13 October 2017




If we haven’t already, soon we’ll all have heard the name Grace Marks. Netflix’s miniseries Alias Grace, based on the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, debuted at TIFF just a few weeks ago and will be available to stream on November 3. Alias Grace is a fictionalized interpretation of a gruesome murder that happened in 1840’s Toronto, a time when the city was still largely built of wood and had only recently changed its name from York. Grace Marks was accused of murdering her employer and his housekeeper, and the question of her guilt befuddled society at the time — and still does to this day (as this anticipated Netflix adaptation implies). We seem to love a ‘good murder’, particularly a scandalous one, and particularly when it’s a woman who’s done the murdering. 

For my first post as the Heritage Moments columnist I thought I’d jump on the Alias Grace bandwagon that’s shedding light on some of our city’s early history, and offer up three stories of women, murders, and Not Guilty! verdicts. From Richmond Hill to Parkdale to the Annex, the courts of Toronto have a strange history of murderesses, sensationalized trials, and verdicts that ultimately let these murderesses walk free. Read through the stories of these three women who have played sensationalized roles in the darker side of Toronto's heritage. 


c/o murderpedia.org

Let’s begin our murderess tour with Grace Marks, now a star of a Netflix drama but who, at the time of her trial, was a recently-immigrated Irish maidservant. At only 15 years old, Grace was arrested in 1843 alongside fellow servant James McDermott for the double murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Wealthy farmer Kinnear had been found dead from bullet wounds outside his Richmond Hill home, while Montgomery’s body had been strangled and hacked to death with an axe then dumped in the cellar; the post-mortem autopsy results showed she was pregnant at the time, most likely with Kinnear’s child.

McDermott was found guilty of murder and hanged, but rather than being given the death sentence Grace was sent first to an asylum and then to Kingston Penitentiary where she spent almost thirty years. She divided those who encountered her, both during her trial and after she was locked away: some thought she was naive and innocent, while others thought she was just as guilty as the deceased McDermott. 

A group of Reformers convinced of her innocence appealed repeatedly to various government officials for her release. Eventually granted a pardon, the now old Grace was released. No records of her exist after her release from Kingston. The issue of her guilt or innocence is still unresolved.

Read more here:


c/o Toronto Then and Now
Perhaps the most charismatic of the three women in this article, Clara Ford was arrested in relation to the Frank Westwood murder case in 1894. 18 year old Westwood had been shot on the doorstep of his family’s Jameson Ave mansion. He died several days later, maintaining that his shooter had been a stranger, a moustachioed man dressed in a dark suit. As the young son of a wealthy Toronto family, Westwood’s murder caused a city-wide uproar. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was called in to speculate: on a visit to Toronto, the creator of detective Sherlock Holmes was asked to weigh in on the murder case. Doyle declined to comment, and with the police force working on very little information, the mystery of the moustachioed man prevailed for weeks.

Things took an interesting turn when the police arrested Clara Ford, a biracial female tailor. She was known to regularly dress as a man, owned a gun with bullets to match Westwood’s wound, and frequented the Parkdale area in her social circles. She wasn’t surprised to be arrested and frankly confessed to the murder. According to Clara, Frank had tried to take advantage of her and she’d retaliated by biding her time then dressing as a man, going to his house and shooting him. Known for her charisma and bravado, Clara navigated the trial with self-confidence and won over the jury: despite the overwhelming evidence against her, Clara was acquitted. Toronto loved Clara and her eccentricities so much that when she left the courthouse she had to struggle through cheering crowds in order to take her jurors out to eat. 

Clara became a household name and even placed the dark suit she’d been wearing when she shot Westwood into a local museum. She left Toronto to join a performing group, where she toured the States as a 'murderess' spectacle.

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c/o Development of Toronto

Torontonians will recognize the name Massey (Massey College, Massey Hall) but in 1915 the name was tinged with scandal. Sharing similarities with the Westwood murder, young Charles Massey was shot in front of his home on Walmer Road. The wielder of the pistol was 18 year old Carrie Davis, Massey’s young English maidservant who accused her victim of ruining her life as she shot him. Police found Carrie preparing to turn herself in and confess. She claimed that Massey had attempted to rape her the day before: she’d felt powerless as a young female servant and had resolved to defend herself. 

Carrie had been brought to Canada as part of a government scheme to recruit domestic servants from Britain. She was known as being quiet and modest in her spending, sending most of her income home to her poor family. Massey, on the other hand, was notorious for his womanizing and his casual approach to finances. When the case went to trial, Toronto sympathized with the vulnerable Carrie and her desperate attempt to protect herself from abuse. Certain newspapers weighing in on the crime emphasized her good character and suggested that the murder was justified: she was a young, vulnerable female protecting her honour in a difficult situation.

The jury didn’t meet for very long before deciding Carrie was not guilty. Even though she’d confessed to the murder, the courtroom was relieved to see her walk free. The judge himself was reportedly teary-eyed at the verdict. Carrie decided not to seek more employment in Toronto and instead left the city for the life of an Ontario farmer’s wife. She never told her children of her crime. 

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