Friday, May 05, 2006

Haircuts By Children

Come on! How much fun would this be for a brave soul?! Go on. Do it. I dare you.

Parkdale Murder Mystery

Author Patrick Brode will be visiting the Parkdale Library on Wednesday, May 17th at 7 pm. Mr. Brode will be discussing his recent book, Death in the Queen City: Clara Ford on Trial, 1895. Sharp Parkdalians might remember that yours truly wrote an article about the Frank Westwood murder for the Parkdale Liberty newspaper in September of 2004. I am always fascinated by local history, but this story is really something else. I strongly encourage you to drop by the library on the 17th for what is sure to be a very gripping presentation. And now, to whet your appetites, here is the aforementioned article. Oh, and if you have a library card you can place a hold on the book by clicking here . Okay, here we go...

Most Parkdalians will have never heard the name “Lakeside Hall”, a formidable residence located at 28 Jameson Ave, for it is but one of many ghosts in that long demolished portion of South Parkdale where the Gardiner Expressway now reigns. In October of 1894, it was the locale of one of the city’s most puzzling and riveting murder mysteries. Forget the concrete tangle that now exists south of Jameson and Springhurst, and imagine instead a street lined with stately mansions, grand trees, wooden sidewalks and gaslights, populated by upper-crusters who clamoured for lake views. It is in these environs that the mystery unfolds.

After returning home from a night out with friends, eighteen-year-old Frank Westwood answered the bell of a caller at the front door of his family’s home, and was shot once. He would later describe his assailant as a mid-sized man, clothed in a dark suit and fedora – a man he did not recognize. The young lad struggled for several days, questioned by police officers all the while, but finally succumbed to his wound on October 10.

All of Toronto was instantly obsessed with the case, particularly those who resided in Parkdale – a privileged neighbourhood where such things simply did not occur. A series of inquests was held at the Parkdale Town Hall (where 1313 Queen now stands) over the next five weeks, each drawing a full house of speculative minds. The Toronto World newspaper even solicited the assistance of visiting author Arthur Conan Doyle, who respectfully declined to help, on the grounds that he preferred to begin with the solution and work his way backwards.

W.H. Hornberry, a neighbour of the Westwood’s who fancied himself Parkdale’s very own Sherlock Holmes, came to his own conclusion. He had found some scraps of a note on the Westwood’s lawn, which he believed to be written in a woman’s hand. His theory was that Westwood had been shot not by a man, but by a woman dressed in men’s clothing. This version, as reported in the Empire, gained widespread publicity. It also caught the attention of one Gus Clarke. He knew a woman by the name of Clara Ford, who sometimes dressed as a man, carried a revolver, and was a former neighbour of Westwood. Clarke soon mentioned these facts to a reporter friend of his, and before long, officers went round to Ford’s to question her.

Clara Ford (described in some accounts as a
"notorious, pistol packing, male-impersonator") was a 33-year-old seamstress of mixed race who had, at one time, lived adjacent to the Westwood property. When questioned about the murder, she denied any connection, even though she willingly showed police her revolver and suit of men’s clothes. She then proceeded to confess to the crime – her revenge on Westwood, whom she claimed had once tried to take improper liberties with her. The preliminary trial was held, where she again pleaded her guilt, and a trial date was set for May of 1895. On the fourth day of the trial, a very composed Ford took the stand as the last witness, where she shocked the courtroom by retracting her confession! She explained that the officer’s questioning had confused her, and that she had been tricked into making her confession. After only an hour of deliberation, the twelve men returned with their unanimous verdict that Clara Ford was not guilty. This was met with wild applause from those in the crowded courthouse, as they all rushed to congratulate the freed woman. Celebrations continued until after midnight at a restaurant down the street, where Ford made a little speech thanking her admirers. Shortly after the case wrapped up however, Ford was encouraged to leave town, as she had been heard to brag about her actual guilt! Little was ever heard of her again.