The Massey Murder
February 1915, Canada was making her mark in the war in Europe, her troops reputed as being soldiers who would get the job done, no matter what cost. Back home in Canada, life continued as well as could be expected during wartime. One in four men enlisted, most shipped over to fight after minimal training. Fear, anxiety, apprehension and tension were the emotions throughout the country. The big cities were paranoid worrying about their young men at the battle front. This facade of fear and trepidation was founded on a social fabric of the nation was as ossified as any caste system in any Asian country.
Toronto, Canada’s largest English speaking metropolis, was a socially stratification of new immigrants, new culture, new social groups, all layers in a cake topped by an elite cream of English elite. These Anglo-Protestants were the power brokers of the nation controlling finance, corporate institutions, community organizations and the print media.
However, it was an era of change. New immigrants populated the Toronto’s downtown core. Workers clamored for safer working conditions, better hours and higher pay. Women protested for greater say in their homes, in local politics and in elections. The war accelerated the changes that were fomenting everywhere.
Maid shoots Employer
Then, on a gloomy day in mid February, a maid shot her employer as he came home from work. A case of sexual harassment today, it was a crime punishable by hanging then. The victim, Charles (Bert) Massey, was a member of one of the WASP elite, the Massey of the farm equipment manufacturing Massey-Fergusons. The defendent, Carrie Davis, was accused of murder and the trial became the news sensation of that winter.
The case was was exploited by the print giants of the day, The Toronto Daily Star and the The Toronto Telegram, as they fought to increase their respective readership. The latter appealed to the working masses while the former directed itself at the WASP elite and the employers of the city. The Globe and Mail held its own with the educated, more sophisticated elite of the city.
A book of excellence
The book is excellent in so ways, describing how the flood of new immigrants escaping the troubled nations of Europe revealed the glaring power and control held by the WASP faction of society: the Eatons and the Simpsons, giants in retail, WASPS; Mulock, Denison, Dewart, the controllers of the legal system, WASPS; Atkinson, Roberston, and Brown founders or editors of the three big Toronto dailies, all WASPS. And Carrie Davis, the defendant on trial for murder, she was British born. Sympathy for her was inevitable given this atmosphere dominated by WASPS and workers.
The war acerbated the problems caused by the social polarization of the city. Foreigners were second class citizens; speaking with an accent guaranteed becoming a social outcast within the city; Germans suffered especially, targets of racism and war-fed vandalism and hooliganism.
Compounding the social upheaval of the times was the growing power of women. Feminism was emerging as a new force of change. Women were no longer accepting the role of being accompanying passengers in the vehicle of socio-political dynamics in the nation. They wanted to be the drivers too.
Charlotte Gray paints a vibrant literary canvas of this wartime era in Canada, an atmosphere of WASP superiority, female revolutionaries, xenophobic nationalism and jingoistic racism. Her detailed narrative is based on extensive and comprehensive research excellently capturing the flavour of the times, of the society and of the city of Toronto.
Gray balances analysis with description in polished prose that holds readers attention throughout the book. The tension grows as she describes the WASP personalities controlling the legal system that was to try Davis. Suspense increases as she describes the very heated newspaper wars. And finally, the impending jury’s verdict is like Christmas morning with the long awaited results about to be revealed.
Well written, excellently detailed and dramatically developed, The Massey Murder is a very readable historical narrative riveting the readers’ attention as anxiously read page after page to learn the final outcome of the trial. Mounting tension, enveloping excitement, growing suspense…her writing has it all.
As written in the Toronto Star, Feb. 27, 1915: “A successful appeal to the unwritten law — something almost unknown to Canadian jurisprudence — saved Carrie Davies (sic) from conviction for the confessed murder of her employer. “Bert” Masey (sic), a wealthy clubman.”
A terrific read !