Thursday, May 14, 2015

# 57 ~ The Strange Case of the Parkdale Mystery

In the last year, I've really got into reading up on True Crime in Toronto.  I've always had a passing interest, but then again, who doesn't?  There's something about a gritty whodunit that most people find intriguing.  

I also started up a new tour this Spring called "Gangsters & Gallows".  It delves into some of the most infamous True Crime stories that Toronto has to offer.  But now, I'd like to share with you what was probably one of the strangest cases to ever be heard in a Toronto courtroom.

An 18 year old murder victim by the name of Frank Westwood was at the centre of the "Parkdale Mystery".

On Saturday, October 6, 1894, an 18 year old resident of Toronto, named Frank Westwood, returned home from an evening out with his friends.   He’d gone out at 7:30 that evening, and came home at about 10:30.  He lived with his family in a mansion on Jameson Avenue, which was a wealthy residential area on the western cusp of Toronto at the time.  Frank Westwood's father, brother and sister were already in bed when Frank got home, and his mother was just getting ready for bed.  As Frank was getting ready to do likewise, he heard the doorbell ring. 

The Westwood family home, on Jameson Avenue.  The house was eventually demolished when Parkdale was redeveloped.

Frank Westwood opened the door about 14 inches, but left the security chain in the latch.  He would later describe seeing a young man wearing dark clothes and, possibly, a fedora, with a thin moustache on his lip.  This mysterious stranger, who was standing in the shadows, raised a revolver and shot Frank Westwood.  
 His family heard the gunshot and raced downstairs.  Frank Westwood exclaimed “Mother, mother, I am shot.”   Frank Westwood was lying on the floor of the front hall.  There was gun smoke in the air, blood on the floor, and a bullet in Frank's chest.  Frank’s father grabbed his own pistol, ran outside, and fired a bullet into the air in the hope that it would also summon the police.  He hoped that the gunshot would not only summon police but also scare of any prowlers, though no one was visible.  Mrs. Westwood telephoned Dr. Griffith, the family physician.  The doctor saw that Frank’s wounds were very serious.  By Monday, as Frank’s condition deteriorated, The Globe newspaper predicted: “It May Be Murder.”

This sketch of the shooting of Frank Westwood was based on Westwood's own description, and appeared in the Toronto News newspaper, on October 8th, 1894.  The shooting of Frank Westwood monopolized the headlines of newspapers across the city, and became a sensational story.

Frank Westwood never changed his story. Three days later, understanding that his own death was imminent, he made a statement to police.  He swore that he didn't know the identity of his attacker or any reason why anyone would want to shoot him.  Frank Westwood gave in to his injuries.  His funeral ceremony was held on Friday, October 12th, 1894.  The grounds of the Westwood family's home were crowded with family acquaintances and morbid sightseers, according to the Toronto World newspaper.  It was nearly dark before Frank Westwood's body was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

This sketch of "Lakeside Hall", the Westwood family home on Jameson Avenue, appeared in the Toronto News newspaper, on October 8, 1894.

"The Parkdale Mystery", as the newspapers had dubbed it, stumped Toronto police.  Shortly after the shooting took place, editors from The World newspaper wrote to the famed British crime author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and asked him to solve the case.  Doyle was scheduled to arrive in Toronto the following month, to give a public appearance.  Doyle showed interest in the case, but said he couldn't help.  He pointed out that while he was the author of some of the world's most famous detective stories, he was not in fact a detective himself.  
The police investigation lagged on for several weeks.  Police sought out and questioned anyone who may have witnessed the murder.  The Westwood family once again went through every detail of the night in question that they had seen, but they hadn't seen much.  Benjamin Westwood, Frank’s father, was a financially successful sporting goods manufacturer.  He was a prominent member of the of the Parkdale Methodist Church, and was considered a moral pillar of the community.  He testified that he’d never had any major argument with his son, other than to occasionally criticize young Frank for smoking. Frank Westwood’s entire family failed to think of anyone who could possibly have any reason to murder the young man.  The family knew of no enemies or any romantic entanglements that Frank had gotten himself into.

Headlines like this one, which appeared in the Toronto News on October 8th, 1894, showed how Toronto newspapers outdid one another to sensationalize the story, and therefore increase their own circulation.

The only description of Westwood's murderer was the one that Westwood himself gave when he lay in his deathbed.  The description was of a "low sized man", wearing dark clothes, a dark hat, and with a thin moustache.  Before succumbing to his injuries, Frank Westwood did his best to imagine any assailant who would have wanted him dead.  One name that did come to mind was Gus Clarke - a tough construction worker who had run ins with police in the past.  Gus Clarke worked as a “stonehooker”.  In a time before concrete was easy to come by, “stonehookers” were workers who excavated shale out of the shallower waters of the Toronto Harbour.  Frank Westwood and his father had chased Gus Clarke away from the shores near the Westwood's Jameson Avenue family home.  Stonehooking could lead to serious erosion, and Gus Clarke had often broken the law by mining shale too close to the shore.  The police questioned Clarke extensively about his previous altercations with Frank Westwood, and although they eventually cleared him, Clarke led them to a female suspect, named Clara Ford.  

This sketch of Clara Ford appeared in the Toronto News newspaper on November 28th, 1894.

Clara Ford became one of the most colourful characters to ever enter the annals of True Crime in Toronto.  She’d been born in 1862, in an impoverished part of Toronto, near the site of where the 1899 City Hall would eventually be constructed.  This part of Toronto, near modern day Queen and Bay streets, was home to some of the most economically disadvantaged residents of the city.  Clara Ford's own disadvantaged life would later be set in contrast to the financial comfort enjoyed by the Westwoods.  As an affluent family, who were pillars of the local Methodist community, the Westwoods were originally considered beyond reproach.  However, Clara Ford’s poverty would be used as a ploy for sympathy. 

Clara Ford was orphaned, and then adopted by a woman named Jessie McKay.  Ford's adopted mother, in turn, died at the start of 1894 - the same year that Frank Westwood was murdered.  At the time of her death, Jessie McKay was a patient in the Toronto Hospital for Incurables, a long term care facility for those suffering from consumption, heart disease and paralysis.  The Toronto Hospital for Incurables was located at King and Bathurst streets.  Clara Ford married rather spontaneously, and was just as quickly abandoned by her husband.

The Toronto Hospital for Incurables was a long term care facility for people with incurable diseases.  It stood near King and Bathurst streets.

So, Clara Ford had a tragic past, but she also had many traits that set her apart from what was considered conventional for a woman in Toronto at the end of the nineteenth century.  She owned a revolver, and often dressed in men's clothing.  She had been charged for impersonating a choir boy, a police constable, and a male professor.  Police found a dark suit in her room, and tests made on her gun showed that the bullets from her gun matched those that had killed Frank Westwood.

Clara Ford resided at Mamie Dorsay’s Boarding House on York Street and worked as a seamstress for a tailor named Samuel Barnett, whose shop was also located on York Street.  Her reputation was infamous.  She smoked, drank hard and had once pulled a razor on a customer in the tailor shop in which she worked.  Police brought her in for interrogation on November 20, 1894, about eight weeks after Frank Westwood’s murder. 

Chloe Dorsay, Clara Ford's landlady, from a sketch in the Toronto News, May 4, 1895.

York Street, 1856

When Clara Ford was informed that she was a suspect in the murder of Frank Westwood, she scrambled to put together an alibi.  She said that she was with an eight year old girl named Florence McKay, a relative of Jessie McKay, who had been Ford's adopted mother.  Ford claimed that they been at Toronto’s Grand Opera House, on Adelaide Street, just west of Yonge Street.  Ford claimed that they had both gone to watch a nickel and dime melodrama called “The Black Crook”.  When questioned by police, young Florence McKay seemed to want to shore up Clara Ford's story.  But, the young girl was eventually tripped up by police, and admitted that Clara Ford had never showed up at the theatre to watch the show.  

Sketch of Flora McKay, Toronto News newspaper, November 28th, 1894.

The Grand Opera House once stood on Adelaide Street, just east of Yonge Street.  It was demolished in 1927 and the Scotia Plaza tower stands on the site today.

Soon, Clara Ford became the most likely suspect in the murder of Frank Westwood.   She finally gave up and confessed to the murder.  According to Clara Ford, she'd met Frank Westwood while working as a contract seamstress in a home just down the street from the Westwood family mansion on Jameson Avenue.  Ford said that Frank Westwood and his friends had teased her about her appearance, and that had attempted to assault her.  She went into pretty specific detail about how she'd gone to his house that night in October of 1894, and waited till he returned home from a night out with his friends.  When she saw him go inside, she went to the front door of the house, rang the doorbell, and shot Frank Westwood dead.

The news that Clara Ford had confessed to the murder of Frank Westwood was splashed all over newspaper headlines, like this one in the Toronto World newspaper on November 22, 1894.  She became an instant celebrity.

Authorities figured they had enough evidence to find Clara Ford guilty, and her trial began on April 30, 1895.  The case enthralled the city and made all the newspaper headlines.  Legal experts took sides to both prosecute and defend Clara Ford.  , which began on April 30, 1895.  Various witnesses were called, including early forensic experts, who questioned the ballistics tests that had seemed to prove that Clara Ford’s gun was the murder weapon.  The jury, of course, was made up entirely of men.  In Toronto, in 1895, women were not permitted to sit on a jury.  This jury of twelve men were shocked to hear Clara Ford change her tune.  She took back her earlier confession, claiming that police had forced her into it.  Once on trial, she pleaded "not guilty".  The trial lasted for four days, but it took the jury only 48 minutes to come back with a unanimous decision. 

Some sketches of Clara Ford on trial, from the Toronto News newspaper, May, 1895.  Reporters wrote about how she answered questions in a flippant manner and was seen "standing in a masculine attitude".

Amazingly, Clara Ford was acquitted.  She had become immensely popular with the Toronto public.  Her trial had successfully portrayed the Westwoods wealthy, while Clara Ford was seen as poor and hard-working.  The fact that Clara Ford was forced to carry a revolver proved that she lived a rough life in a rough part of town.  If Clara Ford shot Frank Westwood, even by premeditation, which seemed to be the case, well, the well-to-do son of an established family probably had it coming.  Or so the jury said, anyway. 

Clara Ford certainly had admirers in the courtroom, and they gave up a cheer when the verdict was announced.  Immediately, Clara Ford invited members of the jury - the all male jury - back to the boarding house where she was staying, for "dinner and entertainment", to celebrate her acquittal.  Later, there would be all kinds of speculation as to exactly what sort of entertainment the evening held, but the more sordid tabloids never had any concrete evidence to run with.  However, Chancellor Sir John Boyd, the judge who presided over the case, expressed his disgust at the blatant weakness of the jury system in the Clara Ford case.

Headline in the Toronto News newspaper, May 6th, 1895.

The murder of Frank Westwood and the trial of Clara Ford was one of the strangest stories in Toronto's legal history.  Whenever I have shared it on tours, I'm never quite sure if people believe that it really happened, of if it's a completely fabricated story.  I do, however, encourage them to look it up, just as I hope they will take this and other memorable stories home from my tours.  

Once she was free, Clara Ford was unabashed in once again confessing her guilt.  She went to the newspapers and told them how she had actually shot Frank Westwood dead ... but according to our legal system, she could not be put on trial twice for the same crime.  Clara Ford even appeared in a dime museum, the Eden Musee, in the clothes that she had worn when she killed young Frank Westwood.  

The Toronto News newspaper ran a sketch of Clara Ford in the male clothing that she'd worn when she shot Frank Westwood.  She would later appear in a sideshow attraction wearing the same outfit.  She thrilled audiences with her story of how she had committed murder, pleaded "guilty" to police, then pleaded "not guilty" to a jury, was acquitted, and then confessed to the general public after the court case was over.

Eden’s Musee was located near the southeast corner of Yonge and Adelaide streets, and would later be renamed Robinson’s Musee Theatre.  Of interest to entertainment buffs is the fact that Robinson's Musee Theatre would become the site of the first ever showing of a movie in Toronto, in 1896.  By that time, Toronto had mostly forgotten about Frank Westwood's murder, the Parkdale Mystery, and the trial of Clara Ford, and instead had turned their attention towards being amazed by this new entertainment technology.

The theatre where Clara Ford appeared eventually became Robinson's Musee Theatre.  It stood at the southeast corner of Yonge and Adelaide streets, until it was eventually destroyed by fire.

This plaque, which is affixed to the building which now stands where Robinson's Musee Theatre once stood, describes the history of that theatre and the first moving picture show in Toronto.

Clara Ford’s sticking her thumb in the eye of the local justice system was a step too far for Ebenezer Forsyth Johnston, the lawyer who had defended her.  He strongly suggested to her that she leave the city, and preferably never come back.  She took his advice, leaving Canada altogether, and joining Sam. T. Jack’s “Creole Coloured Burlesque Show”.  She was advertised in the Western United States as a woman who had killed a man and got off completely free.  


Interested in more stories of True Crime in Toronto?  Check out the new tour that I've added here.

Also, to stay in touch with Muddy York Walking Tours you can find on Facebook here or follow us on Twitter @MuddyYorkTours


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