Blog Posts

Keeping Killers from the Noose: Defense Lawyers in an era of Capital Punishment

26th March 2021

Criminal defense lawyers have it tough. Their main duty is to exonerate their clients, and to zealously pursue every avenue of their protection. They have to represent unhappy people in dire circumstances, accused of terrible crimes. And as part of their duty to the justice system, they are expected to take on some cases for free (pro bono), or for reduced legal aid fees. There are emotional costs too, of seeing people at their worst. As American lawyer John Henry Browne described it, "The work is hard to shake off. You start looking at the world through dirty windows." Part of the emotional strain of being a defense lawyer comes from compassion for the clients you are unable to help. And this stress is amplified when, in times and places where capital punishment is allowed, you hold a client's life in your hands.

Hutchison and Ambrose walk towards their arraignment in Moncton, December 1974, courtesy of Moncton Times Transcript.

When my father, lawyer Ed Bell, was called into what was then a kidnapping case in Moncton in 1974, he tried to protect his client, Richard Ambrose, from a series of interrogative police beatings. When the two policemen Ambrose and his co-conspirator had kidnapped were found dead, they were charged with capital murder. My father tried to save their lives again at trial, this time from the hangman's noose. Despite his best efforts, they were found guilty and sentenced to death. The only thing that prevented their execution was the timing of the Parliamentary vote to abolish capital punishment on 14 July, 1976, two days after the Supreme Court of Canada denied their final appeal. Meanwhile, facing social and professional ostracism for defending cop-killers, my exhausted father stopped practicing, became unemployed, and went into a deep depression that lasted years.

As I researched his story, I began to think about the emotional costs he suffered, and about those lawyers who had not been able to save their clients from execution. In the public debates surrounding the death penalty in Canada, abolitionists tried to elicit compassion for the condemned criminals facing execution, as well as those who had to be part of carrying it out. Politicians, journalists, and activists emphasized the emotional costs of hangings for prison guards, prison doctors, prison chaplains and observers, all of whom had intimate relationships with the condemned. But one group whose emotional toll was seldom discussed were the defense lawyers who failed to save their clients. Between 1867 and 1962, 691 men and 11 women were sentenced and executed in Canada. Not all of them would have had lawyers in the early years, but by the twentieth century, it was considered necessary to have some kind of legal representation for those accused of capital crimes. (Before legal aid organizations, this was often organized by the presiding judge or sheriff's office.) How did these lawyers deal with the personal and emotional effects of having their clients hanged?

Part of the reason we don't know yet know the answer to this, is that most lawyers are practiced in discretion and did not keep personal records of their cases. My father refused to ever speak about his law career or clients, and tried to keep his past career a secret for the rest of his life. But in the case of a double hanging at the Don Jail in Toronto in 1952, the fifth and sixth last hanging in Toronto, both of the prominent lawyers who defended the executed men were the subjects of detailed autobiographies. Each of them spoke at length about how the experience of having a client hanged exacted a terrible emotional toll on them, and changed their lives forever.

The men accused of murder were two members of what the newspapers called "The Boyd Gang". Edwin Alonzo Boyd, a handsome and charming bank robber, along with Willie Jackson and Lenny Jackson (not related), had broken out of Toronto's Don Jail in 1952 with a hacksaw hidden in Lenny's artificial leg. After the escape, Valent Lasso (real name Steve Suchan) joined the gang and over the next four months the gang partied with their various lady friends in hideouts across Toronto, and committed four more lucrative robberies without being caught. While the newspapers delighted in their daring exploits, the Toronto Police vowed to track them down and punish them. On 6 March, 1952, two police officers stopped a car driven by Lennie Jackson and Steve Suchan, and Suchan drew a gun and shot at them both. Detective Sergeant Edmund Tong died a week later.

Evelyn Dick bringing magazines to court, courtesy of the Toronto Star Archives That week in March 1952, prominent Toronto lawyer J. J. (John Josiah) Robinette was working late in his office. Robinette had made his public name defending the notorious 'torso murderer' Evelyn Dick in 1946. A controversial Hamilton socialite, Dick had been arrested after children found the torso of her missing husband, John Dick, in the woods. His head and limbs had been sawn from his body and, as later evidence suggested, were disposed of in the furnace of her home. During the ensuing trial, details of her glamorous fashion, unhappy marriage, extra-marital affairs, and her co-accused drunken, embezzling father lit up the newspaper headlines.

Evelyn Dick was found guilty and sentenced to hang her at first trial, but J.J. Robinette was brought in for a second trial, and won her an eventual acquittal. In the meantime, however, the mummified body of a baby was found in her attic, encased in cement in an old suitcase. It was her son Peter David White. This third trial was even more sensational, with spectators lining up around the block to get access to the courtroom. At one point, the prosecution lawyer asked Dick how many men she had slept with. When she answered, 'Around 150', the lawyer demanded she reveal their names. She gestured to the judge, and said, 'His son, for one'. This time, Robinette was unable to save her from a conviction, and she was sentenced to life in prison. The Dick case catapulted the reserved and self-effacing Robinette onto the national stage, and he became one of Canada's pre-eminent lawyers.

JJ Robinette in 1958, courtesy of the Toronto Star Archives That night in March 1952, as he worked late at his desk, the cleaner, Mrs. Elizabeth Lesso, approached him with a tearful request to help her son, a good boy who was in trouble with the law. It was Steve Suchan. Robinette felt sorry for her, and agreed to undertake his defense. He had a good track record in capital cases, having successfully saved fifteen people from execution.

Arthur Maloney in 1966, courtesy of the Toronto Star Archives Lennie Jackson had no mother to advocate for him, and no money to pay for a lawyer. As the trial date neared, the assigned judge, Chief Justice James Chalmers McRuer, spent a lunch hour wandering the corridors of Osgoode Hall Law School until he found a young barrister, Arthur Maloney, willing to take the case for free. He was given only days to prepare the case. Maloney was very different from Robinette in temperament, outlook and experience. While the self-effacing and modest Robinette tended to remain detached from cases and colleagues, according to his biographer, George D. Finlayson, Maloney was more gregarious, a devout Catholic, and an ardent social advocate.

The two lawyers prepared for the case on a punishing timeline, but they were granted an unexpected reprieve. One day before a grand jury was to be called to consider the indictment of Suchan and Jackson for murder, four members of the Boyd Gang escaped a second time from the Don Jail, after sawing through the bars to an exterior window. This time, the pressure of public opinion, roused by Tong’s death, was against them. The city was locked down, and newspapers, radio and television broadcast their descriptions, while heavily armed police raided underworld haunts and scoured the Don Valley ravines near the prison. The fugitives were bottled up in an old barn on the outskirts of the city, and only managed to remain hidden for ten days. They were recaptured without a struggle.

Within two weeks, Jackson and Suchan were tried for murder at Toronto's Old City Hall. Suchan’s defense was that he had shot wildly, trying to disable the police car to get away, and had no intention to kill the policeman. This defense was severely undermined when Judge McRuer allowed the prosecution to introduce the inflammatory (and somewhat irrelevant) evidence of a dressmaker’s dummy head that Suchan had used for target practice in his girlfriend’s basement. The bullet holes showed Suchan to be an excellent shot. The dummy, along with Jackson’s artificial leg, is still on display at the Toronto Police Museum.

The jury convicted the pair and Judge McRuer sentenced Suchan and Jackson to death. Maloney and Robinette, by all accounts, were shattered. They tried all legal avenues to stop the execution. They applied to the Ontario Court of Appeal and were dismissed. They then tried to appeal to the Supreme Court, but were refused their request to argue their case. Four days later, on December 16, the convicted men were scheduled to die.

Mrs. Lesso told Robinette, who she mistakenly believed was Roman Catholic, that her son had been baptized a Catholic, and she was anxious that he return to the church before he died. Robinette asked Arthur Maloney to find help him find a priest to attend Suchan, and he chose Father John Kelly. After long talks and confession, Suchan reaffirmed his faith. Meanwhile, Jackson, who had been raised as a Jew, had listened to all these conversations from his adjoining cell. He asked Maloney to help him convince Father Kelly to let him take instruction and convert to Catholicism. In the end, Father Kelly took his confession as well. (Finlayson, 185). This gave Maloney a great deal of solace, but the men’s religious redemption also made their execution that much more difficult for Maloney to bear.

The days before the hanging were very difficult for both lawyers, who had grown close to their clients. Because defense lawyers defend their criminal clients by putting the best face on their actions and by highlighting all the doubts surrounding their guilt, they tend to empathize with them, and see their convictions as failures. As his biographer wrote, “Robinette was no exception. His natural tendency was to remain detached from his clients, both in civil and criminal cases. He brought a cerebral intensity to his professional tasks and was not one to be caught up in causes or swayed by sentimentality. However, he did care very much about Suchan. He found that he was a surprisingly sensitive man with a deep knowledge and love of music. He came to adopt Mrs. Lesso’s theme that her son was a good man who fell into bad company.” (Finlayson, 184).

Robinette recalled going with Maloney to see their clients a few days before the hanging. “Arthur was terribly upset… I was so upset that I was crying, and Suchan said, ‘Don’t cry, Mr. Robinette. I will have an afterlife, and my main regret it that my brother is marked by my name.” (Pullen, 89). Maloney also remembered that final visit, and often spoke about it in later years. As his former student and associate Paul French recalled, “He would always talk about how these men were so foul, and had committed such a horrible crime, and how they redeemed themselves, and how, in the last days of their lives, his client, Jackson, when asked what he wanted for his last meal, asked what Jesus Christ would have wanted…Jackson went off to his death, saying “Mr. Maloney, I’ll be your lawyer in heaven!” Utterly at peace! The way Arthur would tell that- you could feel the tears welling up in the audience.” (Pullen, 88).

Don Jail, looking up to the gallows, with the viewing platform at top right. Reg Innell, courtesy of the Toronto Star Archives Suchan and Jackson were scheduled to be hanged at 8 a.m. on 16 December, 1952. But to their surprise, the hangman arrived at midnight, and they were hanged simultaneously, their backs together, at 12:14 a.m. Lennie Jackson had to hop to the gallows without his artificial leg. Both men died bravely.

The lawyers were left to console each other. Maloney came to the conclusion that it was the ultimate test of a criminal lawyer’s character to lose a client to the hangman. As Maloney’s biographer wrote: “It was a kind of negative moment of truth for both of them, and fixed inexorably their hatred of capital punishment.” (Pullen, 89).

Robinette chose to leave criminal law after the Suchan trial and focused on constitutional cases. He became one of Canada’s best-known lawyers, appearing frequently before the Supreme Court of Canada. Maloney decided that he would move into a political career, and make the abolition of capital punishment his personal crusade. He was elected as a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament from 1957 to 1962, and he was a principal author of the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights. That same year, he delivered a passionate speech on abolition to the House of Commons. In 1964, he organized the Canadian Society for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, which sent out speakers and advocates across the country. Maloney was the first Ombudsman of Ontario from 1975-1979.

In 1982, CBC Radio launched a new show called Scales of Justice, based on real court dramas, and wanted the lawyers involved to collaborate. Robinette was the first to comply, agreeing to play himself in the radio drama. CBC Radio aired How Could You, Mrs. Dick?, written by Douglas Rodger. It was narrated by Eddie Greenspan, a prominent defense lawyer from the next generation.

Listen to it here:

Why was Robinette able to look back on the Dick trial fondly, and even re-enact it, when memories of Suchan caused him so much pain? It wasn’t just that the case had catapulted him to fame, or that he had won such a definitive victory. It was that Evelyn Dick had escaped, from a death sentence, and from history. After serving 11 years of her life sentence, Evelyn Dick was paroled and given a new identity. She was never heard from again, and no one has been able to trace her. Three years after the radio play aired, she was granted a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, and her file was sealed forever. Leonard Jackson and Steve Suchan did not escape their fate. They were buried among the beautiful gardens of the Mount Hope Catholic Graveyard in 1952. But their lawyers never forgot them, and were marked forever by the pain of their loss to the long drop.

Further Reading

George D. Finlayson, John J. Robinette: Peerless Mentor: An Appreciation (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2003).

J. Patrick Boyer, A Passion for Justice: How 'Vinegar Jim' McRuer Became Canada's Greatest Law Reformer (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008).

Charles Pullen, The Life and Times and Arthur Maloney: The Last of the Tribunes (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1994).

Lorna Poplak, The Don: Toronto’s Infamous Jail (Toronto: Dundurn, 2021).

Polaroid Photos and Rough Justice: The Ambrose and Hutchison Case 1975

22nd June 2016

imageimageI was cleaning out my father's filing cabinet last month, when I found two old Polaroid photos. They were recognizably from the 1970s, with the fading and cracking of films from that era, and one showed a young man with a bruised face, and another a hand holding up a pant leg with a bruised leg and foot. I took them to my father, Ed Bell, who was lying in palliative care in Moncton Hospital, and asked him what they were. He told me the man was Richard Ambrose, and that he had been his defense lawyer in one of the most famous murder trials in Canadian history. In December 1974, Dad was called into a kidnapping case in Moncton. A fourteen-year old boy had been taken hostage and two men, Ambrose and James Hutchison, were in custody. By the time my father arrived in Moncton, the bodies of city police officers, Cpl. Aurele Bourgeois, and Const. Michael O'Leary, who had been missing for three days, had been found in shallow graves in the woods. The case was now one of first-degree murder.

My dad had taken the Polaroids shortly after he had arrived in the jail to see Ambrose, to show the effects of the beating Ambrose had received by police and guards in the prison. After Dad had gone to make some phone calls, he told me, the beating had resumed, and he had eventually slept in the cell next to Ambrose that night to stop him being killed. That night he also had a prison officer hold a gun to his head and threaten his life, for trying to intervene. He had never spoken of the case or of any case to me before, but, encouraged by the presence of his good friend Claude Curwin, Dad told us he wished he had never taken the case, and that it had ruined his career and his life.

imageThis press photograph from the Moncton Times Transcipt shows Hutchison (left) and Ambrose (right) being taken in to trial. Although I am not sure, I think the man directly behind Ambrose is my father; he had distinctively large ears.

I had never known much about Dad's legal career, which he gave up in the late 1970s, and had never heard of the Ambrose and Hutchison case. Dad's story was a revelation to me, and explained so much about his life that I had never understood. He told me once that he had given up the law because he didn't want to associate with criminals anymore, but this was something far darker. The trial itself was a protracted affair, lasting through much of 1975 (the transcripts in the NB Provincial Archives are over 1000 pages). Dad's defence was based on gaps in the circumstantial evidence linking the accused to the crime, and was praised by the trial judge who understood 'the theory of the defence, and Mr. Bell has outlined it and outlined it extremely well and dealt with all aspects of the defence essentially.' Despite this, the accused were found guilty and sentenced to hang. They appealed to the New Brunswick Supreme Court and the Canadian Supreme Court, but their sentences were upheld, though the abolition of capital punishment in 1976 meant their death sentences were commuted them to life imprisonment.

Dad was discouraged, not by the verdict which he felt to be the right one, but by his months of close contact with violent men, and his vilification in the local community. He was ostracized by other Moncton lawyers, who envied the notoriety the case gave him, and despised by the families and friends of the murdered officers. He was paid only legal aid fees for months, and his practice suffered and eventually collapsed. The months away from home and his increased drinking led to my parent's separation. Then within two years, his parents and my mother died, leaving him a single father living in rural isolation in a trailer in Lepreau, NB. These are the years I remember, and now I understand better what lay behind them. My cousin told me that for years afterward, Dad was still subjected to threats and insults and they were once asked to leave a colleague's party when it was discovered Dad had defended Ambrose, who had been in jail for twenty years by then. When Dad moved to Moncton in 1998, he was especially careful to keep a low profile. For years Dad had kept the entire files of the case, including the exhibits, as he had permission from both defendants to write a book, recoup some financial losses, and reveal the story as it had been told to him by the convicted men. Then, at some point, he changed his mind and shredded it all. When he told me this, like a good historian I protested, telling him that I had looked at an English version of these case files and would have loved to read the notes. He told me he had no regrets, that he was going to keep the secrets, saying, 'If you can't trust your lawyer, who can you trust?' Then he refused to answer any more questions. And two weeks later he died.

I am grateful for this gift of one final clue into my father's life, one final mystery to stir that familiar historian's curiosity amidst the unfamiliar devastation of a parent's death. I am booked into the NB Archives in July to go over the transcripts, and while I mourn the lost exhibits and Dad's notes, I am grateful for the Polaroids which sparked those revelations. As a historian, they speak to me on several levels. They are faded relics of the twenty-year period of instant analog photography. Dad said himself that the photos no longer show the colours of the bruising that he had tried to record. Polaroids were used by police detectives, police officers and others in the criminal justice system who wanted an instant, individual and 'unmediated' record of a crime scene, of a suspected criminal, or of a piece of evidence. The Polaroids of Richard Ambrose also help me to understand how my father's compassion led him to accept a case which ultimately cost his career and destroyed his former life. These photographs and the moment of violence they document (and the many other moments of violence in the story which they do not) also help explain my father's hatred of guns, his reclusiveness, his unwillingness to speak about his past. The photograph helps to fix the moment 'This happened', while inviting us to think about what happened before and after it was taken. I hesitate to publish these photographs, as Richard Ambrose is still living (under another name) in prison in Alberta, after a revoked parole. I choose to do so because these pictures show a side of a violent criminal that is young, human and, at this point, vulnerable. The photographs remind us that the origin of violence is not monstrosity but our human failings, and compassion for others has the capacity to diminish violence everywhere. If we only extended compassion to the deserving, it would be an ever-narrowing circle, and am impoverished society. Although the cost to him was so high, my father believed that every person deserves a defense, and by destroying his files and refusing to answer my questions, he kept his client's secrets to the grave.

Spiritualism and Photography

6th April 2016

imageMy most recent projects on photography have led me to a new interest in 'spirit photography', the attempt to capture ghosts or the materializations of mediums on film. Spiritualism was a popular movement which centered on the belief that life continued after bodily death, and that the spirits of departed souls could be contacted through trained psychics called mediums. Spiritualism attracted religious questioners, grief stricken relatives of the dead, scientists eager to make new discoveries about the afterlife, people excited by the theatricality offered by the séance room, and women yearning for power and status as mediums. While Victorian spiritualism has been extensively studied, its survival into the twentieth century is less well-documented, and I am particularly interested in the photographic documentation of female mediums in the 1920s and 1930s.

Kathleen Goligher was an Irish medium born in Belfast in 1898. She was investigated by the psychical researcher and engineer William Jackson Crawford over five years, and believed to have levitated tables and produced ectoplasm. This photograph from 1918 or 1919 shows ectoplasm emerging from Goligher's skirt.

Helen Duncan, a Scottish medium born in Perthshire in 1897 was also the subject of extensive psychic research. In 1928 the photographer Harvey Metcalfe captured her in the early stages of materializing an ectoplasmic 'baby'.

imageI am less interested in the 'authenticity' of the materialisms of both mediums, which were (and continue to be) debated, than in the larger phenomenon of female mediums presiding over spectacular theatrical performances based on the revelation of secrets. Most séances took place in private homes, often in the dark, and those present wished to hear messages from the hidden world of the dead, as transmitted by the medium. Their bodily production of 'ectoplasm' and other materializations also highlighted the secret nature of the orifices of the women's bodies from which they appeared, and the nature of those bodies as sexual, maternal, mysterious and/or grotesque. This summer I will be looking at the archived files of both the psychic researchers, and the criminal files for fraud for what they reveal about how séances were performed, and the competing claims to truth and revelation offered by spiritualists, science and the law. The Society for Psychical Research Archives in Cambridge apparently has some ectoplasm in a bottle. Excitement!

Rare Books and Reconciliation

4th October 2015

imageAs a professor of 20th century British history, until recently I have felt distanced from the debates about Canada's colonial inheritance and what it means for modern Canadians. For ten years I have worked at Huron University College, at a small liberal arts college in Southern Ontario. Huron is also an Anglican Theological College, and houses an impressive rare book collection and the Anglican Huron Diocese Archive. Recently my excellent colleague Tom Peace and I found out that among these rich sources are dozens of rare prayer and hymn books in Indigenous languages, written and used by both European and Indigenous scholars, missionaries and priests. The Diocese Archives also holds personnel files on six Indigenous men who graduated from the Theological College in the nineteenth-century and went on to work in churches and parishes in both indigenous and settler communities. And exposing the darker side of the Christianizing mission, the archive also holds some records of the Mohawk Institute, a residential school run by the Anglican Church in nearby Brantford. Along with hundreds of other punitive institutions, the school sought to assimilate Aboriginal children into Euro-Canadian culture in a process the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has described as "cultural genocide." And nobody at Huron has ever looked at these sources.

So Tom and I began a project, involving student collaboration, to sift through these rare books and files and to start thinking about what they mean for our understanding of the role of education in colonial Canada and in the Anglican Church, and for us as historians working at Huron College now. How can we understand the complexity of the accommodation and resistance proffered by indigenous groups to European dominance in the nineteenth century? How can we restore the history of these indigenous translators, scholars and priests to the history of Huron, to the history of the Anglican Church, to the history of Canada itself? With support of the John and Gail MacNaughton Prize for Excellence in Teaching, Tom and I are bringing these questions to the classroom, and will soon have a separate webpage for the first stage of our student-faculty collaborative research.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in June of this year set out some further challenges to us as educators, and as Canadians. In Call to Action 68, the Commission called for federal funding for commemorative projects about reconciliation to mark the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 2017. In the months to come, we'll be challenging ourselves and our students to think about the new ways we can use our resources to engage with these difficult questions of reconciliation, which force us to acknowledge our own complicity in the colonial imbalances of power and the historical silences which persist today.

Forensic Investigation and The Murder Bag

20th March 2015

imageAfter the Second World War, the London Metropolitan Police decided to be more scientific about forensic testing of crime scenes. They reorganized the Met Lab, brought it from Hendon to Scotland Yard, and developed a "Murder Bag" for detectives to bring to scenes to collect samples (TNA, MEPO 3/2027). Originally this was a leather bag filled with envelopes, swabs and glass bottles, which eventually developed into this suitcase with phials, tweezers, a magnifying glass, a tape recorder, tape measures and some optimistic handcuffs (TNA, MEPO 2/10906).

Such was the iconic importance of the bag, that this photograph (undated but probably 1969-72) was taken as a publicity shot for the Metropolitan Police (TNA, MEPO 13/314). It offers a chance to visualize the contents, to imagine the weight and feel of the bag, and to think about how it might be used at the scene. One item I would have expected to see would be gloves to avoid cross-contamination – my next step is to find out when they began to be used as standard practice.

Tiny Books

6th October 2014

imageOn Friday our Historian's Craft class went to the Osborne Collection at the Toronto Public Library to look at the pre-1900 Children's Literature Collection. The things I liked best were the smallest – the tiny books inside this mini-bookcase from the Infant's Library c. 1775, and the smallest book in the world, visible through a microscope. An amazing place with excellent archivists and thought-provoking displays. And teddies.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

5th October 2013

imageThis spring I spent a few months researching the history of Hellmuth Ladies' College, a small Anglican finishing school in London,Ontario established in 1869 by Issac Hellmuth, who also founded Huron Theological College, now Huron University College. In the Dioscesan archives, I came across an amazing set of studio photographs donated in the 1960s by former student Ida May Snider from Neversmith, Sullivan County, New York who attended Hellmuth Ladies' College from 1889 to1891. In this set of photographs, Ida, who had light hair in a high bun, posed with her two friends: Minnie Congdon from Indiana, who had curly shoulder-length hair, and Edith, possibly Fitzgerald, who came from the Thousand Islands and who wore her hair very short. In these photos, the girls used existing studio props to set up Tableau Vivants, a popular nineteenth-century form of entertainment in which wealthy guests at a party acted out scenes from history or literature. Here instead of classical scenes the girls play out classical Victorian scenes. In this photograph Ida proposes to Edith, who coyly looks down and to the side while emphatically extending her ring finger. Minnie plays the chaperone pretending to read a book. The repressed smiles and theatrical posing reveal the sitters' playfulness and humour. These scenes both mimic the scenes of Victorian womanhood, and subvert them by enacting them with an all-female cast. Part of a tradition of female joke photographs, the scene is rendered unbelievable by the respectable clothing of the young women, which tempered the unconventionality of girls proposing to each other.

The photographs stand above this ambivalence, and testify to the self-confidence, intelligence and the ability of the students at Hellmuth Ladies College to create a new visual iconography of Victorian girlhood. Though the girls were not photographers and were themselves the subjects of photos, the sitters revealed their control over their poses and surroundings. The complete collection of Hellmuth Ladies' College photographs testify to the self-confidence, intelligence and the ability of the students to create a new visual iconography of Victorian girlhood. Though the girls were not photographers and were themselves the subjects of photos, the sitters revealed their control over their poses and surroundings, testifying to photography's ability to allow those who were excluded from political and cultural power to create alternative visual vocabularies about their lives.

This project has whetted by appetite for historical analysis of photography and for Canadian history- more on this to come!

Written on the Body

2nd February 2012

imageIt's a very mild January here, and my thoughts are turning to spring already. I need a new bathing suit, but now that I resemble a descaled spinosaurus, I am having a hard time finding one that covers the back (what- no turtleneck tankinis?!)

All this makes me think about how our experiences are written on our bodies. As we get older, the wounds we suffer may heal, but we will always be left with scars. The above prison photograph is of a man in his mid-twenties, who in 1936 strangled his pregnant 16 year old girlfriend for refusing to sleep with him. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. The pictures of him below show him before he went in, and those above a year later. Every aspect of his physical description had changed, even down to his eyes becoming jaundiced. The difference is also marked in his expression. What had he seen to wipe that cocky smile off his face?

Hospital confessions

3rd October 2011

imageSorry for the long delay in writing – I have been in hospital having emergency spine surgery (carrying too many books?). In another example of the present imitating the past, this happened just as I was finishing an article about the role of doctors in performing and policing illegal abortions in London in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. About 20 women died in London each year from infected abortions, self-inflicted and otherwise in this period. The Metropolitan Police tried to get doctors and nurses to notify them when women were admitted to hospital so they could get 'dying depositions' which hopefully could be used in court even if the woman died and could not testify. But most women refused to name their abortionists before they died, or if they did name names and then recovered, they often recanted. Lying in my own hospital bed, I understood the fear these women must have felt, wondering if they would die and what had to be said.

In my research at the National Archives this summer, I came across this envelope, marked 'Please burn unopened in case of death, M.K. Browning." In the envelope were unsigned love letters. Which is known, of course, since the police opened the envelope. Wouldn't you? While the police discovered the identity of the father, partly by his grief on learning of Miss Browning's deat, they decided his identity was not important to the investigation of the crime, and that they would keep her secret. Sad stories.

Old Grudges

13th June 2011

imageMy aunt told me this story when I was a child and I finally tracked down the original headstone at the Lake George United Church near Harvey Station NB. In 1915 a young girl named Trixie Hoyt had a suitor who got her pregnant, and she went to St Stephen to her aunt's house to have the baby. Her parents did not like the young man, and had his letters to her sent back, and hers to him intercepted. The girl died in childbirth, not knowing the young man had written, and her parents brought her body home to be buried. Her headstone is the largest in the Churchyard, and reads: "In this cold Grave I lie, I was too young to die. Young friends, I was not to blame- to destroy my life it was his aim. Here is my deceiver's Name: XXXXXX. We know that God is just and true, and will give this bold wretch his due." The young man tried to come to the funeral, and apparently the mother denounced him as a murderer in the church. A few years later he wanted to marry, and came to the churchyard in the dead of night to chisel out his name. The baby lived, called "Dolorous Odell" by his grandparents, and was raised by them.

How many old grudges are set in stone this way? Strange to think the two families probably lived within a mile of each other their whole lives.

Not Bloodstains

22nd May 2011

Looking at some wartime police files yesterday I came upon an incredible story. The Metropolitan Police were interviewing an American soldier about the murder of a prostitute. They confiscated his trousers and shoes for forensic tests after they saw a large quantity of reddish blood-like stains splashed on the front. As it turned out- they were not blood, but the results of the anti-VD kit the American Army apparently gave to their soldiers. It consisted of a stick of silver nitrate to insert inside the urethra after sexual intercourse, some calomel lotion to smear on the outside parts, and a 'small canvas bag provided for the purpose' to wrap the proceeds in for four hours, after which the urine passed would be a dark brick-red. Has anyone ever heard of this procedure? If so, please email me with a reference! The Inspectors of the Met Police obviously found this extraordinary, which is why they recorded it in the report in minute detail. You can almost hear them crossing their legs as they type.

Soldier X, not a murderer, just the perpetrator of poor bathroom hygiene. I hope he learned his lesson.