn’t fly herself, but she’s a self-described airplane nut. So much so that her first book, a history of Laurentian Air Services, had For the Love of Flying as its main title. She is active in the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, and has served as its president.

I met Metcalfe-Chenail during her stint as writer-in-residence at Berton House, where she had come with the express purpose of researching this book. Many writers come to Dawson with a specific project in mind. Some of them get completed; some get pushed to the side as the Klondike takes hold of the writers and inspires new ideas.

This didn’t happen to Metcalfe-Chenail. Along with the residency she had scored an unrelated Canada Council grant, and the combination of the two gave her the luxury to use Dawson as a home base from which to travel all over the Yukon in search of materials for what she believes is the first detailed history of flying in the Canadian North.

There are lots of books about flying in the North, but most seem to focus on bush pilots or the life of a particular individual. Metcalfe-Chenail went well beyond that, fleshing out the military and police experiences, telling a few of he harrowing stories of the North and also giving a glimpse at what could be the very routine life of a pilot.

There are business stories, personal stories and a birds’ eye overview of the industry. As much as the book is about flying, it is also about the impact that the fliers had on the places they visited and how they knit the North together.

She set out to produce a Northern book. “Everything I was reading that had been written was from a southern point of view and I really wanted to get at what northerners were feeling about what was happening in the air and on the ground.

Polar Winds is not exclusively about Yukon aviation, but since so much of the early recorded history begins with the Gold Rush, there’s quite a bit of Dawson and Whitehorse in its pages.

It’s a very readable history.