This year in my Gr 7 Humanities class, several girls did their final research project of Women’s Suffrage/ The Famous Five. I was so inspired and felt like our future is in good hands by the way these young women looked at the rights of women and how equality is still something we are working on. All of this happened while, during Silent Reading, I was reading The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial that Shocked a Country by Charlotte Gray. In our daily Say Something circles about our books, I was happy to share with my students that I was learning about Canada’s history, especially when it came to Canada’s working class and women.
The story of a young maid who shot her male master from a prominent Canadian family shocked Toronto, and not just because a Massey was involved. Throughout the trial, women were pushing for more rights and more representation. Women were entering the workforce because the men were gone fighting in the war in Europe. Women were seeking the right to vote. Women were becoming a bigger part of public life, like never before in European-Settler culture. So when Carrie Davies was found not guilty of point-blank shooting her unarmed employer, people paid attention. Carrie was made out to be a young, innocent English girl who had a sweetheart in the war and who sent money to her poor widowed mother back in England. Self defence? Fear of assault? It was different times, yet Gray highlights how the murder case of Carrie Davies shows the shift in sympathy: Toronto did have rich elites, yet the working class was the catalyst for the push to free Carrie.
Although Carrie Davies disappeared from the public eye after her trial, Gray uses her trial to show how much Canada was desperate for change. Through describing Canada’s efforts in the war and how that lead to Canada being its own signatory at the end of the war, Grey is able to demonstrate how the shift in power was coming from the grass roots, up through the government. This was the time of women’s suffrage, of the Winnipeg General Strike, of the disappearance of the influence of the old Family Compact left over from pre-Confederation politics. This was also a time when women were beginning to break the ideas of women as house angels and were asserting their rights.
The trial of Carrie Davies hung on the fact that she was a young, innocent virgin was so afraid of being defiled and ruined that she shot her employer after he tried to seduce her. As Gray states in her book, the court (Judge and Jury) were more sympathetic towards an ideal of what women should be and less sympathetic to the fact that she killed an unarmed man. Gray explains that the times were different and that Carrie was in a vulnerable position, yet the concept of the ideal woman allowed her to walk away from the noose and live her life away from her past. In fact, at the end, Gray writes that her own children and family had no idea that she had killed Charles Massey. In an interview with both Gray and Frank Jones, the author of Master and Maid (a story written about Carrie years previous), Jones describes how he found Carrie’s daughter and gave a bit of a happy ending to the story: Carrie devoted her life to helping young women in trouble, even to the point of running a home for girls. From her powerless position as an underpaid house maid, she was able to see the possibilities for others in similar situations.
One of the biggest contributors to fueling the controversy was the press: the newspapers at the time made Carrie’s case headline news. Rival papers were telling different sides of the stories, reporters were finding interviews with family members, and one paper even started a legal fund for Carrie. In that respect, Toronto in 1915 was similar to today: media plays a huge role in how we see our own society. In fact, media loved Rob Ford and often fought over if he was a hero or villain.
Overall, I truly enjoyed Gray’s book. It was about politics, a shift in societal attitudes, class wars, newspaper wars, actual wars. I am grateful that I am a woman who has a job I like with enough money to provide for myself and that I don’t have to worry about work place harassment (and if it does happen, there are laws protecting me as a human, not as an innocent or disreputable woman).
“As the country developed, so Canada’s laws, lawyers, and citizens adapted to its shifting values.” (Pg 285)